The World That Never Was: Thunder Mesa
Starting any new column is a tough job, because where to begin is always a debacle, but I’ve decided to start where many would probably want this good old blog to start, Thunder Mesa. In starting a blog about things on the drawing boards which were never built at Walt Disney World, you have to begin with a topic thats big and bold.
Thunder Mesa was to be a major part of the new Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in the late 1960s. It was believed by Imagineers that Walt Disney World, being so close to the Caribbean, didn’t need Pirates of the Caribbean placed at the Magic Kingdom. They felt they could do something else instead, and what they came up with wasn’t just one attraction, but several placed into one complex just outside of Frontierland.
The job was placed onto Disney legend Marc Davis, who was largely responsible for “Pirates” (and so many other great attractions) was put into the role of coming up with the Pirate replacement. His idea for a ride, similar to Pirates of the Caribbean, was a boat ride through the wild west. As a guest on the attraction, you would see roaming animals, bandits having shootouts with the law, indians, and girls trying to get the attention of cowboys. Davis would have added in more animatronics into this ride than in Pirates of the Caribbean (which already boasted the highest number at 128 audio-animatronics) and would have had it be much more of a musical and comical. This attraction would become known as the Western River Expedition.
As big of a project as the Western River Expedition was, the bigger project was how to house such a dark ride. The plan was to build a big facade that would be useful in multiple ways. The Expedition would be housed inside of a giant structure that looked like Utah’s Monument Valley. The building would sit where Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain currently sit. It would be a great backdrop to Frontierland and would also serve as a tunnel for the Magic Kingdom railroad to go through. The whole structure would be called Thunder Mesa and would not just house the Western River Expedition, but several other attractions.
One of the other attractions to be part of Thunder Mesa was a runaway mine train that would zig zag in and out of the facade. To top it all off, there would be plenty of hiking trails past waterfalls, abandoned cowboy camps, and indian villages. It was even discussed that there would be a pack mule ride along the trails.
So why was Thunder Mesa never built? Because of its large scope, Disney Imagineers decided to hold off on building it until after the Magic Kingdom had opened instead of it being ready for opening day. This was done to not only hold off on costs, but to see what guests really wanted at the Magic Kingdom as well as planning for return guests to have a new experience when Thunder Mesa would open five years after opening day. What happened after opening shocked most Imagineers. Guests wanted Pirates and were wondering when it would be built. Of course, Marc Davis always knew when the Western River Expedition was built, people would stop talking about pirates and start talking about cowboys, but Disney Productions President, Card Walker, called for Pirates of the Caribbean to be built. Instead of taking the risk on something new, Walker and many at Disney management knew the Pirates ride was a guaranteed success and would bring WDW visitors back when it opened in 1973.
Despite the opening of an east coast Pirates ride, this was not the end for Thunder Mesa. A new Imagineer named Tony Baxter (who is now the Senior Vice President at Disney Imagineering) came up with a plan of building Thunder Mesa’s runaway mine train roller coaster through a Monument Valley area. He called it Big Thunder Mountain. Marc Davis was furious with the design as his intent was to always incorporate the River Expedition, not just the roller coaster. Baxter decided to rework the model with a show building placed behind Big Thunder Mountain which would hold the Expedition ride.
With management looking to spend less money on attractions, Baxter’s Big Thunder Mountain was greenlit without Western River Expedition building. Davis was approached with an idea to cut costs on the Expedition ride by using old Pirate animatronics and putting new skins on them. Davis, not keen on the idea, still said yes, but the ride was never green lit and Thunder Mesa simply became Big Thunder Mountain.
The final deathnail came when it was announced in 1974 that phase one of Walt Disney World was ending and the primary focus from that point forward would be building Epcot. Anything on the shelf for Magic Kingdom was abandoned, or put on hold until in never saw the light of day, which is exactly what happened to the rest of Thunder Mesa. Marc Davis left Disney Imagineering in 1978 and the struggle to build what was to be a giant part of WDW’s Magic Kingdom was laid to rest.
I have to say, despite loving Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain, I would have really loved to have seen this vision come to life. Could you imagine coming around that bend from Liberty Square into Frontierland and seeing this massive mountainous structure sitting behind Tom Sawyer Island. What a beautiful backdrop, adding such a realism to that area of the park. Seeing Big Thunder Mountain going up and around this large mountain while seeing the train run through it would have been quite the site. Maybe Marc Davis was right. Walt Disney World didn’t need Pirates. After all, WDW’s version of Pirates doesn’t compare at all to the Disneyland version, and to have a similar ride based solely on Wild West folklore would have been charming, funny, and very very Disney.
This is the “World” that never was.
Posted on November 10, 2011, in Articles and tagged #DisneySide, Abandoned, Big Thunder Mountain, Disney, Disney Parks, Disney World, Frontierland, History, Magic Kingdom, Marc Davis, Pirates of the Caribbean, Thunder Mesa, Tony Baxter, Walt Disney World, WDW, Western River Expedition. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.