When Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, the race to visit the Vacation Kingdom of the World was on. Guided by Walt Disney's vision, designers had stocked Magic Kingdom with supersized, master-planned versions of the best rides and attractions in Disneyland's lineup... except one. When Walt Disney World opened its gates, visitors were shocked to find Disneyland's most revered ride – Pirates of the Caribbean – nowhere to be found. Worse yet, Disney had no plans to bring this beloved E-Ticket to Florida.
That's because, in its place, they planned something even more epic... An entirely original, musical, animatronic-packed adventure through the Old West. Thanks to the Western River Expedition, Magic Kingdom is as renowned today for the rides it didn't build as the ones it did. It's perhaps the most enigmatic, epic lost project ever to hit Imagineering's recycling bin.
Of course, that's what Theme Park Tourist's Possibilityland series is all about: dissecting the full stories behind could-be classics that never made it off the drawing board. Already, we've taken in-depth journeys through the most Muppetational land ever, Muppet Studios at Disney's Hollywood Studios; saw Universal run away with the Beastly Kingdom that was axed from Disney's Animal Kingdom; explored Epcot's Project: GEMINI meant to reinvigorate the tired Future World; and looked to the New Tomorrowland 2055 that almost landed at Disneyland. In fact, our In-Depth Collections Library is chocked full of stunning, must-read features on never-built, lost, and masterpiece attractions.
Today, we induct Western River Expedition – another would-be wonder – into our catalogue. We'll step through the storied history of Marc Davis' lost classic, take a virtual ride through it as we sort fiction from fact, and see where fragments of its DNA have been scattered across Disney Parks.
When Disneyland opened, its revolutionary, cinematic themed “lands” were unlike anything seen in amusement parks before. Designed by filmmakers, they intended to immerse guests into romanticized, idealized worlds. But even moreso, these themed lands were chosen and constructed around the ideals of the era… Disneyland’s lands were designed by and for mid-century pop culture, bringing to life the stories, characters, and settings that resonated with guests at that time.
Why, for example, of all the “adventures” out there was the dense African jungle chosen as the embodiment of Adventureland? Simple: because in the 1950s, America’s fascination with Africa was at its height. The African Queen, King Solomon’s Mines, Duel in the Jungle, Congo Crossing, and the continuing series of Tarzan films had made Africa’s deep jungles synonymous with exotic cultures, wild animals, danger, and adventure.
When Hawaii’s statehood shifted Americans' collective definition of “adventure” to Polynesia the 1960s, Disney’s Adventureland caught up with The Enchanted Tiki Room. Then, Indiana Jones changed our cultural image of “adventure” to temples, curses, booby traps, and treasure in the '80s and '90s, and Disneyland’s Adventureland followed suit again, morphing and growing and expanding into Southeast Asia to keep up with our collective imagination.
And so it went for Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland, too. And it’s in the latter that our story picks up.
In 1955, American fascination with the Old West was at its peak. Davy Crockett and John Wayne’s The Gunfighter ruled the silver screen, The Lone Ranger was the highest-rated television show, and children spent their days outside playing ‘Cowboys & Indians.’ The Old West deserved its own land, revered on the same level as "fantasy" or "adventure" or "tomorrow," and Frontierland was born.
Representing the idling speed of America’s revered westward expansion in the mid-1800s, it was a land of “Indian War Canoes,” clapboard saloons, shooting galleries, dusty roads, and wooden fences.
Frontierland let guests live out their dreams of seeing how the West was won; stepping into the stories that meant so much to pop culture during the time. Its early years – with real pack mules, stagecoaches, and Conestoga wagons traversing the Living Desert – soon gave way to a phenomenal anchoring attraction that would set a new course for Disney's rides: the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland.
Literally the Old West Frontierland equivalent to Adventureland's Jungle Cruise (and indeed, both were designed by Disney Imagineering Legend Marc Davis), the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland was, by all accounts, an E-Ticket that today would be as revered as any other; a phenomenal journey into America's own wilderness.
Walt was deeply patriotic and absolutely fascinated with American history. For that reason, Frontierland was a natural fit for his imaginative park, and the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland must’ve been a source of great pride. Maybe that’s what inspired his next project.
In the early 1960s, Walt’s next goal came into view; he was again dreaming of something new. Walt Disney’s Riverfront Square would’ve been the world’s first indoor theme park. Set beautifully against the Mississippi River in St. Louis, this charming, historic theme park would’ve celebrated American culture, ingenuity, and expansion, and a new face at Imagineering had cooked up an elaborate attraction.
