Today in Disney History: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Opened at Disneyland Park in 1979

Michael Ramirez

by , Public Relations Director, Disneyland Resort

Howdy, partners! Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is celebrating its 40th anniversary today as one of the staple attractions here in Frontierland at Disneyland park! On September 2, 1979, Rainbow Ridge miners struck gold and opened the mine shafts to this classic American Southwest-inspired attraction. To celebrate this dynamite occasion, let’s take you through the fantastic history behind the wildest ride in the wilderness.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland park

From 1956 to 1959, the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train attraction was a train tour through the Old West. Later, this attraction became Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland (pictured above) from 1960 to 1977. Although Walt did not conceive the high-speed attraction we know of today, his love for the American Southwest is what helped Disney Imagineers create the pioneering vision towards Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. To pay homage to Walt’s original Old West vision, some of the set pieces from the original western mining town of Rainbow Ridge were retained for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad!

Mickey Mouse and friends at Big Thunder Railroad at Disneyland park

The atmosphere and attention to detail is what has made this attraction such a fan-favorite for forty years. With Walt’s fascination of the Old West in mind, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was imagined by Imagineer and Disney Legend Tony Baxter, who was inspired by the scenery at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. The unique shapes of the rocks were key to the landscape vision that expressed the feeling of the American national park. The “hoodoos,” or the famous spires in the attraction, create the scenery that brings guests back to the time of the wild frontier of the 1880s.

Construction of Big Thunder Railroad at Disneyland park

The mountain itself was completely manufactured using cement and paint to create realistic-looking rocks. From each carefully constructed rock formation and cavern, every scenic twist and turn in the “lost mines” takes you through different natural scenes all while providing thrilling drops, suspenseful inclines and a superstitious story line.

Big Thunder Railroad at Disneyland park

The mountains, caverns, trains and the animal inhabitants have their own unique personalities, which lends to the supernatural myths that surround the town of Rainbow Ridge. Legend has it that after gold was discovered in the 1860s, mysterious happenings started to occur once the large “boom” of gold rush miners turned to greed, including trains that operate on their own! Many say these ghostly tales went a long way in keeping the area uninhabited for such a long time. 

Big Thunder Railroad

Today, in the late 1880s, the Big Thunder Mountain Mining Company is still in operation, but its once glorious past is shrouded by the mystery behind the caves. Thus, the town of Rainbow Ridge’s population has decreased significantly from 2,015 people to just 38 people and is now considered a “ghost” town.

Here are some more fun facts about this wild ride:

  • Buildings in the reduced-scale western town are an example of forced perspective that Walt has utilized in other locations of the park, including Sleeping Beauty Castle.
  • The window of the Marshall’s office in the town used to read Willard P. Bounds, U.S. Marshall. This was Lillian Disney’s father, who was once a U.S. Marshall on the Nez Perce Indian reservation in Idaho. Now, there is a notice at the attraction’s entrance signed by Willard P. Bounds as another homage to her father.
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad took five years of planning work. Once it was conceived, it took two years to build. The attraction is the third of four “mountains” to make up the Disneyland range, joining Matterhorn Bobsleds, Space Mountain and, later, Splash Mountain.
  • Walt Disney World Resort, Tokyo Disney Resort and Disneyland Paris have a unique version of this attraction that include rockwork and elements based on Monument Valley, Sedona Arizona, and Yellowstone National Park, respectively.
  • If you take a look at the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad trains, you will see that their names are U.B. Bold, U.R. Courageous, I.M. Loco, I.B. Hearty and U.R. Daring.
  • A one-quarter scale model of the original model used in the design of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad can be seen in the Disneyland Hotel’s Frontier Tower lobby. Imagineers use scale models such as this as a tool to define and refine designs for projects.

So, whether you’re a prospector, cowboy or miner, make your way to the Disneyland Resort and celebrate 40 years of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad!

For more on this beloved attraction, read our previous blog story, Look Closer: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland Park.


  • Happy birthday, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad! Cheers to many, many more years of fun on the “wildest ride in the wilderness!”

  • It says in fun fact you are referring to that it is a 1/4 scale model of the original model. Not of the attraction itself.

  • Would love to see Big Thunder merchandise in the park. Especially for the 40th.

  • Very nice history of this great attraction!

    I think there is a slight error in the last “fun fact” though. One quarter scale would be HUGE, and wouldn’t fit in a hotel lobby. 😉

    I think it probably was meant to say it is 1/4 inch scale, meaning 1/4 inch represents 1 foot, so it’s 1/48 of the size of the real thing.

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