Thunder Mesa &
“Thunder Mesa will tower high above dense pine forests, offering a
Had Phase One of Walt Disney World panned out as originally envisioned by its designers, Tom Sawyer Island would fall under twilight shadows a little earlier than the rest of the Magic Kingdom. Because due west of the Rivers of America’s southern circuit there would be an immense rock wall, looking something like Big Thunder Mountain but much wider and more dense, a looming backdrop for Frontierland, rising up at about the same place where the Briar Patch shop now sits and spreading north to where Big Thunder Mountain Railroad now meets the canal off the west side of the river. This was to have been Thunder Mesa, the conceptual forerunner of Big Thunder and proposed home of multiple attractions unique to, or reinvented for, Disney’s Florida Project.
Among them: a runaway mine train ride – the one concept that did eventually evolve its way into four Disney parks across three continents. Another was a series of hiking trails atop the mesa, past natural arches, waterfalls, desert flora and fauna and a Pueblo Indian village. There was also to be a pack mule ride working its way across the stone bluffs. But the star attraction would be staged inside the mountain, where guests would set sail for the legendary days of cowboys and Indians in the Western River Expedition – which has repeatedly been called the most famous Disney ride that was never built.
Its story (or, more often, little parts of it) had been told in several publications in the 1990s. My first effort at chronicling the attraction’s bumpy history was posted here in 1996. Since that time, writer Jim Hill has devoted a great deal of thought and time toward his own account of the WRE’s development and dissolution, which was originally published on his site, Jim Hill Media. Between his fantastic revelations; my good fortune in being able to interview Marc & Alice Davis (thanks to my friend Ross Plesset) about the ride shortly before Mr. Davis’ death in 2000; and the more rampant dispersion of WRE artwork into various forms of print; more than enough information and images have surfaced to double the amount of Thunder Mesa / WRE content on this site. As has been the case with EPCOT the city, information coming forward over the past 25 years demonstrates that these Magic Kingdom projects were much more than rough ideas given some quick treatments; they were compelling and well-developed proposals that came very close to realization.
Thunder Mesa &
Would Have Been
Conceived: c. 1968
Contributing Disney Personnel:
Would have been
Space later became:
Influences evident in:
Related WYW Sites:
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All images copyright
WYW acknowledges the
When the master planning of WDW kicked into high gear in late 1967, after Walt Disney’s death and the securing of vital legislation from the Florida State Senate that granted Walt Disney Productions autonomous control over its 27,443 acres of property, the company had no intention of building a Pirates of the Caribbean ride for their new venture’s theme park component. They believed pirate lore was too close to Florida’s history to warrant such an attraction at WDW. The prevailing sentiment was that southeastern U.S. audiences would be better entertained by a taste of something less familiar and more removed from their geographic region’s past.
Primary responsibility for an alternate attraction fell to Marc Davis, the WED artist and former Disney animator who was at that time largely responsible for DL’s Pirates of the Caribbean (opened 1967); concept work on the final versions of DL’s and WDW’s Haunted Mansions (1969 and 1971, respectively); and designs for WDW’s Country Bear Jamboree (1971). His comical touch and talent for setting up a scene had also brought some welcome levity to DL’s Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland and Jungle Cruise rides in the form of animatronic animal humor. In 1963, shortly after Davis had joined WED, he had worked up concepts for a Lewis & Clark-themed boat ride for a proposed Disney venture in St. Louis called Riverfront Square. The ride idea included animal vignettes rooted in western lore. While that project ultimately fell through, Davis drew from those ideas, one of his favorite television programs (Gunsmoke) and films of the period such as 1965’s Cat Ballou in developing the basis for his new boat ride, which was originally billed as the “Western River Ride.” It would transport guests past scenes of buffalo, bears, cattle and other animals in natural settings, dance hall girls doing the can-can to the delight of townsmen, bandits engaging the law in shootouts, American Indians rain dancing to immediate results and other frontier situations both humorous and menacing.
