Book Report: The Disney Mountains – Imagineering at It’s Peak

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Image via Wikipedia

Among the coolest things about ideas is how malleable they are.  Among my big book scores for Christmas was The Disney Mountains: Imagineering At Its Peak and along with the many conceptual sketches I love to look at and use to take 5 minute vacations, there’s a great story about how an idea survived by changing and in the process became among Disney’s trademark amusement park attractions.

Like a lot of Imagineering books, this one is filled with concept sketches, scale model photos, and back stories behind a variety of Disney theme park rides.  As the name implies, it covers “the mountains” like the Matterhorn, Space Mountain, and the more recent Expedition Everest.  One story in particular stood out, though.

When the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World opened in 1971, in an effort to keep the initial construction costs down, there was no Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.  Instead, the Imagineering team, led by Disney Legend Marc Davis, had an alternative in mind.  Having had success at Disneyland’s Casey Jr. and Storybook Canal Boat rides sharing scenary, there was an idea to do something similar but on a bigger scale with something called Thuder Mesa, which would contain a roller coaster and a Pirates-like riverboat ride called the Western River Expedition that took guests through scenes depicting the westward expansion of the U.S. during the latter half of the 19th century.

Three things happened that derailed the project:

  • Davis’ biggest executive advocate, Roy Disney, died
  • The economy took a downturn making the cost of the area prohibitively expensive
  • Guests to the new Florida project clamored for Pirates of the Caribbean

Those are all things that can happen to any idea.  Having an executive that believes in the project can make a huge difference, so losing that backing can be a deflating experience.  Cost is always a concern, but in a bad economy they are scrutinized even more.  Customer demand drives everything and since Pirates already had a brand name and a proven, completed design, it ultimately won out.

But not all of Thunder Mesa was dead.  As time went on and with the success of Space Mountain, Disney management wanted to add a thrill ride to the western part of the park to increase attendance and better balance traffic throughout the park.

A young Tony Baxter, dusted off the Thunder Mesa concepts, removed the water ride portion of it since the Magic Kingdom already had Pirates, and renamed the project Thunder Mountain.  So, the idea Marc Davis came up with lived on but shrunk slightly given an unforseen sequence of events.  The result became a Disney icon like few things have and has been duplicated at Disney parks throughout the world.


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