Roller coasters can do more than gravity dips . . . you know, those hair-raising descents at scream-raising speeds. At Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and Disney World in Orlando, Fla., they can entertain, too. The newest ride in the amusement parks founded by animator Walt Disney puts animation to good use: Boulders seem to crash right on top of you, coyotes howl in the distance, a waterfall splatters onto the tracks, and bats take to computerized flight.
The bats flutter around Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Disney's new animated computerized roller coaster, which also roars through a simulated earthquake and a mine-shaft cave-in.
The thrills start (and end) at the "old-fashioned mining town" of Big Thunder Mountain, the same town that once provided a background for the old Frontierland mine train ride. "We used parts of the old town and repainted it even older," says Tony Baxter, the ride's designer. What he means is that Hollywood-type special effects were used to give the mining town buildings an aged look.
The formula involves mixing plant food with paint, and it does make the new wood look as if it has been weathered by wind and rain. Not all the scenery here takes on this sheen through fakery, however. Sprinkled throughout the ride are authentic pieces of antique miner equipment, brought in from Texas and Colorado.
Designer Baxter, who started work at one of Disneyland's ice cream parlors when he was still in high school, has added a feature to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad that sets it apart from the run-of-the-mill . . . er, mine . . . type of ride, and that is the queue you stand in before you even get to ride it. It winds down under the railroad in a maze that offers you views of Thunder Mountain terrain at every turn. And it gives you a chance to see some of the wild twists and dips this new mine train takes. "I wanted to get away from the cattlepen feeling of most ride queus," Mr. Baxter said. So you know in advance what you are getting into. Does this make the timid want to turn around and go the other way -- the way out? I can only judge by one of my fellow passengers on a recent visit to Disneyland. The lady in front of me the first time I rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad moved through the queue moaning, "What am I doingm here?" She must have gotten an answer in the dark cavern of Big Thunder Mountain , with its resident bats and other thrills, for she was moving through the mazelike waiting line in front of me for a second ride, too -- we had both gotten off the train and literally runm to the boarding area for another go-round.
While Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is just opening (Nov. 15) in Florida, it has been packing them in at the rate of 2,400 passengers an hour at Disneyland for about a year now. If you want to be one of those 2,400, you might want to take a tip from a veteran amusement-park goer: Mornings and evenings are not generally as busy as afternoons in Disney parks so it's a good policy to get there early and head for the most popular rides first.