Big Thunder Mountain Deep Dive | Disneyland Paris 

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Big Thunder Mountain is one of Disneyland Paris’s flagship attractions and is widely viewed as the best version of the Big Thunders worldwide. The intricate experience Imagineers have put together is one of the best experiences any Disney park has to offer. The story of Big Thunder Mountain is so deeply intertwined in the legend of Thunder Mesa that it is impossible to talk about the iconic attraction without mentioning the fictional town it’s set in. Here’s the story as told by Jeff Burke (Executive Producer), Bob Baranick (Imagineer) and Craig Flemin (Show Writer). 

The frontiersmen who lived within the pristine surroundings of Big Thunder Mountain were farmers, poachers and smugglers. Tobias Norton & Sons Frontier Traders was the first shop to open in Thunder Mesa. In 1853, Henry Ravenswood (born 1795, and yes the Henry Ravenswood from Phantom Manor | Check out this months Patreon Exclusive Phantom Manor Decrypted Episode to learn even more) struck gold in the mighty Big Thunder Mountain. 

Before long the Thunder Mesa Mining Company was founded. Thousands of hopeful individuals were attracted by the new found riches. Thunder Mesa’s population was growing at a spectacular rate. As the town prospered, new modern shops opened for business to meet increased demand for food and supplies (hence the Thunder Mesa Mercantile Building). 

The miners and merchants settled on the Eastern part of town and relaxed at The Lucky Nugget Saloon (founded in 1858 by Miss Diamond Lill). Situated at the west side end of Thunder Mesa, close to the Ravenswood Manor, The Silver Spur Steakhouse was the most expensive restaurant in Thunder Mesa. It catered to the high society with upscale meals in an extravagant setting. On the other end of the spectrum, outlaws and desperados rubbed shoulders at the Last Chance Café.

💡Fun fact: In its early years the Silver Spur Steakhouse housed several real masterpieces by artists Edward Borein, Charles Russel and Albert Bierstadt. An American collector loaned the paintings to Disneyland Paris. Regrettably, the paintings had to be replaced by copies in 1994. Grease from the grill began to penetrate the glass displays, which, over time could have damaged the priceless originals. 

Each restaurant in Thunder Mesa pays homage to an important metal of the wild west: the Lucky Nugget Saloon (gold), the Silver Spur Restaurant (silver) and the Last Chance Café (copper). Park goers can even spot a hammered copper counter in the Last Chance Café.

Legend says Big Thunder Mountain is protected by the Native American Thunder Bird god. When someone tries to steal from the mountain, the Thunder Bird flaps its wings which draws lightning and shakes the earth. In 1860, the Thunder Mesa Mining Company was struck by the wrath of the Thunder Bird. 

Henry Ravenswood and his wife lost their lives during the horrible earthquake that ensued. For safety reasons, the gold mine closed and the mining company ceased its activities. Once the gold rush fizzled out, miners and fortune seekers began to leave town and Thunder Mesa settled down. 

Today Big Thunder Mountain, takes only the bravest souls to the heart of the rocky mountain. But beware of the capricious nature of the mine and the Thunder Bird. Really the story of Big Thunder Mountain and Frontierland are so intertwined that its worth checking out our Frontierland Deep Dive show if you haven’t yet. 

Tony Baxter’s Mountain 

Disneyland Paris icon and Imagineer Tony Baxter came up with the attractions concept. Baxter struck inspirational gold after researching Monument Valley and its geological formations. Big Thunder Mountain’s elevator pitch came to be: “a wild runaway train down the most remote valleys of the American West, through bat-infested caves and mountains prone to strong earthquakes”. 

Unlike the mine train inspired attractions offered in other theme parks at the time, such as the Run-A-Way Mine Train at Six Flags Over Texas (considered the first concept of its kind). Imagineers went with a scenery first design approach. Rather than just placing props around the roller coaster track the scenery would actively influence how the track would be built. 

