Enhanced Big Thunder Mountain ride adds thrills to Disneyland favorite

March 16, 2014 | 7:00 a.m.
Guests ride the train cars on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain ride. (Disney)

Guests ride the train cars on Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain ride. (Disney)

PERSPECTIVE

My youngest son’s first roller coaster was Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. He had just turned four, proudly towered an inch or so over the 40-inch minimum, and jumped on with a wide smile. He loved it – as much for the excitement of the ride itself as for the realization that he had now passed an initiation of sorts, from toddler-hood to full-blown boyhood.

While he may have been among its younger passengers at the time, his joyful experience was hardly unique for the beloved Frontierland ride, which after a lengthy refurbishment officially reopens St. Patrick’s Day. A cheers (with green beer) indeed!

Actually it will be green tea for my son who is now 12 and whose roller coaster palette has broadened quite a bit since he first boarded the Disney train. Much to the horror of Disney accountants, there are other amusement parks and they offer an astonishing array of twisting, winding, curving, speeding, multidirectional roller coasters. I mean, after dangling upside down on Magic Mountain’s Tatsu, how much rumble can be left for a kid even in a rehabbed Big Thunder?

The short answer is plenty.

Disney cast member David Link operates the Big Thunder Mountain ride at Disneyland. (Los Angeles TImes)

Disney cast member David Link operates the Big Thunder Mountain ride at Disneyland. (Los Angeles Times)

In deciding to “enhance” Big Thunder, as the company website put it, Disney faced a familiar dilemma. Exactly how much do they tinker with the original – in this case a ride which more than 225 million have ridden since 1979? Should Disney lean toward preservation, thereby risk losing youngsters whose bar for thrills in our Chuck E. Cheese pop culture world is constantly rising? Or should it steer toward modernization, potentially alienating the parents whose nostalgic attachment to the park’s original character help drive ticket purchases?

This ride, after all, has already been through a couple major revisions – but not outright tear-downs. In the late 1950s, it was known as the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train, and through the 60s and much of the 70s, it became the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. (The dynamite-eating goat, the coyotes, the rattlesnakes, the turtles and the vultures are among the legacy animals that remain from its Nature’s Wonderland days.)

The Matterhorn is bright and bold after overhaul (Disneyland)

The Matterhorn is bright and bold after overhaul. (Disney)

In recent years, Disneyland has been – rightly, I believe – pretty conservative as it has gone about sprucing up some of its aging rides. Their 2012 facelift to the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which originally opened in 1959, is a perfect example. After installing new individual seats, replacing track and freshening up the paint, the ride stayed pretty much the same. (Let’s hope next up, in improving the mountain range coasters, is Space Mountain.)

While more extensive than the Matterhorn project, Big Thunder, with a couple notable exceptions, will probably appear unchanged. Riders probably won’t notice the new paint, the new tracks, the train vehicle upgrades, or the restoration of the historic Rainbow Ridge Mining Town. (As one park official joked in reference to the miniature town – only Disney would tear down a dilapidated old mining town and put up a brand new one to make it look like a dilapidated old mining town.)

Also, the speed of the ride is roughly the same – still just under 30 mph, according to park officials. The new tracks are still regarded as “tight,” said park officials, but they did seem to provide a slightly smoother ride.

But what most riders should detect almost immediately is the vastly improved sound and lighting systems. They respectively highlight the coyote’s howl and the stalactites and stalagmites, which now stand out in a rainbow of colors in the first cave.

The big change though is the big bang inside the third tunnel. Before it was a cave-in that felt like an earthquake. Now, it’s a dynamite explosion that sounds like – a dynamite explosion. The walls are lined with glowing lanterns and lit fuses that burn to the explosives for a splendid blasting effect that even a 12-year-old complimented.  It’s a wonderful culmination.

As my son stepped off the family favorite ride, I don’t think he saw it as a passage from childhood to adulthood. But the smile on his face was no less than it was all those years ago. And while he’s not a man yet, I think he likes to be reminded every once in a while that he was a little boy once. Or maybe I do.

– Martin Miller

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