Home » Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland: The Story of Walt Disney’s Forgotten E-Ticket

Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland: The Story of Walt Disney’s Forgotten E-Ticket

Mine Train Cascade Peak

Long before the wildest ride in the wilderness gave guests a runaway tour of the red rocked Southwest, Disneyland offered a more serene way to see the sights and wander through the wildlife of North America… 

For a generation of Disneyland guests, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland was the way to see the West. Designed by one of the most prolific Disney Imagineers of all time, Nature’s Wonderland give Frontierland its own equivalent of the Jungle Cruise – a ride that toured guests through fantastic environments, comical encounters, and over 200 animals hidden throughout valleys, deserts, peaks, and caverns. Spread across seven acres, this sprawling complex gave guests a peek into the American Southwest and the wonders of nature that await there…

Closing long before ride coupons gave way to pay-one-price admission, the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland has been largely forgotten. But today, we’ll ride through the history of Disneyland’s “Living Desert” and the sights and sounds that awaited on the remote frontier before seeing how this concept almost evolved at Walt Disney World… and what happened instead. Hop in and remain seated as we head out into Nature’s Wonderland… 

The Living Desert

Frontierland. It is here that we experience the story of our country’s past. The color, romance and drama of frontier America as it developed from wilderness trails to roads, riverboats, railroads and civilization. A tribute to the faith, courage and ingenuity of our hearty pioneers who blaze the trails and made this progress possible.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt’s ode to the American West (and more to the point, to the fictionalized heroes and legends who inhabited it via mid-century American TV shows like his own Davy Crockett) was incarnate in Frontierland. In fact, by the end of its first year, five of Disneyland’s highest-tier attractions departed from Frontierland. Two of them – the Mike Fink Keel Boats and Mark Twain Riverboat – encircled the Rivers of America. The other three – the Pack Mules, Conestoga Wagons, and Stagecoaches – left the comfort of the park behind and headed out into “the Painted Desert.”

You have to imagine that for audiences of the 1950s – when families gathered around the brand new black-and-white television set to watch Davy Crockett and The Lone Ranger, “Howdy Doody” was an after-school delight, and playing “Cowboys & Indians” filled summer breaks – the real, visceral experiences of Frontierland were a joy. Where else could your family load into a Conestoga wagon bound for the Oregon Territory, or straddle a mule as it clipped and clopped through desert rock formations? In Frontierland, pop culture came to life, giving guests the chance to do something extraordinary.

In 1956, the “Painted Desert” underwent a major revitalization. With the addition of the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train, the sprawling property was redesignated Frontierland’s “Living Desert.” 

Boarding from the Old West town of Rainbow Ridge, the clanging bell of the Mine Train signaled guests departure to the distant desert wilderness. The 2’6″ gauge miniature railroad traveled along the Rivers of America, encircling the pouring waterfalls of Cascade Peak before pulling away from the shore and headling inland to the Living Desert itself.

There, the train would pass beneath precariously and comically teetering boulders and past cacti that sometimes looked almost humorously human. Along its course, the Mine Train would dart under, over, and alongside dirt paths traversed by stagecoach and wagon, with single file packs of mules marching in formation. The sprawling Living Desert – filling more than a tenth of Disneyland’s initial 70-ish acres – was built on a scale few others could manage. With no less than four intertwining attractions each sharing its sights. 

But only the Mine Train entered into the fabled Rainbow Caverns themselves: a short dark ride section passing through caves lit by colorful “paint pots,” glowing geysers, and strange rock formations…

In 1960, a reimagining of the Living Desert saw the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train upgraded (and promoted to the most expensive and limited ride coupon: an “E-Ticket”). Though the Living Desert and Rainbow Caverns were maintained, the rest of the railroad’s course would pass through new habitats populated by simple electro-mechanical wildlife figures (the first true Audio-Animatronics were still three years away) as part of the new Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland

Nature’s Wonderland offered to be a Jungle Cruise of the American Southwest; an informative journey through real environments passed through Disney’s lens of fantasty, and populated by showstopping “wildlife” figures that would delight audiences.