Company literature of the era described the new project as a wild west version of Pirates of the Caribbean. That label probably robbed the WRE of its due, as it was intended to be a step up from its predecessor in at least two key respects. First, it was going to be more technologically complex than Pirates, with more animated figures performing a wider range of motions. Second, it was going to be more musical in its execution, with nearly all the scenes united in song. Davis hoped to further explore the limits of three-dimensional animation in the WRE while at the same time creating a very fluid, rousing and funny experience.
Because the ride would have been housed in a show building larger (roughly 64,000 square feet) than the Haunted Mansion or It’s A Small World, there was a need to mask it well; the space reserved for the attraction – a plot of land on the western edge of Frontierland – would be highly visible from three directions. An illustrated property map from 1971 (portion reproduced below), which could be found in most WDW hotel rooms until the mid-1980s, shows the relative scope of Thunder Mesa relative to its surroundings. Although the accuracy of the illustrated map is somewhat dubious given that Tom Sawyer Island, prior to its 1973 opening, was covered in pines vs. palms, early blueprints confirm that Thunder Mesa would have been huge. Davis’s solution to the question of prominence was to couch the entire affair in a Monument Valley-style stone edifice which would also support secondary attractions such as the train ride and the meandering footpaths while creating an ideal mise-en-scène for all of Frontierland.
Consider that the adapted blueprint image above doesn’t even cover the peripheral mountain trails and railroad loading area, just the roof over the WRE. This approach made Thunder Mesa an immense undertaking. Its size and scope would have made it by far the largest and most dense single component of the Magic Kingdom. This is why WED decided to hold off on its construction at first, slating it for realization toward the end of WDW “Phase One” i.e., the first five years after opening. It made sense, as it would provide WED and the construction crews an opportunity to get the Kingdom’s other attractions up and running before tackling this behemoth. If the park was the success they hoped for, operating revenues would help offset Thunder Mesa’s construction costs. Plus it would be something that the company could promote extensively to entice visitors back to WDW after their initial visits.
It seemed like a great plan, and certainly one with which the company intended to follow through. The aerial construction photo above, shot in early 1971 shows the Thunder Mesa site in the lower center. Ground was cleared in the acreage that the attraction would have occupied. A similar scenario happened for the Asian Resort, where a square site for the hotel was reserved on the western shore of the Seven Seas Lagoon. Both were WDW Phase One elements deemed imminent, just slightly delayed, along with Space Mountain, the Persian Resort and the Venetian Resort.
Back at WED, all the homework and scripting for the WRE was complete. Davis and longtime Disney collaborator Mary Blair had produced a large number of paintings and illustrations that told the ride’s story. What follows is a synopsis drawn from that artwork, other written accounts of the ride and interviews with those both involved in and familiar with the project.
Guests approached Thunder Mesa from the south and entered a cave marked “Western River Shipping & Navigation Co.” The cave led them into a canyon at twilight (perpetual twilight, as its placement would be inside the show building similar to Disneyland’s Blue Bayou Lagoon), and to a riverside dock where they would board a freight levy just like the ride vehicles in Pirates and It’s A Small World. These are sometimes referred to as “bateaux,” which is a French word that wiseasses might use instead of “boats.”
The trip began with an introduction to the ride’s “star,” a recurring audio-animatronic owl named Hoot Gibson* , as the boats are hoisted up a waterfall and channeled into a canal for a (momentarily) low-key cruise down a frontier river. Oversized dime novels, their covers depicting western icons such as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody and Davy Crockett, gave way to dioramas of bears cavorting on the banks, bison sniffing prairie dogs and a cowboy strumming a guitar and singing the WRE’s signature song … along with a chorus of longhorn steer. The ride’s musical theme was introduced early and would carry on throughout the remainder of the experience. Desert animals such as owls, even cactus, picked up and carried the tune. Things got more interesting as the boats passed a group of bandits holding up a stagecoach on a wooden bridge. Both the thieves and their horses wore bandanas across their faces. The lead villain, virtually hidden beneath his dark sombrero, sang to guests as they passed and suggested they would meet again further down the river.
