Friday, January 21, 2011

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

What a fitting way to start this new series than to look at one of the biggest undertakings that Disney almost went through with. This attraction was so far along that it was even designed and had a place in the park.

As part of phase 1 of Magic Kingdom, Thunder Mesa would have been located near the current locations of Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The show building that would have housed the Western River Expedition would have been larger than any show building in Magic Kingdom at the time.

Thunder Mesa was to be Walt Disney World's response to Pirates of the Caribbean. It was thought by many Disney higher ups that a Pirates ride would not be popular in Florida because of the close proximity and history the state shared with past pirates. Because of this Marc Davis, a former Disney animator and creator of the Pirates attraction in California was given the task of creating such an attraction. Among the attraction within Thunder Mesa would have been, a runaway mine train (sound familiar?) a series of hiking trails, and the prize an indoor bat ride that would take guests through the heart of Thunder Mesa and show scenes of cowboys and historical America. (still sounds familiar)

These attractions were so far along that on top of a scaled model being completed and presented to Disney brass, Buddy Baker was working on a score for a theme song for the WRE attraction. Also, full size model AA's were being produced to show higher ups what the attraction could look like when finished.

Disney was ready to pull the trigger on this attraction just prior to the parks opening in October 1971. So what exactly is the reason that we do not see this immense building in Frontierland? Why is it that most people have never even heard of Thunder Mesa? well the answer is simple, yet complex.

The problem was the crowds that poured into WDW in 1971 fully expected to see the Pirates attraction within the confines of Magic Kingdom. What they found was not a single Pirate, Buccaneer or scalawag. There were many complaints about this considering many people remember seeing the Pirates attraction at Disneyland on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color television show. Now they were hearing that Disney was not putting this attraction in their new Florida resort.

Once 1972 rolled around it was clear that WDW needed a version of POTC. That decision obviously put the WRE and all of Thunder Mesa onto the back burner. As a matter of fact, the attraction was believed to be scrapped altogether. To the contrary. This attraction has never really been scrapped.

Marc Davis became increasingly upset by the lack of progress on WRE, and when an attraction named Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was green lit Davis all but believed WRE would soon follow. That sadly was not to be. By then Disney was putting the finishing touches on the update to Tomorrowland (Remember Space Mountain) and Davis was informed that he would have to cut costs significantly to get WRE a green light. One idea was adding WRE to the completed Big Thunder Mountain. Big Thunder was to be built on the land specifically reserved for Thunder Mesa. Davis made a compromise here. He would scale down the WRE attraction,among the ideas was canceling the trails above the show building and cutting the length of the attraction down. The attraction would become almost an afterthought. This did not sit well with Davis, and by 1979 he had left WED. the Western River Expedition was Marc Davis'  prized creation, and its lack of addition to the parks affected him greatly. Today we have Big Thunder Mountain, and Splash Mountain, which seems to be a cartoony take on WRE with quite a few changes. Unfortunately WRE has never been officially scrapped, but the costs of construction would make it almost impossible for any park to create today.

Thanks to Widen Your World for the info


  1. Another fine read, my friend. Well done.

    Just one small point - Davis wasn't simply assigned to WRE as such. It was his concept that he successfully pitched. A Davis original. That man was just a straight-up genius in every direction. The shoddy treatment of him at the end of his career was nothing short of a disgrace, and I hope he was able to eventually find some sort of peace in being denied the chance to build his crowning masterpiece. Judging by Alice Davis' comments, it would sadly seem the answer is no.

    Like I've said over on WDW Radio, the scaled-down caverns at the Magic Kingdom is my favourite piece of Disney Imagineering anywhere and at any time, but to be honest (especially with the hatchet lay-over in 2006), not a trip to MK goes by when I don't curse the loss of Western River under my breath..

    You make an interesting point when you say "costs of construction would make it almost impossible... to create today". I would agree 100%, and more's the pity. Like with my all-time favourite ride, the sheer scale and scope of the attractions that Walt's Own began experimenting with by the end of the '60s were just so far beyond anything that the modern MBA-holding bean-counters could ever fathom as cost-effective.

  2. Davis was one of if not the greatest imagineers Disney ever had... and his treatment is one of the dark times in Disney history.

    It is scary to realize that many of Walt's visions and plans would never get off the drawing table nowadays because Disney upper management is all about making money and not overspending... As an example Disney refurbed Journey into Imagination in 1999... with Kodak's money, and never wanted to add money which pretty much led to that trash we had in EPCOT for 3 years... it took a backlash of Disney fans just to get Figment back... very tragic... but WRE is probably the biggest tragedy in Disney history... because it was so far along in development... and how much Marc Davis put his life into it...