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The Big Thunder Mountain Secret You Need to Know

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Credit: Disney

“Hang onto your hats and glasses, folks, ’cause this here’s the wildest ride in the wilderness!”

What do those words immediately bring to mind? Adrenaline-pumping thrills, dynamite explosions, a goat?

These famous words, of course, can be heard on Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, an iconic attraction that first opened at Disneyland in Anaheim in 1979, followed by Magic Kingdom in 1980, Tokyo Disneyland in 1987, and finally Disneyland Paris in 1992.

Every Disney fan has heard the kidney stone story (in which patients in a medical study passed kidney stones after riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Walt Disney World  The study also found that the Space Mountain and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith failed to cause this result), but there is another fun story up this roller-coaster’s sleeve.

Big Thunder Mountain Magic Kingdom

Credit: Disney

This fan-favorite roller coaster is filled with twists and turns, amazing theming, and a backstory that not many Disney Park Guests are aware of.

All variations of the ride follow a similar story designed by Disney Imagineers – sometime in the late 1800s, gold was discovered on Big Thunder Mountain in the American Southwest. Overnight, a small mining town became a thriving one (Rainbow Ridge in Disneyland, Tumbleweed in Magic Kingdom, Thunder Mesa in Disneyland Paris).

Mining was prosperous, and an extensive line of mine trains was set up to transport the ore. Unknown to the settlers, the mountain was a sacred but cursed spot to local Native Americans, leading to the trains becoming possessed and riding the tracks by themselves. Now, Disney Guests can race through the gold mine aboard a speeding train with thrills, caves, and goats – which are the basis of a fun trick aboard the ride.

But do you actually know where the name “Big Thunder Mountain” came from?

two guests outside big thunder mountain

Credit: Disney

The Disney Park ride’s history dates back to the mid-1970s when Walt Disney Imagineering began developing plans for a new mine train attraction at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.

The project was put on hold after Walt Disney sadly passed away in 1966 and sat on the shelf for 6 years until 1972, when Disney Imagineers relooked at the idea and tweaked some elements, such as adding a runaway mine train theme.

But where did “Big Thunder” come from? Well, it actually was always there! At Disneyland, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was built on the land of an old attraction, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. Imagineers added numerous tributes to the former attraction, including the small Western town of Rainbow Ridge, which used to overlook the loading platform of the Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland.

Many of the animal animatronics throughout the attraction are also from the previous attraction (much like those on the recently closed Splash Mountain). Other allusions to the Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland include the Rainbow Caverns (glowing pools of water by the first lift hill) and precariously balanced rocks in the third lift hill tunnel.

The name of the ride itself, “Big Thunder,” comes from a large waterfall the old mine train passed on its tour! This waterfall was called “Big Thunder,” and “Little Thunder” was located nearby.

As kids, we always assumed that the name came from the big thunderous roar that the mine trains make as they zoom around the track, but in reality, a waterfall is where the name stemmed from. Talk about waterfalls being a big part of Disney theme park history – there’s Big Thunder, Splash Mountain, and the infamous Jungle Cruise “backside of water!”

Even the trains have wonderfully whimsical names. Each of the six trains used in this attraction has a unique name that might be referring to the adventure awaiting riders. The names include U.B. Bold, U.R. Daring, U.R. Courageous, I.M. Brave, I.B. Hearty, and I.M. Fearless. Further, the namesake mountain rises 197 feet up in the air and is modeled after Monument Valley. The Disneyland version of this attraction received its inspiration from Bryce Canyon National Park.

Back in August 2022, it was announced that a movie adaptation of the ride was in development. Amber Templemore-Finlayson and Katie Ellwood, collectively known as “Bert & Bertie”, will serve as co-directors after their work on Marvel’s Hawkeye (2021).

So, next time you’re riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Frontierland, remember to impress your friends with the story of how it got its name!

About Melissa Cannioto

Melissa is an author, adventurer, and chatterbox, who has worked at Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris, and Adventures by Disney! A British native, she has traveled the world seeking new experiences, and now resides in Florida with her husband, an Air Force pilot. Find her children's book at @bear.hug.book