We all know Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad; these iconic attractions have been thrilling guests for years and are the anchor rides for Frontierland. But how many know that a much larger, more complex attraction area was planned for the space that these favorites now occupy? Walt Disney World was first planned out in the early 1960’s after the major land purchases in Florida (47 square miles!). By 1967, right after Walt’s untimely death, everything was running in high gear but the Disney Company never had plans to construct a Pirates of the Caribbean attraction like Disneyland’s, which opened six and a half years earlier. Disney believed (And mistakenly so!) that since Florida was located right next to the Caribbean that the area would be accustomed to tales of Pirates and yearn for a different adventure.
But before we go into the fascinating story of what is still referred to as “The most famous Disney ride that was never built!” let’s see just what the attraction was all about…
The two main attractions, the Western River Expedition (A boat ride similar to Pirates, but would travel through the old American West) and a runaway mine train, which would have been the parks first rollercoaster style attraction (Both were to be “E” ticket rides) was to be housed in an enormous rock show building which would look like a huge Mesa, aping the present Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but would encompass the area up to Splash mountain. This approximately 64,000 square foot building would be the largest attraction Disney had ever planned. On top of the Mesa, there would be hiking trails, even a pack mule ride across the stone hillsides. There were plans for stores and restaurants atop this “Mesa.”
But the headline attraction of the new complex was to be the Western River Expedition. These boat rides through the iconic American West would bring guests past stage robbers, a Wild West town and other Western staples. The mine train would be boarded at an elevated station complex. It would wind its way through the Mountain’s ore mine and caverns. The train would then slowly climb a steep hill, and then begin to roll backwards through a hidden section of the mountain (Sounds like Expedition Everest!), begin to go forward and stop just before the track ended at a bottomless pit. And like Everest, the track would switch to another line and return to the elevated station.
Guests would enter Thunder Mesa through a cave marked “Western River Shipping and Navigation.” This led to a desert canyon at twilight (Almost identical to the scene at Disneyland’s Blue Bayou Swamp) and a loading station where they would board a wooden launch. The launch would take them up a waterfall where a recurring audio-animatronic owl named Hoot Gibson (Yes, after the famed silent movie star, Hoot Gibson) would give a safety spiel as the boats floated past. The ride started out serenely down the river where you would encounter posters of the old dime western covers with Buffalo Bill Cody, Davy Crockett and Annie Oakley. The clouds would take the shapes of Cowboys and steers. In the background the rides theme tune played and you passed bison and bears, prairie dogs, longhorn steer, a cowboy playing the guitar singing the theme song. Even the cactus would sing the song. From here, the boats would pass two vultures and the Owl would appear, warning all that the west was also dangerous. Guests would next encounter a group of Mexican bandits holding up a stagecoach. With a bit of Mark Davis humor, even the horses wore bandannas over their faces. The lead bandit would then inform the guests they might meet again down the river.
Now things started to get livelier. Your boat would now enter the town of Dry Gulch on a wild Saturday night. Here, cowboys on horses are shooting in the air, Saloon Girls are singing and doing the can-can, one cowboy even rode his horse on the roof of the saloon’s front porch. From here, you would encounter a violent gunfight between bank robbers and the sheriff. The good guys have on the classic white cowboy hats and the bank robbers the black sombreros. There is even a mortician smiling as the fighting goes on, looking to spruce up business!
What’s a trip out west without Indians? Passing Dry Gulch in the next diorama is a group of Indians doing a rain dance. There is a rainstorm coming down on the circling braves and over the sides of the mountain. An Indian adobe hut has five Indian maidens in front, all swinging to the music. Guests next see a medicine man and coyotes howling in front of a bonfire. A lightning bolt from the rainstorm strikes the trees and a huge forest fire erupts, and the boats are passing through the inferno. Here the river turns rough and turns into rapids. And who should appear to make matters worse…The group of Mexican bandits. Now they want to rob the guests on the boats. But with fantastic Disney timing, the boats fall over a waterfall that takes everyone out of Thunder Mesa. From here the boats take a short trip along a conduit next to the Rivers of America, back into the mountain and it arrives at the unloading dock.
