Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, located in Frontierland at Walt Disney World‘s Magic Kingdom, is one of the park’s most beloved and popular roller coasters. Opening in 1980, just a year after its sister ride debuted at Disneyland, Big Thunder Mountain takes riders on a thrilling, runaway mine train adventure through the American Old West.
With its dynamic ride system, immersive theming, and nods to classic Disney attractions of the past, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has remained a must-do for over 40 years across Disney theme parks worldwide. This review will provide an in-depth look at the ride from start to finish, including its history, design, experience for riders, and tips for making the most of your visit. All aboard the wildest ride in the wilderness!
Ride Duration: The total ride experience lasts approximately 3 minutes and 25 seconds.
Genie+ and Lightning Lane: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is available to book using the Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane options on the My Disney Experience app.
Rider Switch:Rider switch is available so groups with a non-rider can take turns enjoying the attraction without having to wait in line again.
DAS: Riders who require accommodations under the Disability Access Service (DAS) can receive a return time at the attraction entrance.
Location: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is located in Frontierland on the left side of the Rivers of America, just after Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.
Early Entry: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is not currently included as one of the early entry attractions.
Best Times to Ride: The best times to ride are during early entry if it is offered, right at official park open, during the parades or fireworks, or at the very end of the night.
Original Concept and Design
The concept for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad originated with Imagineer Tony Baxter in the early 1970s. At the time, Baxter was developing ideas for attractions to be included in Discovery Bay, a new land planned for Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. One of Baxter’s proposals was for a runaway mine train roller coaster called Western River Expedition. When Discovery Bay was put on hold, Baxter retooled his mine train concept to better fit Frontierland as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Fellow Imagineers Bill Watkins and Bob Gurr helped realize Baxter’s vision, handling the ride engineering and track layout. The style of Big Thunder was inspired by the unique rock formations found in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park.
Construction on Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad began in 1979, with the Magic Kingdom’s slightly larger version following shortly after. Building the massive show buildings and rock work structures required over 6,500 tons of steel, 4,675 tons of mud and plaster, and 4,000 gallons of paint. Special effects like dynamite explosions, falling rocks, and flooding sequences were incorporated throughout the ride experience.
After lengthy construction, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad first opened to guests on September 2, 1979 at Disneyland in California. The Magic Kingdom debuted their installation just over a year later on November 15, 1980. The attraction was an immediate success, wowing guests with its dynamic ride vehicles racing through the mountain’s tight turns and airtime filled drops.
Architecture and Design
The rock work and scenery of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was heavily inspired by the hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) found in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park. Imagineer Tony Baxter visited the park and felt the dramatic red rock spires would translate perfectly to the attraction’s setting in the American Southwest. Certain elements of the ride also pay homage to beloved classic attractions from Disneyland’s past, like the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train and Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. These rides were early mine train concepts that Imagineers expanded and improved upon with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Though the rock work appears natural, Big Thunder Mountain is actually constructed from steel reinforced concrete coated in a special mix of mud, paint, and other materials to recreate the look and feel of weathered canyon walls. Over 6,500 tons of steel provide the structural supports, while 4,675 tons of mud plaster give the mountain its texture and 4,000 gallons of paint color. It is red and brown like the canyons of Arizona and Utah.
A variety of special effects are used throughout the ride to create an immersive environment and story. As trains enter caverns and tunnels, explosions triggered by plungers on the train tracks simulate dynamite blasts. Flood waters rage through a flooded ghost town scene, and glowing stalagmites and pools of water create an eerie atmosphere in the final lift hill cave sequence. One of the most impressive effects occurs on the ride’s final drop, where a timed explosion gives the illusion that the train has destabilized the mountain, causing cascading rockfalls all around the riders. These advanced effects help make Big Thunder Mountain an exciting multimedia experience.
The adventure begins even before boarding the attraction, as guests walk through Big Thunder Mountain Railroad’s elaborately themed queue presenting the fictional backstory of Big Thunder Mining Company. The winding switchbacks pass a large dynamite shed, mining equipment, and views into mine shafts and caverns.
Sharp-eyed riders may spot references to classic Disney attractions hidden throughout the queue, like a rainbow-colored rock formation paying homage to Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland and crates of mining supplies labeled with the Rainbow Ridge Mining Company logo.
