The Western River Expedition is often referred to as the “most famous Disney ride that was never built”. The western-themed boat ride, planned for Frontierland at Magic Kingdom, was supposed to be the Disney World alternate to Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Imagineers originally thought that pirates wouldn’t be as interesting to Floridians because it was such a common theme for the area, figuring that a cowboys and Indians theme would be more exciting to Florida residents.
The unbuilt ride was actually imagined as a part of an entire pavilion that featured several different attractions, called Thunder Mesa, that was a historical recreation of the Western Expansion of the United States. Designed over the span of five years, the large project would have been located inside, outside and surrounding Frontierland’s centerpiece Thunder Mountain. Other planned features of the pavilion included hiking trails on top of the mountain, an outdoor log ride, a pueblo Indian village, a pack mule attraction, a runaway mine train, and a nature exhibition with waterfalls, natural arches, and other earthy elements for the Walt Disney World Railroad to pass through.
The Ride Story
Housed in one of the largest show buildings ever created at Disney (64,000 square feet!), the Western River Expedition would have been one of the most expensive and complex attractions at any Disney park. The proposed entrance would have been and old mine shaft titled “Western River Shipping & Navigation Co.” and guests would have wandered through the line in an evening atmosphere before reaching a dock and loading into boats similar to the ride vehicles at Pirates of the Caribbean. The river traveled through caves with stalagmites and stalactites that were shaped like animals and passed a calm wilderness scene with cowboys singing the ride’s theme song around a camp fire as buffaloes and prairie dogs roamed around. After a peaceful beginning, the boats would have come across a group of banditos robbing a stagecoach, who warned riders they’d catch them downriver. Set in a fictional town called Dry Gulch, the next few scenes showcased a musical revue, a bank robbery, prisoners escaping through an underground tunnel, and a saloon filled with cowboys, saloon girls and a bartender. Once back in the wilderness, riders would continue down the river past Indian adobe houses, a rain dance that results in flooding the mesa, and a forest fire. Just before the end of the ride, the banditos would try to rob the boats. Hoot Gibson, an audio animatronic owl, would have served as the ride’s narrator.
What Went Wrong
There were several different factors that came into the decision to scrap the idea. Of course, cost was a major issue due to the size of the project but guests were also disappointed in the lack of pirates at Magic Kingdom from the day the park opened. Disney quickly refocused the budget and put together an eat coast version of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride instead of building The Western River Expedition. Opening other attractions like Space Mountain, Carousel of Progress, The Astro Orbiter, and Tomorrowland Transit Authority used up a large portion of the park’s budget and resources, so the plans for WRE were originally shelved. There were concerns about stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans and declining interest in Western themes that made Disney executives hesitant to reconsider the project for the future, and once ground broke for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in 1979 the plans were officially scrapped because the train ride took up a lot of the land that was set aside for The Western River Expedition. Designer Marc Davis tried to salvage his idea by offering a smaller version of the attraction that would be built on the opposite side of the train tracks as a compromise, but it did not work and all portions of the Western River Expedition were cancelled.
Western River Expedition Leftovers
Although the ride never came to live at Magic Kingdom, there are several elements of the original plans that have made their way to other Disney parks. The raft that transports guests to Tom Sawyer Island at Magic Kingdom was inspired by a raft that would have traveled to the Western River Expedition ride and Big Thunder Mountain was designed as a part of the overall Thunder Mesa concept. Splash Mountain also originated as a log flume ride in the Thunder Mesa complex, but was themed around Song of the South once the plans fell through. Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom was the roller coaster planned for Thunder Mesa, including the backwards element featured on Everest. At Epcot, the stagecoach robbery at World of Motion and the bison and prairie dogs scene at The Land were inspired by the Western River Expedition. Eventually Thunder Mesa did come to life as Disneyland Paris’ version of Frontierland and was strongly influenced by the original concept.