Then the boats entered a western town called Dry Gulch. It’s Saturday night and the streets are filled with revelry. Dance hall girls are singing and performing can-can feats as cowboys cheer them on. Wranglers on horseback are firing their six-shooters into the air – one has even managed to get his horse onto the roof of a saloon’s front porch. Some townspeople look on in shock or disapproval, but it has no effect on the wild behavior. In fact, things only ratchet up from there. Around the bend there is a raging exchange of gunfire between a group of bank robbers and the law. A sheriff on his horse fails to detect underground tunneling trailing below him from the nearby jailhouse. Fearsome ruffians in dark hats shoot Colt 45s from behind troughs and a purloined bank’s safe while congenial deputies in white hats answer back from the windows of a bathhouse. Seemingly everyone is caught up in the action, save for a smiling mortician sizing up his prospects for timely business. Guests narrowly avoid injury in the crossfire as they drift through the chaos.
The sound of bullets is soon replaced by that of tribal drumming and chanting. Along the banks is a diorama of the painted desert, in which a gathering of Indians are enacting a full-blown rain dance ceremony. On a tabletop rock, a storm is already washing down on a circle of braves, over the sides of the plateau and into an adobe homestead. Five maidens sit in a row, swaying in time with the music. A trio of coyotes howls in front of a bonfire while medicine men shake gourds. Lightning from the gathering rainstorm sparks a forest fire and guests cruise through a mass of flames. The once-peaceful river yields to rapids and things start to get rough. To make things worse, the bandits from the stagecoach scene have caught up with the boat and demand the passengers’ valuables at the headwaters of a raging waterfall. Before guests have a second chance to consider their predicament, their craft tips over the falls and plunges them down a passage that leads out of Thunder Mesa and along a channel hugging the Rivers of America, similar to the main drop on Splash Mountain. Then the boat re-enters the mountain and arrives at the Unload dock, where guests disembark and return to Frontierland.
It was an ambitious project to say the least, and the company seemed to be sharpening its teeth in order to bite into it completely:
– A sprawling scale model of the ride (1″ to the foot) was built at WED, just as one had been built for Pirates a few years earlier, for purposes of finalizing the spatial relationships of visual elements. Ken O’Brien sculpted an army of figures to populate the miniature show scenes. Those who saw the model in its entirety, such as Bill Cotter, say it was phenomenal to behold, with multiple animated features and beautiful lighting effects. Thunder Mesa had also been sculpted in its entirety as part of a 1/100th model of the entire Magic Kingdom.
– Buddy Baker, the mastermind behind countless Disney film scores and park tracks (including If You Had Wings), reportedly began writing theme music for the attraction in a variety of different styles such as an introductory ballad, a double-time saloon style and an Epic Western style evocative of films like The Big Country and The Magnificent Seven.
– Full-size animated figures were being sculpted. In a 1972 interview with Orlando-Land magazine editor Edward L. Prizer, then-Walt Disney Productions Chairman Donn Tatum said the WRE would contain approximately 150 animatronics. That would be an increase of 30 figures over Disneyland’s Pirates ride. According to Imagineer Belinda Winn, in the October/November 1996 issue of WDEye (Imagineering’s in-house newsmagazine) animated WRE figures
It was in the midst of this work that WDW opened to enthusiastic crowds in October 1971. Enthusiastic, that is, save for one recurring question: “Where’s the Pirate ride?” Many WDW visitors fully expected to enjoy the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction from Disneyland, which they had heard so much about and seen promoted on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, the company’s Sunday-night television show. When these people arrived in the Magic Kingdom to find nary a buccaneer, there were (to put it mildly) a few complaints.
So now there was a problem, and we all know how it was “solved.” While Imagineering still felt that building the Pirates-like WRE and promoting it on its own considerable merits was the appropriate route, there was no doubt that this would be a more costly and more risky option than simply repeating Pirates, especially when Pirates was a sure-fire success with great word-of-mouth. That’s certainly how Walt Disney Productions’ management saw it, specifically Walt Disney Productions President Card Walker. He insisted the Pirates be added to the Florida park post haste, which it was – in an abbreviated form built for a rumored half of the WRE’s projected $60 million price tag. It opened to the public in December 1973.
