Thursday, January 29, 2015

All About Western River Expedition, Part Two

Okay, let's finally go inside Thunder Mesa and dig into the meat of the show. Last time we looked at a model of the Thunder Mesa complex...


Let's look at what was going on inside that thing.


Okay, now, before anyone panics don't worry, I was fooled at first too. What you're looking at is three show buildings - working from left to right I call them A, B and C - which contain the Western River Expedition boat ride. The open space in the center is where the pond, final drop, and boarding area of the canoe ride is located.

To make this easier to look at, and think about several years ago I tried to convert this 3/4 view model into a 2D layout. I made some guesses and took some liberties; this is merely a look at what it could've been like, corroborated by tiny, grainy photos of a model.


Okay, first of all let's address something that perhaps some of you noticed in the last post, which is that none of these models are a perfect match for our blueprint foundation I posted back in the first part:


To begin with, on this blueprint the train track goes straight through the building but appears to slightly curve in all of the models I've been able to find. Secondly, there's a whole section of building on the other side of the train track not accounted for on that blueprint:


You can see it in that interior model, the Walt Disney World Railroad bisecting the two parts of the building.


To me that looks like a ride-through diorama. Not a Grand Canyon-style one; this seems to be based on the seasons. We can see open fields, lightning strikes, a forest and waterfall or stream, and a snow covered landscape.

Mike Cozart informs me (in the comments for this very blog post - thanks Mike!) that this diorama had a number of Davis gags designed for it and which are sometimes misrepresented online as Nature's Wonderland gags - the forest was likely intended to be full of comic bears in the Nature's Wonderland style.

It's also possible this is where the long-gestating idea, championed by Dick Nunis, of the Railroad going through a snowstorm originated. Regardless, it's the sort of thing the east coast railroad has always needed and never has had.

Okay, enough preliminaries. Let's go inside and ride Western River Expedition!

IV. WESTERN RIVER EXPEDITION

Western River Expedition was to be housed in two enormous show buildings with a third, merely large show building connecting them. Each of these show buildings were comparable in size to the Pirates of the Caribbean main show room and likely would have felt very similar, only with rock work instead of a Caribbean town: open ceilings, walls covered in cloud projections and perspective effects, a whole little world with a roof on it.

After entering below the giant ore elevator, guests would walk through a mine shaft and exit into Show Building A, which represents a canyon at sunset.


Crossing over a natural arch, guests can look down to their left to see boats returning to the load area, and new boats loading down below them. The ride's soundtrack plays in a lush, Hollywood Western style as the queue winds slowly down to the attraction's loading dock amid trees and brush typical of the American southwest. A stream splashes down alongside the load area.

Casting off from a simple wooden loading dock, the boats drift placidly though a canyon as the sounds of nature overtake the boat.

What happens next depends on interpretation of available materials. We know for sure that the boats approach a cave. If you think Hoot Gibson appears in the ride it's likely at this spot, starting to narrate the scene and setting. Alternately, as we approach the cave we notice nestled in among the rocks are gigantic Western dime novels of adventure and cunning. This strikes me as a weirdly cartoonish concept to introduce at this point in the ride, but we have a beautiful Davis rendering of it and none others from this early part of the ride.

A close look at the model shows splotches of red, yellow and blue on the rocks to the left before the cave, suggesting a kind of indoor variation on the Devil's Paint Pots from Nature's Wonderland. You can look at the evidence and make up your own mind.

The boats pass into a darkened cavern filled with hundreds of stalactites.


A stalactite comes into view shaped like a rabbit. From inside this stalactite, echoing dimly in the cavern, a bit of music plays, imagine perhaps rhythmic drums.


The boats pass more stalactites that resemble increasingly familiar Old West shapes - a coyote, a cowboy, an old man. From inside each stalactite, a bit more of the melody emerges until the entire cavern feels filled with ethereal music and we notice ever more familiar shapes in the flowing rock work.



