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.
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.