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There is no question that Big Thunder Mountain is one of the Magic Kingdom’s most popular attractions at Walt Disney World–if not the most popular. It represents so much of what Disney does well–a fun coaster attraction set in the theme of canyons found in southern Utah. It’s pure western charm and folklore and yet it’s a great ride!
I have scores of photos from this attraction, and yet I never had one of the upstairs queue. It was simply a mazed weave going back and forth until you headed downstairs to catch the train. Essentially it was wood on wood. If anything, you looked out over the mountain and watched the trains come in and out to keep yourself busy. If you were smart anyway, you got a FastPass so as to be able to bypass most of the queue and head right toward the train.
But all of that has changed. With the additional focus on the new Magic+ program where more people will be planning on using the FastPass system, Disney has been reinforcing the experience in the stand-by line. Winnie the Pooh and the Haunted Mansion has already had very unique additions added to their waiting areas. Now Big Thunder Mountain offers hers. Haunted Mansion is only one part of the queue. Winnie the Pooh is really more for children. This queue is much more than either of those previous interactive queues, and keeps everyone quite entertained.
It’s all set against a backstory of Barnabas T. Bullion (who looks very much like BTM’s own creator Tony Baxter). As president of the Big Thunder Mining Company you now visit the mountain’s mining office, the explosives magazine room, the foreman’s post and the ventilation room. In truth, it’s the same meandering queue, but boy! It has changed. The theming explodes (sorry the pun) with details and hands-on activities that could keep you busy for a good long stand-by wait.
The best part of this is the crank and detonator cases that face along the open-air window to the mountain. The premise is simple: Crank it up, and then blast. Out comes a spew of smoke and explosion from the mountain. There’s several locations where blasting is occurring, and each crank and detonator sets off a different site.
Further on in the foreman’s post you can look down through a series of windows into the mines themselves to see what action is going on. Each scene isn’t more than about 10 seconds in length, thus keeping everyone moving along. Take a look. there are lots of scenes, and they are all humorous.
Before heading into the next room, stop and study the map.
You can tell that Imagineers have put a lot of time and detail into the backstory of all of this, so that you get a sense that this mountain really is a mine, and not just a facade to a coaster. Other signs tie Big Thunder Mountain into the entire Disney “Frontier” nomenclature as it were. References are made to Tumbleweed, Pecos Bill, Thunder Mesa and Rainbow Ridge. At some point, you start thinking these places really exist!
Further on you see what seems to be generators. Crank them up and you get a sort of old-time animation in the form of something similar to a Phenakistoscope. Each image displays horses, or buffalos, or in one case–two Phenakistocopes facing each other with the men having a shoot out.
Beyond that you see the AutoCanary devices. In a previous article I talked about the concept of a Canary in the mine shaft. Here air from the mine with its different smells is pumped out to you while the canary looks on and responds. Above you are assortments of different bird cages all hung waiting to be used. Very cute, very clever stuff.
Again, all of this occupies you in such a way that the queue is constantly in a stop-start continuum. It would be comparable to the interactive video game placed in the queue at Space Mountain. The protocol has not been completely defined as to whether you as a guest are fully justified walking around someone who is currently interacting with these devices. You don’t want to be rude–but you may not want to wait to play with them yourself. And like Space Mountain–if you walk around them, your time in the queue will go faster. But you will have missed a big part of the experience.
From an operations point-of-view, there were many cast members on the first day of operation gauging how long people were taking at each of the stations, and how the traffic was moving along. The AutoCanary devices are just before a turn that merges you into the FastPass group to form the final queue. If it’s backed up, more FastPass guests will be going ahead of you, while guests enjoying the interactive queue are holding up the standby wait even longer.
Certainly there are some challenges to be worked out. But all of this is part of Disney’s NextGen investment, designed to do four things:
1. Keeping Walt Disney’s promise of always “plussing up” the park.
2. Keep people immersed in the story and experience while in line, rather than looking at their mobile device.
3. Keep those in the stand-by line happy while many FastPass guests–including those who may pay extra for that privilege–moving through other queues and to the front of the ride.
4. Reinvesting in the aging infrastructure of the Magic Kingdom by keeping its current attractions fresh and appealing.
Relative to the last point, the new restroom area bordering between Fantasyland and Liberty Square is set to open soon. That too is part of this larger initiative–not just because it will have locations to re-energize your mobile device–but because the space dedicated to the old restrooms are being re-utilized into an interactive queue for Peter Pan.
It’s a unique time for Walt Disney World–and especially for the Magic Kingdom. And if Big Thunder Mountain is a hint of even greater things to come, it should be an exciting time–even if you’re in the standby line.
Do you want see more? There are plenty more photos and even videos at my Facebook page. You will be astonished how much attention is shown to the detail of this attraction. Enjoy!