Marc Davis had spent many years working at Walt Disney Productions as an artist and animator, including principle design on the title characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Sleeping Beauty.
And again, he’d also been a key designer on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise and Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland.
And for Walt’s Riverfront Square project, he’d conceived of yet another staggering ride: the Lewis & Clark River Expedition, tracing the unforgettable journey of America’s early explorers as they sought westward passage to the Pacific. At Walt’s request, Marc spent time in 1963 developing draft artwork for such a ride, including guests drifting past moose grazing along the river, black bears hunting for leaping fish, and menacing Indian villages.
Ultimately, Walt chose not to move forward with Riverfront Square (perhaps because of an insult from beer magnate August Busch Jr. of Anheuser-Busch... a story for another time). Even if Davis was devastated that his Lewis & Clark River Expedition was shelved, he didn’t run out of things to do...
The 1960s were a time of tremendous innovation and forward momentum at WED Enterprises (the original name of Imagineering). After the decade’s big kick off with the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, work only continued to mount. For one thing, Walt and company were called eastward to the 1964 – 65 World’s Fair in New York. Yes, that most essential international expo that’s cited again and again in the history of Disney Parks favorites is back again.
Because not only did the fair see the original prototypes of the Carousel of Progress, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and a venerated Lost Legend: The Peoplemover; it also debuted one of the most important rides in Disney history: “it’s a small world.”
And while the charming international cruise may be known for its song today, in 1964 its innovation was much more foundational: its ride system. The fast-loading, high-capacity, quiet ride system served as a groundbreaking new way to move a lot of people through a ride with ease.
At the close of the Fair, “it’s a small world,” Carousel of Progress, and Mr. Lincoln were all shipped to Disneyland and installed, and Walt and his team turned their attention to their next project: an expansion to Frontierland. This “New Orleans Square” would be anchored by a wax museum of pirate vignettes… the only problem was that Imagineers couldn’t figure out how to move a lot of people through the wax museum with ease. … A-ha!
That’s how our trip to Disney World’s most momentous never-built ride almost came to be… Read on…
While “it’s a small world” may seem an odd prologue, the innovative ride’s opening in 1964 signaled a new way to look at amusement park ride systems, and upon returning from the World’s Fair, designers got to work incorporating the high-capacity, gentle, smooth-loading ride system into the planned pirate attraction.
You know exactly where this is heading…
Pirates of the Caribbean opened in 1967. The swashbuckling 16-minute dark ride is populated by nearly 120 Audio-Animatronics figures and the unforgettable tune, “A Pirate’s Life for Me (Yo Ho)” by the legendary late X Atencio. Today, Pirates is almost unanimously considered the greatest classic dark ride in the world. And thanks to its high-capacity ride system, it can easily handle over 2,800 riders per hour – an unbelievably large number in the industry, with only Haunted Mansion and “small world” coming close.
Unfortunately, Walt never saw it in person. He passed away in December 1966, five months before the ride’s opening.
That said, when visitors commented what a shame it was that Walt never got to see it, his family was known to correct them, “He did!” And indeed, the ride was exactly as Walt had envisioned – his last pet project.
While Walt’s influence was felt throughout the creation of Pirates, it also served as the magnum opus of another pair of Disney Legends and Imagineers: Claude Coats (key designer of Mr. Toad, Snow White’s Scary adventures, Submarine Voyage, Carousel of Progress, Horizons, and a dozen more) and Marc Davis (remember, that cartoonist responsible for Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, plus “it’s a small world,” Enchanted Tiki Room, Jungle Cruise, Country Bear Jamboree, and that never-built Lewis & Clark River Expedition…).
Though perhaps it’s overly simplistic, Coats and Davis are understood among Disney Parks fans for their very different and yet harmonious styles…
- Claude Coats is known as the atmospheric, dramatic, scenic stylist behind, for example, Pirates’ brooding, eerie, character-less first act.
- Marc Davis – as evidenced by his work on Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, Jungle Cruise, Tiki Room, Country Bear Jamboree, and more – is widely recognized for his comedic vignettes and puns, seen in the sing-along, character-focused second act of Pirates.
Memorably, the duo’s collaboration was truly tested when they tackled the first major park project after Walt: the Haunted Mansion. Though the ride’s white plantation house façade had been built in 1963, the World’s Fair, then Pirates, then Walt’s death had sidelined the creation of the actual attraction, which still sat vacant six years later. Worse still, Walt had never clearly stated exactly what the Haunted Mansion should be. Without his direction, ideas ran the gamut.