Exiting the cavern, the boats slip gently through a desert at dusk as they are followed by the Western River Expedition theme music summoned in the caverns. Slightly above the boats off to the left, a railroad track runs - and occasionally a full size train rumbles past, the Walt Disney World Railroad passing through.

Back outside in the simulated night air, the music has taken on a minor key. A chorus of singing voices may be heard, until the boats turn a corner and reveal a stagecoach holdup taking place on a bridge spanning the Western River:


The Bandits holding up the Stagecoach, complete with their own personal mariachi and theme song, seem too busy with their latest crime to stop and rob us too - but, the leader in a top hat menacingly suggests to us, all in song, that he may meet us again soon.

Amongst those who have researched Western River Expedition, my placement of the stagecoach holdup sequence is unusually early. Yet if what I'm seeing on the model is correct, this is where the scene was supposed to go, and to me the proof is the rendering above. The view above shows the scene as it would have appeared to the Walt Disney World Railroad, and we can clearly see from the model that the Railroad peeked into the ride at this point. Certainly the Railroad is what motivated the placement of the Stagecoach itself high up that bridge. This is why I choose this version of the scene, as opposed to the many variants Davis drew.

Passing underneath the Stagecoach, boats wind their way through the open prairie at nightfall. White clouds gently rake a periwinkle blue sky. All around, large shadowy buttes dot a landscape and open sky awash in twilight blue.

A group of Buffalo curiously investigate the home of some prairie dogs.


Nearby, a cowboy sings to calm his cattle under the night sky. His tune is a slow-step version of the Western River Expedition theme. The cattle join in, bellowing along with his tune.


Framed in natural rock arches, coyotes howls pick up the tune. The underscore music swells.


The cowboy's team rest nearby around a campfire, bringing another guitar and harmonica into the mix. Picking up the tune is the cook at the chuck wagon...


...and an entire chorus of cactus!


The placid strumming of the cowboy song transforms into a honky tonk piano. Raucous shouting may be heard, and gunfire.

Now, here comes the part where some interpretation is needed. The "Town of Dry Gulch" sequence coming up next is the sequence of the ride that Davis did an extraordinary volume of work for; it's also the one which he drew a lot of gags that did not end up in the final version of the show. Davisophiles have been circulating this work online for years, because it's brilliant stuff, but this has also given a bloated picture of how long this sequence was intended to be.

Davis also revised the scene at least once, in the process extending it out around the corner into the next scene. As far as I can tell in the 1971 version of the ride, the only one Disney got anywhere near actually building, the town was a simple two-sided affair, with clapboard buildings in both sides of the ride flume and the bridge over the river at the end:


So that's the shape of the town I'm going to be working with here. Also, to fully understand this scene we have to (finally) bring in discussion of Mary Blair's work on the ride.

It's well known that Marc wanted to use Mary Blair's art to color-style the ride. Unlike with It's A Small World, however, the ride wasn't necessarily going to end up looking like a piece of Mary Blair art. The fact that Davis would from time to time put out pieces of Western River art with similar Mary Blair bold colors has led to yet more confusion.

Western River Expedition was intended mostly to be made up of rock work and desert scenery, and it was going to be WED-style stylized naturalistic rocks and scenery, with Blair vivid colors. The "Night on the Town" sequence in Western River Expedition would be the height of the ride's intense color stylization.

The right side of the town set would be bathed in bright blue moonlight, the houses standing out against the hue with green clapboard and yellow windows.


This blue-toned side of the town would be filled entirely with Cowboys drinking and carousing, shouting and singing.



Surrounded by torches, a Snake Oil salesman at the end of the street demonstrates his wares with the help of a native chief, with music provided by a nearby brave and squaw on banjo and trombone.


The left side of the street is bathed in a fiery red by the setting sun. On this side, a bank robbery and gun battle is underway.


