Coaster Kingdom

Big Thunder Mountain, Disneyland Paris
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

With the best chef, the best ingredients and a meal that is likely to appeal to anybody with good taste, you would obviously have a recipe for success.

The same could be said of theme park rides. Cooking up a meal to be proud of are the so-called Imagineers, supplying the ingredients, one of the largest manufacturers in the world, Vekoma, and the already renowned feast they were to prepare for the opening of Disneyland Paris (then EuroDisney), was Big Thunder Mountain, a ride almost anybody who isn't under a rock can relate to.

Like all attractions at Disneyland Paris, modest changes were made to the method in which the ride was presented. The principle theme remains, but a few tweaks and modifications made sure this ride surpassed similar rides at the other Magic Kingdom parks the world over.

It is Frontierland that is home to the rustic wooden buildings with verandas and walkways of Thunder Mesa. These buildings and the pathways of Frontierland surround the lake in which the 200ft tall red-rock island home to the Thunder Mesa Mining Company, around which the huge paddle steamers orbit.

Often trains will curl around the many tri-coloured peaks of the mountain supported by the superficially rotting wooden track-work. Dilapidated buildings perch precariously on the rock, and towards the front every minute a train will dive into view, skimming the lake and disappearing briefly behind a splash of water before turning out of view once again.

The sharp bands of rock that make up the rugged landscape are interspersed by ramshackle buildings, wooden track-work and lush flora of the mountain, whilst in front the turquoise blue water of the lake contrasts well with the opulent red and brown rock of the land mass.

The entrance to Thunder Mountain is to the right of where you enter Thunder Mesa. Making use of the Fast Pass system that now operates on most major means that you can either effectively book a ride by taking a ticket and returning at the time quoted, or by joining the more traditional stand-by queue meaning you literally queue for the ride.

Initially the queue takes place outside in front of the station building. From a mineshaft to your left, every minute-or-so, a train will come thundering out from the darkness before heading around a corner back to the station.

As proof of the mine's hey-day, rusting mining machinery corrodes and dilapidated buildings rot. Attention to detail is remarkable, and you soon enter a large tin-roofed building in which the queue relentlessly zig-zags. Fortunately, by this point the queue has split in two so you will only walk half of the queues that confront you.

Once into the depths of the building you descend down a ramp into the station. The station is huge with the two queues going downward in tandem to the centre of the platforms. The two tracks into the station run parallel with the control booth directly in front.

Should you either wish to ride in the back or front of the ride, ask nicely and the staff are more often than not happy to hold you back for the next train. Once the preceding train is unloaded and the air-gates open, you are free to board the roomy train.

There is just one loose-fitting lap bar per bench, of which there are three per car adding up to a total of 30 riders per train - it's easy to cram a child in, too, so you can get a theoretical 45 in a train should there be enough children kicking around. As mine train cars go, these are perhaps the most comfortable you could ask for.

A red lantern hanging from the corrugated tin roof goes out and the train gradually begins to roll into the darkness. As the back of the train approaches the end of the platform, the pace gets more and more rapid before the train lurches into a pitch black tunnel swooping in the darkness to the right-hand side before a deafening clatter of anti-rollbacks drowns out the screams as the train comes to a halt on the first of three lift hills.

Bravo. The lift hill takes place deep inside the mine with stalactites hanging from above, and glistening pools of water created between stalagmites reaching towards the roof. Towards the top of the lift, arms outstretch into the waterfall that skims the right-hand ride of the train as you come out into daylight.

It was through the tunnel you crossed from the mainland station onto the island section of the attraction, a unique feature that no other Disney Thunder Mountain ride has.

As you curl over the top of the lift, you begin the coiling descent around the mountain. Smooth and fast helixes take you around the mountain, surrounding the many peaks and through the gorges created by the spectacular landscape.

A tight spiral takes you to the front of the mountain where you dive under a family of possums hanging from a dead branch above which spin as you race down towards a precarious bridge taking you over a stretch of water.

You dive down to this treacherous structure, buildings to the right perched on the red-rock mountain are a blur as the train lurches downwards appearing to skim the water. From the right, a splash of water will spray a dense mist into the air, often refreshingly hitting your face.

You turn sharply to the left before you clatter to a halt on the second lift. As you climb behind the tumbledown buildings you just stormed by, a goat heaves on drying clothes hanging on a line. The train curls over the top of the lift into the frantic section following featuring more tight helixes and even a reasonably straight drop.

As you approach a mine entrance the train passes a sign warning of the TNT in the next cave. As the train ascends the final lift, the rumble of dynamite loudens to a thunder as rocks move and threaten to fall as the train lurches to the side as it scrambles to the top of the lift.

Once at the top, you dive off into the inky darkness as you frantically make your escape back under the lake. The pitch black is broken by the eerie eyes of bats glowing, and as you get faster and faster, you turn harshly to the left before heaving back up into sunshine and hitting the final brake run.

Get your coat, El Diablo - this is how a mine train SHOULD be done.

In perfect measurements, it is almost impossible to get a more varied ride. There are some really fast sections taking place high up the mountain. Often, the track will bury its way into the mountainside offering some great visuals.

Both of the tunnels are long and house more than just straight track. The water splash doesn't add too much to the ride, but comical tongue-in-cheek aspects like the goat tugging at the clothes on the washing line and the possums spinning from the branch break up the chaos of the coaster.

It has obviously been accepted that lift-hills are dead boring. Therefore, the boredom is kept at bay by having beautiful pools of water below the first, the second the view (and that pesky goat...), and the third almost has half of Thunder Mesa showering down on you.

The idea of having the mountain completely independent to the rest of Frontierland is a great one and means that you are guaranteed at least two tunnels.

Whilst the ride wouldn't be dead boring without the mountain, it really would lose a lot through not having the great visuals, the little touches that make the ride so much better than the meagre copies that have spread throughout the world.

Thunder Mountain really highlights what rubbish we take for granted at theme parks. Supposed rival parks insist on copying what is now one of the most unoriginal themes and end up butchering the concept, watering it down and ending up with a weak family coaster where the theme rarely stretches further than a chimney on the lead car. Why bother if you are going to end up with an inferior product? Disney has shown us how a mine train SHOULD be done and at the end of the day, Big Thunder Mountain is in my opinion the best coaster in the park because of this.

Please, do not use our ratings to compare rides head-to-head. They rate only how well this ride meets its own objectives using criteria that may not necessarily be relevant with similar reviews.

Good points:

  • One of the best family coasters in the world which is exciting for children and adults alike
  • With lots of trains, a dual-loading station and the ability to squeeze three small people into a row, the capacity on Big Thunder Mountain is hard to beat
  • Some of the best theming you're ever likely to encounter on a coaster
  • Superb pacing and a fantastic finale

Bad points:

  • Big Thunder Mountain is a universally popular ride which means that it can get busy, and despite being fast moving, the queue is an utterly dreadful design
  • Not much of a spectator's ride with much of the ride hidden on the mountain itself

Labels: , ,