True to form:
- Claude Coats recommended that the ride be a moody, haunting, sincerely scary trip past unexplainable special effects, haunting vignettes, and creepy sets, exemplified by Haunted Mansion's endless hallways, foreboding ballroom, and his famous idea of an eerie loading area set in an otherworldly, endless limbo (above).
- Marc Davis developed ideas for a frightfully funny, sing-along musical ride past singing “silly spooks” with iconic characters and pun-filled vignettes like the Hatbox Ghost, the "grim, grinning" graveyard revue, or the signature Hitchhiking Ghosts (above).
Without Walt to break the tie and direct the ride’s creation, the two Imagineers battled it out over their competing ideas before eventually merging them into the Haunted Mansion we know today: a seriously-spooky, atmospheric intro with a sing-along character-filled finale (not so unlike Pirates when you think about it).
It just goes to show how uprooted things were without Walt, and the uncertainly surrounding the Haunted Mansion would only be amplified ten-fold when the new leaders at Walt Disney Productions were forced to face the looming Florida Project without Walt…
(Walt) Disney World
The future of Walt’s treasured Florida Project was up in the air… And if this “Disney World” did ever come to pass, who would decide what it should include… and what it shouldn’t?
Walt’s brother Roy took over the reigns as chairman, president, and CEO of Walt Disney Productions and made a memorable first move: renaming the in-development Florida Project from Disney World to Walt Disney World to immortalize his brother’s name forever.
As for what Walt Disney World would contain? Walt’s E.P.C.O.T. was pushed to the backburner while attention shifted to the theme park that would serve as an anchor to the resort; the “Magic Kingdom” that would take all that had been learned at Disneyland and use “the blessing of size” to build out for a global audience.
One careful balancing act was how to take the best of Disneyland and export it to this new park while still making Walt Disney World a destination in and of itself. Along the way, designers made deliberate edits, opting to include intentionally super-sized versions of Californian hits updated for ‘70s audiences and larger budgets (like Jungle Cruise, Peter Pan’s Flight, and a Lost Legend: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride) while consciously curating ways for this new park to be different from its older sister…
(Too) Close to home
For example, consider New Orleans Square. While that recent addition to Disneyland (and its two unfathomably epic hits, Pirates and Haunted Mansion) had given Californians a romanticized look into the Jazz Age south, the Floridian locals that Disney World would market to wouldn’t find southern cuisine, music, and stories “exotic” or “romantic.” Louisiana is practically a day trip from much Florida, meaning that a copy of New Orleans Square simply wouldn’t be “magical” enough for the Magic Kingdom.
Rather, the concept of New Orleans Square was recast to a time and place that would be more exotic and romantic to Floridian guests: Liberty Square, a 1700s colonial port town. Likewise, New Orleans Square’s headlining Haunted Mansion was reskinned as a red brick colonial manor, expanded inside to include new scenes.
As for New Orleans Square’s other epic E-Ticket, Pirates of the Caribbean? Designers did their due diligence there, too. See, Disneyland’s ride through southern bayous and out into the Caribbean islands for a pirate raid might’ve been the stuff of fantasy for Californian audiences, but the real Caribbean and real pirates were actual, modern parts of Floridian culture, architecture, and news, not fantastic, literary concepts. So like New Orleans Square, designers decided to cut the Pirates ride from Magic Kingdom’s lineup entirely to opt for something a little less “everyday.”
And wouldn’t you know it, Marc Davis’ long-forgotten plans for a Lewis & Clark River Expedition seemed just the ride way to re-use the high-capacity, animatronic-heavy Pirates dark ride formula in a completely new way…
On the next page, we’ll explore what could’ve been and set sail on the most elaborate never-built E-Ticket dark ride Disney World never hosted. Read on…
Our journey begins in Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom.
When this park opened back in 1971, Frontierland was, admittedly, little more than a historic recreation of an Old West town, save for its four noteworthy attractions: a canoe launch to circumnavigate the Rivers of America, Tom Sawyer Island, a Walt Disney World Railroad depot, and the delightful debut of the Audio Animatronic Modern Marvel: Country Bear Jamboree designed by Marc Davis.
However, that was due to change shortly after the park opened, as evidenced by an early map of the Magic Kingdom, above. In fact, Frontierland was about to be joined by perhaps the most ambitious attraction Walt Disney's Imagineers had ever designed. Though it may be unfair to call Thunder Mesa an attraction at all... In fact, it was really meant to be a land-within-the-land – an entire, self-contained world within Frontierland; a sort of "pavilion" in the later EPCOT Center sense, with multiple attractions housed inside.
