D-Tales #14 – Hidden Disney History at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

in D-Tales, Magic Kingdom

The “wildest ride in the wilderness” has long been a fan favorite for its immersive sets, family-friendly thrills, and intricate details. A refurbishment a few years ago of the queue area at Magic Kingdom added entire new layers of such details, many of which pay tribute to Disney’s own theme park history.

Shortly after the queue begins, look up to find a painting of a mountain range. Look closer, and you’ll see it’s actually the Big Thunder mountain range. More specifically, there are peaks here that recall Big Thunder in Orlando and others that look like the slightly different version in Anaheim. And on the far right side, watch for an arch, meant to capture a similar feature at Big Thunder in Disneyland Paris.


High in the rafters is a portrait of Barnabas T. Bullion, the gold magnate ostensibly behind this mining operation. But look again. This is actually a portrait of Imagineer Tony Baxter, who dreamed up the original idea for Big Thunder back in the 70s. This is actually the second location for the portrait; it was originally down at ground level, but it was defaced rather quickly and had to be redone and moved out of reach.

There are some fun and games snuck into the queue too, such as this sign. Most of it is meant to be serious theming, but it’s attributed at the bottom to G. Willikers (say it out loud to get the joke).

Another Tony Baxter reference can be found on this patent–his name is at the top. Interestingly, the patent number is real and actually for a train brake (amazing what you can find on the Internet these days), though T. Baxter is not associated with the real patent.

There are a ton of insider references on this “fusing cage,” among them such familiar Imagineer names as Blaine Gibson, Steve Burke, Fred Joerger, and Marc Davis.

“Western River Expedition” was actually going to be the equivalent to Pirates of the Caribbean for Magic Kingdom, which opened without a pirate ride since the real Caribbean is so close. But people wanted it, since they’d seen it at Disneyland, and a pirate ride was eventually built. The Western River ride was a similar boat ride past animatronic scenes, at least in the planning stages.

Ol’ Faithful is of course a geyser, but it has some special resonance with Big Thunder. At Disneyland, Big Thunder replaced Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, which featured Ol’ Faithful in the attraction. So even though Orlando’s Big Thunder never had an Ol’ Faithful, Disneyland’s did.

More puns: “boom, boom, boom”:

“Light ’em and hide!”

In one of the stranger Easter eggs, look for the stars of the Apple Dumpling Gang, Don Knotts and Tim Conway, on this sign. Apparently the Imagineer who re-did the queue thought the Apple Dumpling Gang was, after all, a good enough movie to warrant the mention!

On one map of the Big Thunder tunnels, you’ll find mention of Rainbow Caverns. There’s something like that in Orlando’s attraction on the lift hill, as there is at Disneyland’s too. At Disneyland, the term Rainbow Caverns had specific meaning, as it was the finale of that former ride in Big Thunder’s location, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland (it’s no coincidence that slow-moving train ride was originally named Rainbow Caverns Mine Train!)

At last, the macaws at the Tiki Room can rest easy. We finally know what happened to Rosita. She became a mine bird to warn miners of danger!

Another mention of the Apple Dumpling Gang on this sign:

The Mile Long Bar was a counter-service restaurant with mirrors on both ends (giving the impression of lasting a mile long) next to Pecos Bill, roughly where the exit hallway to Country Bears is now.

And finally, this crate on a dock facing Tom Sawyer Island (technically visible only when on the steamboat) is one of the strangest insider jokes of all time. Hiram Abiff is the (fictional) person at the center of a story associated with Freemasonry, as are those tool symbols on the side of the crate. I haven’t yet figured out why the secretive Freemasons are honored at the Magic Kingdom, but one assumes some Imagineer at one point had a connection.


About Kevin Yee

If you like D-Tales, you’ll love Kevin Yee’s book Walt Disney World Hidden History (second edition, 2014). This softcover book tracks Disney “hidden history” — remnants of former attractions and tributes to Imagineers as well as other Disney officials — hiding in plain sight in the parks. There are over 300 entries in the book! Whether tribute or remnant, each item discussed starts with something visible in today’s parks; the idea is that this is something you could visit and see with your own eyes, and then appreciate the historical thinking behind it. Since most visitors aren’t local, the book includes a photo of every item discussed so you’ll know what to look for. The softcover book has a digital counterpart with the Kindle version. (You can also read a Kindle book on PC or Mac even without a Kindle device – the software itself is free.)

Kevin is also the author of the recently-published book The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2014, an annual publication ($12.99) that tracks all the additions and removals from the WDW parks, providing full-color photo-rich retrospectives of everything.


  1. FigmentJedi

    Bullion ended up being a big part of the Thunder Mountain comic Marvel did last summer, but I didn’t realize that the character of Wilikers was taken from the new queue as well.

  2. hale-bopp

    Okay, one question. When you are about to board the ride, there is a sign on the wall that says “Telegraph Office Morris Code Manager Exit”. Knowing that it’s Morse Code, I suspect this misspelling is a hidden reference/tribute to someone. Any ideas?

    I took a picture of it but don’t see a way to post it here.

    1. I saw the same misspelling on a recent trip. Can’t find anything on line so maybe I’ll contact Disney directly and ask them. Weird, my husband, a HAM for 60 years can’t figure it out either

  3. Chelsea

    Apple Dumpling Gang actually was Disney’s biggest box-office hit in the ’70’s to warrant a (completely unnecessary) sequel, so yes, it was definitely good enough to warrant inclusion on the ride.

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