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The Wildest Ride in the Wilderness
Fans simply refer to this Runaway Mine Train Roller-Coaster as Big Thunder. The ride can be found in four of Disney's theme parks: Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Park Paris. The ride is themed to landscapes of the American Southwest. Specifically, Disneyland's version is styled after Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, with the other rides styled after Monument Valley in Utah/Arizona. Imagineers carefully designed the roller-coaster so that the tracks appear to be placed onto an existing mountain, not the other way around.
As the story goes, the runaway trains are leftover mine-trains from some gold mining operations of the 1800's, that were abandoned along with their accompanying mining towns: Disneyland's Rainbow Ridge; Magic Kingdom's Tumble Weed; and Disneyland Paris' Thunder Mesa. There was of course tragedy that befell each of our Mountains, driving out its inhabitants and leaving only the possessed Mine-trains; either earth-quake (Disneyland, Disneyland Paris) or flash-flood (Magic Kingdom). Riders queue in buildings meant to represent old mining offices of the 1800's.
Both the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom attractions have ties to former Frontierland attractions and projects. Disneyland's original Frontierland included a passive Mine Train through Nature's Wonderland where guests visited, among other things, the Rainbow Caverns. As a tribute to this previous attraction, Big Thunder riders pass through a rainbow cavern at the beginning of their ride. Disneyland's Rainbow Ridge town also harks back to the Mine Train through Nature's Wonderland, where the town could be seen on a hill overlooking the trains loading area. Then there is the name Big Thunder. This name comes from a large waterfall the original mine train passed along its ride; the train would also pass by Little Thunder waterfall.
The idea of having a wild mine-train, in and out of caverns and through red rocks of the Southwest, sprang from imagineer Marc Davis's concept of the Western River Expedition (read more on Western River Expedition here). It was to be a western-themed pavilion at the Magic Kingdom, designed to look like a plateau and contain many rides and walking paths. In the early 1970's, after Magic Kingdom's Pirates of the Caribbean opened in place of the Western River Expedition, Imagineers decided to pull the runaway mine train idea out of the Expedition and make it its own attraction.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was one of the first Disney rides to utilize computer-aided design. The attraction first opened at Disneyland in 1979, with the Magic Kingdom's larger version in Florida opening in 1980. Tokyo Disneyland added its own version in 1987 and in 1992, Euro Disneyland (now named Disneyland Paris) opened with Big Thunder Mountain as an opening day attraction.
Of recent note, Big Thunder Mountain in Magic Kingdom reopened in late May 2012 after a more than four month renovation to the attraction that included some track replacement, facade rehab and effects rejuvenation.
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