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Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse Theme Parks


By Mike Patrick, Jr., M.D.

I have a confession to make. Frontierland is my favorite themed area of the Magic Kingdom. Now don't get me wrong. I love the entire park. It's just that Frontierland strikes a chord with me. Then again, I've always been attracted to the great outdoors. My family owns  DVC points at the Villas at Wilderness Lodge, our house decor is decidedly Western, and we enjoy a camping trip here and there. Like me, Walt Disney felt a bond with the spirit of Western Expansion. He grew up in Marceline, Missouri--a small town just ninety miles from the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, author of the Tom Sawyer and Huck Fin franchise. Like the early Pioneers, Walt headed West to seek a new fortune. And once he found that fortune, he made quick work of focusing on nature in his cartoons and live-action films.

Like Adventureland, Walt wanted Frontierland to be an amalgamation of several frontiers. That way the visitor, from wherever he came, could identify with some portion of the landscape. Thus, in the Disney version of the Wild West, we see Davy Crockett's wilderness,  Mark Twain's Mississippi River Country, the Southwestern motif of Pecos Bill, and a  post-goldrush ghost town in the Utah Territory. Yet it seems like one place, doesn't it? Those sneaky Imagineers were up to their old tricks again, blending everything together with an incredible eye for the details. Let's face it, the elevated sidewalks, flickering gas lanterns, hitching posts, rusted metal, and barely manicured landscape have their effect, transporting you far away from the rest of the park and into a time and place all of its own.

Speaking of time and place, here's an interesting fact I'll bet you didn't know: The address numbers on each building in Liberty Square and Frontierland correspond to the date of the architectural style. For example, the Hall of Presidents is 1787, and the Frontierland Town Hall is 1867. You'll notice these numbers increase as you go from East to West, rising in the same direction as the population moved during those same years. How clever!

Frontierland lays claim to the first Walt Disney World attraction later copied at Disneyland--the Country Bear Jamboree. As it turns out, the bears are a recycled idea. Marc Davis originally conceived them for Walt's planned ski resort at Mineral Springs, but when that project fell through, the band of bears played on and earned the role of feature act in Grizzly Hall.

Of course, the Country Bear Jamboree is mostly bears (18 in all), but plenty of other wild critters are in the act as well, including a raccoon, buffalo, moose, stag, and skunk. These Audio-Animatronics had to rise above their predecessors. After all, it's one thing to ride by a pirate in the Caribbean or to peer up at a bird in the dim light of the Tiki Room, but when you ask guests to watch bear-sized figures over an extended period, you have to step up your game. The result? Pure Disney magic!

Unlike the Country Bears, Big Thunder Mountain opened a year after its Disneyland counterpart. But don't think the Imagineers simply flew the construction plans from Anaheim to Orlando. Each version is unique, with the Disneyland attraction modeled after rock formations in Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park and the Walt Disney World version inspired by Monument Valley (also in Utah). So what, you ask? Well, Bryce Canyon is older, with its smooth weathered rock eroded to a magenta hue, while Monument Valley sports an angular topography with dull earthy tones. This is important because at Disneyland Big Thunder Mountain is roughly located where Florida's Haunted Mansion stands. In other words, its easily visible from Fantasyland. Not a problem.  From that vantage point, the structure and color provides a candy-mountain backdrop that fits right in.

And speaking of fitting right in, have you noticed how Big Thunder's track appears to be built on the surface of a preexisting mountain? Not so. The track came first. It had to. After all, it is roller-coaster track, and the weight of constantly careening trains would eventually take a destructive toll on the artificial land. The track and its underlying supports came first, but rest assured, the Imagineers constructed the two-acre wide, 197-foot tall mountain to look like it had been there long before the trains.

Big Thunder Mountain is also special because Disney bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of genuine antique mining equipment to add realism to the attraction. Look closely next time you ride and you'll see ore cars and lanterns and barrels and tools. There's even an old ball mill, a contraption that really extracted gold from ore in its younger days.

There's plenty more to discover in Frontierland. For instance, how did Harper's Mill on Tom Sawyer Island get its name? Who had the idea for Splash Mountain and where was he when inspiration struck? And in what ways did the Imagineers extend Big Thunder Mountain's theme into the newly-constructed Fast Pass area in 1999?

You'll find these answers and more in The Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom. Be sure to pick up a copy next time you visit the World, or you can do what a recent New England fan of Mouse Matters did--con someone into getting one for you!

Dr Mike is a board-certified pediatrician and host of Pediacast: A Pediatric Podcast for Parents. You can read his blog, listen to the podcast, and sign up for his newsletter at



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