As you can imagine, this was an enormous and ambitious project, one of the largest attractions to date. Disney’s advanced billing of the ride stated that it was a Wild West version of Pirates, but much more technologically complex, i.e. more animatronic figures performing more difficult and wider range of motion. It was also going to be more musical in its format. The man given the nod to develop the alternate attraction was none other than Disney animator and Imagineer Marc Davis. Davis fame includes Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, final versions of that parks Haunted Mansion and designs for the Country Bear Jamboree. He examined concepts for a Western attraction from a Lewis and Clark boat ride he envisioned for a Disney venture in St. Louis called “Riverfront Square”. Marc also gleaned other ideas from TV and films of the period, such as Gunsmoke and Cat Ballou. The original name of the attraction was entitled “Western River Ride” and it followed the same format of the Western River Expedition. Since the show building would be so immense, it could be seen from three directions, Davis decided on the Mountain-style design which would fit in perfectly for the Frontierland landscape. Since the project was so immense and costly, Disney decided to hold off construction until the end of “Phase One” of the park, i.e. five years after opening, giving time for revenue to build as the resort moved forward, hoping the money would help in the construction costs. This also gave time for a protracted promotion of the ride. Disney was committed to the project; in fact the acreage set aside for the ride was landscaped around the perimeter. Marc Davis and Mary Blair had already created many illustrations and painting for the attractions story.
Another testament to Disney’s allegiance to the project was an extensive scale model of the ride, built for spatial relationships of the elements of the ride. It was also included in its completed form in a model of the entire Magic Kingdom. Full sized animated figures were also being sculpted, and Disney composer Buddy Baker began writing the theme music. In a 1972 interview with Orlando-Land magazine, then Walt Disney productions Chairman Ed Prizer stated the attraction would have 30 more animatronics than Pirates.
All of this went well until opening day, October 1st, 1971. Passionate crowds flooded Walt Disney World and in the weeks following, guests were expecting a Pirates attraction like in Disneyland, but not a pirate was in sight. This set off a storm of letter-writing, phone calling protests to guest relations, even Burbank was inundated…”Where’s the Pirate Ride?”
There was only one answer. Even though Walt Disney Imagineering still believed that Thunder Mesa was a viable option, there was much against it. One of course was money, lots of it. The new, untried attraction would still pose a risk, and Pirates was a confirmed hit, it would cost approximately sixty million dollars to add Pirates to Walt Disney World, roughly half the cost of Western River Expedition. President of Walt Disney Productions Card Walker bowed to the guests and ordered the Pirates attraction to be added to the park immediately. Other factors that dealt a death knoll to WRE were the fact that several new attractions were slated to open in Tomorrowland… Space Mountain (12-15-74), the Astro-Orbiter, then known as Star Jets (11-28-74), the WEDWay Peoplemover, now the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover (7-1-75) and the Carousel of Progress (1-15-75). If the monies were spent on Thunder Mesa, it would compromise the construction of these new attractions. And these attractions were considered more important because they would take up more of the crowds expected than just one ride. In addition, in May of 1974, Card Walker proclaimed that phase one would be completed by the years end, and the company would be focusing primarily on the development of EPCOT center. Any Phase one projects not yet started were essentially DOA.
Despite the fact that the attraction had been promoted since 1969, it had a spot in the post-show of the Walt Disney Story on Main St. A part of the Western River Expedition model was on display and in an alcove flanking the model, there was a version of the owl, Hoot Gibson. When guests pressed a button, he came to life and introduced himself as the star of the new attraction, and gave a little spiel on the workings of the new ride. He even reminded guests to come back and visit him at the Western River Exhibition. This was a bittersweet blow to Marc Davis for all the attention he lavished on WRE, because the attraction was essentially snuffed out by the time the display opened in April of 1973.
Though Western River Expedition was never built, a spinoff of familiar attractions came from its concept. Splash Mountain is derived from the planned boat ride in WRE. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened in September 2nd, 1979, on the plot of land originally to be occupied by the Western River Expedition. The original plans for WRE included a raft which would take guests to WRE, now guests can take a raft to gain access to Tom Sawyer Island in Florida. The Phantom Canyon scene in Phantom Manor in Disneyland Park in Paris is derived from the scene showing the town of Dry Gulch in WRE. Even the bank robbery, the showgirl and the bartender are part of Phantom Canyon. And when Disneyland Paris opened in 1992, their Frontier land’s town was named Thunder Mesa, as a tribute to Big Thunder Mesa.
Although there may have been other factors not revealed by Disney as to the full reason for not developing the Western River Exhibition, the story gives a fascinating insight on how attractions and other entertainment is envisioned and acted upon on by the Disney company.
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.