This ride is not only rich in story but it is one of my all time favorites because it is just plain fun. So what is the ride and what makes it so fun? Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a steel roller coaster that takes riders through the town of Tumbleweed. The imaginary journey lasts a little over 3 minutes, dropping and banking riders through the caves and caverns at a top speed of 36 mph. There are more details in the 20 audio animatronic figures and surrounding environment than you can possibly take in during one ride making it fun to experience over and over.
Knowing the story of that environment also makes the ride even more enjoyable. To help us understand what we see I asked one of the ride’s inhabitants, Cousin Elrod, to give us his perspective. Here is the letter he sent me:
“Why hello there and welcome to Tumbleweed. I’m afraid if it’s gold you’re huntin’ you you’re too late. Yep that train ran out of track a while back you see. All’s left now are them scared miners old axes and mine cars. Of course there’s the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad train that runs through here, but don’t go boardin’ just yet. You see, the train, she runs but there is no conductor guiding the way. The train, like this here mountain is haunted.
That wasn’t always the case. This here used to be the land of dreamers. None bigger than Barnabas T. Bullion. His dream was to hit the ultimate gold strike. He came from one of them powerful families back East, and he felt gold was his birthright. The gold rush hit here in Tumbleweed after some lucky fella found some in the late 1850’s. By 1880 Barnabas had made his way to Tumbleweed and established The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
With the help of Ol’ Faithful Blasting Caps Barnabas and his boys blew holes all over Big Thunder. They paid no attention to the local Indian tribes warnin’ em about the spirit of the mountain. It wasn’t long though before mysterious accidents and cave-ins started occurin’. Them miners thought they heard ghosts and the train itself began running with a mind its own. Them Indians were right. That there spirit of Big Thunder Mountain didn’t take kindly to losing its gold.
Nearby towns Rainbow Ridge and Thunder Mesa reported violent earthquakes, but what did in Tumbleweed was the floodin’. There was more rain than these parts had ever seen. You could forget about diggin’ after that. We got washed down from 8,015 folks to just 247. After that the place was cursed and all but 15 hit the road. Now it’s down to pretty much just me, which is just fine. I can finally get that quiet bath I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout. Oh, almost forgot. Be careful if you hitch a ride on the railroad. She moves a little faster now than she did haulin’ that ore around the mountain.”
A big thanks to Cousin Elrod for that fine piece of storytelling! Next time you ride, be sure to give him a wave as you go by. Now there is an equally fascinating story behind the ride’s construction. It took 15 years for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to come to life. Originally the mine train portion was a very small part of a much larger project which also included ideas for what would become Splash Mountain. What we see today is thanks to imagineer Tony Baxter, who was honored recently when the ride was updated. You can see a striking resemblance to Tony in the portrait of old Barnabas Boullion. Now we don’t have time to share the full story, but if you want to hear what took place in that 15 year span I encourage to check out another podcast. Go listen to Episode 36 of The Unofficial Guide’s Disney Dish with Jim Hill.
What I do want to share with you is my favorite time of day to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Although the ride is fun any time of day, I prefer riding it at night for several reasons: First, the nearly 2.5 acres of carefully crafted rock, caves, and tunnels take on an even richer quality and character at night. The strategically placed lights highlight the mountain’s deep cracks and crevices against the dark night sky. Second, a haunted mine train just seems more menacing at night. Not only do the dinosaur remains protruding from the canyon walls seem to encroach upon you more at night, they seem to do so more quickly too. Many riders in the past have even asked if the train’s speed is increased at night. In reality, the ride operates at the same speed regardless of when you ride. Third, if you choose to skip the nightly parade or fireworks you may find a short line if any at all. If you luck out during this time of day, you can ride multiple times before the park closes for the night. So, if you go late at night you can see the ride in a completely different light, feel the intensity at a whole new level, and maybe even get in more than one ride.
This was the case when I had my favorite Big Thunder experience on a night ride with my little sister many years ago. At the time I was 16 and she was 10. About halfway through riding Big Thunder with my parents a nice little Florida rain shower began. By the time we pulled back into the station the rain had increased enough to drive most visitors towards the park’s exit. As we climbed out of our train car we noticed there was almost no line waiting to get on the next train. We exited the ride and quickly asked my parents if we could go again. They laughed and gave their consent but opted to wait for us under the cover of ponchos at the ride’s exit.
My sister and I quickly climbed the hill leading up to the 2-story train station and wound our way through the queue as fast as we could. By this time, there was no line slowing us down at all and we were soon back on the train ready to go again! I remember the anticipation of feeling the rain pelt against us as the train clicked up the first hill. Once over the first drop, the rest of the ride was a wet blur as we slid in our seats from side to side, banking and turning through the mountain. If the ride feels faster with the darkness of night, it feels like a true runaway ghost train when flying through the blinding sheets of rain. Of course this wasn’t the best time to take in the details of the ride’s story, but man was it fun! When the train finally stopped we bounced right out of our seats and ran to tell our parents how cool the ride was the second time. Life doesn’t imitate art much better than a rainy ride in the dark on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Now, not everyone in your riding party may like the idea of tackling a roller coaster in the dark during a rain storm. That’s o.k. If you aren’t sure whether or not to ride you are in luck. For our smaller listeners, I suggest riding Goofy’s Barnstormer as your first roller coaster in the Magic Kingdom. It is short, tame, and a great introductory roller coaster. If you enjoy that ride and are at least 38” tall then go to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train next. We will cover this ride in detail in an upcoming podcast, but for now just know it is one of the smoothest coasters in existence. If the Seven Dwarfs aren’t too much for you to handle then your next step is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. This coaster is faster and rougher than the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. However, there are no inversions or loops in sight. It truly is a coaster anyone over 40” will probably enjoy.
If you aren’t yet ready to tackle this thrill ride, there is still much to enjoy. Pick a spot near the ride’s exit and you can watch the runaway train. The views are so great you can even see the expressions of riders as they whiz by. An even better view of the mountain itself can be found by riding the Liberty Belle down the Rivers of America. This large boat slowly floats down the river and right by the ride. You have a great view of the railroad entering the heart of the mountain.
Finally, if you do ride and find yourself without a Fastpass + don’t worry. When the ride was updated in 2012 the queue was part of the rehab. There are many fun interactive elements to be found now. You can see the mine company’s offices, explore the explosives room, take a peek at the miner’s activity deep in the mountain, help pump air down into the mine in the ventilation room, and even help set off some explosives on the mountain. Your time here will feel more like a walking exploration of the mine company than a line for a ride.
Well, I don’t know about you but I sure wish I was at the Magic Kingdom right now about to board Big Thunder Mountain Railroad! It is clear to see that this ride has a great story and is so much fun. You can ride it over and over and experience something new almost every time. I hope you will brave the ghost town of Tumbleweed next time you are in the Magic Kingdom. Ride it during the day and night if you have time and then leave a comment below to tell us your favorite time of day to ride.
Ok fellow riders, that’s the end of the line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Thank you so much for joining me today!