Disney’s Never Built Western River Expedition

Disney's Never Built Western River Expedition

When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, guests on the east coast were thrilled to finally be able to experience the popular Pirates of The Caribbean attraction from Disneyland. Much to their disappointment, no such ride existed at the Florida park. While Walt Disney World was in development, the imagineers believed Floridians were too familiar with pirate stories. With pirates being so ingrained in the culture of Florida, why would Floridians want more pirates at Walt Disney World? Surely they wouldn’t be interested in a pirate attraction at the park. So, the imagineers decided that the southeastern region of the country would be more interested in an attraction with a less familiar theme. Perhaps an attraction themed around the wild west would be more appealing to visitors to the eastern Disney park.

Imagineer Marc Davis was in charge of the development for the wild west themed Walt Disney World project. The new attraction would be called Western River Expedition. Located in a new section of the park called Thunder Mesa, guests would enter the attraction through a cave where they would be transported to a canyon at twilight. The queue path would then lead guests to a dock where they would board boats similar to those found in Disneyland’s Pirates of The Caribbean attraction. Once on board, Hoot Gibson the animatronic owl would give safety instructions to the passengers. The boats would then proceed up a waterfall and through the western town of Dry Gulch.

While traveling through Dry Gulch, guests would view a musical show taking place. The show begins with cowboys strumming guitars and singing the Western River Expedition’s theme song. Various other animatronic characters would carry on the song throughout the remainder of the attraction. Guests would witness bandits, dance hall girls performing for cowboys, and even a cowboy with his horse on the roof of the saloon. As the boat rounds the corner, a gunfight suddenly breaks out between bank robbers and the sheriff.

After fleeing the gunfight, passengers would travel through a Native American village. Some of the Indians have gathered for a rain-dance while the medicine men shake gourds. Suddenly lightning strikes, sparking a forest fire. As the boats continue to travel downriver, guests realize the bandits have finally caught up with them. Luckily, they are able to escape the impending robbery via a conveniently placed waterfall leading to the ride’s exit.

While the Western River Expedition would have no doubt become a classic attraction at Walt Disney World, its development was halted before the attraction could be built. Upon the Magic Kingdom’s opening in 1971, many guests asked why there was no Pirates of The Caribbean attraction at Walt Disney World. Many had seen the attraction showcased on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color television program. They arrived, excited to experience the ride for themselves at the Florida park, only to be disappointed upon discovering Pirates of The Caribbean did not exist at Walt Disney World. Due to the overwhelming demand for the attraction, Disney decided to build a Florida version of the popular Pirates of the Caribbean. The attraction opened in 1973.

Unfortunately, the construction of Pirates of The Caribbean depleted the budget needed for the Western River Expedition attraction. There were talks of adding in this attraction later, but due to several factors, including the ride being so similar to Pirates of The Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad occupying the space originally intended for Western River Expedition, the attraction was never realized.

Disney's Never Built Western River Expedition - Inspiring Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

It’s often said that no good idea at Disney ever dies. While the full Western River Expedition was never built, elements of the attraction can be found at multiple Disney parks around the world. In addition to the boat attraction, the Western River Expedition pavilion was planned to house a runaway mine train rollercoaster. If this sounds familiar, it should. This idea went on to become Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, one of the most popular attractions at Magic Kingdom. In fact, Big Thunder Mountain sits on the plot of land originally intended for the Western River Expedition.

Western River Expedition’s influence can also be found at Disneyland Paris. The fictional town in the park’s Frontierland is named Thunder Mesa in tribute to this never built Disney attraction.

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Kimberly's love of Disney began at an early age and grew even more when her family won a Walt Disney World vacation from a local radio station. She grew up visiting the parks every one to two years and is fascinated by Disney history and trivia. Whether at the parks or at home, Kimberly is constantly looking for hidden Mickeys. She enjoys sharing tips and helping others plan their Disney vacations. In addition to Frontierland Station, she can also be found writing for Park World Travel and selecting music for Park World Radio.

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  • KMB

    Evidently the buffalo and prairie dogs in the western scene on the Living with the Land attraction were to be part of the Western River Expedition.

    • Cool! I knew they had made some of the animatronics for the attraction, but I had not heard what became of them. I’m glad some of them were put to good use. Living with the Land is one of my favorite Epcot attractions.

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  • JenniferLissak

    Big Thunder was supposed to be apart of it, too… it was Imagineer Tony Baxter who remembered it and recommended it to add even though they couldn’t do the whole project… that’s why he’s the one remember for big thunder (and his picture is now in the queue!)

    • JenniferLissak

      Great post, btw – you know I love my trivia and history!

    • It sure was! I’m very glad they decided to use that idea from Thunder Mesa – it’s one of my favorite rides!

  • Jeff Britton

    Tony Baxter’s Splash Mountain is what really killed the Western River Expedition and Marc Davis never got over it. He disliked Baxter to the end.

    • How interesting! Thanks for sharing that with us! Splash Mountain is one of my favorite attractions, so I’m glad we have it. But at the same time, I really would have loved to have seen Western River Expedition come to life! It sounds like it would have been a great attraction.

      • Jeff Britton

        I forget which book I read it in. I will have to check my collection at home and get back to you with the reference…

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