April 12, 2010

A Never Was Investigation: Western River Expedition

These next two weeks were to be devoted to Big Thunder Mountain (Railroad), but looking into the history of the attraction its roots started before officially opening in 1979. So after investigating it a little more Big Thunder Mountain was truly a spawn from today’s feature, Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition.

Originally intended to be a part of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom Phase One Expansion, the Thunder Mesa complex was to include a runaway mine train (later developing into Big Thunder Mountain), and a ride through the Wild West in a flume type ride. This complex, called Thunder Mesa, was the brainchild of Imagineering Legend, Marc Davis. tmesapc

Developed in 1963, for Walt Disney’s Riverboat Square, Marc Davis planned out the Lewis and Clark Adventure, which was to be a ride through the west following the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Once the indoor park was scrapped, Davis kept onto his idea and expanded upon it  and added elements of his favorite show, Gunsmoke,to become the Thunder Mesa complex, which was going to house his signature attraction. He began re-developing his idea in 1969, for the Phase One expansion of Magic Kingdom’s Frontierland. It was to open just in time for the parks 5th Anniversary, and the United States’ Bicentennial Celebration.

In 1969, Roy O. Disney and Dick Irvine green lit the approval for Davis to make a 1in:1ft scale model of the attraction. Billed as the ‘Western River Ride’, it would transport guests past scenes of buffalos, bears, cattle, and other animals in natural settings, dance hall girls doing the can-can, bandits engaging in shootouts, American Indians rain dancing, and other frontier situations both humorous and menacing, it was to be a wild west version of Pirates of the Caribbean. 


The title of a “western version of Pirates of the Caribbean”, really didn’t give the attraction all the attention it deserved. First, it was going to be more technologically advanced and complex than Pirates, with more figures performing a wider variety of movements. It was also to be more of a musical than Pirates was, with all the scenes united in song.

The showbuilding needed to house this expansive attraction, would be bigger than the Haunted Mansion or ‘its a small world’. In order to disguise the building, it was to be covered, on all three sides, with rockwork. The size and scope of this project would have made it the largest and most dense component of the Magic Kingdom, housing not only the “Western River Ride”, but also the runaway mine train and meandering foot paths for guests to explore the Monument Valley inspired attraction complex. This is why WED decided to hold off on its construction at first. Even though placed on hold, Davis and longtime collaborator, Mary Blair had produced a large number of paintings and illustrations that told the ride’s story.

The following ride-through of the attraction is from Widen Your World:

Guests approached Thunder Mesa from the south and entered a cave marked "Western River Shipping & Navigation Co."  The cave led them into a canyon at night, the effect would be similar to Disneyland’s Blue Lagoon, as it will always be night, and to a riverside dock where they would board a freight levy.     

The trip began with an introduction to the ride's "star," a recurring audio-animatronic owl named Hoot Gibson, as the boats are hoisted up a waterfall and channeled into a canal for a low-key cruise down a frontier river.  Oversized dime novels, their covers depicting western icons such as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody and Davy Crockett, gave way to dioramas of bears cavorting on the banks, bison sniffing prairie dogs and a cowboy strumming a guitar and singing the WRE's signature song ... along with a chorus of longhorn steer.  The ride's musical theme was introduced early and would carry on throughout the remainder of the experience.  Desert animals such as owls, even cactus, picked up and carried the tune.  Things got more interesting as the boats passed a group of bandits holding up a stagecoach on a wooden bridge.  Both the thieves and their horses wore bandanas across their faces.  The lead villain, virtually hidden beneath his dark sombrero, sang to guests as they passed and suggested they would meet again further down the river.  





Then the boats entered a western town called Dry Gulch.  It's Saturday night and the streets are filled with revelry.  Dance hall girls are singing and performing can-can feats as cowboys cheer them on.  Wranglers on horseback are firing their six-shooters into the air - one has even managed to get his horse onto the roof of a saloon's front porch.  Some townspeople look on in shock or disapproval, but it has no effect on the wild behavior.  In fact, things only ratchet up from there.  Around the bend there is a raging exchange of gunfire between a group of bank robbers and the law.  A sheriff on his horse fails to detect underground tunneling trailing below him from the nearby jailhouse.  Fearsome ruffians in dark hats shoot Colt 45s from behind troughs and a purloined bank's safe while congenial deputies in white hats answer back from the windows of a bathhouse.  Seemingly everyone is caught up in the action, save for a smiling mortician sizing up his prospects for timely business.  Guests narrowly avoid injury in the crossfire as they drift through the chaos.



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The sound of bullets is soon replaced by that of tribal drumming and chanting.  Along the banks is a diorama of the painted desert, in which a gathering of Indians are enacting a full-blown rain dance ceremony.  On a tabletop rock, a storm is already washing down on a circle of braves, over the sides of the plateau and into an adobe homestead.  Five maidens sit in a row, swaying in time with the music.  A trio of coyotes howls in front of a bonfire while medicine men shake gourds.  Lightning from the gathering rainstorm sparks a forest fire and guests cruise through a mass of flames.  The once-peaceful river yields to rapids and things start to get rough.  To make things worse, the bandits from the stagecoach scene have caught up with the boat and demand the passengers' valuables at the headwaters of a raging waterfall.  Before guests have a second chance to consider their predicament, their craft tips over the falls and plunges them down a passage that leads out of Thunder Mesa and along a channel hugging the Rivers of America, similar to the main drop on Splash Mountain.  Then the boat re-enters the mountain and arrives at the Unload dock, where guests disembark and return to Frontierland. 