Some of the concept art pieces developed and released for Thunder Mesa are among the most well-known pieces of never-built concept art out there... And as any fan of Disney Parks concept art can tell you, the best pieces are as renowned for what they don't show as what they do.
That's why the artwork above is one of the most well-circulated and yet least-understood Disney history artifacts available. Dissecting the truth behind the massive Thunder Mesa complex was a massive task, and one thankfully undertaken by the phenomenal and essential Passport to Dreams Old & New – an absolute must-read, scholarly Disney history resource. Without the work of the revered "FoxxFur," the shroud of mystery surrounding this art may still be obscuring our view.
To truly understand the scale of Thunder Mesa, think of Cars Land's Radiator Springs Racers – a towering, ever-present mountain range of rusted hoodoos, arches, and waterfalls topped with distant dwarfed evergreens, a complete frontier town nestled along its base. And therein would reside a number of exciting attractions.
For example, the bucolic Western town (visible in the lower left of the art above) was a clever facade disguising the Mesa Terrace, a Blue-Bayou style upscale restaurant with views overlooking Thunder Mesa and its forced-perspective streets.
Every few minutes, a train would come steaming through town on the way to the mountain range's summit. This attraction – boarded via a platform before the thundering waterfall – was a runaway mine train roller coaster... Along its (relatively short) course, it would pass through the Mesa Terrace restaurant before chugging to the top of the showbuilding and racing past Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland-style scenes of wildlife and cactuses. Though only a few minutes, this mild thrill would hopefully be a draw for teens.
Boarding in the calm lagoon fed by that central waterfall, a separate log flume attraction would carry guests up to the same second level of the mountain range via an enclosed lift through a cavern of rainbow paint pots and stalactites (another nod to Nature's Wonderland), zipping along white-water waterways and dipping through cactus groves for a final splashdown.
However, these two thrill attractions (relatively bare by Disney's standards) were merely accessories, meant to compliment the real headliner... Now, it's time for us to take a Possibilityland ride through Western River Expedition – the lost Magic Kingdom E-Ticket that could've been.
Western River Expedition
The Thunder Mesa complex is huge; gigantic; enormous. And to contain a restaurant, two thrill rides, and an epic, Pirates-sized, boat-lead family dark ride, it would have to be. But if we could pull the upper story off of the ride entirely, we'd reveal the three massive, connected showbuildings that Western River Expedition would've taken place in.
Our journey to the Western River would begin beneath a massive ore elevator positioned in the side of the mountain range. Passing through the craggily, red peak, we'd emerge in the leftmost showbuilding below, in a gorgeous, technicolor sunset landscape of glowing orange hoodoos and an endless sunrise.
Bathed in warmth and underscored by a lush, romantic musical score stylized after great Western films, you might consider this an antithesis to the cold, cramped, stone introduction to the Pirates of the Caribbean that Magic Kingdom ended up with. And really, most of Western River Expedition will read as an analog to Pirates, taking the ride's "formula" and recasting Pirates' coolness for warmth; a Caribbean town for a glowing canyon; an endless night sky for a perpetual sunset.
Winding desert paths past brush and tumbleweeds would then lead queueing guests over a natural stone arch, with views down to the churning river carrying passenger boats below. Altogether, this enormous, kinetic scene would set this ride's tone: oversized, elaborate, and adventurous. Winding paths would then bring guests down a race face and to a simple wooden loading area to step into boats to set sail down the river, the elegant Hollywood score fading away to be replaced with sounds of nature.
Our first sight? A cave mouth approaching. As the boat drifts in, it's surrounded with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites, with only the dripping water as company. (This dark cavern is the central portion of the showbuilding in the model above.)
Then, ahead, the natural formations of the cavern would seem to create a familiar shape... a rabbit. As the boat approaches, a single, simple instrument seems to come from the shape... Then, drifting farther, the stalactites seem to form increasingly familiar shapes... a coyote, then a cowboy, then an old man...
As the boat passes each, each seems to add its own musical cue, blending with the ones before... More and more sounds join together, creating a harmonious choir of otherworldly music as we sail deeper into fantasy. Leaving the cavern behind, the music accumulated there follows us as the cumulative Western River Expedition theme.
