“Frontierland. It is here that we experience the story of our country’s past. The color, romance and drama of frontier America as it developed from wilderness trails to roads, riverboats, railroads and civilization, a tribute to the faith, courage and ingenuity of our hearty pioneers who blaze the trails and made this progress possible.” – Walt Disney
Next stop, Frontierland. Envisioned as a representation of the frontier of the 19th century and the old west. Here you can embrace your inner Davy Crockett as you brave mountains, rivers, deserts and even pirate shipwrecks searching for adventure and avoiding the dangers of the North American wilderness.
I suggest you put your shooting skills to the test at the Frontierland Shootin’ Exposition before you get cocky though. The shooting gallery at Frontierland includes scenes from banks, jails and cemeteries that would become animated when shot at. There are a total of 97 targets and the simulation was inspired by a real-life 1850 shootout over Boot Hill in Tombstone, Arizona. The guns originally shot lead pellets, but they were later replaced with infra-red light rifles.
Now that you know how to defend yourself, it’s time we charted our path. First stop, the Rivers of America.
Walt Disney had wanted to include a Mississippi steamboat since the theme park’s inception and he got his wish on Disneyland’s opening day. The Mark Twain Riverboat (originally the Mark Twain Steamboat) was a boat that park visitors could ride around the Rivers of America on a 12-minute voyage, with a maximum capacity of 300 passengers. The Imagineers had mimicked the designs of actual steam powered riverboats from the steam powered riverboat heyday, making the Mark Twain the first functional American paddlewheeler in fifty years when it was built.
Walt was so adamant and supportive of the riverboat’s inclusion that he helped fund it out of his own pocket when finance was tight. Walt and his wife Lillian even celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary on its pre-opening day maiden voyage on July 13th 1955, and it was also the sight of the first and only Disney Fantasyland Wedding in 1995 between local Orange County residents Kevin and Patricia Sullivan. The groom’s father Ed Sullivan even attended as the boat circled the Rivers of America on the couple’s happy day.
By the way, the Mark Twain isn’t the only transportation you’ll find sailing around these waters. After the inclusion of the riverboat, Walt wanted more river traffic and also more variety, so in 1958, the Sailing Ship Columbia entered service. A full-scale replica of the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe circa the late 1700s known as the Columbia Rediviva, and just like the Mark Twain it sailed on a 12-minute voyage around the Rivers of America. An option for when you would rather see what the voyage of a pirate feels like.
And speaking of pirates, next on our tour is Tom Sawyer Island, home of the Pirate’s Lair. An artificial island surrounded by the Rivers of America and containing references to the Mark Twain novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it originally opened a year after Disneyland opened as “Tom Sawyer Island” and re-opened in 2007 as the “Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island” adding characters and elements from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean film series, the same year that the film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End opened in theaters. Locations on the island include Lafitte’s Tavern, Fort Wilderness, Tom & Huck’s Treehouse, Castle Rock, Smuggler’s Cove, The Pirate’s Den, Dead Man’s Grotto, W. Turner Blacksmith and the Captain’s Treasure.
But pirates aren’t the scariest part of Frontierland. That would be Big Thunder Mountain.
A mine train roller coaster ride themed to the 19th century American southwest, the fictional backstory of the mountain involves settlers in the mining town of Big Thunder searching for riches digging through and desecrating the mountain on a sacred spot to local natives who consequently cursed the mountain, causing Big Thunder to be abandoned by the locals and the locomotives to mysteriously operate without a crew or any engineers.
Designed by Imagineer Tony Baxter, it took a while for Big Thunder Mountain to reach completion as most of Disney’s resources were being poured into the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in New Orleans Square and Space Mountain in Tomorrowland, but the constant delays may have helped it operate more smoothly by the time it opened in 1979 as it was the first Disney ride to use computer-assisted engineering.
Make sure you get your refreshments after you go on the roller coaster. Restaurants and refreshments in Frontierland include The Golden Horseshoe Cafe, Stage Door Cafe, Rancho Del Zocalo Restaurante and River Belle Terrace, and shops and souvenir stops include Bonanza Outfitters, Westward Ho Trading Company, Pioneer Mercantile and Silver Spur.
But as the sun sets slowly in the west, don’t saddle up to bid Frontierland a fond farewell just yet. At night, transpiring on the waters of the Rivers of America right across from Tom Sawyer Island is Fantasmic!
First opened in 1992, Fantasmic! is a spectacular nighttime show featuring music, fireworks, animatronics, lasers, water and atmospheric mist that uses the resources of the Imagineers as well as Walt Disney Feature Animation to tell a visual story of Mickey Mouse entering a dream world and witnessing several Disney characters from various Disney films before the show ends in a showdown with several Disney villains. Via cameo appearances, music cues and scenes from actual Disney movies projected into the show, it features references to Fantasia, The Lion King, Dumbo, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even Pixar, the Muppets and DuckTales. Don’t go back to the hotel until you check it out.