Welcome to the next post of Disney Extinct Attractions! My name is Cole Geryak, and I’ll be your skipper on today’s unofficial trek through the Wild West!
I’m glad you found your way back, and I’m really excited to hear what you all think about this edition because the main attraction today is unlike anything talked about on this blog before as it never even had a chance to entertain guests! (Steve Harvey is shocked too!)
There is a lot to talk about this week, so I’m going to jump right into the post!
Our story begins with the very beginning of construction on Walt Disney World and the Magic Kingdom especially. The Imagineers behind the park wanted the Magic Kingdom to not only have the same magical feel of Disneyland, but also differentiate itself enough that guests who visited both parks would not feel as if they were at the same place. One of the most substantial differences was a lack of Pirates of the Caribbean on the park’s opening day.
The Imagineers felt that most of the allure of Pirates of the Caribbean on the West Coast was that pirates were not a part of local lore of California, so guests found themselves attracted to the attraction’s ability to shine a light on a previously unseen group of individuals. However, pirates have played a large part in Florida’s past, so they felt that guests to their new resort would not be as intrigued in Pirate-themed attraction. Instead, the plan was for Florida guests to have a similar type of attraction centered around cowboys and Indians, groups of people that carried the same sense of intrigue for East Coast parkgoers that pirates did for West Coastians (or so Disney believed!). Thus, plans for Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition were born!
As conceived, Thunder Mesa would have been a sprawling complex along the banks of the Rivers of America, creating a giant weenie to draw more guests towards the left side of the park. The Mesa would have been unlike anything ever seen in a Disney park because it would have four attractions built into it (as far as I know, nothing has come close to that scope to this day, but correct me if I’m wrong!). Guests would be able to experience a log flume, a pack mule ride, and even a runaway mine train (all of which was just on the top of the complex!). The real star of Thunder Mesa though, occurred inside of the complex with the Western River Expedition.
It is impossible to talk about the Western River Expedition without first talking about Marc Davis (the Imagineer pictured above working on a model of the Expedition). Davis is famous for his work in Disney animation, helping bring life to some of Disney’s finest leading ladies (Cinderella and Aurora to name a few!), but perhaps even more so for his influence on the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, two of Disney’s most beloved attractions. While Davis enjoyed working on those attractions, his most beloved attraction was the Western River Expedition.
Davis saw the Expedition as a chance to build upon everything that he had learned from the creation of Pirates of the Caribbean. The attraction would have much of the same feel as Pirates, as in a focus on the atmosphere to carry the story along as opposed to explicitly telling guests the story outright. It was basically a western version of Pirates (even down to the boat ride), but with everything that Davis thought was wrong with Pirates being corrected. Let’s jump on our boat now, and I’ll serve as your tour guide to tell you what the attraction most likely would have been like (there are some descrepancies, so I’m giving a rough picture of what I found through my research!)
You start with a trip through some haunted caverns just as Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean does. These caverns play eerie music throughout and as you progress, the stalagmites start to look familiar, forming shapes of animals and cowboys. These shapes subconsciously prepare you for the journey through the West that you are about to experience!
After making it out of the caverns, suddenly you encounter a stagecoach being held up by bandits who ominously jeer at you to be careful because your boat is next!
This warning in mind, you begin travel through the prairie and be treated to a bunch of classic site gags like the ones seen in Pirates or the Haunted Mansion (a Marc Davis specialty!) You see buffalos playing with prairie dogs and singing cacti as your boat continues its trek!
After surviving the prairie, it is finally time to see what a good old-fashioned western looked like, so you visit the small town of Dry Gulch (the same town in Disneyland Paris’ Phantom Manor!). You get a first-hand look at the Dry Gulch citizens’ daily life, culminating in a shootout between the local authorities and some robbers!
Unlike Pirates, your experience does not end with the shootout because the Old West had Indians, as well. You continue traveling along the river and see groups of Native Americans having a grand time and even get to see an authentic rain dance!