There was just one problem: Walt himself apparently didn’t think the ride was quite where it ought to be… Though the scenery was beautiful and the few animal figurines were realistic, the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train bordered on boring. And Walt had just the person to transform this leisurely train ride into a true E-Ticket to stand alongside the Jungle Cruise.

Marc Davis

To help, Walt called over to the Studio and to one of his most accomplished animators: Marc Davis, one of the core “Nine Old Men.” Having served as the lead designer and animator of the title character from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Mr. Toad and “The Wind in the Willows” cast of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Cinderella herself (1950), Alice from Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell (1953), Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora and Maleficent (1959), and Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians (1961), Marc had just the bona fides to add a little character and comedy to Disneyland’s rides.

Walt asked Marc to bring his character eye and penchant for perfectly staged animated scenes to Disneyland, and particularly to take a “good, hard, critical look” at the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train. “There was an awful lot of things wrong,” Imagineering Disney reports Davis saying. “They had no gags in it; no story at all… One kit fox’s head is going up and down, then about a hundred feet away another kit fox’s head is going left to right, so I took the two, put them nose to nose, so one is going up and down, the other moves side to side, so immediately you have humor!”

An “outsider” from animation called into critique Imagineers’ pet projects, Davis initially made few friends at WED Enterprises. However, few could argue with the results: Davis’ undeniable knack for comedy, staging, and just the right amount of comic exaggeration and personification saw Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland reborn with new life and joy. All said and done, over 200 figures were constructed for the final version of the ride, many based on Marc’s design or staging.

(He’d be tasked with applying the same lens to the Jungle Cruise, adding humorous and perfectly-staged scenes like the “Trapped Safari” and “Elephant Bathing Pool” soon after. Then, he’d go on to design characters for the Modern Marvel: The Enchanted Tiki Room, then spearhead the lighthearted, character-filled, singalong second halves of both Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.) 

On the next page, we’ll take a ride through Nature’s Wonderland that have been lost to time…

When you step into Frontierland at Disneyland, you join the great legends of the Old West – explorers, trappers, traders, and travelers who faced the unknown in America’s age of “Manifesting Destiny.” The dusty town of Frontierland is just the place to secure a ‘coon skin cap, a pop gun, or some Doritos before rejoining the trail in a wagon or on horseback, continuing the long and dangerous journey.

But of course, if you hook a right where Frontierland’s “Main Street” meets the Rivers of America, you’ll stumble across the little mining village of Rainbow Ridge, settled high on a hillside. It’s always a beautiful day in Rainbow Ridge – the last outpost of civilization. This is where Frontierland dead-ends. There’s no safe passage to Fantasyland here. What lies beyond is the great, untouched, uncharted wilderness of the North American frontier: Nature’s Wonderland.

Rainbow Ridge is a hive buzzing with activity. From this clapboard town departs both lines of Pack Mules headed off into the desert and gleaming gold and green ore carts of the Mine Train. Though the two will criss-cross through the wilderness, it’s the latter that’ll serve as our transportation today. It’s a miniature railroad – just a 2’6″ gauge (the Disneyland Railroad has a 3′ gauge) – but that’ll be plenty to tour us through the wonders that await beyond Frontierland… 

Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland

With guests loaded onto the inward-facing benches of their ore cars, the journey can begin. The train lumbers to life, advancing out of Rainbow Ridge and into a tunnel through the hillside. The voice of an old prospector (provided by acclaimed actor and frequent Disney collaborator Dallas McKennon) narrates our journey:

“Howdy, folks! Welcome to the little minin’ town of Rainbow Ridge, the gateway to Nature’s Wonderland. As we head for the wilderness, a couple of suggestions: please stay seated at all times, and keep yer hands and arms inside the train. The animals get mighty hungry. And, uh, no smokin’ please, ’cause we don’t want to start a forest fire. Now, beyond these hills lies Nature’s Wonderland. Yer apt to see a whole lotta wildlife, so keep a real sharp hunter’s eye…

Our train emerges from the darkened tunnel in a space that lives up to the “Wonderland” designation – a forested grove of soaring trees and babbling brooks known to our prospector as Beaver Valley. (It’s hard to believe this was an orange grove less than a decade earlier.)