While there are currently 4 versions of Big Thunder Mountain worldwide, the first would open in California in 1979. Baxters mountain experienced some delays after management prioritized Space Mountain (1975 in the Magic Kingdom and 1977 in California) for the struggling Tomorrowland. The final planning process proved to be a challenge. Big Thunder Mountain was the first Disney attraction whose construction was planned on a computer. Computers at the time weren’t the powerhouses we have today. The engineers and designers had a tough time trying to lay-out the dynamically planned track. 

After reviewing the track layout, brake system, and fluidity of the track, Imagineers also had to expand on the existing system. It was not familiar with the concept of multiple trains on the track at the same time. Finally, a total of nine different computer models were created that completely encompassed technological, architectural and technical requirements.

The Baby Doe Mine

Park goer’s don’t come across this mine when they are in the regular queue. One is are able to see via the premier access pass queue, former Fast Pass access, to the wildest ride in the wilderness. The name, Baby Doe Mine, is written on the sign above the small entrance. One can also spot a minuscule mine cart rolling out of the shaft as well. It’s a cute and easy to overlook detail. While we don’t know the origins of the name Baby Doe Mine, there are various theories. We certainly hope that Disneyland Paris Imagineers will create an attraction book one day. Just like the books available for Phantom Manor, Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain. 

While researching Big Thunder Mountain we came across the Lil’ Thunder Mine concept. The unbuilt attraction would have been a mild kiddy coaster with outdoor and indoor sections. Original concept art reveals multiple multi colored waterfalls in the dark ride / indoor portion of  Lil’ Thunder Mine. Perhaps Baby Doe Mine in the queue of Big Thunder Mountain is a reference to the never built attraction.

Restoring an Icon

Nothing is more theme park than an in-depth attraction refurbishment. In 2015, Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland Paris underwent a major facelift. For the first time since the attractions opening in 1992 it was closed for almost a whole year. The project kicked off in a big way with the complete draining of Rivers of the Far West. Looking down from the Phantom Manor balcony park goers had a unique view of the usually hidden guide rails of Thunder Mesa Riverboat Landing. 

It took nearly three-week to completely drain and dry Rivers of the Far West, as well as an additional two weeks to refill them again. In total the rivers hold fifty thousand liters of water. That’s about 13.209 gallons. Imagineers had a few surprises waiting for them after draining the lake. Hundreds of lost mobile phones, thousands of baseball caps and even stranger… a printer! 

The refurbishment primarily focused on restoring the original color palette of the mountain. The faded 33 meter high mountain required more than 22,800 liters of paint. Most trees were also replaced because they had grown too large over the years, revealing the mountains forced perspective illusion. Younger trees replaced the older ones, restoring the forced perspective illusion. “To make the mountain appear taller than its 33 meters, we used a trick called forced perspective,” explains Paul Comstock, who was in charge of landscaping. “We used larger trees in the foreground and smaller trees towards the back. In addition, we played around with color, using subtle and more faded colors in the background, and more vibrant colors in the foreground.” 

Disneyland Paris plussed Big Thunder Mountain with an explosive new show scene on the third lift hill. Originally, a mine cart in could be seen in one of the tunnels until a detonation (simulated by strobing lights and sound effects) revealed a shiny golden vein which was lit by a few oil lamps left by the miners. The new version features projection mapping, fog, moving props and led lighting effects to simulate a massive dynamite explosion. The new show scene was heavily inspired by the Californian version. When it works… it’s fantastic. However, in our experience one or more of the effects are habitually broken. It’s rare to get the full experience. 

We also wish the projectors were hidden a little better, but it’s still a fantastic show scene. It’s impressive, seeing the sparks (simulated by led strips) run up the wire to the dynamite, witnessing the large fiery explosion (projection mapping) engulf the cave while rocks appear to tumble on the train (physical effects) and pressured fog fills the space. Imagineers went so far as to alter the surrounding landscape in order to accommodate the new show scene. Two massive air tanks power the high pressure fog effect. These were strategically hidden near the Frontierland Playground (formerly known as the Pocahontas Indian Village).

