Disney's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is celebrating its 40th birthday today. The original Disneyland installation of this roller coaster ride opened September 2, 1979. Today, you also can find "the wildest ride in the wilderness" at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris.
I spent a couple of summers on the mining crew at Disney World's Thunder, which opened a year after Disneyland's. The ride was the setting for a couple of my favorite stories that I later included in the book Stories from a Theme Park Insider.
Designed by Disney Legend Tony Baxter, Big Thunder Mountain replaced Disneyland's Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, which offered a slow-speed ride through the American Southwest. Some of the Rainbow Ridge set pieces from that attraction remain on Thunder today.
But the coaster itself originally was envisioned as part of the Western River Expedition pavilion at the Magic Kingdom — a project that Disney abandoned in favor of an east coast installation of Disneyland's wildly popular Pirates of the Caribbean ride. In addition to Thunder Mountain, another part of the Western River Expedition concept eventually made its way on stage as part of Disneyland Paris' Phantom Manor Ride.
In 2012, Disney enshrined Baxter into Thunder's retconned backstory by installing a portrait of him as "Barnabas T. Bullion" into the Magic Kingdom ride. Eventually, Mr. Bullion was written into the Society of Explorers and Adventurers story arc that unifies Disney theme park attractions around the world.
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