Friday, May 17, 2019

Big Thunder Construction, October 1978

I have two neat photos from October, 1978, featuring some construction views of "Big Thunder Mountain Railway". First up is this "establishing shot"; think of how many kajillions of similar photos were taken by this time - only now a new "mountain" was forming. Crazy. 

This was the first version of BTMR (there are others in Florida, Tokyo, and Paris), and Disneyland's is the only version that was built to resemble Bryce Canyon in Utah (all of the others are reminiscent of Monument Valley).

Here's a closer view - there was still plenty of work to be done. The ride wouldn't open until September of the 1979, almost a year after these photos were taken. In this photo, the angle is similar to the first example - I am unclear as to what all of the steel beams at the lower edge of the photo were for. Any ideas?


TokyoMagic! said...

Major, do you know if that second photo was taken by an employee? Because of that angle, it almost looks like it could have been taken from the tunnel that the Nature's Wonderland Mine Trains would enter, before coming out under the waterfalls of Cascade Peak. After all, that tunnel wasn't destroyed and still exists today, although it is boarded up. If so, then those steel beams could be for the rockwork that would be along the edge of the guest walkway, across from the boarded up tunnel. Sometimes, turtles can be seen down in the water, between the walkway and the tunnel.


I think TOKYOMAGIC is correct - that view in the second image does indeed appear to be taken from the tunnel leading to Cascade Peak.
This period of time was very exciting for me - as several years earlier I became OBSESSED with Disneyland that was really spurred after seeing a small model of Thunder Mesa Runaway Railroad at Disneyland Showcase around 1973. Soon other announcements appeared in newspapers and Disneyland and a model spread in Disney News - and finally seeing this mountain actually rising in Frontierland was amazing to me. It was my first exposure to the Imagineering process. While I loved The Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland - Big Thunder was what really sparked my interest in model building and design and my love of Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
One time while Big Thunder was under construction my family was passing by - I think we were on our way to lunch - but I couldn’t get that nobody wanted to stop and look at the signs and concept art on the construction fence!!?? I pushed a wooden bench to the construction wall and peered through a gap between two sections of wall — there was a crane that dropped what looked like logs into water - there was s big splash of water ??? I have no idea what I was seeing ( I thought this is suppose to be a mine train I thought ) I jumped off the bench stoped to looked st the concept art on displayed then ran to catch up with my family. That memory to me is so clear it’s like it happened last week!

Nanook said...


What - no Fantasmic to destroy the RoA/TSI-? Bless you.

Thanks, Major.

Andrew said...

Wow! This is something I've never seen before. An amazing thing about Big Thunder is the care that went into the rockwork; I've read that the designers had a hard time making the wood look like it was there after the rocks, instead of the other way around. Also, it's interesting that no reused molds were used for the mountain at other parks - they redid the whole thing! Even though the Mine Train was lost for its sake, Big Thunder truly is a masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

I'm always amused at the "top down" construction method of the Disney Mountains. I had always assumed that they went bottom up, but no Disney has to one up nature!

JC Shannon said...

You can't be too rich, too thin, or have too many photos of the Mark Twain. It's funny, but I always think of Big Thud as a new attraction. I am showing my age now. Mike, I remember the anticipation surrounding the Haunted Mansion opening. You just knew it was gonna be a winner. Great shots today Major.

Major Pepperidge said...

TokyoMagic, unfortunately I have no idea who took those photos. Interesting that the second one might have been taken from the Nature’s Wonderland Mine Train tunnel! I thought the composition was a little odd, and just assumed that the shape to the left was a tree trunk. Thanks!

Mike Cozart, oh cool, that’s two people who agree. A consensus! It’s funny that you mention becoming obsessed with Disneyland after seeing that small model… I don’t recall Disney being so open about the development of a ride before that (though maybe they had been?). On the other hand, we’ve seen photos of construction on things like New Orleans Square where it is separated from the public by a thin rope instead of a wall… guests would really see what was going on. I think there are many people who love to see that sort of thing, but others who try to mentally edit an “ugly construction zone” out of their trip. This is why there aren’t more photos of the New Fantasyland construction - think of the hundreds of thousands of people who went over that in the Skyway, and the relatively few photos there are! Thanks for your fun recollections.

Nanook, you know how much I love Fantasmic!

Penna Andrew, yes, much like the “New Fantasyland”, you’d think that photos of Big Thunder construction would be very common. I think that in the early 2000’s, websites such as and MouseInfo (and others) started posting tons of photos every day, so that every detail of the park was recorded. But before that, there wasn’t really an outlet for such things.

Stu29573, I know what you mean, but it does make sense… you don’t want to drip paint and cement down on to finished rockwork. So… start from the top and work down!

Jonathan, “Big Thud”, ha ha. It really is hard to believe that this will be Big Thunder’s 40th anniversary! Where does the time go??

Anonymous said...

Major, you know I love construction photos. I vaguely recall seeing BTRR under construction but my silly younger self must have run right past it and didn't take pictures.