As the train lumbers across an elevated, wooden trestle, beavers bob up and down in the water below, constructing a dam of branches and twigs while others gnaw on trees along the shore.

On a rocky outcropping above, marmots raise and lower from burrows, chirping and chittering at the passing train. “Them little marmots over the tunnel must be a-whistlin’ to all you pretty gals. I can’t say I blame ’em,” he laughs. The track ahead curves to the left, gliding into the tunnel beneath the marmots.

Mine Train Cascade Peak

When we emerge, we find ourselves along the Rivers of America, on a track curving around the legendary Cascade Peak. Though it’s only 75 feet tall, the peak benefits from Disney’s spectacular “forced perspective,” with artificially-stretched and skewed proportions. Cascade Peak serves as a visual icon for the entire Rivers of America – a Western equivalent of the Matterhorn. Waterfalls pour from the peak, pooling and cascading down plateaus to churn the waters that encircle Tom Sawyer Island.

“If you’ve never gone beneath a waterfall before, then get set, ’cause we’re comin’ up on Big Thunder, the biggest falls in all these here parts. Yuh don’t hafta worry, though… unless the wind changes! Them other two falls, they call the Twin Sisters – I reckon that’s ’cause they’re always babblin’!”

Passing along the “back side of water” from Big Thunder (perhaps the Ninth Wonder of the World?), trains glide along the Rivers of America, briefly returned to Frontierland’s wide vista with oncoming riverboats, criss-crossing canoes, and folks climbing along Tom Sawyer Island on the opposite shore. Just as quickly, the ore carts disappear behind Cascade Peak and back into the remote Nature’s Wonderland…

Now, we’re in Bear Country. The train slows as it tackles the rickety trestle. Better safe than sorry since, below and on either side, bears follick and fish in the water. On shore, a family of bears scratches against trees. “You know, bears are one of the most playful animals there is. Lazy, too. All they wanna do is lay around and scratch and fish and swim… that is, when they ain’t sleepin’!” 

Ahead to the right, though, is a reminder that Nature’s Wonderland isn’t all beauty and play. “Sometimes she can be a mighty rugged place to live. Out here in the wilderness, the struggle for survival leaves only the strong and sometimes the lucky. Say, look on that bank, ‘cross Bear Creek, there…”

The two stags – forever locking antlers – are two of the most impressive figures in any Disney Parks attraction of the era. They heave and push against each other, their legs gripping against the rock as they take turns edging toward defeat. “Now there’s a real struggle for survival. Two stags are battlin’ for them cow elk. Maybe you folks can tell me, though—does gettin’ two womenfolk mean you’re the winner or the loser? Never could figger that’n out!”

Ahead, the red rock of the Natural Arch presides over the entrance to the Living Desert. Timing it just right, we might even see a line of real Pack Mules – with real guests on their back – marching up across the fantastic natural feature.

“Ya know, the desert’s a dry place, and full of some pretty mean varmints. Gotta be careful of sidewinders, wild pigs, and even mountain lions. But the desert’s got her beauty, too.”

Passing by Rainbow Peak for now, the train chugs out into the vast desert. Eagle-eyed guests may spot elf owls perched atop rocks, antelopes drinking from a desert pool, or ring-tailed cats basking on sun-baked stones. A bobcat perches atop a cactus, surrounded in a family of wild pigs that’ve left him in a “sticky situation.”

“Now ahead of us, folks, is a giant saguaro cactus forest. The desert heat sometimes gets to ya and makes these here cactus take on strange shapes, like animals… and sometimes even people.”

Rounding the corner, the train chugs past “the Devil’s Paint Pots” – bubbling pools of colorful mud – “a real mystery of the desert.” Evidence of the immense geothermal power of the desert, the “Paint Pots” give way to geyser country, sending streams of sizzling water skyward. “I’m sure glad you all brought your rain coats,” the prospector offers as we approach “Ole’ Unfaithful” which threatens to erupt right on top of us! 

