Happy 30th birthday to Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain

September 2, 2009, 10:13 AM · Please join me in wishing Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad a happy 30th birthday. Disney's third "mountain" (following Matterhorn and Space) debuted on September 2, 1979 at the Anaheim park, though a version of the ride earlier had been designed for Walt Disney World. Disney World's Thunder ultimately opened just over a year later, on September 23, 1980.

Let's celebrated with some photos of Thunder, taken by Theme Park Insider readers:

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

And here is one of Walt Disney World's version, which I took when I worked there... long, long ago:

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disney World

I would be remiss if I failed to note on this birthday that not all's been fun times on Thunder Mountain. Friday will be the sixth anniversary of the wreck that killed 22-year-old Marcello Torres. The tragedy helped prompt some significant management shake-ups within Disneyland, ones that ultimately led to the park's current renaissance.

Replies (6)

September 2, 2009 at 2:40 PM · Does anyone know why the one at WDW may have already been designed but opened after the Disneyland version of the ride? Also, can anyone tell me any differences you may have noticed between the two locations version of the ride? This ride is one of my favorites at WDW, and one of the most fun and detailed mine train type coasters out there in my opinion. I'd like it if Disney would also bring Matterhorn to WDW Orlando. The more mountain rides the better if you ask me. :-)
September 2, 2009 at 2:50 PM · The "first draft" of Thunder, if you will, was part of the WDW Western River project, originally conceived as the east coast alternative to Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean. But fan demand for a Florida "Pirates" was so strong that Disney hurried up and installed an abbreviated version of the ride in the MK's Adventureland, killing the Western River project.

Nothing at Walt Disney Imagineering ever dies, so some of the concepts used for Western River evolved into a roller coaster ride, which became Big Thunder. But for reasons I'm not familiar with, Disneyland got its version done first. (Maybe TH or another reader can jump in with that.)

The biggest difference in the two rides is that the tracks are mirror images. On Disney World's Thunder, you turn left after the crests; at Disneyland, you sweep to the right. Disneyland's outdoor queue runs under the tracks and through the town. Disney World's indoor queue stand over the tracks, creating space for the steam pools.

Disneyland's mountain is supposed to look more like Bryce Canyon, and Disney World's like Monument Valley, but that's a tough difference for most people to pick out.

September 2, 2009 at 9:06 PM · Wow, September 2 ought to be some sort of holiday for me. Not only is today the 30th birthday of Thunder Mountain, it is also the 40th birthday of Arapanet (the beginning of the Internet) and the 14th anniversary of the greatest day of my life as a sports fan.
September 3, 2009 at 4:39 AM · BTMRR at WDW got bumped in favor of Space Mountain. It was placed on the shelf, as I understand, because the heat of a space-themed coaster was deemed more appealing than a rusty old mine train.

Who knows what other factors may have been in play. Perhaps, from a planning and operations perspective, the Mouse may have felt there was a greater need for added capacity on the east side of the park (sure would seem that way). Maybe someone was also trying to appease Marc Davis, whose Thunder Mesa was surely going to be the big loser if Big Thunder was built. Sounds funny given how giant and results-driven the Disney Company has become, but back in the 1970's guys like Marc Davis and Card Walker and Marty Sklar had all known each other for a long time.

Or maybe Disney was hedging its bet. Roller coasters were pretty unfamiliar territory for Mickey. Though it was evident that coasters were a big, big draw for park audiences and Disneyland had run the Matterhorn successfully for more than a decade, you have to imagine there was some trepidation in the Mouse House about going with a full-on (albeit a tame) coaster ride instead of a lavishly themed dark ride on that plot of Frontierland. Space Mountain was still themey, and it was positioned as a Walt concept. So maybe it felt safer?

Either way, I think after Space Mountain opened to huge success at WDW and Disneyland's BTMRR was received well, the writing was on the wall.

September 3, 2009 at 8:32 AM · Thanks for that post, anonymous. Brings back the memories now.
September 5, 2009 at 12:06 AM · Disneyland

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