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The Secrets of Big Thunder Mountain

The Secrets of Big Thunder Mountain

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It is a sad tale that the one of the Ravenswood family that we explored in my first two columns for JHM. A sad tale indeed. Which is why this week I will try to cheer us up by tackling a more enthusiastic, more vibrant aspect of Frontierland's mythology and secrets: the booming town of Thunder Mesa and Big Thunder Mountain, the gold mine that started it all.

In Disneyland Paris, the heart of Frontierland -- according to the mythology created by WDI -- is Big Thunder Mountain. Before gold was found, there was only a fort made of wood standing there, built between 1800 and 1850, Fort Comstock (that name comes from a silver mine in Virginia City, Nevada, the richest mine of the Wild West before the gold rush). And then gold was found and the town mushroomed.

The miners and merchants settled on the Eastern part of town and relaxed at The Lucky Nugget Saloon. The richest members of society built their quarters in the west end, which is where you will discover both the Ravenswood Manor and the Silver Spur Steak House, the richest restaurant in town. Then came the outlaws and the desperados attracted by the newfound wealth. But I am, once again getting ahead of myself, as I will be exploring that story in details in two weeks by visiting most of Frontierland's restaurants. For now, let's focus, as promised, on Big Thunder Mountain.

To be honest, the very mythology of Big Thunder Mountain in Paris is very similar to the one of its US counterparts. The mountain is protected by the Indian Thunder Bird god. When someone tries to rob the richness of the mountain, the god flaps its wings which draws lightning and shakes the earth. Which is why the rocks are falling on you during the visit of the mine. What makes Big Thunder Mountain even more fascinating in Paris, however, are the layers upon layers of details that the Imagineers introduced as well as the challenges that surrounded its building.

Let's starts with the props. Most of them are vintage pieces collected by the Imagineer Pat Burke through a series of amazing adventures lived in Colorado and Arizona. Some of Pat's adventures are told in the book From Sketch to Reality, but those who know Pat say that the most frightening were not mentioned : like the time when he met the "Snake Man", a strange old timer of 86 with a single golden tooth made out of a small polished gold nugget. Pat did dare visit him in his adobe house and realised that he lived there alone among snakes. To find the windmill which stands at the entrance of Frontierland, Pat also explored an area close to an old prison filled with ex-convicts. The family of the man who ended up selling him the mill greeted him in a cart filled with guns. At age 10, the son himself was armed.

Now the nicest part of the story is that after the park opened, Disneyland Paris was contacted by the curator of an English Museum which wanted to known where he could find an other of those vintage concrete-mixers, one of which can be seen at the entrance of the attraction. Irony of the matter: it was the only prop that was not an époque piece, the only element actually built by the Imagineers!

The team that worked with Pat was made up mostly of Irishmen. Unfortunately, while they were used to installing and repairing recent machines, they had never worked on vintage pieces and were not armed with the tools to deal with them. Which explains why they ended up using the real 19th century tools that had been bought as props and would later be installed in the attraction. It was the same team of Irishmen that decided to decorate the back of Big Thunder Mountain with stag antlers as a sign of good luck and to display a shamrock made of horseshoes in the blacksmith area in front of the attraction.

According to WDI mythology, the blacksmith has a story of his own. He was named Jedediah Rose and had fallen in love with a woman called Lavinia, one of the dancers of the Lucky Nugget Saloon. When Lavinia ran away with another man, breaking his heart, Jedediah decided to teach his trade to his daughter, a massive and muscular lady named Lavinia Rose Jr. who did become the new blacksmith when her father passed away.

The story of the mine would not be complete if we did not mention one last curious character, the owner of the store Eureka Mining Supplies and Assay Office. A fanatic of old machinery he had the idea of opening a shop that would sell souvenirs of the mine. While his wife would attend customers in the area of the sweets, he would work on gears and weird gizmos. At the back of his store, according to WDI mythology an elevator shaft links the place to the mine itself.

More than anything else, it is those "invisible" and colorful characters that fascinate me while visiting Disneyland Paris, which is (of course) why, in two weeks we will discover quite a few more of them in the concluding part of this series about Frontierland's secrets.

But before I wrap-up this piece, here are a few more details you may not have noticed. Did you know that :

At the entrance of Big Thunder Mountain, there's a sign saying that tools need to be returned to the manager after use. Jack Ferges was an Imagineer who used to be working in the model shop at WDI, nicknamed Big Jack by his colleagues because of his height. Imagineers paid him an homage by including his name on the sign, modifying it slightly to Jack O'Ferges so that it would sound Irish.

The voice that greets you at the entrance to the attraction is Eddie Sotto's, the lead designer of Main Street.

One of the background elements used to make Big Thunder Mountain even more believable were the trees. Big Thunder Mountain is 33 meters high but to make it look higher, the Imagineers installed bigger trees in the foreground and smaller ones in the background.

While building Big Thunder Mountain in California and at Tokyo Disneyland Imagineers had to take earthquakes into consideration, while in Florida and in France the problem was with the humidity, namely the moss that started to grow on the sides of the mountain. A rocky mountain with green slopes is quite a serious problem in terms of believability. In France, an additional issue was caused by lightening. Imagineers ended up having to camouflage lightning rods at the top of the mountain, which was quite a challenge.

For even more information on Big Thunder Mountain's secrets, let me recommend (as always) Alain Littaye and Didier Ghez's art-book "Disneyland Paris - From Sketch to Reality" (contact [email protected] for information on how to get the signed limited edition) as well as "Once Upon an American Dream - The Story of Euro Disneyland" by Andrew Lainsbury

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