Friday, May 28, 2010

Backstory: The Wildest Ride in the Wilderness

No one emphasizes story as well as Disney does.  If you think otherwise, you’re reading the wrong blog.  But there are times that story is going on all around you, and you may not realize it.  A great example of this is Walt Disney World’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a thrilling ride on a runaway mine train. This is "the wildest ride in the wilderness," as the passenger-laden train dashes in and out of mysterious desert caverns, and then shoots through what must be a haunted gold mine. Among the fleeting sights along the way is Tumbleweed, an 1880s boomtown smack in the middle of the Wild, Wild West. The surrounding landscape has a Southwestern flavor, reminiscent of the rugged and wind swept spires, gorges and natural arches that dominate Arizona's strikingly beautiful Monument Valley.  But there’s so much more to it than that.

You see, Disney legend has it that the story of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the BTM Mining Company date from the early days of America's first major Gold Rush. In 1848, gold was discovered near John A. Sutter's Mill in California. News quickly spread back to the east coast, and by 1849, many thousands of first time miners, boomers, gamblers, tinhorns and scofflaws rushed westward to strike it rich in the gold and silver fields. A handful of these rough and tumble prospectors became millionaires almost overnight, but most just ended up going bust. When glitter was discovered in the Big Thunder region during the 1850s, it was thought to be one of the richest strikes west of the Mississippi. A mining company was quickly established, taking its name from that given to the local outcropping of red and orange-colored rock formations. However, dreams of gold rarely come without cost. Big Thunder Mountain had stood sentinel for centuries over a desolate land that the nearby residents believed to be sacred. Local lore spoke of a protective supernatural force that dwelt deep within the mountain. Those who ventured too close were doomed to feel its wraith. Mining work near Big Thunder went without incident at first. But, as the easy pickings began to pan out, the miners were forced to dig deeper and deeper into the mountainside. In their quest for ever more gold, they began using highly volatile explosives to blast ragged holes into the hard rock. Huffing and puffing mine trains began to add to the rumble and vibration exploding across the landscape. Then the inexplicable began to happen. Strange, eerie noises echoed through newly opened shafts.

Greenhorn miners began to hear Tommy knockers, the spirits of long dead miners, tapping from inside the boarded walls of abandoned tunnels. Cave-ins became frequent. Equipment failed. And then the narrow-gauge engines began rolling out of the makeshift station with no human hand at the control. Entire trains, most times packed with unsuspecting passengers, would race driverless, at break-neck speed, along the spiraling steel and wooden track. Ghost trains! The miners began whispering that maybe the locals were right. Maybe the mountain was inhabited by a spirit of its own. Maybe the mine was haunted. They left in droves, returning to their former occupations as soldiers, sailors, sodbusters and cowhands. The operation went bust and Big Thunder became just another ghost town. Thirty years drifted by and the local myths and legends about Big Thunder were swept from the memory of all but a few who could still recall why the area had been abandoned. A new gold rush took hold in the 1880s, and the boomtown of Tumbleweed was established in Dry Gulch at the foot of Big Thunder Mountain. Although the little settlement suffered from bouts of arid weather, the arrival of Professor Cumulus Isobar, "Rainmaker Extraordinaire and Purveyor of Magical Elixirs," always guaranteed that his customers would not go dry for long. Sometimes it even chanced to rain while he was in town, enhancing his reputation, and usually resulting in a flash flood, if the ground refused to absorb the rainfall because it had baked too long and hard in the sun. A new batch of boomers, drillers and prospectors re-outfitted the BTM Mining Company office. They started grubstake operations up again, blasting and drilling once more into the untapped veins of Big Thunder Mountain. But, as visitors to the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad soon experienced for themselves, sometimes folklore turns out to be more than myth, and those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it.

There are some fun sight gags to keep an eye on as you ride that can help clue you in to the story.  Even as a train pulls in to the station, it becomes apparent that there is no engineer at the throttle. The passengers board, no doubt with some trepidation, and are warned by the western twang of an unseen old miner (voiced by the late Dallas McKennon) to hold onto their hats when the train departs the station. Unexpectedly, the little locomotive, with its five passenger cars trailing behind, lunges forward into a mine tunnel of impenetrable darkness. This is the start of the wildest ride in the wilderness! Professor Cumulus Isobar, a perplexed rainmaker who seems to have done his job a little too well, bails out his water-filled wagon. Either skill on the Professor's part or pure dumb luck has created a downpour that the parched, hard-baked desert land is unable to soak up, and now the boomtown is in danger of being swept away in the sudden, resulting flash flood. Despite the imminent danger, the sounds of revelry continue unabated, issuing from the second floor of the local saloon. All about the town a menagerie of Western critters add their voices to the ensuing cacophony of chaos. Across the track, a miner in long johns floats by in a bathtub that serves as a makeshift boat. The track itself undulates as though being carried away by the raging waters as the Big Thunder train attempts to cross it. And you thought you were just on a 3:25 minute roller coaster!

Special thanks to former cast member Matt Dempsey for providing much of this information.  Did you enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at BTMR?  Please let me know over at!  

1 comment:

  1. I also have experience the Walt Disney World’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It's a really trilling ride.