Outside, the sunset we left behind has become dusk, and the boat drifts through the last shimmering expanse of the desert beneath milky pink skies. On the left up ahead, a genuine steam locomotive (the Walt Disney World Railroad!) chugs across a rocky bluff. If the riders on the railroad were to look out across the canyon, their view would be our next sight: a stagecoach held up on a wooden tressle over the river.
The bandits join in the Western River theme's new minor key change, with the lead maurauder warning that he'll see us again soon.
Winding away under the overpass, we drift through the desert prairie at twilight, marveling at the fluffy clouds floating in the endless, dark sky (think Pirates) and distant rock formations silhouetted against emerging stars...
A family of bison gathers around prairie dogs as they pop out of their burrows; coyotes set against the darkness howl; a stagecoach parked along the river serves as the base camp for a group of cowboys, whose guitar and harmonica join the musical theme as the cook at the chuck wagon tunes in...
...joined by an entire choir of cacti!
Rounding the corner from this vast wilderness, we sail onward and into the town of Dry Gulch. This is the part of the ride that's become infamously inflated in the minds of Disney Parks fans given the massive amount of artwork Marc Davis produced, toying with vignettes and scenes that could populate this clapboard Western town. However, the 1971 model of the ride (the only version Disney came close to building) is clear that this town would've been a relatively simple one with a row of wooden buildings on either side of the river channel.
It's this town, though, where the Technicolor, bold, bright look of the attraction (inspired by the work of "it's a small world's" Mary Blair) can be most easily recognized... For this tiny, insignificant desert town amongst the endless expanse of nature is perhaps the most beautiful piece of the ride.
Sailing through, the entire right side of the river would be washed in a cool, blue moonlight, the sun setting beyond... Yellow lights from window lamps would crawl out of the green clapboard buildings – a vibrant illumination against this backlit blue row of buildings.
The left side of town, meanwhile, would be glowing, lit by the blazing orange tone of the setting sun, impossibly long shadows stretched beyond.
A hypnotically colorful dichotomy, this spectacular scene would be as epic in execution as Pirates' entry into the Caribbean port town, with activity all around: a Snake Oil salesman selling his wares, a mortician, and a blazing gun battle between bank robbers and the town's sheriff against the fiery red facade of the bank as detailed and involved as the Pirate's raid.
Passing under a bridge and around a bend, we stumble upon a rain dance being performed by a tribe of plains Indians, dancing around a rock butte where water pours down from above, gathering into channels and coursing through the desert. Thunder and lightning begin to gather in the darkening sky as the boat drifts further into a narrowing canyon. As the lightning flashes overhead, water from the approaching storm collects, pouring as waterfalls down the rock faces and into the river.
Around the corner, the boat begins to chug its way up a waterfall, with the flooding buttes above sending water cascading down their sides.
The eyes of unseeable animals seeking shelter surround the boat in the darkness as it inches further and further up the waterfall, lightning flashing in the distant forest ahead. Higher and higher we climb until the boat levels out in a great forest high atop a desert mesa.
With an epic crash, a bolt of lightning strikes one of the towering trees here, setting it ablaze. Around the corner, the forest is aflame, with toppled trees creaking and growing as they smoulder. We're trapped drifting through a fiery forest, helplessly awaiting the trees to crumble. At least things can't get any worse!
The bandits are back, determined to make good on their earlier promise to catch up with us... There's no escape! Except...
The boat tips over the edge of a waterfall, teetering for a moment before sliding down the incline, splashing mercifully in a darkened cave!
Ahead, an orange glow comes into view... Can it be? We made it to the canyon we saw when we boarded! It's sunrise now, as that cinematic Western River score reppears! And now, it's got a new, triumphant feeling. The boat passes beneath the rocky arch we stepped over earlier, returning once more to the wooden docks. Altogether, our Western River Expedition has taken us back to the fantastical world of the Old West for close encounters with wildlife, outlaws, and the sheer strength of Mother Nature. Phew! With our unbelievable adventure complete, we can exit through the canyon and back to Thunder Mesa.
Western River Expedition was poised to become Disney's "next big thing:" an almost-unbelievable adventure meeting (and in places, exceeding!) the standards set by Disneyland's revered Pirates of the Caribbean. A new take on the formula for a new park, Western River Expedition would've been an important exclusive meant to showcase the versatility and creativity of this "Walt Disney World," even after Walt.
And yet, it was canned. Why in the world would Disney cancel the E-Ticket perfectly positioned for Magic Kingdom's Frontierland? And where does its DNA live on today? That's the question... and as we wrap up our historic look at this could-be classic, we'll find out exactly how this would-be wonder shaped a couple Disney classics even without being built... Read on...
