Splashing Into Forbidden Thunder

Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) is the creative arm of the Walt Disney Company. It is responsible for the creation of Disney’s theme parks and amusement rides, resort hotels, water parks, cruise ships, and new media technology (The Walt Disney Co.).

WDI’s group of talented engineers call themselves “Imagineers,” created from the words engineer and imagination (The Walt Disney Co.). The original WDI team (founded in 1952 by Walter Elias Disney to design and build Disneyland) nicknamed themselves “first generation Imagineers.” By 1967, some of the first generation Imagineers had decided to leave WDI because of Walt’s death in 1966; this ushered in a whole new wave of eager engineers to promote Walt Disney’s idea that Disneyland should never be completed. Seventeen year old Tony Baxter decided to work at Disneyland when he first saw Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln- an Audio-animontric character that closely resembles Abraham Lincoln and recites the Gettysburg Address.

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Tony continued to work for five years at Disneyland as a ride operator and ice cream scooper until he submitted a portfolio of theme park attraction plans he created to Walt Disney Imagineering and was asked to join. Young Tony Baxter began under the supervision of first generation Imagineer Clyde Coats (Surrell 62). Since then, Tony Baxter has developed into one of the most-renown second generation Imagineers, creating amusement rides like Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Splash Mountain is a water log-flume ride based off of the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South located at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Tokyo Disneyland (Surrell 91). Disneyland’s Critter Country (one of the many themed areas in Disneyland) was in need of another amusement ride to draw guests to the lesser-loved corner of the park. Then, the only attraction at Critter Country was Country Bear Jamboree- a musical pack of Audio-animatronic bears that sang popular American western tunes (Surrell 80).

Country Bear Jamboree didn’t appeal to as large an audience as the first generation Imagineers believed it would. In 1983, Tony Baxter- along with the other employees at WDI- were presented with the challenge of making Critter Country appeal to every guest that entered Disneyland-at least, that was their goal. On the long commute to his home in Anaheim Hills from Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, Tony Baxter thought about the 1946 Disney animated film based on the “Uncle Remus” tales written by Joel Chandler Harris (Surrell 82). “The film (Song of the South) had the three of the key ingredients that Imagineers look for in a potential theme park attraction: beloved and colorful characters in Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear; lush, richly detailed settings, from Brer Fox’s lair high atop Chickapin Hill to the thorny bowels of the briar patch; and memorable music that included the Academy Award-winning ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’,” (Surrell 83). Tony knew that Song of the South offered a perfect amusement ride, and the movie fit into the theme of Disneyland’s Critter Country (animals and abundant, majestic forests).

And, Tony Baxter had already decided on the perfect title for the attraction: Zip-A-Dee River Run. Later, Tony’s name concept evolved into Splash Mountain once the attraction concept had been given funding by Disney’s president Frank Wells, and CEO Michael Eisner. “Michael suggested Splash, after the film released by Touchstone, and then we added the word ‘Mountain’ because it is so powerful in describing our thrill rides to our guests,” Tony Baxter said (Surrell 88). On July 17, 1989 (Disneyland’s 34th birthday), Splash Mountain became a part of Disneyland history and became the fourth of the Disneyland mountains (Surrell 91). Splash Mountain also set a record for Disneyland with its 52 foot, 47 degree climatic drop down Chickapin Hill at about 40 miles per hour (Surrell 91).

The attraction was an instant hit; every guest wanted their picture taken plunging from Br’er Fox’s lair to their “Laugh’in Place.” At 87 feet, Splash Mountain contributes another spectacular addition to Disneyland’s skyline, which-so far- includes Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Matterhorn Bobsleds, and of course, Walt’s nostalgic Sleeping Beauty Castle. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a train car roller-coaster set in the fictional Big Thunder Mountain and the mining town of Big Thunder. First generation Imagineer Marc Davis originally planned to create an amusement ride in Walt Disney World that would parallel the success of Pirates of the Caribbean (the last theme park attraction Walt Disney personally supervised); it was to be called “Western River Expedition,” (Surrell 60). Marc’s water log-flume ride was going to be set in a mining town, where guests would enjoy a leisurely float into the 1800’s.

And with the vast amount of land Walt bought the Imagineers for Walt Disney World, Marc’s monumentally colossal project would surely find room in Disneyland’s eastern twin. Then young, naive, and intelligent Tony Baxter was introduced to Marc and his prized soon-to-be attraction. Tony offered the suggestion that Marc Davis’ ride become a thrill ride, and that he should incorporate that into Western River Expedition’s story line. So, Tony was given the challenge of splitting Western River Expedition into half: one part of the ride would be Marc’s relaxing river, and the other a mine car exploration through the wilderness. Once Tony Baxter had completed his task, he said, “I don’t like it, it has no story, no theme.