Robbers have pulled the entire safe out of the bank and are using it as a shield.


The sheriff hangs out of the Tonsorial Parlor, returning fire. (This gag is lifted almost directly from For A Few Dollars More, and I must admit I did not expect Davis to be a potential Sergio Leone fan)


His Calamity Jane-style deputy hides behind a building, taking an absurdly long time to choose her targets.


And, at the end of the street:


The Blue/Red split that mirrors the tone of the scenes found on either side of the river is the boldest stylization found on the ride, and even more remarkable for being conceived in the form of a sunset. I've done a watercolor interpretation of what this could have looked like in person. Because this will no doubt be misconstrued by somebody as authentic concept art, I've put a big, dumb watermark over it to hopefully prevent more misinformation being circulated about this ride.


Boats turn a corner towards the left and pass through a narrow canyon between two buttes. The sounds of the honk-tonk piano and gunfire fade as now pounding native drums take up the rhythm of the Western River Expedition theme.

The transition out of the Dry Gulch scene and into the next is made by passing under a bridge:

thanks to Jaime Maas

 We come across a group of plains Indians. They sway back and forth mysteriously to the pounding of their drums as a Shaman dances crazily, only slightly distracted by the shapely lass to his left. Far up above atop a butte, a rain dance is performed, and it's remarkably effective, sending cascading rain down... atop only the butte, at first. Water pours down the side of the butte, widening into flowing rivers and rushing towards the boats.


Storm clouds glower overhead and bolts of lightning tear the sky as rain can be seen falling on the distant plain. The little boats move slowly towards a dark canyon straight ahead.

Thunder and lightning rip the sky far above as we slip slowly into the narrow space. Flood water begins to pour into the canyon from the buttes above to the left and right, spattering on jagged rocks.


The boats turn another corner and begin chugging up a huge waterfall. The eyes of unknown animals flash in the dark around them.


Arriving at the top of the waterfall, the boats move slowly through a great forest at the top of the butte on the edges of the plain. The rain continues to fall, but the rain dance was too late - the lightning has already set the trees ablaze.


The tall trees have already begun to topple and the boats pass below several as they creak and groan, flames dancing atop each one when into view comes:


The bandits stop the boat and demand your money. After a moment's hesitation, the boats slip down a waterfall to escape, splashing down in a darkened cave.


The canyon at sunset  where we began comes back into view, and with it returns the triumphant, Hollywood version of the Western River Expedition theme. Boats return to the little wooden dock where they boarded and passengers disembark, back through a mine shaft, emerging at the base of the huge Thunder Mesa complex.



V. THE 1974 VERSION AND MUTATIONS

The Fall 1973 Oil Crisis killed off a lot of stuff at Walt Disney World that it shouldn't. Disney should have kept building hotels, but the Asian and Persian got axed. They should have built more rides, but following 1973 anything that wasn't a roller coaster had no hope of getting off the ground. Everything that wasn't being actively constructed as of Fall '73 got put on indefinite hold, and once the race towards EPCOT Center's starting pistol was fired in early '77, many projects were abandoned. Western River Expedition was one of them.

But it wasn't really until 1976 that the curtain was pulled over Western River Expedition for good. In that year, Walt Disney Productions changed their age of retirement, and perhaps sooner than he expected, Marc Davis was out. He did return for a time in 1977 to plan additional attractions, including designing nearly all of the sight gags for World of Motion, but when Marc left, Western Rive Expedition was without a mastermind and it faded quickly.

Now, most histories, including Disney's official history published in "The Disney Mountains: Imagineering at its Peak" strongly imply (or outright state) that the attraction's less-than-austere treatment of Native Americans is what killed it off, a suggestion I've done some work in this series to debunk. However, the fact remains that in the mid-70s, Marc did see fit to make a few changes. He removed nearly all of the Indians from his ride.