The decision to build Pirates was made in early 1972, at which time the future of Thunder Mesa and the WRE was immediately up in the air. With Pirates on its way to the park, the urgency to build another major attraction on its west side (especially considering that Tom Sawyer Island was also slated to open in 1973) was massively diminished. If the key component of Thunder Mesa hadn’t been a boat ride, placed so close to Pirates, there may have still been a compelling argument to proceed. There were still the various peripheral attractions like the train ride and the mules to consider, but in the eyes of management there were enough factors to table the project in its entirety.
What’s interesting – if you find ANY of this interesting – is that it didn’t get axed outright. In this capacity Thunder Mesa and the WRE hold a unique position for the amount of notoriety they maintained well past the point where most unbuilt attractions would have fallen off the radar. Page 10 of the company’s 1972 annual report painted (what is in retrospect) a strange picture of the unfolding saga. Pirates of the Caribbean was accurately slated for its 1973 debut, the expansion of Tomorrowland, including a new thrill-ride concept called “The Space Mountain” was previewed, and a “new” attraction was being introduced for Frontierland in 1974…the Big Thunder Railway. According to Jim Hill’s WRE article, Imagineer Tony Baxter’s concept, in the form of a model, for an adaptation of Thunder Mesa’s mine train component that would spread across the whole of Thunder Mesa’s Florida real estate, sat in WED’s model room and was known only by WED staff until Card Walker first saw it in Spring of 1974. But the 1972 annual report, which was published in early 1973, demonstrates via a concept painting (below left) that the Big Thunder Railway attraction was fleshed out thoroughly, almost exactly as it would be built (under the name Big Thunder Mountain Railroad) in 1979 for a 1980 opening***. And even though it was billed as a “step toward the completion of Thunder Mesa,” anyone familiar with that attraction’s scope would rightly wonder how the rest of Thunder Mesa would figure into the arrangement. The train ride was supposed to have sat OVER the WRE; certainly no one was going to slide a boat ride underneath a series of stone bluffs built at ground level.
Baxter, not wanting to alienate WED heavyweight Marc Davis by rolling out a concept that would completely kill the WRE, did have a plan for that. As seen in this photograph of a model he built (above right), he envisioned Big Thunder Mountain sitting side by side with a show building (encased in rockwork) that would have contained the WRE. Granted, this seemed a bit like an afterthought, but in many ways it was the most practical approach for giving the train ride maximum free run as a thrill ride while salvaging what would have been a fantastic boat ride. But that hardly mattered, because Davis had already formed an opinion that he would carry with him the rest of his life, namely that he had been upstaged and a project very close to his heart was the victim. It wasn’t that simple, but there’s no doubt that the eventual greenlighting of Thunder Mountain for Florida – sans the separate WRE structure – was the symbolic snuffing of the WRE’s candle.
But what a wick this thing had. Not only had the ride been promoted in WDW pre-opening literature dating back to 1969, but four years later, in spite of all the maneuvering associated with Pirates and Big Thunder, the WRE became the centerpiece of the Walt Disney Story’s post-show on Main Street. A section of the WRE model – depicting the scene with the dance hall girls and the cowpoke whose horse jumped atop the saloon’s porch – was displayed in its own private hallway.**** In an adjacent alcove, the electronic version of a feathered Hoot Gibson could be found snoring away on a tree branch. When guests pushed a button the owl came to life and introduced himself as “the star of a brand new Western show being made for Walt Disney World.” He then gave a brief run-down on the process behind audio-animatronic technology. At the conclusion of this tutorial he urged guests to come back and visit him “at the Western River Expedition.” This was, by any measure, extensive publicity for a ride still being developed – let alone a ride whose prospects for realization had been largely doused before this display opened in April 1973.
