Saturday, May 20, 2017

Disney That Never Was: Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition

By Brittany Bell

When guests are taking a walk down the crowded streets of Frontierland, they are transported back to a simpler time of the American West when cowboys and outlaws ruled the streets. Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain reign as the kings of the land, towering over the frontier streets. However, this land was originally slated to be much different than it is now. Join us today as we look at what was planned for the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland and the never-realized but absolutely remarkable Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition...

The Magic Kingdom model in 1969. This model has some interesting discrepancies with the park as constructed, but it's overall a very accurate view of what they intended to build including Thunder Mesa seen at the bottom right of the photo.

The story begins in the 1960s when plans for Walt Disney World were well underway. While Pirates of the Caribbean had been an instant hit at Disneyland, Imagineers felt that the story of swashbuckling pirates was too close to home and familiar for Floridians, and that guests there wouldn’t be as interested in Disney’s fantasized version. Imagineers, primarily Marc Davis, were assigned instead to create a river adventure that would be in Frontierland, and would venture through the wild west.

Marc Davis working on a Western River Expedition model

Given the area in the park that the attraction would occupy, the giant show building would have to be disguised. The proposed solution: a giant “mesa” that would house not only the Western River Expedition (the boat ride), but also walking trails and exhibits and a new Walt Disney World Railroad Station. As mentioned before, the Western River Expedition was set to be a boat ride similar to Pirates of the Caribbean except with a Western twist.

Thunder Mesa Model from above

The ride would feature the most advanced audio-animatronics to date at the time, and would go through scene of old western towns, mining caves and Native American villages and would feature the whimsical flair of Marc Davis’ style, much like Pirates. Guests would enter through an old mine shaft to the loading dock, and would have a nighttime ambiance much like Pirates. However, due to changing political climates at the time, the fluid plans changed to exclude the Native American portion and focus more on a trip through a wild west town. The ride would begin with calm nature scenes before the riders are thrust into a stagecoach robbery.

Stagecoach robbery scene concept art

Stagecoach robbery scene concept art

Stagecoach robbery scene concept art

The Western River Expedition was to be centered around the fictional town of Dry Gulch, where guests would then see the happenings of the town, such as a bank robbery and escaping prisoners, much like the pillaging town scene in Pirates of the Caribbean. The attraction would end with a scene of the flooded mesa where they would narrowly escape being attacked by banditos. Much like in Splash Mountain today, the Walt Disney World Railroad would have also sneaked peaks inside the ride as it passed through Frontierland.

Thunder Mesa concept art showing the different attraction routes within

On the outside of the Mesa, there was proposed to be walking and riding trails, where guests could explore the nature and hitch a ride on some of the “native” wildlife. There was also going to be an area called Mesa Terrace which would have been themed like a Western town that actually contained a restaurant inside much like New Orleans Square's Blue Bayou in Disneyland...

Mesa Terrace, a sort of Western version of the Blue Bayou Restaurant at Disneyland

However, the Marc Davis and the Imagineers ran into some trouble during the planning stages of the Thunder Mesa project. The Walt Disney Company executives wanted a thrill attraction to be added to the Magic Kingdom, as the park had opened without any (a vital mistake they believed they made). To combat this, a proposed runaway mine train attraction was to be added to the Mesa, though the Western River Expedition was still set to be the crown jewel of the area. The mine train was to be the first coaster in the newly opened Magic Kingdom and would be the first thrill ride as well.

THE WILDEST RIDE IN THE WILDERNESS –– (Left to right) Imagineers Claude Coats, a young Tony Baxter, and David Schweninger review a model of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World. Originally designed to be added to Thunder Mesa, the attraction first opened at Disneyland park in 1979 and later inspired versions at Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.

Walt Disney Company executives had been promoting this attraction in not only WDW pre-opening and post-opening literature dating back to 1969...

...but four years later the Western River Expedition became the centerpiece of the Walt Disney Story's post-show on Main Street...