The first group to go were the three in the Medicine Show; Marc replaced the Chief with a generic Strong Man and lost the comedy of two Indians playing banjo and trombone:


The Medicine show gag was neither here nor there on the offense scale, but it was carefully placed to foreshadow the Rain Dance sequence, which was perhaps a bit more problematic with the short swarthy Medicine Man gawking at a tall, buxom Squaw. So Davis dropped the entire Rain Dance scene.

We do know he kept the lone Indian irritated on the bridge with the guns-blazing cowpoke, and it's because we can see it in the next piece, which shows an expanded version of the "Bank Robbery" tableau. This version would extend around the corner past the original Dry Gulch scene, and fill both sides of the river. I flipped it earlier in this article to give some notion of the original '71 Robbery scene, of which I have no good, wide view of.


Across the way, more sheriffs and townsfolk continue the shootout. "Calamity Jane" has been relocated here. This is where the oft-repeated tidbit of a gunfight on either side of the boats comes from, an idea repeated in Phantom Manor's "Ghost Town" sequence.


Notice the punctured water wagon at the end, obviously intended as a visual transition into the rainstorm / flood sequence to follow.

And, as far as changes made to purge the ride of politically incorrect content goes, that was it. The ride simply always was more "Cowboys" than "Indians". Once I finally got a better idea of the actual flow of the ride, I realized that not only this issue, but the entire Dry Gulch sequence has been greatly inflated in importance from years and years of retelling. The bulk of the ride would have been the same sort of stuff that the bulk of Pirates of the Caribbean in California is: rocks, special effects projections, music, and evocative atmosphere.

Amazingly enough, after being killed for good on the East Coast, Western River Expedition popped back up on a proposed 1978 expansion for Disneyland, the "Land of Legends", intended to connect Bear Country to Tony Baxter's Discovery Bay.


There's a tempting land if ever I've seen one... the idea of Western River sitting alongside dark rides for Ichabod Crane and Windwagon Smith is a daunting one. Much like Discovery Bay and Dumbo's Circus, ballooning costs on EPCOT Center killed off this obscure but delightful idea.

And then there's the rarely discussed plans for a small Old West-themed theme park at Walt Disney World, sometimes called Frontier Kingdom, located southwest of the Seven Seas Lagoon. practically no information about this exists, but Western River Expedition is usually cited as one of the major rides. However, as we know, it was all for naught and nobody has yet been able to get Western River into production since 1971.

Come back next week for a final discussion of Western River Expedition and Marc Davis' intentions with this ride.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

All About Western River Expedition, Part One

Disney history has lots of "one that got away"s.  There's Lake Buena Vista New Orleans Square. There's the Asian Resort, the Equatorial Africa pavilion, Dick Tracy Crimestoppers, WESTcot Center, Beastlie Kingdomme, and more. For the next few weeks we'll be looking at the grandaddy of them all, the original One That Got Away.

If you are a theme park fan you have almost certainly at one point or another heard about the aborted 1971 attraction Western River Expedition. Western River is largely considered the greatest (or second greatest) unbuilt theme park attraction ever, but just as interesting as the attraction is the legend behind it: an earnest, serious effort to outdo the 1967 Pirates of the Caribbean, Western River Expedition was an ambitious attraction done in by just the right combination of bad luck, timing, expense, and its creator, Marc Davis. It's a great story, and a great myth, about a great designer and his best effort.

Until 2011, Western River was largely a "great whatsit" to me. We had all read the stories and seen the art, but it never seemed like an attraction that could actually cohere into actual reality - there were too many things in these tellings that made too little sense. Then, I was given the opportunity to spot-check a number of video presentations ultimately destined for D23's "Destination D" event, one of which was a partial virtual rebuild of Western River Expedition, I finally saw a number of models and made a number of connections that finally made sense of a ride that seemed previously to make very little. Building on the revelations I experienced while trying to mentally order the ride for the video, I'm now able to offer what I think is the most complete and accurate overview of the attraction yet possible.