It is just a train rolling across a hillside along a river, nothing more,” (Surrell 63). Card Walker- a first generation Imagineer leading the creation of the new developments for Walt Disney World- loved the stories Tony Baxter told him. He described a rattling, old train car touring through a lone bat cave, plummeting down a rough hillside where a goat held dynamite in its mouth, and slowly moving through a gold mine experiencing an earthquake. He said that he would name this attraction Big Thunder Mountain, after an old Wyoming legend about a sacred mountain that “thundered” whenever miners attempted to excavate its vast amount of precious stones and ore (Birnbaum Guides 65). Tony Baxter was asked to create and lead the production of this magnificent idea of his.

First, Tony built a model of his proposal, with inspiration from Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park (Disney Co.49). Then, Tony Baxter made a story line, just what he thought was lacking in Marc’s Western River Expedition. Baxter produced a glorious, imaginative tale for his mountain: Gold was discovered in Big Thunder country in the 1850’s, shortly after the Gold Rush began near John A. Sutter’s Mill in California, leading to the formation of the BTM Mining Company.

But the locals believed that Big Thunder Mountain and the land around it to be sacred, and a protective force dwelt deep within the mountain to protect it from anyone who might deface it in the pursuit of profit. At first, the mining operation went along without incident, but as the miners began using explosives to blast deeper and deeper into the unforgiving rock and laying tracks for the mine train they’d use to retrieve its golden booty, the mountain’s ancient fury was unleashed. Strange noises emanated from a newly opened mineshaft. The spirits of long-dead miners could be heard tapping on the boarded walls of abandoned tunnels. Cave-ins became common occurrences. And then the narrow-gauge engines began rolling out of the station with no human hands at the controls.

Entire trains, most times packed with unsuspecting passengers, would race driverless, at breakneck speed, along the spiraling steel and wooden track. The miners began to concede that perhaps the locals were right all along. Maybe the mountain- and their mine- was cursed. They abandoned their posts, the BTM Mining Company went bust, and soon Big Thunder became just another ghost town dotting the Old West… (Surrell 64). The Imagineering team was perplexed and quite frankly, in awe of the idea that a roller coaster could have such a strong, well thought out story to accompany Tony’s amusement attraction concept.

Matterhorn Bobsleds and Space Mountain possessed weaker story lines, but WDI- and other theme park creation teams before them- never thought that a roller coaster would ever need, or compliment, a marvelous, genuine story line. Walt Disney Imagineering decided that Big Thunder Mountain Railroad had to be included in Walt Disney World. But Disneyland was in need of an update for its outdated Nature’s Wonderland- a calming train (Walt loved trains) ride through a forest with 204 stuffed animals including beavers, brown bears, and deer. On September 15, 1979, the town of Big Thunder became “the biggest little boom town in the west,” and Disneyland’s guests fell in love with the newest, mysterious mountain in Orange County. Making memorable titles for the mining trains like I.

B. Hearty, I.M. Brave, I.M. Fearless, U.

B. Bold, and U.R. Courageous, even a hint of comedy proved to surround Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Trahan 115). Ironically, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was brought to Walt Disney World in Florida on September 23, 1980, which was about one year later than Disneyland (Surrell 72). Big Thunder Mountain Railroad marked Tony Baxter’s first official creation of his own Disney amusement ride, though in later years, the attraction wouldn’t show as much thrill as Tony Baxter’s later creations, …after all, according to legend, Big Thunder only has 38 living residents, in comparison to India’s Temple of the Forbidden Eye that has, well, none.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye is a dark motion simulator ride in Disneyland’s Adventureland featuring familiar sights and sounds from the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg film series starring Harrison Ford as the adventurous archaeologist/explorer/professor Indiana Jones. Adding America’s favorite snake-hating teacher seemed like a suitable fit for Adventureland’s theme (a mysterious, 1930’s jungle outpost).George Lucas had already worked with WDI to create the wonderfully popular Star Tours in Tomorrowland (based on the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Star Wars movies), and Walt Disney World’s Captain EO (a 3D movie at EPCOT with Michael Jackson as a cosmic space captain); he was eager to work with WDI again. This time, Georege Lucas had also thought of an astonishing story line for the non-existent Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye ride: Hidden deep within the dense jungles of 1935 India, the Temple of the Forbidden Eye was built long ago to honor the powerful deity Mara. According to legend, Mara could “look into your very soul” and grant the “pure of heart” one of three gifts: unlimited wealth, eternal youth, or future knowledge.

