Space Mountain? Big Thunder Mountain Railroad? First Birth at Disneyland Park? What Do You Think is the Biggest Thing That Happened in 1976 – 1980?

Heather Hust Rivera

by , Vice President, Consumer Products

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Talk about time flying! We are just flying through these half decades. In this week’s countdown to the 55th anniversary, we’re looking at 1976 to 1980.

By just glancing at the title of this post, you can tell it was another busy five years.

While it can be hard to pick just one favorite attraction or event in a half decade, there is one project that is very dear to Tony Baxter, Senior Vice President, Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering. It’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We asked Tony if we would share his thoughts in this five-year period, and he gave us some insight into the thought that went into creating this attraction.

“When planning the design for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad,” Tony recalls, “we turned to National Geographic Magazine for research. There in the opening paragraph in an article on Utah’s Bryce Canyon was the statement, “When you first glimpse the canyon you will feel that it was the creation of Walt Disney…” That settled it — Bryce Canyon would be the theme for the Disneyland attraction.

The charm of the attraction is the rockwork. If you look at rockwork in other parks you get the feeling that the train was there first, and the rocks “grew” around the train. Big Thunder Mountain is absolutely convincing because it appears that the track was laid out to fit an existing landscape.”

Here’s a photo of Tony Baxter with a model of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad before the attraction opened.
Tony Baxter and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Before you decide what you think is the biggest addition to Disneyland park in 1976 to 1980, take a look back:

1980 – Disneyland park kicked off a year-long Silver Anniversary celebration with a pre-parade show at the Tournament of Roses on New Year’s Day in Pasadena. Several special parades and shows followed for the rest of the year, but it was a special event in March, featuring Michael Jackson and Danny Kaye, that brought national attention to the celebration. On July 17, the 25th anniversary of the park’s opening, doors were open for 25 straight hours. In April, Family Reunion Night Celebration brought out several famous Disney faces, including Jackson, Fred MacMurray, Ernest Borgnine as well as the Carpenters, Ray Bradbury and even…Elliot Gould.

1979 – Disneyland park welcomed its first birth: Teresa Salcedo was born on a busy July 4th near Main Street, U.S.A., and she was later presented with the official “Disneyland Birth Certificate No. 1.” Teresa wasn’t the only new addition, as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad took its maiden trip in September. Celebrating his 75th birthday in grand style, Count Basie welcomed several of his closest celebrity pals to a summer party, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Ed McMahon Other hot names (for the time) who showed up throughout the year included Peaches and Herb, Evelyn “Champagne” King and Buddy Rich.

1978 – Mickey Mouse’s 50th birthday was all the rage, as special shows and parades were peppered throughout the year. The official celebration took place on Nov. 18 and 19, with Annette Funicello and other fave Mouseketeers on hand to celebrate. New elements were added to the popular Matterhorn Bobsleds, while the Disneyland Hotel opened the 13-story Bonita Tower, the first hotel in the U.S. with a solar heating system. Grad Nite continued its popular run, growing to eight parties for 821 high school graduating classes.

1977 – Openings and closings highlighted the year, as famed astronauts, including Alan Shepard, gathered for the opening of Space Mountain…and Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland closed after 21 years to make way for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. In addition to Space Mountain, Tomorrowland also debuted the PeopleMover SuperSpeed Tunnel, Starcade, and the Space Place restaurant. Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade returned for the summer after a two-year break, while an all-new Very Merry Christmas Parade bowed for the Christmas seasons.

1976 – Disneyland park welcomed its 150,000,000th visitor – Elsie Mae Houck of Tulare, Calif. It also welcomed a slew of “name” guests during the year, including Olympic gold medal darling Nadia Comaneci and Alabama governor George Wallace. On the entertainment side, a special Thanksgiving show featured singer Pearl Bailey on a Rivers of America floating stage, while Disney fans got a chance to walk down memory lane as the original Mouseketeers gathered at the park for a 20-year reunion of the Mickey Mouse Club. Adding to the magic, Jungle Cruise underwent major changes with seven new scenes and 31 new Audio-Animatronics animals.

Ok, so what do you think the biggest change at Disneyland park is during these years? If you visited the park during this time, what’s your favorite memory?

This is the 7th post in this 11-part series. To find past posts, click on the “Countdown to 55″ tag just below this post.


  • It’s true Big Thunder replaced Nature’s Wonderland, but as did Splash Mountain of America Sings, it absorbed a lot of the former attraction and allowed the little town of Rainbow Ridge to live on as well as many of it’s creature comforts. It is “Honestly” the first attraction with real rust and period ageing, which was not previously allowed in the park. That makes it a true WED landmark for me during this period.

  • Wow! The baby was born same day as me (7/4/79) but i wasn’t in CA.. i was born in Mickey’s other house… Orlando!

  • I was working in the park in 1978. I was a dummy on Matterhorn test runs on several occasions. I will always remember the new improved Matterhorn and Mickey’s 50th parade and celebration. I worked on Main Street and the I loved the parades.

  • Definitely Space Mountain from ’77! That’s the highlight of those years!

  • 1977 was the first year I went to Disneyland. At the end of the day the folks I went with wanted to see “the parade”. I was surprised that they wanted to wait over an hour and sit on Main Street to see something called the Main Street Electical Light Parade. So we waited. Wow! I had no idea. I was hooked. I’ve been a fan (and fanatic) ever since!

  • I worked at the Park on the JC right out of high school. Fun memories and an incredible team of co-workers. I remember that, when the Matterhorn was getting ready to reopen in (I believe) 1977, they first ran it with sandbags and then employees. If neither flew out of the sled, then it was okay to open it to the public. We all got a laugh out of that!

  • Space Mountain is absolutely the best and getting better (except I miss Dick Dale’s soundtrack!). Of course I was working in the park at the time it opened, so I’m a bit biased.

  • It’s been so long since I’v been to Disneyland, I can’t remember. I have been wanting to bring 4 of my grand kids who have never been but just can’t afford it. I hope to some day though. Three of my grandson’s I’m raising as their parents are not around, so I hope to in the near future bring them just to see Thunder Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World my faviorite’s.

  • Space Mountain was the biggest “thing” to open in that era, but it shouldn’t take away anything from Big Thunder’s awesome theming and story telling as you twist and turn through the attraction!

  • For me it was going to the Magic Kingdom on my honeymoon April 3, 1976. 34 years later we’re still making memories on each of our hundreds of return visits.

  • Space Mountain is and always will be my favorite! But, I do love Thunder Mountain as well. Both are definitely the highlights of these 5 years 🙂

  • Having a baby in the park. Now that is a serious Disney fan! How much is that package?

  • Space Mountain — still usually the longest line in the park.

  • Big Thunder and Space Mountain are awesome!

  • Space Mountain is still my favorite ride at the park. (along with the water ride at Calif Adventure)
    I wish they would put the cars on backwards like they do at other parks during Halloween.

  • I love Space Mountain!! We were there the first year it opened. It was so amazing.

  • As much as I love Big Thunder (it was my first roller coaster), I’m going to have to go with Space Mountain.

    Of course, I also miss the People Movers and wish they were still around.

  • Pirates of the Caribbean has always been my favorite since I was a kid in the 60’s and 70’s. My daughter and I still love the ride, but without so much of the Jack Sparrow stuff. That kind of brought it down.

  • defiantly space mountain opening, a very big hit with everyone

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