Unfortunately, this was the last bright spot in the ride’s history. From 1973 onward, Marc Davis dealt with an increasingly frustrating series of disappointments regarding the WRE. One thing he had to contend with was entirely of his own doing: the smattering of Native American stereotypes throughout the attraction. Davis had worked in pretty much every insulting sight gag for what he surely intended as comic effect – big noses, drunkenness, the war hoop, sitting “Indian-style,” you name it. That Walt Disney Productions perpetrated these stereotypes (in films like Peter Pan and The Saga of Windwagon Smith) into the 1960s was really wrong. To have carried the tradition forward as part of a 1970s attraction, one which surely would have lasted into the 21st century, would have been completely egregious. Davis actually had a respectful regard for indigenous cultures in North America and around the globe in terms of his fine art; he studied them thoroughly when attempting authentic depictions – such as the New Guinea warriors in his paintings. But he saw nothing wrong with taking the opposite road for a laugh, and that’s where things were not funny at all.
In a 1999 interview, Davis denied that his Native American renderings were a source of contention between him and management. There is, however, some evidence to the contrary. Below is a comparison of a rendering Davis created for the WRE in 1968, Doc Cogwheel’s Magic Elixir wagon, to an alternate version that he produced in 1974. It’s essentially the same scene save for A) the cat and dog in the foreground were switched out for pigs and B) the Native Americans were replaced by white people. It actually makes more sense with the muscle man helping the charlatan demonstrate the “effects” of his tonic than it does with a Native American chief standing there stone-faced. The employment of Native Americans in this context doesn’t stand out to me as having injurious intent, but using Native Americans as any part of a joke would have been best avoided. It’s pretty clear that someone else must have felt the same way. And this discussion could go on, of course, but I only needed about that much space between here and the owl pictures.
Another obstacle confronting the WRE was its projected cost; management simply could not see the inherent benefit to spending tens of millions on an attraction that wasn’t called Space Mountain. By the end of 1973, the expansion of Tomorrowland was going full-tilt. It not only included a major thrill ride (and by this time the company was becoming very focused on rides that could be built for less money than Pirates or the Haunted Mansion and heavily promoted on the simple principle of people moving fast on Disney versions of roller coasters patterned after the very popular Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland), but also the Starjets, WEDway Peoplemover and a revamped Carousel of Progress that was returning to the East Coast from a six-year, post-World’s Fair run in California. Tons of money, a list of other attractions that had recently debuted in other parts of the park (Tom Sawyer Island, Plaza Swan Boats, the Walt Disney Story, Pirates itself) and major work taking place in the resort areas. There was a tremendous push toward achieving higher capacity throughout WDW, and the WRE was sitting on the sidelines.
Nonetheless, management at least appeared to be receptive to finding ways of making it happen. Marc Davis was approached with a proposal to reduce the cost of the WRE by recycling molds cast for Pirates in order to create a large number of the ride’s animated figures. As first published in Bruce Gordon and David Mumford’s Disneyland: The Nickel Tour, Davis wasn’t keen on the idea. Inflexible, to be exact. Had he sensed how tenuous his negotiating position was at that time (didn’t he see Walker having lunch with John Hench?), he probably would have agreed to this compromise and found a way to get problems with the ride fixed later on. But it must not have seemed feasible that management would pull the plug on the WRE over something like that. And they didn’t. They did nothing. And they kept doing nothing with the WRE up through…what year is it?
In May of 1974, Card Walker announced that WDW Phase One would be complete by year’s end, paving the way for the company to concentrate more heavily on the development of EPCOT Center. That didn’t bode well for Phase One projects that had yet to see groundbreaking, and it’s when plans for the WRE in Florida were essentially – if not formally – over. The model in the Walt Disney Story post-show remained visible until walled up in 1981 for an EPCOT Center preview (the model was “rediscovered” in 1994 with lights still burning). Hoot Gibson got dressed up as a tour guide and spoke of another theme park with Spaceship Earth serving as a backdrop; he never uttered another word about the old west.