The first thing which must be said is that besides getting the essential order of many things wrong, many of the online retellings of this ride have done a disservice to Marc Davis by continuing to reprint artwork for scenes that were not included in the final ride. Marc was a brilliant illustrator, and he produced mountains of artwork to demonstrate his ideas, but only a fraction of these were ever seriously earmarked to go in the final product.

Imagine, for example, if Haunted Mansion had never pulled itself out of development hell and we just happened to have lots of pieces of artwork floating around like this:


This would give a false impression of what the whole experience was truly intended to be. That's sort of what happened to Western River Expedition. In my digital tour in this article, you'll see that Western River was not only sensible, but dramatically very well constructed and very soundly conceived. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get oriented by going myth busting.

I. THUNDER MESA TRUE AND FALSE

Thunder Mesa and Western River Expedition are the same thing.

False. Thunder Mesa was a network of attractions surrounding a very large show building, inside of which was the Western River Expedition. Besides the Marc Davis attraction inside, Thunder Mesa would've offered a runaway mine train, a canoe flume ride, and walking trails and exhibits. It was to be situated on a piece of land carved out just for it in north-western Frontierland.

Western River Expedition was intended to be a twenty minute long attraction.

False. One of the reasons Western River had such a huge show building was because the whole idea was to recreate the vast open desert plains indoors. The ride would've been several minutes longer than the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean but not quite so long as the California Pirates of the Caribbean; probably ten to twelve minutes. This was not an unreasonably scaled project.

In the attraction load area, the Walt Disney World Railroad would have looked down from above.

False. The Railroad did indeed peek into the ride, but not at the point commonly described.

The ride would've had more audio-animatronics than any ride ever.

True and false. WRE was expected to have slightly more figures than Pirates of the Caribbean, but not nearly as many as World of Motion ended up having in 1982. I know it's hard to think in relative terms about some of these things, but cost of figure production alone was not was sunk Western River.

Western River Expedition would've ended in a large, outdoor drop, making it redundant with Splash Mountain.

False. I'm not sure where this idea began, although I will show how it occurred. Western River Expedition itself was, like Pirates and Small World, entirely contained inside its own attraction show building and never would've gone outside. Thunder Mesa was slated to include a canoe-themed log flume which would've climaxed in a long, rapid descent thru outdoor rapids down the front of the mesa. This ride was being developed separately from Marc Davis' interior show, but at some point somebody conflated the two.

Hoot Gibson, an audio-animatronic owl, would have narrated Western River Expedition.

Probably false. There are no pieces of Marc Davis art of Hoot, nor does there seem to be any places in the attraction where he could completely comfortably fit. When Mike Lee interviewed Marc Davis in 1999, he asked specifically about Hoot Gibson and Marc had nothing to say about him.

Of course, there's plenty of stuff in rides like the Haunted Mansion that no real concept art exists of, so that doesn't prove much. What I think is more likely is that Hoot was going to be featured in revised versions of the attraction that Marc was preparing following the opening of Walt Disney World. Since we can't be totally sure of that, these articles attempt to present the version of the attraction which came the nearest to actual realization: the original, 1971 version.

Wasn't the ride revised to make it more "politically correct?"

True. As documented by Mike Lee, at some point Davis prepared a version of the attraction which removed the Native American component all together, instead expanding the showcase "Saturday Night On The Town" sequence to fill the gap. Changing attitudes in America through the 1960s and 1970s would have made the use of native tribes for comedy purposes fairly objectionable, even if I'm not sure that Disney would have been able to attempt a Pirates of the Caribbean-style "purge"as they did in the 1990s. Unlike some, however, I'm not sure that this is what killed off the project, although it inarguably did cause the project to spin its wheels for years.

Western River Expedition never happened because the ride was conceived on an impossible scale.