The train passes by the den of mountain lion, then by the resting place of a much more ancient predator: the sun-bleached bones of a T. rex, embedded in the red desert rock. Rabbits, tortoises, badgers, rattlesnakes, roadrunners, gila monsters, and armadillos can be found among the desert landscape, all in the shadow of a coyote that reigns over all, howling from a rock face. Then, it’s on to the teetering Balancing Rock Canyon where boulders teeter and topple toward guests.

Finally, the rails lead through a tunnel into Rainbow Peak for our last stop. “Now, we’re goin’ deep into the earth to view the dazzling Rainbow Caverns. You’ll see giant stalagmites, stalactites, an’ colorful falls on every side. Say, if ya look real careful, you’ll see geyser grotto, an’ even the witch’s cauldron…”

Natures Wonderland Map

The prospector goes quiet as heavenly music reverberates through the caves. The sun disappears as the dayglo caverns spring to otherworldly life under ultraviolet light. The beautiful, stepped Bridal Veil Falls has churning, foaming water cacading down tiers like a wedding cake; Geyser Grotto (above) has sputtering, glowing geysers. Though brief, the trip through the Rainbow Caverns is a fitting finale for our tour of the wonders of nature.

Exiting the darkness of the caverns, the mine train returns once more to the sleepy desert town of Rainbow Ridge and, beyond, the safety and security of Frontierland.

“Well, I see we’re comin’ back to Rainbow Ridge again. I hope you all enjoyed yer trip into Nature’s Wonderland. Please stay in yer seats until I get the train stopped, will ya? And if ya got a mountain lion sittin’ next to ya, don’t feed ‘im! Just tell ‘im to hop out and hightail it back to his own stompin’ ground. Well, thanks for ridin’ along, and come on back when yer out here in these here frontier parts, will ya? So long!”

We always like to end our in-depth ride histories with a point-of-view video showing what the ride was like. Below is a wonderfully edited look at the key scenes of the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland that we highly recommend. Take a virtual ride before we wrap up the story of this Disneyland classic and how it almost and actually lived on… 


Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland was a treasure. Exporting the idea of the Jungle Cruise to the American Southwest, the ride was somehow more intimate yet more vast than its adventurous cousin. Replacing elephants, hippos, and tigers with bears, beavers, and coyotes, the ride highlighted not only the wildlife of Frontierland, but let guests become “Westward” travelers exploring a new and wild country.

It’s easy to imagine Nature’s Wonderland becoming as quintessentially “Disney” as the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, or the Jungle Cruise itself; in another universe, Magic Kingdom or Tokyo Disneyland might offer 10-acre Wonderlands of their own; Disneyland Paris, a romantic and “in-universe” version of the ride. But Disneyland alone featured Marc Davis’ Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. That’s because when it came time to design Magic Kingdom, he had an even bigger concept teed up to take its place… Read on as we explore the “evolution” of Nature’s Wonderland and its eventual replacement…

Thunder Mesa

When Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, a slight adjustment to the park’s layout saw Frontierland set along the western edge of the Rvers of America rather than the eastern as at Disneyland. Given its placement along the park’s far western edge with practically limitless space beyond the Walt Disney World Railroad, you might’ve expected Magic Kingdom’s Frontierland to contain a sprawling Living Desert or Nature’s Wonderland of its own. But it didn’t. Instead, Frontierland contained only two attractions: Tom Sawyer Island, and a Marc Davis-designed show – the Modern Marvel: Country Bear Jamboree.

The truth is, plans were in the works for the next evolution of Nature’s Wonderland – a headlining, anchor attraction that would change Magic Kingdom forever. Along the Rivers of America’s edge would rise Thunder Mesa, a massive, multi-ride complex celebrating the legends and lore of the Old West.

The centerpiece would be a Western-set equivalent of Pirates of the Caribbean (hence why Magic Kingdom opened without the pirate ride) through western towns inhabited by “Cowboys & Indians,” with guests facing off against waterfalls, mauraders, thieves, and gullywashers.