Plans for the WRE’s inclusion at Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland never amounted to much either. A display was put up on DL’s Main Street touting the WRE’s arrival in Frontierland, but that effort was displaced by the first version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which broke ground in 1977. Marc Davis left WED in 1978. In the Orlando Sentinel there was some brief talk about WDW’s next park (following EPCOT Center’s debut in 1982) being themed to the old west, yet I don’t know if the WRE was linked to that. The plans for such a park, if they truly existed, must have evaporated quickly. The name Thunder Mesa did eventually make it to a Disney park, albeit anticlimactically: The Frontierland section of Disneyland Paris, 1992, was home to the town of Thunder Mesa, which overlooked a river that was not full of guests in bateaux venturing into the fabled days of cowboys and Indians, but was wrapped around a rocky thrill ride called … Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
One last thought about the WRE and Big Thunder. The man depicted to the right is Cumulus Isobar, the rainmaker from the town of Tumbleweed in WDW’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Does he look anything like Marc Davis? I used to think Tumbleweed was some form of tribute to Davis because it contained so many gags evocative of his earlier work (man spinning gleefully in a bathtub, goat on a roof, possum spinning around a tree branch). But the flash-flood concept dates back at least as far as the 1972 painting mentioned earlier – before anyone knew when Davis would retire. So what if someone thought it would be funny to work a caricature of Davis into Tumbleweed after his 1978 retirement, just as the ground in Florida was being cleared for BTMR’s construction? And what if Isobar bailing out his wagon was a commentary on Davis “bailing out” of WED with an unhappy look on his face, sore about Thunder Mountain putting the brakes on his WRE work? This is pure conjecture, although the timing would have been about perfect. It’s too mean-spirited to have been Tony Baxter’s doing, but someone else could have easily worked it in. If so, who would the grinning man in the bathtub represent? Hey, I’m just asking.
In the world of unbuilt Disney attractions, there aren’t a lot of happy endings. More often there are pieces of stunning artwork, sometimes even fantastic models, that yield a lot of unanswered questions for those of us on the outside of WED looking in. The WRE just happens to be one of those precious few topics for which answers have surfaced over time. But having the information does little to counter the melancholy many of us feel over the likelihood that the ride will never be realized. Still, the future is a vast and open thing. As long as there is imagination that has yet to be corralled and branded, to paraphrase another’s mantra, something may still come of this incredible concept. As of this writing (March 2006), recent changes in the Walt Disney Company’s senior management structure are portending fundamental changes in how attractions are developed, built and – perhaps – dusted off for reconsideration. Here’s to hope.
* All I knew of Hoot Gibson as a kid was his name. For those who may not recognize even that, Gibson was a movie star famous primarily for his roles as a cowboy in silent films of the 1920s. This made the selection of Junius Matthews as the voice of the animated owl named for the cowboy star more palatable than, say, naming a robotic bluebird Mae West and giving it the voice of Sally Struthers. Then you’d just be asking for trouble.
** Among the figures Winn said had been built for the WRE were bison and prairie dogs, who in 1982 had found a home in EPCOT Center’s Living With The Land ride. This might seem like conjecture, but one must consider that it was printed in Imagineering’s own periodical. Which is not to say that Imagineers are never wrong (see: Tiki Room under New Management), but it’s true that all of the other animatronics (crocodiles, monkey, a goat, chickens, a dog, etc.) in Living with the Land could be traced to previous home attractions. This increases the likelihood of the bison being formally linked to the WRE. But Jim Hill’s WRE article states that WED personnel working on EPCOT Center made the bison and prairie dogs made specifically for The Land as an homage to Davis and the WRE. Damn it! This is, incidentally, the only paragraph on the internet that weaves Jim Hill, a goat and a monkey into a single narrative.
*** The same painting even adorned BTMR’s “Coming Soon” sign in 1979.
**** The model was accompanied by background audio pulled from, well, just try to guess which other MK attraction. Wrong. As ridiculous as this sounds at first, the one-minute loop of music fed from DACS to the WRE display was also fed from DACS to Winky’s Pub in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. It’s a honky-tonk piano version of “The Merrily Song” that actually seems better-suited to a frontier saloon than a public house in the English countryside. Then again, MTWR placed Winky’s in Town Square rather than out in the rural shires, as it was in the film, thereby possibly providing a more solid rationale for the presence of an citified upright (although unseen) piano, if not the amalgamation of weasels in the Keg Room.