Though this ambitious project was placed on the back burner many times, Imagineering place many hours into planning this never approved attraction. A sprawling model of the ride (1" to the foot) was built at WED for purposes of finalizing the spatial relationships of visual elements.  Ken O'Brien sculpted an army of figures to populate the miniature show scenes.  Those who saw the model in its entirety, say it was phenomenal to behold, with multiple animated features and beautiful lighting effects. Thunder Mesa had also been sculpted in its entirety as part of a 1/100th model of the entire Magic Kingdom. Buddy Baker reportedly began writing theme music for the attraction in a variety of different styles such as an introductory ballad, a double-time saloon style and an Epic Western style. As well as, full-size animated figures were being sculpted.  It was reported that Western River Expedition would have consisted of 150 figures, that’s more than Pirates.


With the opening of Magic Kingdom in 1971 many of the visitors complained to City Hall asking, ‘Where are the pirates?"’. With that, management wanted a Pirates attraction as soon as possible in the park. Since Marc’s biggest fan, Roy O. Disney died several months after the park opened, he lost his biggest supporter of the Western River Expedition and Thunder Mesa project. With a smaller version of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean officially green lighted, Western River Expedition was pushed back more. In the 1972 Annual Report of the Walt Disney Company, it still slated a piece of Thunder Mesa slated to open in 1974, the Big Thunder Railway. 

Tony Baxter, the lead Imagineer in the Big Thunder Mountain project, didn’t want to alienate Davis’ Western River Expedition, so he made a model with his Thunder Mountain next the to the Thunder Mesa complex, many people think that it was more of an afterthought.


This attraction though might have the most promotion for any attraction that was never built, even more than Equatorial Africa or several other pavilions in Epcot Center’s World Showcase. With it promoted in WDW’s pre-opening advertisements in 1969, and then it later became a centerpiece of the Walt Disney Story on Main Street. A section of the attraction’s model - depicting the scene with the dance hall girls and the cowpoke whose horse jumped atop the saloon's porch - was displayed in its own private hallway. In an adjacent alcove, the electronic version of a feathered Hoot Gibson could be found snoring away on a tree branch.  When guests pushed a button the owl came 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 tutorial he urged guests to come back and visit him "at the Western River Expedition."  This was, by any measure, extensive publicity for a ride still being developed - let alone a ride whose prospects for realization had been largely doused before this display opened in April 1973.



From 1973 until his retirement, Marc Davis was faced with an innumerable amount of disappointments regarding his prized attraction. One thing he had to contend with was entirely of his own doing: the smattering of American Indian stereotypes throughout the attraction. Davis had worked in pretty much every potentially insulting sight gag for what he surely intended as maximum comic effect - big noses, drunkenness, the war hoop, dancing around wildly in circles, sitting "Indian-style," you name it. To have carried the tradition forward as part of a 1970s attraction, one which surely would have lasted into the 21st century, would have been egregious.


Another obstacle confronting the WRE was its projected cost; management simply could not see the inherent benefit to spending tens of millions on an attraction that wasn't called Space Mountain.  By the end of 1973, the expansion of Tomorrowland was in progress. It not only included a major thrill ride, but also the Starjets, WEDway Peoplemover and a revamped Carousel of Progress. Tons of money, a list of other attractions that had recently debuted in other parts of the park (Tom Sawyer Island, Plaza Swan Boats, the Walt Disney Story, Pirates itself) and major work taking place in the resort areas.  There was a tremendous push toward achieving higher capacity throughout WDW, and the WRE was sitting on the sidelines.

Marc Davis was approached with a proposal to reduce the cost of the WRE by recycling molds cast for Pirates in order to create a large number of the ride's animated figures. Published in Bruce Gordon and David Mumford's Disneyland: The Nickel Tour, Davis wasn't keen on the idea. Had he sensed how tenuous his negotiating position was at that time, he probably would have agreed to this compromise and found a way to get problems with the ride fixed later on.  But it must not have seemed feasible that management would pull the plug on the WRE over something like that.  And they didn't; management did nothing.

Plans for the WRE's inclusion at Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland never amounted to much either.  A display was put up on DL's Main Street touting the WRE's arrival in Frontierland, but that effort was displaced by the first version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which broke ground in 1977.  Marc Davis left WED in 1978.

I hope you all enjoyed that look at what Never Was. I’m sure that many of you have seen this information before or even read or wrote about it yourself. I just thought that this Western River Expedition was a key player as to what Big Thunder Mountain (Railroad) is today. If Western River Expedition was green-lighted, do you think that we would have various ‘runaway mine train rides’ around? or Do you think we would have had a Space Mountain? If we DID get the Thunder Mesa complex and Western River Expedition, I assure you that many of the attractions we have today that pushed this attraction farther and farther back, may not have even come. So what do you think? Was not building Thunder Mesa/Western River Expedition a good or bad move on Disney’s part?? Email,
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Information and pictures from Widen Your World, and The Disney Mountains: Imagineering at Its Peak by Jason Surrell

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