By the co-author of The easy Guide to Your Walt Disney World Visit 2018, the best-reviewed Disney World guidebook series ever.

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A Friday Visit with Jim Korkis: Western River Expedition

By Dave Shute

Welcome back to Fridays with Jim Korkis! Jim, the dean of Disney historians and author of Jim’s Gems in The easy Guide, writes about Walt Disney World history every Friday on


By Jim Korkis

Western River Expedition was an attraction that would have been built in the area of Magic Kingdom that Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain now occupy.

It was jokingly referred to by Imagineers as “Cowboys of the Caribbean” because of its superficial similarities to the format and layout of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland.

“For some reason, it was thought that because of Florida’s close proximity to the Caribbean, a ride dealing with pirates wouldn’t be as popular in Walt Disney World as it was in Disneyland,” Imagineer Tony Baxter said.

In addition, the Imagineers wanted some attractions that were unique to Disney World and not just a duplication of Disneyland.

Thunder Mesa Mountain would have featured a variety of attractions in addition to Western River Expedition, including a runaway mine train ride, hiking trails, a canoe flume ride, a Pueblo Native American village and more.

To accommodate all of this, a four story show building would have been decorated to look like the orange mesas of the American desert and Monument Valley. The WDW railroad would have gone through the building to offer guests a glimpse.

Imagineer Marc Davis spent five years creating a humorous ten to twelve minute boat trip through a variety of Wild West scenes. It was based on a concept he had developed as early as 1963 about a Lewis and Clark River Expedition for the never built St. Louis indoor theme park Walt Disney was considering.

Guests would have entered through a cave tunnel into the mountain and boarded boats that took them up a waterfall and then onto the winding river. Scenes would have featured comic Native American figures (including a rain dance with disastrous results), stagecoach robbers (where even their horses wore bandana masks), prairie dogs, antelopes, buffaloes, singing cowboys, and can-can dancing saloon girls.

It would have contained over one hundred audio-animatronics figures. A buffalo and prairie dogs were actually built for the attraction and later incorporated into the ranch house scene in the Living with the Land attraction at Epcot.

Davis spent many long months working on the attraction and had the enthusiastic support of both Roy O. Disney and President of Imagineering Dick Irvine.

Detailed sketches were made and models were created. Imagineer Mitsou Natsume even built a detailed model of Thunder Mesa and the exterior of the Western River Shipping & Navigation Company that was displayed for many years in the pre-show area of The Walt Disney Story on Main Street USA.

At one point, color stylist Mary Blair, a good friend of Davis and his wife, was brought in to consult with the color choices including a Painted Desert backdrop. Composer Buddy Baker had the beginnings of a theme song that would repeat throughout the ride.

The attraction was publicized with concept art in the Magic Kingdom guidebooks for 1971 and 1972 since the project was supposed to open with the park, but because of time and budget factors was relegated to the planned Phase 2 that would be completed by 1975.

The project was eventually cancelled because of prohibitive costs (estimated at over a hundred and twenty million dollars at the time), the decrease in popularity in Western movies and TV shows, and other factors including guests demanding the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

Davis still believed strongly in the Western River Expedition and offered a scaled-down version (removing the potentially offensive stereotypically comic Native Americans) with just a boat ride to be placed side-by-side with Big Thunder Mountain that had borrowed his idea of a runaway mine train for Thunder Mesa. Davis’ official retirement in 1978 meant the loss of the attraction’s biggest advocate.

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Thanks, Jim! And come back next Friday for more from Jim Korkis!

In the meantime, check out his books, including his latest, Secret Stories of Disneyland, his Secret Stories of Walt Disney World: Things You Never You Never Knew, which reprints much material first written for this site, and his contributions to The easy Guide to Your Walt Disney World Visit, all published by Theme Park Press.
The 2017 easy Guide

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