Photograph by Brendan Schoon, MyShot (left)/Stuart Thornton (right)
National Geographic Education
With its sand castle spires in the background, Tony Baxter reveals the unexpected inspiration behind one of Disneyland’s most beloved rides, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Baxter, Walt Disney Imagineering’s Senior Vice President of Creative Development, knew he needed to base the roller coaster on an Old West theme. The Magic Kingdom, Disneyland’s younger sibling in Florida, was developing a ride using the landscape of Utah’s Monument Valley.
"I went to National Geographic [magazine], as we always do, to look for something else," he says. "And I found a feature article on Bryce Canyon in Utah."
What he found within the piece—which might have been William Belknap Jr.’s 1958 article "Nature Carves Fantasies in Bryce Canyon" or Ralph Gray’s 1964 article "Sea to Shining Mountains"—was a fanciful national park that seemed to be a perfect model for the ride he was designing as Disneyland’s Chief Designer in the late 1970s.
"The first paragraph of that article says, 'When you come upon Bryce Canyon, you are going to be astounded to find something that looks like it was created by Walt Disney'," Baxter says."Then it went on to talk about the fairy tale-like structures and all of that. So I said, 'Well, I have found our solution for the charming, Disneyland version of Big Thunder Mountain'."
After discovering the article in National Geographic, Baxter took a field trip to Bryce Canyon with a small team of Disney employees. Most of these employees were Imagineers. Walt Disney Imagineering is the department for engineers and designers at The Walt Disney Company. Imagineers plan, design, and oversee construction of all attractions at all Disney theme parks.
Baxter and the fellow Imagineers were struck by Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos. Hoodoos are tall, thin columns of rock carved by thousands of years of erosion. The hundreds of hoodoos in Bryce Canyon are sometimes only separated by several feet.
"I remember imagining what it would be like being on a train going through some of those narrow passages," he recalls. "It was very inspirational."
Walking around Disneyland with Baxter and Walt Disney Imagineering’s Principal Landscape Architect Julie Bush, it’s easy to see how other sections of the park were based on actual geographic regions. One of the most striking examples is the Jungle Cruise, where a riverboat passes through areas modeled after Southeast Asia’s Irrawaddy River, Africa’s Nile River, South America’s Amazon River, and India's Ganges River.
"We compressed the globe into a nine-minute ride," Baxter says as our boat heads into a realistic jungle.
Harper Goff, a frequent Disney collaborator who was the art director on films like 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, designed the Jungle Cruise. The ride debuted at Disneyland’s July 18, 1955, opening. It was based on a series of short nature movies titled Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures.
In addition to True-Life Adventures, Baxter says Goff also drew inspiration from his work as set designer on the 1951 movie The African Queen. The film, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, took place on a boat navigating rivers in what is today Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania.
Flora of Disneyland
As the Jungle Cruise boat passes by groups of mechanical animals, including a troop of gorillas and a pod of hippos, Bush points out the vegetation Disneyland uses to evoke different river environments throughout the world. In the portion based on the Amazon rain forest, we pass spidery tillandsia, a species of plant native to Central and South America. In the Asian-inspired region, the exposed roots of a ficus, native to Southeast Asia and Australia, seem to claw into the dirt like fingers.
Baxter admits that Disneyland sometimes diverges from strictly imitating real-world geography.
"It’s more like an artist would paint a painting," he says of using plants and geographic features around the park. "It’s not accurate as much as expressive."
The Jungle Cruise, which culminates with the boat passing through a section of water bubbling with mechanical piranhas, is located in Disneyland’s Adventureland, a section of the park that Baxter believes can be easily identified by looking at its plants.
"If you think of Adventureland, you can define it with the palm tree or the philodendron," he says.
Other sections of the park are also defined by their plant life. In Frontierland, there are plants commonly found in the deserts of the American West, including sage and manzanita. New Orleans Square has subtropical trees, Spanish moss, and lots of vines—all vegetation familiar in the real New Orleans.
Just feet away from the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland is a Baxter creation—the heart-pounding Indiana Jones Adventure. As we sit in a replica of a Jeep before it takes off into a tunnel and passes a giant computerized cobra, Baxter tells me that this ride was modeled after the action adventure films starring Harrison Ford as explorer Indiana Jones that began with Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.
But, the Imagineer admits it was also made with a specific geographic area in mind. “We created an Indian delta region here,” he says.
After the ride, we walk past the natural-looking hoodoos of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and enter Disneyland’s Fantasyland, a part of the park where scenes from popular Disney films come to life.
In Pinocchio’s cobblestone village, conifers are used to create the landscape of northern Italy, where the tale of Pinocchio originated. Meanwhile, the cedars outside Snow White’s Scary Adventure Ride are meant to evoke Germany’s Black Forest.
"We try and make [the plants] very different, so the guests know they are in a different place," Bush says.
As we stop to look at the long lines snaking out of the Alice in Wonderland ride, Baxter explains how the park uses a combination of elements to fully immerse guests in different environments.
"We are creating three-dimensional storytelling using a palette of plant materials, building materials, sculpture, and water," he says.
While a great deal of the park is based on movies and real geographic regions, there is one section of Disneyland where the park’s designers had no reference points at all: Tomorrowland. This section depicts the future, and includes popular thrill rides like Space Mountain.
Baxter says that Disneyland, which featured Tomorrowland when it first opened in 1955, decided to go with an optimistic version our future. Imagineers planted showy and edible items like artichokes, orange trees, and rhubarb in the area.
"It’s not a geographical place," Baxter says, "but wouldn’t it be reassuring to know that in the future you are going to be surrounded by things you can eat?"
Learn about the real-life geography that inspired some of Disneyland's most famous attractions.
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Visit the Real Bryce Canyon
Get Bryce Canyon information, facts, photos, and more in this Bryce Canyon National Park guide from National Geographic.