The idea that Big Thunder Mountain Railroad would be a story that happened to be told via a roller coaster was quantum leap forward in the art of Imagineering and theme park storytelling. Big Thunder built on what Matterhorn Bobsleds and Space Mountain had accomplished before it, and set the stage for even more story-driven thrill rides in the years to come, including Splash Mountain and Expedition Everest, making the attraction something of the proverbial “missing link” between past and future Disney mountains.
p. 64, Disney Mountains by Jason Surrell
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was the first Disney Mountain that didn’t need a story crafted around it; mainly it was created as the story of a runaway mine train through a deserted and haunted mining town. It took its cues and some of its scenery from a previous attraction: the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. What is revolutionary about the story telling is that you didn’t need a set-up. The Imagineers struggled with a reason to have the Matterhorn at Disneyland and they grappled with a reasonable story for Space Mountain. Big Thunder is pretty straight forward–you are riding on an out of control mine train through a deserted mining town. Past flooded-out buildings, animals perched precariously on boulders and falling rocks and cave-ins. It is a simple story, but it works.
Coming from the vantage point of today’s park guest, Big Thunder might seem a little plain and stunted after witnessing Splash Mountain and Expedition Everest. After seeing the stories told by Splash and Everest, you might miss the simpler story in Big Thunder. Splash and Everest are two rides that are unparalleled in their storytelling. For Splash, the story set-up begins once you start in your log and doesn’t stop until you exit the log. For Everest, it starts in the queue–the Imagineers finally made the leap of creating a seamless queue/ride experience with the amazing Everest queue (although I would argue that the Indiana Jones Adventure has the best queue of all). You can argue that you do get some of the story in the Splash queue, with the attraction posters, but it isn’t as in your face as Everest.
For the trivia buffs out there: The Disneyland version was modeled after Bryce Canyon, Utah and the Walt Disney World ride was inspired by Monument Valley on the border of Utah and Arizona.