Walt Disney Story dedication ceremony in 1973

Walt Disney Story entrance, 1979

A section of the Western River Expedition model depicting the scene with the dance hall girls and the cowboy whose horse jumped atop the saloon's porch seen below...

...was displayed in its own private hallway. Near this area, an audio-animatronic owl named Hoot Gibson could be found snoring away on a tree branch...

Hoot Gibson owl (Source:

When guests pushed a button the owl would come to life and introduced himself as "the star of a brand new Western show being made for Walt Disney World." He then gave a brief run-down on the process behind audio-animatronic technology. At the conclusion of this, he then would urge guests to come back and visit him "at the Western River Expedition." This was extensive publicity for a attraction still being developed. You can hear a rare recording of the audio-animatronic owl below...

(For your listening pleasure, be sure to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player at the top, left-hand corner of the page prior to playing the video below if you are on a desktop computer.)

The entire project was forecast to be one of the largest attractions ever built by the Walt Disney Company, as well as the most technologically complex and most costly attractions to have ever been built. And, while the concept art and plans sound amazing to any Disney fan today, we all know that Thunder Mesa never came to fruition. Why?

Pirates of the Caribbean under construction

The first problem was that people wanted pirates. When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, it opened without the Pirates of the Caribbean, which prompted large guest outcry. People wanted to know, “where are the pirates!?” Card Walker, the head of Disney Productions at the time, decided to listen to the overwhelming sentiment of the guests and bring Pirates of the Caribbean to the Magic Kingdom (just in a shorter version). This put the Thunder Mesa project on hold, with all hands (and funds) on deck to build pirates by 1973.

Economic problems in the 70s also contributed to the project being put on hold. Gas and oil prices were rising and the number of people traveling was down. Disney began prioritizing funds elsewhere as Thunder Mesa began fading into the background. Marc Davis lobbied desperately to save the project, but the fate of the Mesa seemed to be sealed when two key decisions were made...

A young Tony Baxter works on an early concept model for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

The first was in 1979 when a standalone runaway mine coaster, Big Thunder Mountain, was given the go-ahead to be built for the park. Imagineer and pupil of Marc Davis, the young Tony Baxter, headed the project, dramatizing and further exploring the original concept that was to be included in Thunder Mesa.

The second decision was that all further funds and focus was to be directed at creating and opening EPCOT Center. Though Disney focused their energies on some great attractions, they also happened to be the unfortunate circumstances that led Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition to be put on permanent hold. Just think of how truly amazing a walk along the Rivers of America and the skyline of Frontierland would have been had Marc Davis' dream of Thunder Mesa became a reality...


Brittany Bell grew up in Lewiston, Maine, about 45 minutes away from Portland. She is currently studying Public Relations and Journalism at Boston University, and hopes to one day work for the Mouse himself. She grew up in a Disney-loving home, and would watch Sleeping Beauty on repeat as a little girl. Her first trip to Walt Disney World was in the summer of 2000, at four years old. Ever since then, Brittany and her family take annual trips to the World, and have no intention of vacationing anywhere else. Her favorite places in Walt Disney World are the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Grand Floridian, and the Magic Kingdom. She can’t go without seeing Fantasmic! at least once each vacation, even though she chokes up a little at the final scene. Brittany is fascinated by how one man’s dream became an empire—one that makes dreams come true every day.

Before she became obsessed with Frozen and Queen Elsa, her favorite Disney characters were Princess Aurora and Mulan. She loves everything and anything Disney, from the parks, to the movies, to the Broadway musicals. In the near future she hopes to participate in the Disney College Program and work as a “friend of a princess”.

You can find all of Brittany's articles here.

1 comment:

  1. Great article.. a couple of photos I have never seen. A little background on the inside dirt. Love BTMR but not a Baxter fan. He really did a number on Davis and lobbied behind the scenes to kill of Western River in favour of his project. Too bad as it would have been interesting. You can see a little of what might have been in Phantom Manors finale scene.