What killed the Western River Expedition? We’ll get there in just a moment. But along the way, let’s take a look at the ways the attraction did live on. After all, they say good ideas never die at Disney. In that way, maybe it’s fair to say that this never-built E-Ticket did end up changing Magic Kingdom – and its sister parks – forever through some subtle and not-so-subtle rehashes of the concept.
“Where are the pirates?”
When Magic Kingdom opened in October 1971, people from around the globe descended on the Vacation Kingdom of the World. The first phase of the park’s construction had brought with it many of the rides that had been thrilling Disneyland guests for years, like “it’s a small world,” Jungle Cruise, Submarine Voyage, and Peter Pan’s Flight.
But remember one thing it didn’t have? Pirates.
The story goes that the number one question asked of Cast Members from day one was, “Where are the pirates?” Disney historians say that, upon finding out that Pirates of the Caribbean hadn’t made the jump to the East Coast, guests practically stormed Magic Kingdom’s Town Hall to lodge complaints, demanding to know when the pirate ride they’d heard about (still the talk of the town at Disneyland less than five years after its opening) would be built at Walt Disney World, too.
Sure, Imagineers had intentionally excluded Pirates in anticipation of building an equally epic dark ride born of Pirates’ DNA… but try explaining that to irate guests who just knew that their brand new Disneyland-style park had one glaring omission. Then-CEO Card Walker heard their complaints and placed a rush order for a Floridian version of Pirates of the Caribbean, tasking Marc Davis himself with revamping the ride for a quick opening… and a cut budget.
So did the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean mean the end of the Western River Expedition? Despite the simplistic narrative that would offer, not really… In fact, that’s our first step on the list of attractions shaped by the Western River Expedition…
1. Pirates of the Caribbean
Believe it or not, Western River Expedition – even unbuilt! – seemed to deeply inform the creation of Magic Kingdom’s own Pirates of the Caribbean. Davis set to work developing the more concise, budget-conscious version of the original Disneyland masterpiece, and in carefully editing the Magic Kingdom version, he essentially was able to do to Pirates directly what he’d hoped to do vicariously through Western River… re-order and re-interpret the scenes.
Perhaps even more telling, Davis was sure to remove any of the Californian Pirates scenes that were analogous with Western River’s highlight… no slow, atmospheric build in the caverns, no climbing a waterfall, no blazing, collapsing finale… could it be that Davis deliberately cut these scenes from Florida’s Pirates hoping they’d remain exclusive highlights in a future build of Western River Expedition?
Indeed, it seems Davis reformatted Magic Kingdom’s Pirates of the Caribbean specifically so that, if (and to his thinking, when) Western River Expedition was eventually built a few hundred feet away, the two rides would feel like companions and complements to one another with any repetitive scenes cut. Put another way, even after the ride’s initial delay, Imagineers expected Western River to find its way to Magic Kingdom… eventually.
In 1973 – just as the rush-ordered Pirates of the Caribbean opened at Walt Disney World – an oil crisis struck. The price of a barrel of oil quadrupled, gas prices skyrocketed, and the American economy tanked. Like the dearth of investment in the parks after the September 11th terrorist attacks devastated the tourism industry, plans across the Disney Parks were slashed. That’s why, in the 1970s, most of the projects at Disney Parks were thrill rides and roller coasters – much cheaper to build than the elaborate dark rides of yesteryear.
That still didn’t mean Western River Expedition was off the table… just that it would need to be further delayed before it could have a chance of joining the Magic Kingdom lineup as executives waited for the economy to strengthen.
Then when the economy did fully rebound in the mid-1970s, Imagineers got the call to work full-speed ahead toward EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland, minimizing their ability to become involved in most anything else. However, one project influenced by the Western River Expedition did squeak through thanks to a new business plan…
2. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
By time the economy rebounded in the mid 1970s, then-CEO Card Walker was looking for ways to plus Magic Kingdom, and Western River Expedition seemed like a natural, ready-made way to do it. However, a fresh, young face at Imagineering – Tony Baxter, barely 25 years old – was paired up with Marc and tasked with refining the runaway mine train roller coaster concept as part of the Thunder Mesa development. It was the perfect project for the new kid, since Davis wanted the coaster element to be attractive to executives without overshadowing the elaborate dark ride he’d designed.