But legend also issues a stern warning: “A terrible fate awaits those who gaze into the eyes of Mara!” Indiana Jones commented that “records indicate that many have entered, but few have returned.” Locals attempt to not go near the abandoned shrine, and obviously no living person has taken residence in the temple. Professor Jones and his team have ventured into the ruined temple, but have yet to return. Tony Baxter was asked to design, monitor, and build the Indiana Jones theme park attraction…with the help of Lucas’ big-screen, intelligent, and handsome character. Tony was experienced in Imagineering, having led the making of the widely loved Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain theme park rides. Though many of his colleagues thought that a walk-through attraction, or even a roller coaster, would impact the audience to the degree required for their Indiana Jones ride, Tony offered another intriguing notion.

“I thought about riding my Jeep Cherokee through an ominous temple in India,” Tony Baxter said (The Walt Disney Co.). Other WDI employees embellished Tony’s proposal; what if the Jeep was an old 1930’s, Jeep-like military troop transport vehicle? Walt Disney Imagineering-and Tony for that matter- were not going to settle with an outdated car only following a steel track. Thus, EMV technology was created, and patented in November, 1995. EMV is an acronym for Enhanced Motion Vehicle (Wright 38).

Basically, a car (or a 1930’s military troop transport, for example) would be positioned on a platform capable of moving and operating separately from the rest of the attraction due to an onboard mini-computer. The platform- being Disney- wouldn’t just move; it would also be able to ascend, descend, replicate sliding down stairwells, fall, bump, produce a variety of jumps, sharply turn corners, and duplicate rough surfaces (Wright 38). Specifically, Imagineers designed the EMV’s at Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye to have about 160,000 different combinations for park guests to experience during the ride. After WDI had conceived the transportation for Mara’s deadly Indian shrine, they next had to develope the shrine. First, Tony Baxter’s team of (about) 100 engineers, architects, and artists began with idea of guests first encountering the “Chamber of Destiny”- a corridor that leads to three more rooms where visitors would receive their much-sought-after rewards bestowed by the goddess, Mara (earthly riches, eternal youth, and knowledge of the future).

After that, Disneyland’s customers would either be guided to “The Observatory of the Future”, “The Fountain of Eternal Youth”, or “The Chamber of Earthly Riches,” (Trahan 72). Tony’s group decided to build only one room that would interchange colors and elements to give the impression of a specific room, depending on the destination the troop transport vehicle took. The Observatory of the Future would have thousands of fiber optic stars, and purple lighting to give the mood of celestial wisdom and mystery. The Chamber of Earthly Riches would give the impression that the walls are encrusted with solid gold/precious gemstones, and would portray a greedy- yet foreboding- ambience. Finally, the Fountain of Eternal Youth would possess several jugs- assumed to be filled with water- and have turquoise lighting that extends the feel of exuberance. An ignorant tourist has to stare where his and/or her eyes don’t belong, so the 12 person car would plummet into a menacing cavern of death, where all their hopes of prizes are soon lost…and maybe even their lives.

From there, willing victims are bound to meet giant snakes, mummies, fire pits, skeleton warriors, poisonous darts, polluted rats, venomous spiders, and other creepy crawlies. The finale involves a giant rolling boulder. Thankfully, a thought-to-be lost friend saves you, and mutters a witty, sarcastic comment such as “tourists, why did it have to be tourists?” or “that wasn’t so bad” as he nonchalantly fans himself with his fedora. Audio-animatronics would come to create Harrison Ford’s metal twin (Trahan 72). Tony Baxter needed money to aid the cost of building such an immense theme park ride. Walt Disney Corporation enlisted AT;T to provide funding for the construction of Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye.

Later, Imagineers thought that it would be neat to add a language to the attraction that is decipherable only to those who have an AT;T decoder card- which were going to be given out the day Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye (Trahan 74). On March 3rd 1995, visitors waiting to board the attraction were able to translate the eerie writing conveniently placed on the walls of the entrance queue. Now, tourists visiting Disneyland are only able to obtain an AT;T decoder card from Ebay, but their unforgettable experience braving “The Temple of the Forbidden Eye” promises to be priceless. Tony Baxter has contributed Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye to Disney’s history; designing and adding excellent ideas that every Disney park visitor- from across the world- is sure to recall with a few laughs, smiles, and chuckles.

Disneyland and Disney World customers escape from the wrath of an ancient, angry mountain at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Splash Mountain gives everyone something to laugh about with Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Fox. Finally, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye bestows tourists with the knowledge of the future, plentiful godly riches, and immortality…just before they are hurled to their doom. And, just as classic Mickey Mouse ears are routinely delivered at Disneyland’s gift shops; Tony Baxter’s theme park rides routinely deliver thrill and amusement.