False. If I had to choose a single thing that killed Western River Expedition permanently and forever, it's because Disney didn't want to be in the business of making rides like this past a certain point.

Following the Energy crisis, Walt Disney World went into full-on money conservation mode, only proceeding with Space Mountain because the ride foundations were up prior to the gas shortage. Throughout 1975 and 1976 the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland were stuffed to capacity due to the popular Bicentennial promotion, and at the end of 1976 WDP announced their intention to move forward with Tokyo Disneyland and EPCOT Center, two projects that monopolized all of their resources for six years.

Marc Davis retired in 1977, and so Western River Expedition was without its core advocate. The timing was simply all wrong to get it built.

But over the years because it was pretty elaborate and never got off the ground rumors have spread that Western River was just too big to come true, which is nonsense. Choose any of the 1982 Future World classics and you have an equally elaborate attraction. Western River was built on a foundation of what Davis knew Disney could do well: rocks, lighting, special effects and a slow moving boat.

If there's any one thing I want readers to come away from this article with, it's the fact that Western River was not some crazily impossible thing. Davis always built his designs and ideas around what he knew the technological limitations of WED were. It not only was possible in 1971, but it's still possible and compelling today.

Now that I can break down the attraction into a full picture of what was intended, I hope that a lot of misunderstanding can finally be erased. So let's go into our first section, and describe Thunder Mesa in some detail.

II. THUNDER MESA: THE EXTERIOR ATTRACTIONS

We've all seen this picture:



Most of you have probably seen this image dozens of times online and blown it off as totally impossible to comprehend, and that's because nobody's ever gone out and shown exactly how each part fits together. So let's start by doing that.

On certain early Magic Kingdom blueprints which make a frequent appearance online, the foundation of the actual Thunder Mesa complex may be observed, like so:


What you're being shown here is strictly a foundation; moreover, strictly a foundation for the interior attraction. The disconnect between the concept art and the final product is very apparent. There's two additional resources to help paint this picture for you; a model and a lineart drawing.

Take another close look at that postcard we've all seen; now, here's what Thunder Mesa looked like... from above:


And here's a gorgeous lineart piece from a slightly different viewpoint:


Okay, now that we've got these in front of us, let's start picking out landmarks we can recognize. There's three major landmarks on the outside of Thunder Mesa. The first is this curious collection of buildings on the southernmost side:


Notice the train running through the center of it. This was supposed to be the "Mesa Terrace", a sort of Western version of the Blue Bayou. The lobby and tables would be housed in the buildings running along the walkway, by all appearances a normal Western town from the front but inside a single connected curved open space. Inside, under the roofs of the town, tables faced out across a bucolic old west town, complete with a forced perspective central "street".

Every so often trains would roll through, carrying passengers up towards the pleateu of Thunder Mesa. In terms of style and execution, I imagine this as being something like a cross between the Blue Bayou and the boarding area of Disneyland's Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland:

Gorillas Don't Blog
Nearby, a gigantic ore elevator and mine shaft entrance burrows into the mountain, providing the entrance to the Western River Expedition boat ride:


A bit further along, a rambling railroad platform sits by a cove that's fed by a gigantic waterfall tumbling down off the top of the Mesa and flowing back into the Rivers of America:


This structure provides the loading and unloading platforms for two attractions, both of which take riders up into the top of the Mesa: a runaway train ride and a flume ride styled after white water canoeing.


Both attractions would bring riders to different areas of the top of the mountain, these areas probably being very much like various tableau and scenes seen along Nature's Wonderland.


Look carefully here and you can see a forest of cacti on the left, probably not dissimilar to Nature's Wonderland's Saguaro Forest. In the center is a Painted Desert, a forced perspective hill that rises up to a vanishing point above a tree line, thus implying that it continues on forever. To give an idea of how this would have worked, until the late 1980s the Walt Disney World Jungle Cruise used the same visual trick on their African Veldt:


On the right we can see a sort of "geyser gulch" the runaway train travels through just before it makes the big trip back down off the Mesa. Across the entire top of paths and trails. The kinship with Nature's Wonderland has no doubt fueled the rumor that Pack Mules were intended to go up the top of Thunder Mesa, but I've found no real suggestion of this in reality and the model we have suggests to me that these were walking paths.