Perhaps unfortunately, Tony Baxter had other ideas. Tony wanted badly to bring his best work forward, and allegedly became frustrated that any ideas he had for the mine train roller coaster were shot down by the senior Davis, who wanted his piece of the project to remain the headliner. When presenting his admittedly uninspired mine train to Card Walker, Tony must’ve let his true feelings show. The CEO asked if he was happy with his design, and Tony admitted that he wasn’t.
It was Walker who, as the story goes, told Tony that if he thought his project could be a bigger hit, he ought to branch off and develop it as a standalone… rather than being an accessory to Western River Expedition, Walker suggested that Tony’s ride could compete for the land set aside for it!
He did. Executives liked his “Big Thunder Mountain” concept, which was both much less expensive than Western River Expedition and served to add much-requested thrills to the park.
Truthfully, Big Thunder did four things exceptionally well:
- In true 1970s style, save big bucks compared to the elaborate, Animatronic-heavy Western River Expedition;
- Give Disney’s “Frontierland” concept a new lease on life in an era when Americans’ fascination with the Old West had faded;
- Infuse more thrills into the parks – an early adopter of the way of thinking that would become standard in the cinematic Eisner era that followed;
Fuse the three attractions planned for Thunder Mesa – its flume through Nature’s Wonderland-style caverns and landscapes, its fast-paced coaster, and its Western River Expedition through flooded mining towns – into one cohesive (and did we mention, much less costly?) attraction while simultaneously paying homage to the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland
So Tony Baxter had “stolen” the real estate right out from under his mentor’s feet, and Disney executives were all too happy to green light the lower-cost, high-thrill Big Thunder Mountain. By the way, it’s said Marc Davis never forgave Tony Baxter (even when Tony deliberately saved the doomed animatronics from Davis’ “America Sings!” by incorporating them into his Splash Mountain).
Of course, Baxter was just getting started. He’d go on to become the Disney Legend we know today – an unthinkably creative fellow responsible for some of the biggest new-age E-Tickets Disney would ever host… From Lost Legends: Star Tours, Journey into Imagination, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Indiana Jones Adventure, Splash Mountain, and more.
But Davis wasn’t quite done yet… The revered Legend was determined to get his prized project – the Western River Expedition – built and spent the rest of his career trying. If it couldn’t be at Magic Kingdom, maybe it could be across the country? Or across the sea? We’ll wrap up the tale of this forgotten expedition on the last page…
So Magic Kingdom would get a new, Western adventure on the empty plot of land in its northwestern corner… Big Thunder Mountain.
Still, Marc Davis stood faithfully behind his Western River Expedition and set out to find a park for his pet project.
At first, he simply collected himself and pressed on; taking some of the vignettes and animal figures he’d planned for the ride to California, petitioning to have them added to his 1960 masterpiece, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. Just imagine his heartbreak when he was told that, unfortunately, his new scenes couldn’t be added to the ride since Disneyland’s Mine Train would soon be bulldozed… for Big Thunder Mountain.
To make matters worse, California’s Big Thunder Mountain was really only intended to be the prologue to an entire new land cooked up by Tony Baxter, as told in one of our most popular entries, Possibilityland: Discovery Bay.
As part of the plans, Imagineers considered adding a mini Land of Legends to connect the dead-end Bear Country with Discovery Bay. This miniature land would’ve been themed around American folklore, and Western River Expedition was proposed among its lineup! But when Discovery Bay was canned, so was the Land of Legends. Instead, Disneyland would only get one new ride… Big Thunder Mountain.
Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain opened in 1979, followed by Magic Kingdom’s in 1980.
Insiders say Marc Davis was overjoyed when he heard of plans for a Tokyo Disneyland to open in 1982, especially given the Japanese’s unquenchable love of the American West. And indeed, Tokyo Disneyland might’ve proved the perfect place to put Western River Expedition… except that the Oriental Land Company responsible for owning and operating the Japanese resort was clear: they wanted their Disneyland to be a faithful recreation of the original, including a shot-for-shot duplicate of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
As for their Westernland, dedicated to the American frontier? They wanted… you guessed it… Big Thunder Mountain.
Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s – the first years without Walt – Card Walker and the executives at Disney shied away from any major, expensive investments, opting for quick-return thrill rides or copies of classics. It wasn’t until the 1990s – and, ironically, under Michael Eisner’s regime and Tony Baxter’s watch – that Disney deliberately turned back to detailed, elaborate attractions once again.
Marc Davis officially retired from Disney Imagineering in 1978… long before anyone had even dreamed of a Disneyland Paris that would open in 1992.
