Big Thunder’s Mixture of Reality and Artifice

Disney rides achieve their signature thrill (emotional and psychological) by appealing primarily not to physical thrills, but to intellectual ones. Call it a thematic thrill. We revel in the awesomeness of a Disney ride precisely because it manages to straddle that line so effectively between reality and artifice. We think things are real that are not; we assume things are fake that sometimes turn out to be real. This kind of analysis can be done on any number of themed Disney areas, but today let’s focus on just one: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

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Obviously, the ride is fake. There is no other explanation for the towering mesas and buttes one associates with Utah and Arizona somehow also being located in Central Florida, let alone right next to a recreation of the Mississippi and an Appalachian mountain with a fast-moving stream. But to counteract the fakeness and lend an aura of authenticity to the attraction, Big Thunder also includes some things that actually are real.

Have a look at the props in the queue, especially the outdoor queue as you first start heading uphill in the attraction. These are all authentic pieces of mining equipment from the Old West (once inside the building, fewer of the props are real, as most of them were added in the 2013 renovation that injected games and interactivity to the area).

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Why would Disney go to great lengths and expense to bring actual antique mining bits, presses, and other paraphernalia? Because it raises the “reality” quotient of the experience. Without these bits of reality, the ride would hover closer to the “artificial” side of the spectrum, and Disney rides succeed best when they occupy the space between both extremes: not too real but also not too fake.

Put another way, the illusion they are aiming to create only becomes convincing when they do add bits of reality. You can see this play out in other attractions, too, but it’s most noticeable at Big Thunder because of the props.

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One thought on “Big Thunder’s Mixture of Reality and Artifice

  1. I totally agree. There are so many parts of the ride (the animals and props) that I rarely even side while riding, yet even a glimpse makes it feel more “authentic” and not so fake. The queue is also a great example, though I haven’t seen the “interactive” parts (don’t get me started on that trend). It’s one of many reasons why there’s a different feeling to a lot of the attractions, even if the thrills are limited.

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