I agree with Tokyo and Mike that photo 2 is taken from the old tunnel. I believe the steel framing to the right is part of the 2 story load queue structure. I think the retaining wall in work in the foreground is holding up the walkway as it passes what is now the pond.

@stu29573, I agree, the Matterhorn sequencing really confused me, but this does make sense when you think it through. BT has more gunite on the rocks below than the Matterhorn did. This process in the photo is more like the Wookie World peaks, seems like the shape is roughed in with gunite and the final color coats added from the top down.

I think Big Thunder is a great attraction, the ride is fun, the theming and design are excellent and the recent updates improved the wait queue and the "pre-show". While I usually get a fast pass for this one, the wait isn't bad since there is plenty to see, and there is fair amount of shade too. The peaks tie in nicely as background and sort of wraps up the vision of the Rivers of America as the gateway to the West.

I only wish the Mine Train could have been saved too, and intertwined with the Big Thunder track in the old Disney tradition of combining attractions.

I think the modern craze for posting photos and (often vitrolic) speculation is at least partly to blame for the intense secrecy surrounding Disney construction projects. I know Galaxy's Edge has been under heavy scrutiny, and social media amplifies anything the fans don't like. Witness how some actors in the past film were driven out of social media by vicious attacks. We Junior Gorillas (including me) have been critical or at least fearful of the work on the Castle, etc. I think Disney is just reacting to the world as it is by hiding everything till the last minute.

Thanks for posting these cool photos, Major.

Wish all a good weekend.


JC Shannon said...

JG, Here, here! I was thinking the same thing. MTTNW could have been routed around Big Thud and saved. I miss it and remember it fondly, even my grandma loved it.


STU29374: well the whole Big Thunder “Mountain” was constructed not too up or top top but at the same time - it’s just the very top butte was constructed separately ground level and put into place by crane - then the finished top could be used as a color guide to match the rest.
MAJOR: I think the lack of so many construction photos at Disneyland in general has to do with how expensive roll film was - you were limited in the shots you could take and then there was the later costs of developing. Also the mind set of the Disney park guest at the time was different - most commonly people were trying for picturesque and artistic views or shots of the family. Guests weren’t thinking of documenting changes etc. I remember taking a dozen or so shots from the Skyway of New Fantasyland construction and feeling guilty afterwards as if I had “wasted” much of my precious roll of film .
Even in the 1990’s I think this view existed as one day I spent several hours in the morning just taking pictures of the PeopleMover! I took shots of the support beams the PeopleMover cars coming into and out of the station, the turntable, guested entering and exiting the cars , the speedramps etc. this was all on roll film. While waiting for PeopleMover train to enter the station and get an “action” shot of the doors and roof opening (the cars were empty) a lady passing behind me said “if there’s no people in your picture BUY a postcard”!!!

Melissa said...

Yes, I can remember being told not to waste film inside the park because a new roll at Disney prices was considered too expensive.

Major Pepperidge said...

JG, Big Thunder was being built right around the time that my family moved back to SoCal after several years on the east coast, and it think there were a few years before I made it back to the park. It’s funny to think that the Disneyland mountains are made using the same processes (partly) that go into making a swimming pool. I’ve thought about how it might have been if Big Thunder and Nature’s Wonderland could have coexisted, but I don’t know if it would have worked; runaway mine trains roaring through the scenery would ruin the effect of the Rainbow Desert or Beaver Valley. Maybe they could have figured out a way? I wonder if some of the secrecy around “Galaxy’s Edge” has to do with preventing some other park in another part of the world from stealing Disney’s ideas and releasing something before Disney can do it? Sort of like hearing that a studio is making a movie about Robin Hood, so another studio tries to crank one out faster.

Jonathan, when I think of a roller coaster track winding through Nature’s Wonderland, I can’t help thinking of the roller coasters going through Knott’s Berry Farm. Maybe it could have been done if it was more like the kind of coaster that hugs hilly terrain.

Mike Cozart, I am sure you are right about expensive film being a factor in so few construction pix being taken. And as you said, people wanted pretty pictures to show their friends and family back home. Not some pile of steel girders! A few years ago I shared some snapshots taken from the Skyway, showing the New Fantasyland construction, and it seemed almost miraculous that somebody used a dozen (or more) frames of their Kodak film. They just have been a true fan! Your photos of the Peoplemover sound fascinating, I’m sure you captured many details that nobody else even thought about. That lady needed to mind her own business!

Melissa, yes, and when I was a kid, my mom let us take photos, but ONLY black and white because it was a lot cheaper.

Chuck said...

Mike Cozart, it was probably the same lady who snarkily sang "it won't come ou-out" - twice, when I didn't react the first time she said it - as I took a close-up flash photo of the skull in the Spike Room of the Indy queue. I tried to explain that I was using a fully manual camera, had stopped the aperture down to f22, and actually had training to know what I was doing, but she was the expert with her point-and-shoot pocket camera and knew I had no idea what I was talking about. Wish I'd gotten her address to send her a print of the resulting photo.