Tony Baxter – by this point, a leading star in the organization – was given creative control over the Parisian park, and the opportunity to design it from the ground up. What he created is almost unanimously understood as the most beautiful Disneyland-style park on Earth, with each themed land protected by a berm of its own; totally immersive, built-out, storied, and packed with romance and European storytelling, Disneyland Paris was truly a beacon.
And c’mon… with Baxter designing it from the ground up, of course it would have a Big Thunder Mountain and a Pirates of the Caribbean (even if the latter is markedly different from its American counterparts). But Baxter found a way to incorporate perhaps the most thoughtful allusion to Western River Expedition yet, and in a most unexpected place… Our third place where the never-built ride’s DNA lives on…
3. Phantom Manor
Baxter’s biggest trial-by-fire would be Disneyland Paris, not only because it was slated to be the most grand Disneyland-style park on Earth, but because from its very announcement, the French press had waged an all-out war on the “invasive” American brand and its distinctly American stories. Baxter made a brilliant move, determining that the lands of admitted Americana would shift, becoming storied, elaborate, deeply-romanticized lands that would emphasize French styles and play to the aspects of American history that fascinated Europeans.
So forget Davey Crockett, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn… In Paris, Frontierland would be reimagined as the town of Thunder Mesa (yep!), its misty waters reigned over by the hauntingly beautiful spires of Big Thunder Mountain. In perhaps the first attempt in Disney’s playbook to do so, all of this new Frontierland would be wrapped into a single continuity, with a single overarching story and setting uniting all of the land’s rides, shows, restaurants, and attractions.
In this continuity, the active gold mines of Big Thunder Mountain are the property of one Mr. Henry Ravenswood, a miserly old man who’s none too happy when his beautiful daughter Melanie falls for a lowly miner…
Cut to the park’s one-of-a-kind take on the Haunted Mansion – magnificent enough to earn its own in-depth feature, Modern Marvels: Phantom Manor. Inside, guests relive the haunting tale of Melanie’s mysteriously lost love and its nightmarish grip on the abandoned estate.
Part of the expanded Phantom Manor is a trip through the craggily, earthquake-devastated Phantom Canyon town outside, packed with scenes, gags, and figures once planned for the Western River Expedition.
It’s a shocking and wonderful twist that makes Phantom Manor feel like a must-see, a world away from the Haunted Mansions most Disney fans know so well… and a quaint reminder of the Western River Expedition that could’ve been.
Western River Expedition fits within the grand, never-built concepts we’ve explored elsewhere in our Possibilityland series – as ambitious as Discovery Bay, as essential as EPCOT’s Project: GEMINI, as transformative as Disneyland’s Tomorrowland 2055, and as transformative as Beastly Kingdom.
And like them all, its ultimate cancellation doesn’t mean the end of the concept. Those never-built lands, for example, still inspired an entire lineup of Lost Legends: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune, TEST TRACK and Soarin’, The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, and Universal’s Lost Continent and Dueling Dragons, respectively. In that same way, the Western River Expedition helped shape a new generation of Frontierland concepts and their descendants, as well. Those stories and so many more are part of our In-Depth Collections Library, so make the jump there to set course for another fan favorite feature.
At least for now, we can assume that Western River Expedition is out to pasture. As fans will quickly point out, Disney’s more or less exited the “heavily-atmospheric, original, Animatronic-packed family dark ride” genre in favor of intellectual properties, box office connections, and thrill rides. We’re unlikely to see a ride of this caliber (or Haunted Mansion’s or Pirates’) anytime in the near future.
When we look at the plans for Western River Expedition, we can’t help but feel that the ride would still make sense and feel right at home in Magic Kingdom today; that, like Pirates, it would’ve become a staple of the park; a beloved exclusive attraction that would’ve been timeless, even as fascination with the Old West faded away… and that’s high praise, indeed.
As before, we have to encourage you to read the comprehensive entry on Western River Expedition via Passport to Dreams, whose diligent discovery work gives us the clearest available picture of what this incredible E-Ticket would’ve actually been like. Make the jump there for an astounding look at the details and the unbelievable work of Marc Davis.
Now, we have to know what you think. Did you ever fully grasp the scope and scale of this lost project? Do you think Western River Expedition would’ve been the right path for Magic Kingdom, or were Imagineers right to bend to guests’ demands and simply provide a quick-fix version of Pirates of the Caribbean? Would you see like to see the Western River Expedition today? At the end of the day, who can say how Magic Kingdom might look different today if all of those guests all those years ago had simply not asked, “Where are the pirates?”