As for the canoes, they would have loaded at a platform just below the train along that sheltered Western cove, then proceeded into a cave in the front of the Mesa, moving through a new version of the Rainbow Caverns as they chug up a lift hill:


Arriving at the top of the Mesa, the canoes would have commanding views of Frontierland and Adventureland, slip down through the valley of saguaros, then began a rapid plunge down a long canyon river, ending in some thrilling white-water rapids before returning to Load:


As it turns out this attraction was among the first assignments for a young George McGinnis, so as crazy as all of this stuff seems there were indeed teams moving forward with these ideas.

Now that we've identified the major components of Thunder Mesa, let's color them in on that pencil overview. The entrance and (possible) exit to the Western River Expedition appear in orange, the canoe ride path in blue, and the runaway train track in red.


Oh, and those pueblo houses, so famous for appearing on the postcard and the 1971 room wall map? Pretty sure those were just for decoration, so sorry guys, no Indian dance circle like Disneyland had.

Sorry, pueblo enthusiasts!
Looking at Thunder Mesa all decoded, it's hard not to notice that both the canoe ride and the train ride would have been rather short; just a few minutes each. It's not hard to notice either how elements of the canoe ride and train ride were squashed together to create Big Thunder Mountain; the rainbow caverns with a lift hill inside them, the race through a forced perspective Western town, the geysers around the train, there's even enough caves along the route to allow for a proposed bat cavern.

It's also easy to see how the boat ride inside the mountain and the canoe ride outside got conflated, leading to the idea that the Marc Davis boat ride ended with a large, outdoor drop a'la Splash Mountain. Thunder Mesa's white water course would have been a totally different kind of thrill than Splash Mountain's straight-down final plunge, but the similarities are there.

It's also hard not to see how Big Thunder Mountain is actually a pretty good compromise for the train and canoe ride. The unique idea of having two different rides which move through different areas of the Mesa is a great one, and that Mesa Cafe with its pastoral outdoor old west town seems to me a huge loss. But that was going to be Thunder Mesa, everyone. That was it.

III. WERE THEY ACTUALLY GOING TO BUILD THIS THING?

Apparently, yes they were. Multiple models were worked up, and I'm told blueprints and schemata were prepared by MAPO. There's even the old story that figure manufacture had begun. This wasn't a pipe dream, it was a buildable concept that Disney was ready to start work on.

They built the attraction's accompanying Train Station in 1972. Had the attraction been built, this structure would have sat near the colorful facades of the Mesa Cafe, and shortly after steaming out of the Frontierland station, the trains would have passed into a cavern in the side of the Mesa.

I've used the model and art above to give a conception of the scope of Thunder Mesa because, remarkably, they all match. There are, however, a few discrepancies. There's this 1969 elevation by Mitsu Natsume:


This thing doesn't square with either the 1970 postcard or the model or line art, so I suspect it's an earlier version of the project. Expand this one, please, and notice that the area where the entrance to the boat ride was to be has been pasted over with an ore elevator without an entrance below it; I suspect this has been modified at some point to be passed off as Big Thunder Mountain concept art.

And then there's the big Magic Kingdom model prepared in 1969. This model has some interesting discrepancies with the park as constructed, but it's overall a very accurate view of what they intended to build and actually did build. Thunder Mesa was there, too:


If you look carefully enough you can see the runaway train track heading down the side of the mountain.

No, they really were going to build this. It even sits perfectly along the bend in the river, the bend that was specifically carved out for it in 1971.


Come back for Part Two when we'll pry the lid off that building and take a ride on the Western River Expedition!