Authentic Props

Most of the props used in the ride, queue and surroundings of Big Thunder Mountain are authentic pieces of mining and railroad equipment. Imagineer Tony Baxter tasked designer Pat Burke with the search and acquisition of vintage mining devices and other pieces of equipment. Big Thunder Mountain could be considered a US mining museum of sorts. One of the biggest attraction props is a steam tractor. It appears to be in very good condition. Park goers can find it on the opposite side of the street, near the Big Thunder Mountain entrance. The tractor came all the way from Missouri, USA. 

💡Fun fact: We counted seven spades and seven metal buckets inside the upper part of the queue building. This could be a reference to Disney’s (1937 film) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs seven. Since those seven cute little dwarfs also worked in a mine. 

Hidden Thunderbird’s

The Thunderbird is a figure from real-world Native American mythology. It is described as a spirit that flies above mountain peaks and can create storms by flapping its wings. The Thunderbird is a supernatural being, the enormous bird represents power and strength that protects humans from evil spirits. Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland Paris is not the only attraction that pays homage to the Thunder Bird. Artwork of several Thunderbirds decorate the Museum of Fantastic Flight in Tokyo DisneySea’s version of Soaring. 

However, the official legend first published in Disneyland Paris, From Sketch to Reality is the only attraction legend to ever mention the Thunder Bird by name. A carving of the ThunderBird can even be spotted on a rock in Thunder Mesa. The Thunder Bird is also part of the  Thunder Mesa Daily Messenger’s logo. Park goers could read the messenger, which was hung on construction walls during the refurbishment of Phantom Manor. It’s also included in the official attraction book Phantom Manor Decrypted. You can also listen to us break Phantom Manor Decrypted down on our Patreon exclusive show. 

There’s a theory that the legend of the Thunder Bird originates from the misidentification of prehistoric reptile bones. Big Thunder Mountains (U.S.A., JP) and Thunder Mesa both feature dinosaur skeletons within the themed rock-work. In Paris, your best bet of spotting the Tyrannosaurus-Rex bones is by taking a trip around the Rivers of the Far West with the Molly Brown. Park goers can spot the remains by the geysers next to Boot Hill.

💡Fun fact: The goat nibbling the clothes from the clothesline is named Clarabelle. 

Not Just Any Mine Cart

Big Thunder Mountain proudly houses six trains in total, each with five cars. There are three rows per car, of which each seats two people. That equals a maximum theoretical capacity of 30 riders per train or 2,424 guests per hour. However, smaller kids might sit in between their parents, which could increase capacity even further. 

Although there are six trains, Disneyland Paris can only utilize 5 trains simultaneously. The leftover trains acts as a  backup and/or is undergoing its regular maintenance. Dutch amusement ride manufacturer Vekoma built the trains which reach a maximum speed of approximately 64 kilometer per hour (approx. 40 miles per hour).

One of the Big Thunder Mountain Trains heading into the Loading/Unloading Station

Many of the train sounds park goers can discern on and off the ride are generated by speakers alongside the track. One example is the iconic whistle sound, the locomotives don’t have an actual (physically present) whistle on board. Big Thunder Mountain in Paris also features a unique train design. Our trains appear to be dilapidated and rusty while the U.S.A./JP parks are in mint condition. We feel that the dilapidated and rusty look adds another layer of authenticity, given the Parisian versions intricate background story.

💡Fun fact: In December of 1992, a French woman by the name of Madame Deguerce offered her collection of 200 cacti (plants) to Disneyland Paris. The cacti took their place in front of Big Thunder Mountain at least for the duration of the milder seasons. During the colder months, the cacti are carefully moved to a greenhouse). Thus, France pays homage to the legendary Far West of which it is so fond.

Have you experience Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland Paris? Let us know in the comments below. 

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Published by Eric from AirMagique

Eric is the host and chief content editor of the AirMagique - Unofficial Disneyland Paris Podcast. He writes articles, takes photographs, produces videos and edits the podcast.

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