That dark ride – explored in-depth in our Possibilityland: Western River Expedition feature – would be the centerpiece, but the complex would also contain a log flume through Western scenery and past North American animals, and a “runaway mine train” roller coaster dipping and dodging along plateaus. 

The entire Thunder Mesa complex would’ve been a staggeringly cool evolution of the intersecting rides of the Living Desert, and as colorful and adventurous as Nature’s Wonderland… but of course, it didn’t happen… 

Mountains Rise

Even by the 1970s, the allure of the “Old West” was waning. As it always does, pop culture had simply moved on. “Howdy Doody,” “Davy Crockett,” “Zorro,” and “The Lone Ranger” were remnants of another time. If the construction of Magic Kingdom’s version of Pirates of the Caribbean hadn’t been enough to officially cancel it, Marc Davis’ hopes for a Western River Expedition at Magic Kingdom were scrapped by the Space Age, as young people turned their gaze from America’s idling past to the gee-whiz wonder of outer space.

The 1967 redesign of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland (adding the Rocket Jets, CircleVision, and the Lost Legends: PeopleMover, Carousel of Progress, and Adventure Thru Inner Space) charted a new course for the imagination, but it was 1977’s Space Mountain that sealed the deal. Opening just two days after Star Wars debuted (forever redefining space and sci-fi in the public consciousness), Space Mountain both tapped into then-modern tastes and offered Disney a lower-cost, thrill-focused M.O. to weather the company’s financial downturn of the ’70s.

With Space Mountain as a guide, Imagineers were tasked with separating out the “runaway mine train” developed as part of the Thunder Mesa project and developing it as a standalone experience. The Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland closed forever on January 2, 1977. 

 In 1979, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened at Disneyland, officially replacing Nature’s Wonderland for good. Even so, parts of the ride’s sprawling layout lived on for decades.

  • The path constructed between Frontierland and Fantasyland passed through the old Beaver Valley, with a distant mine tunnel in tact and a few leaping fish figures still visible for those with the patience to carefully observe;
  • Big Thunder Ranch retained many of the red rock pinnacles and natural arches of the Living Desert until it, too, was demolished in 2016 to make way for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge;
  •  Cascade Peak along the Rivers of America outlived the ride by two decades. It was demolished in 1998, allegedly because years without repair had weakened its structural integrity to the point of near-collapse;
  • The tracks visible from the Rivers of America that once circumnavigated Cascade Peak remained even longer. A Nature’s Wonderland mine train parked there as decoration was finally removed in 2010 (today, it can be found at Walt’s Carolwood Barn in Griffith Park) whereas the tracks themselves lasted until the Rivers of America’s re-shaping in 2017 to make way for Galaxy’s Edge;

  • The desert town of Rainbow Ridge was partially salvaged and now resides on the hillsides over the queue for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and along its final brake run near Rancho Del Zocalo. 

Lost Legend

From the Skyway to Alien Encounter; 20,000 Leagues to Horizons; Soarin’ Over California to Body Wars, Disney history is filled with E-Ticket attractions that have been lost to time. Yet despite being one of the largest Disney rides ever designed – and by the legendary animator-turned-Imagineer behind the Jungle Cruise, Tiki Room, and Country Bears, at that – Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland is often overlooked! Maybe it’s because the ride closed five years before any of EPCOT Center’s Lost Legends would even open, making video evidence and first-hand memories scarce.

For generations of Disneyland guests, though, Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland was a formative experience; quite literally, a Frontierland-set version of the Jungle Cruise, with all the joy and wonder and humor that you’d expect from a Marc Davis production.

Walt Disney called on Frontierland to contain the “color, romance and drama of frontier America as it developed from wilderness trails to roads, riverboats, railroads and civilization.” The Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland was a perfect encapsulation of that mindset, and despite its relatively short life, stands among the most legendary attractions Disney Parks have ever hosted. Not ready for the story to end? Dive deeper into Frontierland lore by making the jump to our in-depth features on Magic Kingdom’s Western River Expedition or Disneyland’s Discovery Bay to see what almost was…