Walt Disney was fascinated by the American frontier. Growing up in small town Missouri in the early years of the 20th century the pioneer towns of the western United States were not too far away. By the time planning for Disneyland was underway the western movies and TV shows had grown in popularity. Walt took these ideas and poured them into a land based on the fictional characters of the westerns, the history of the early pioneers and the characters found in Mark Twain books – Frontierland.
It’s no coincidence that Frontierland is located in the most western part of the Magic Kingdom park. This is an idealized version of the rough and tumble wild west and is one of the most well themed lands in the Magic Kingdom. Take the time walking through to look high and low – the attention to detail is everywhere here. This is also the only land not accessible from the “hub” in front of the castle. It’s cast off, remote and rugged. As you enter Frontierland from Liberty Square the progression of the buildings continues the story as it began in Liberty Square. As we move along the row of restaurants, shops and attractions on the left hand side, the year represented in time moves along as well. Just add the number “18” in front of the building numbers and you have the time period represented in the architecture and details. While the Haunted Mansion is at the far eastern end of Liberty Square representing turn of the century New York, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is found at the far west of Frontierland representing the California gold rush.
The river on the right is called the Rivers of America and represents the Mississippi River and the important rivers that fed into it.
The background music here is full of wild west sounds from gun shots to horse hoofs. You may have to listen closely but these sounds are intertwined with the twangy music.
Also notice the change in landscaping and foliage. While where we came from (Liberty Square) is well maintained, colorful and pruned, Frontierland plants and trees are rough and brushy. They set the stage for the western landscapes of the prairies and desserts.
Look where you are walking – the ground is part of the story. There are three different walking areas, all leading in the same direction. The raised boards along the edges of the buildings would have been the same as what you found in pioneer days to help keep the dust off the bottom of women’s skirts. The pavement in the middle of the walkway is the dusty (concrete) trail headed west. And the wood along the water’s edge resembles the docks you would have found in a riverside town.
Disney Imagineers always try to incorporate kinetic (moving) elements in each land. The kinetic elements in Frontierland are the Liberty Square Riverboat and the Walt Disney World Railroad. Boats and trains were vital to the early pioneers and most important towns would have a train station and boat docks.
As you enter Frontierland pay close attention to the wanted posters you see around you – you might run across these “characters” as you explore the attractions in this land. The first building as we cross into Frontierland is the The Diamond Horseshoe fashioned after a dance hall in St Louis which of course is the “Gateway to the West”. Another notable building you’ll find here includes Grizzly Hall. Just like the center of many pioneer towns had a theater so does Frontierland – this one is just home to some crazy bears. Take time to visit this beloved attraction and make sure you check out the floors and walls in the lobby. This show was actually one of the last attractions that Walt Disney himself helped to create. Originally developed for a ski resort in California that never opened, it’s made its home at Walt Disney World since 1971. You’ll also notice a small building “Chinese Laundry”. This is a tribute to many Chinese immigrants during the 1800’s that began the Chinese laundry business in San Francisco. The “Golden Oak” food cart was named after the Golden Oak Ranch where many Disney movies and TV shows were filmed in the 1960’s. Pecos Bill’s Tall Tale Inn and Cafe may be one of the best quick service restaurants in the park but it’s also a very well themed tribute to the fictional characters of the Wild West. Pop inside to see props donated by Pecos Bill’s friends such as the Lone Ranger, Paul Bunyan and Zorro.
Tom Sawyer Island is a great place for adults to relax and kids to run off some energy. Hop on one of the Mike Fink Keel Boats and sail over to explore scenes from Mark Twain’s book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Kids (and adults) can navigate pathways, caves, forts and old mills. Spend as much or as little time here as you’d like.
Walking past Pecos Bill’s you’ll find a very strangely placed path on your left. This path leads to Adventureland. This is actually where the original Frontierland ended. Plans were in place to build a magnificent mountain range at this end of the land called Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition. Props were built, mock ups were made and it was all systems go….until Disney decided to create a Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Walt Disney World. The amount of money put into the Pirates bled into the budget for Thunder Mesa and the project was eventually killed. You can see some of the props that were slated for project currently in use in Epcot’s Living with the Land attraction.
Eventually Big Thunder Mountain was built and while it’s a much smaller version of the original Thunder Mesa idea it’s still the “Wildest Ride in the Wilderness”. This attraction is a fan favorite and a classic Disney version of the runaway mine train. The story here takes you through the deserted town of Tumbleweed after a devastating flood. But we soon learn that the town isn’t that deserted after all. The mountain itself is fashioned after Monument Valley, Utah and uses forced perspective (much like Cinderella’s Castle) to give the illusion it’s much taller than it actually is. Make sure you ride this attraction at night as it takes on a whole different feel.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain are part of Walt Disney World’s “mountain range” – hyperlink. Disney knew it needed a flume ride and began designing one in the early 80’s to be featured at Disneyland. The project was themed to the 1946 Disney movie, Song of the South and was named Zip-a-Dee River Run. But (then CEO) Michael Eisner, wanted to promote Disney’s new film, Splash, about a mermaid. Not quite sure how to fit a mermaid into the storyline and after much debate they decided to leave the project as planned but to rename it Splash Mountain as a name tie in to the movie. In 1992 Splash Mountain opened at Walt Disney World. The color of the rock was chosen carefully so it would blend with its mountain neighbor, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. This is the story of Br’er Rabbit who goes out looking for adventure but quickly learns “home sweet home is the lesson today” after plunging down a 52 foot hill into the briar patch. This wonderfully themed 10 minute attraction is so much more than just your average flume ride!
There is so much more to explore in Frontierland – from a shooting arcade to incredibly themed railroad station to shops and restaurants with props scattered about. It’s the stories and imagineering that makes Walt Disney World so special. My name is Susan Heidenrich and I am a travel professional with Travel with the Magic. I’ve visited Walt Disney World over 20 times and I would love to help you plan your next Disney vacation. Email me at SusanH@travelwiththemagic.com and follow me on facebook for tips, tricks and information on all things Disney!