I am a huge fan of roller coasters. At this point of my life, I think I have ridden almost all of the coasters in the New York Tri-State area. Virtually every vacation I have taken has involved a roller coaster ride of some sort. I even proposed to my future husband while on vacation at Cedar Point, on the beach beneath the Magnum XL-200. I don’t think I could choose one favorite coaster based on the sheer ride, but one that I would put at the top of that list for sentimental reasons would be my first coaster, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Walt Disney World. I have been on coasters that are taller, faster, and bigger since my 1986 experience, but Thunder holds a special place for me. So I thought it would be fun to look back, especially now as the ride is currently getting a much-needed refurbishment.
My first trip to Walt Disney World was a present for my third birthday. At the time, there were not many attractions that had a height requirement at the Florida parks. EPCOT Center was still new, and had yet to undergo the thrillification of recent years. The Magic Kingdom had its two roller coaster mountains (Splash would not even begin construction for several years). I had been to parks that were more heavily thrill-based, having lived within driving distance of Knoebel’s, Dorney Park, and Hearsheypark, but I was not yet at the point of tackling their more aggressive rides. Space Mountain would be off limits for another year, leaving Big Thunder as one of the only thrill rides I was tall enough for. Well,… almost.
It turns out I may have been a tiny bit under the 40 inches required to ride. The first cast member we approached did not let me through. Like most children, this did not sit well with me, and I was 100% sure I was ready to move up to the big kid rides. So of course, it merely took a hat, a little straighter standing pose, and a different cast member, and I was in. Before you criticize my parents for this, realize that I really was almost exactly tall enough, and I had already been on rides that went beyond the traditional kiddie rides. But this was the first coaster.
One of my favorite home movies of my childhood is a video of my mother and me on the ride, with my father shooting the footage in the seat behind us. We may not have invented the point of view shot for rides on video, but I would like to think we were part of its early history. This is all the more impressive when you consider the huge (by our current standards) video camera that my father had to mount on his shoulder and hold to capture that footage – while riding the ride himself.
It would remain one of my favorite attractions ever since for this reason, and has been part of my every vacation to Disney World since, with one exception being due to a refurbishment that kept it closed in 1988. By the next year, I was at Space Mountain height, and officially conquered all of the Walt Disney World coasters that existed at the time (both of them!) With almost perfect timing, a golden age of roller coasters began right as I hit my teenage years. Records were shattered, completely new categories (like the inverted coaster) were invented, and most theme parks began to put a heavy emphasis on their coaster count. Disney would go on to construct three more coasters in Florida, with another on the way shortly.
We all love the Disney coasters for their theming. I doubt I need to convince anyone reading this of how well done they are. Big Thunder may well have the most intricate theming of all – any fan knows that mountain peak from anywhere. Rather than just a typical out and back coaster, you get transported to another time and place on this attraction.
But beyond the theme, I believe that Big Thunder often is underrated in terms of its thrill factor. True, there are far bigger and faster coasters in the world, but so many of the current crop fall into what I consider an unfortunate, sanitized ride. Many coasters are now merely copies of those from other parks, with little variation between them. But Big Thunder, while existing at more than one park in the world, has a layout that you will not find outside a Disney Park. Even those who have ridden it numerous times may have trouble simply sitting down and plotting out the course. Also, while even I appreciate a smooth ride, some of these newer rides have gone so far that you barely feel the movement of the train at all. Big Thunder may lack the spine-rattling feel of something like the Coney Island Cyclone, but it has some moments of unexpected roughness that are tame enough to still be a family ride, but sharp enough to catch you off guard and provide moments of real thrill. This is a difficult balance that Thunder achieves perfectly.
My hope now is that the 2012 refurbishment will solve two things that I do not love about this attraction (and all indications point to this being the case). The first is the queue. While hardly being the worst roller coaster queue I have ever waited in, Big Thunder is mainly a collection of switchbacks. Despite the ceiling fans, that building can get terribly hot during the summertime. The somewhat haphazard addition of the Fastpass line has led to numerous reroutes, and an almost pretzel-like standby queue. It seems that they never quite got this to work, so I expect a much better experience here soon.
The second is that in recent years, many of the effects have become non-functional. The most noticeable problem is on the third lift hill in the falling rock room. As a kid, I loved the menacing atmosphere in here. It really felt like the entire mountain was about to cave in on the train. On my last ride through earlier this year, not a single thing worked in this room, and it became little more than an indoor lift hill. I cannot wait to take a ride through with these effects restored.
I imagine that my experience with Thunder as my first coaster is not unique among our readers. Big Thunder does a wonderful job of illustrating how you can achieve high thrills without needing to result to simply being bigger and faster than the competition. There are other Disney coasters, and will be more still in the future, but this one will always remain a favorite of mine.