Unfortunately, the rain dance works too well, and a lightning storm strikes over the river! Look out because the trees are burning and falling all around you!
Out of the smoke, figures appear up ahead, so maybe you are saved! Oh no! The robbers from earlier are back and ready to take their plunder! As you float past, nerves a flutter, you suddenly feel your stomach drop because you are plunging down a waterfall, making a grand escape! And with that thrilling ending, you disembark, having lived to tell the tale of the Western River Expedition!
I tried to create a quick written ride-through there to give you an idea of what was going on, so if that had you intrigued, be sure to check out Tony Baxter’s presentation at D23! He goes into a lot of great detail and shows some great concept art to create a sort of virtual ride-through the attraction. It is definitely worth checking out!
So now that you know all about the Western River Expedition, what stopped this attraction from entering the Magic Kingdom?
Pirates! One of the most common questions that guests asked during the Magic Kingdom’s first year was “Where are the pirates?”. The attraction’s reputation had reached the East Coast, and guests were upset that they did not also get to have the Pirates experience, not knowing about the pseudo-Pirates experience that Disney had in mind. Thunder Mesa was not set to open until the middle of the 1970s at the end of the first phase of construction on the Magic Kingdom, so Disney President Card Walker decided it would be in the company’s best interests to take much of the budget allotted for the Western River Expedition and instead create another Pirates of the Caribbean in the Magic Kingdom (leaving Thunder Mesa on indefinite hold).
There is a lot of controversy over what truly was the cause of the demise of Thunder Mesa, and personally, I believe that it all started with choosing to build Pirates instead. A lot of people place the blame on the portrayal of Native Americans in the Western River Expedition (Davis didn’t shy away from some racial stereotypes), but in later drafts of the attraction, Davis all but removed them. The Indians might have initially delayed groundbreaking, but I sincerely doubt that they are the main reason we never saw the attraction.
Another reason that I saw in a few places was that Disney had too many other projects at the time, and with the nation in the midst of a recession, the Western River Expedition became an afterthought. Thunder Mesa would have been one of the most expensive expansions in Disney Park history, but with America’s economy floundering, so did Disney’s income, and there simply was not enough money to actually create the complex. By the time the nation truly recovered, Imagineering was deep in development on EPCOT, so the idea of adding an costly area to the Magic Kingdom was truly back of mind!
Marc Davis made one final effort to bring Thunder Mesa to life, this time only asking that the Western River Expedition part be created, greatly reducing the scale of the entire operation. However, Disney decided to build the runaway mine train part of the complex instead because of the success that thrill rides (Space Mountain, particularly) were bringing to the parks..
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad isn’t the only vestige of Thunder Mesa to be included in the Disney Parks, though! As mentioned earlier, there was also a log flume planned for the complex, and Frontierland finally received its log flume in Splash Mountain (albeit many years later!). But the most explicit nod to the area belongs to Disneyland Paris, in which the entire town that Frontierland is a part of is named Thunder Mesa!
Thunder Mesa, and the Western River Expedition in particular, hold a special place in the hearts of Imagineers and guests alike. It is definitely in contention for the most famous attraction never built, and its lore has continued to grow over the years because information on it has rarely ceased flowing. It truly is a shame that we never got the chance to experience one of the most ambitious attractions ever thought of.
So with a splash, we have reached the end of the waterfall and come back to the loading dock. But it’s time to get in line for what we have in store next week!
1. This attraction made appearances in two different parks.
2. This attraction had three different names to keep up with the world.
3. In one of the parks, the attractions was replaced by a restaurant.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this post! It was a lot of fun to write about something a bit different this time around! As always, I love hearing what you think about the posts, so be sure to comment below or wherever you found this post! You can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook through the group related to this blog for more personal suggestions or attractions you would like to hear about!
Good thing it didn’t end up like that picture! Have a magical day!