Guests waiting in line are treated to twangy frontier music featuring instruments like banjos, harmonicas, fiddles, and jaw harps, setting the mood for adventure in the wild west.
At the loading area, guests board one of the six colorful steam trains themed to the fictional Big Thunder Mining Company rail line. As the trains have three rows of seats, it’s recommended for parties larger than two to split up between rows for more comfortable seating. After a friendly warning from cast members to “hang onto them hats and glasses!” the train departs the station.
The train first passes scenes of mining equipment and blasting tunnels before ascending the main lift hill through a cavern filled with dynamite plungers. The following scenes present the abandoned mining town of Tumbleweed, destroyed by earthquakes and flash floods. The final lift hill sequence showcases glowing rock formations and bubbling pools, as well as references to classic Disney attractions like Rainbow Caverns and the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. The grand finale occurs as the train destabilizes the mountain, causing cascading rockfalls and cave-ins all around the riders.
The ride’s musical score builds suspense throughout the journey, incorporating the sounds of coyotes howling, whinnying horses, and even a rainmaking shaman chanting to summon storms. The music intensifies as the train picks up speed before reaching a crescendo when the mountain starts collapsing.
The train returns to the station, culminating in one last dynamite blast triggering as guests disembark. The entire experience lasts just over three thrilling minutes but leaves a lasting impression through its detailed theming and storytelling.
Tips for Riders
Request to ride in the back row for the wildest experience over the hills and drops.
Keep eyes peeled throughout the queue and ride to spot references to classic Disney mine trains of the past.
Visit after dark if possible to see the attraction transformed by colorful lighting effects.
Save Big Thunder Mountain for the end of the night to walk right on and get an unforgettable last ride.
Utilize Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lane reservations to bypass the standby wait times.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Comparisons
Opened first on September 2, 1979
Has a scene with a dynamite explosion that is missing from Magic Kingdom version
Has outdoor station, other versions are indoor stations
Mining town is Rainbow Ridge, inspired by Bryce Canyon in Utah
Town was devastated by an earthquake
Magic Kingdom (Florida)
Opened on November 15, 1980
Larger in size than Disneyland version
Frontier town is Tumbleweed, inspired by Monument Valley in Utah
Town was hit by flash flooding
Tokyo Disneyland (Japan)
Very similar layout to Magic Kingdom version
Does not have Tumbleweed scene, instead has cave scene mirroring Disneyland version
Final segment of ride is different than Florida
Disneyland Paris (France)
Most heavily themed version
Full name is Big Thunder Mountain: Le Passage Enchanté de Tom Sawyer
Trains are rusted and aged in appearance
Located on an island, accessed via underwater tunnels
Longest ride time at almost 4 minutes
Often considered best version
As one of Walt Disney World’s opening day attractions, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has remained a beloved fan favorite for over 40 years by seamlessly blending storytelling, theming, and thrills into an unforgettable adventure. Its dynamic ride system navigating meticulously crafted rock work makes it an achievement of attraction design that appeals to all ages. For first-time riders or repeat visitors, Big Thunder Mountain is a Frontierland icon that should top every Magic Kingdom bucket list. So all aboard the wildest ride in the wilderness for runaway mine train excitement at its best!
Tiana’s Bayou Adventure – A log flume ride coming late 2024!
Indiana Jones Adventure – An indoor thrill ride using vehicle motion and special effects to simulate a high-speed mine cart adventure through Indiana Jones environments. Located nearby in Adventureland.
Haunted Mansion – A classic Disney dark ride located just across the way from Big Thunder Mountain in New Orleans Square. Takes riders through an elaborately themed haunted estate.
Pirates of the Caribbean – An indoor boat ride featuring scenes with audio-animatronic pirates, drops, and special effects. Located in New Orleans Square near the Haunted Mansion.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Ride Review | Disney World
The Final Word
Having first opened in 1979, Big Thunder continues appealing to all ages with its balance of approachable thrills and rich storytelling across four Disney parks worldwide. It's no wonder this "wildest ride in the wilderness" remains a can't-miss Magic Kingdom classic!