Western Tram Expedition
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
I've come to think of Marc Davis as one of the most interesting and experimental Imagineers that has come our way. Starting out in animation, he carried a lot of what he learned in storytelling to theme park design, and I feel theme park designers all over the world have him to thank for that. It seems every project he was earning from, and moving on to something greater. Most importantly for today's project, what he learned from his work in Pirates of the Caribbean he was going to put into The Western River Expedition. The Western River Expedition was supposed to be a high point for theme park design and Walt Disney Imagineering in the 1970's, being an amazing journey through the Wild West as told by Marc Davis' with a dash of Mary Blair backgrounds. For more information on this old attraction, I recommend Jim Hill's Why Western River Went South Series, which really tells of what the attraction could have been in depth and how it came to be one of the top Imagineering concepts that never made it out of Flower Street. To really look at some previous artwork from the original concept, I also recommend looking up the old Virtual Ride-Through of the original concept, as narrated by Tony Baxter at the 2011 D23 Expo. Though it's been on the shelf for sometime, I've always felt this concept has had incredible potential. The story of Western River's storyline phase of changing character designs, eliminating Native American scenes, and countless possible theme park homes for this concept, reminds me of the countless re-tellings of The Snow Queen before Walt Disney Animation Studios' final decision on Frozen (2013). In the words of John Lassater during one of the 2011 drafts of Frozen. "That was the game changer. John sat down at this long table. And his first words were, I'll never forget this, 'You haven't dug deep enough,' " recalled Michael Giaimo, "Frozen" production designer, during a September roundtable session. "And I remember John saying that the latest version of the Snow Queen story that Chris Buck and his team had come up with was fun, very light-hearted. But the characters didn't resonate. They aren't multi-faceted. Which why John felt that audiences wouldn't really be able to connect with them." I feel like for today's audience... This concept could use a facelift to bring it into the 21st century attractions list - without taking away from the original aspects in storytelling of Imagineers past. To do this, there's now a deeper storyline with resonating characters, subtle notes of effects to national parks and naturalistic areas in the western United States due to human impacts on the environment, and a naturalistic perspective of manifest destiny. So, without further adieu, The Western Expedition!
As you walk down a path of light brown cement in Frontierland you start to see colorful pebbles embedded in the ground. This trail of river rock soon makes a path itself past several trees and mesa rocks similar to what you would see at Big Thunder Mountain in the distance. Guests being to see signs of an old boom town, with overgrown wagons, a deserted western barn, and mining equipment. It seems the forest near the river has reclaimed it's old territory. A picket fence sign reads “Rainbow Ridge 10 mi ahead”. Could this be a sign that Tumbleweed had a competing mine town?
When you travel further down this path, the rockwork starts to get higher in elevation and redder in color, similar to Arches National Park. As the rockwork gets higher the calls of eagles and sounds of buffalo start to be heard in the area. Afterwards, you finally seen signs of water as a small river trickles next to the pebbled pathway. As you look at the bottom of the river, you see the colorful pebbles that have on your trail. Finally realizing where these pebbles have come from, you follow the river to an 8 ft. waterfall with rocks that have eroded that reads the letters “Western Expedition” within the falls.
As you turn around and wind through various rock formations and geysers, you go farther up the mountains to a beautiful green grassy area. From there, a wooden, old, abandoned mine tram plant. Curious, you move to explore the old plant.
Inside shows old photos and newspapers describing news of the olden day western town you saw down the river. As you enter the second story of the mining platform, it seems there's an old mine caretaker to give any guests a tour of the mountain by the old, rusty gold trams used by Rainbow Ridge townsfolk back in the wild western days.
As you load into the tram and tie some old rope to keep in the tram (a themed seatbelt), you hear a voice in the background alto, deep southern, country accent.
SCRIPT: SPOKEN: Please stay seated with your hands, arms, feet and legs inside the tram. You can't be too careful around here; Strange things have been known to happen in these parts!
Your tram then goes off directly into the magical Rainbow Ridge mountains. As you travel past the green valley range in the mountains, you start to see strange brown rock formations, depicting different symbols and caricatures of Wild Western culture.
The tracks follow these formations into a cave, where we see more brown rocks in old western culture formations. As the tram travels, guests begin to hear the strum of a guitar and words sang by an alto, deep southern, country female vocalist.
SCRIPT: PRELUDE SONG as sung by Amy the Armadillo: Just another Dream in the Mountains Lingering till’ the day is through It’s Rainbow Ridge’s echo Once again I’m dreaming of you. Every night I search the land Up and down the river shore Rainbow Ridge is a callin’ And I wonder if you’ll come back once more (Guitar strumming pauses with surprise as the Armadillo sees guests)
Amy the Armadillo (SPOKEN): Hello their folks! I’m Amy the Armadillo and Welcome to the Rainbow Ridge Caverns!(Pause for a few seconds as guitar strums) Wouldn't it be great if there was a way we could actually get back to the old West? You know, I can almost hear those old cowpokes singing around the campfire….
As guests go farther in the cave, more of these formations start to resemble geysers, and start erupting randomly with luminescent steam. This steam then turns the rocks luminescent, as guests keep traveling, dodging the erupting hot seam from the tram.
After the tram banks a curve nearly missing a geyser, we see a miraculous quintet of rainbow colored geysers erupting on musical sync, continuing the music from the Armadillo’s song.
SCRIPT: Male Acapella Chorus Rendition (Geysers Scene): As there’s music in the sunset And yellow in the moon The Wild West is callin’ And it’s callin’ for you Rainbow Ridge has wonders And stories to it’s name The land is a callin’ and it’s callin’ your name
SCRIPT: Amy the Armadillo (SPOKEN) (EXCLAIMS): Looks like we’re back in the Wild West!
As you bank another turn, you see the sunset slowly has taking over the land. You start to hear the armadillo singing the second verse and chorus of the attraction’s score as you get a panorama of the mountains, rivers, canyons, and its residents.
SCRIPT: (Interlude of Western Expedition Song, sung to the tune of Blue Shadows) Shades of night have fallin’ Stars in the mountain sky above At the sight of the moon The animals stay in tune To a song that sings, of the home they love CHORUS (of the Western Expedition Song): Though there’s droughts in the desert And snow in the peaks The Wild West is callin’ And it’s callin’ for me To the rivers in the mountains Out to the Mesas and the Plains The land is a callin’ and it’s callin’ my name.
As, guests turn, they hear the final hook to the chorus fade out and see a set that showcases Cowboys and Cactus’s singing around a fire pit with a colorful canyon and artistic sunset.
After guests pass a small, dark room that used to break, the next scene is showcased. The tram is now flowing on a river, where we see two rattlesnakes coming out of an old bull skeleton head, slowly hissing and crossing each other, resembling an image of crossbones.
SCRIPT: Armadillo (Spoken with Concern): Watch out for Bandits!
Guests have now made it to see the Wild West transition from day to nightfall. As the tram passes through a colorful yellow and orange arch, a group of bandits down the river blocks a train conductor coming out a goldmine. It's obvious that these men - who are dressed in all black and had eerie-looking horses– are the villains in this attraction, because they all wear kerchiefs to hide the lower halves of their faces. Since, the leader of the Bandits is to enticed with singing the third verse of the Western Expedition song on his guitar to care about the guests witnessing the robbery, he implies that you’ll see him in charge of the town with riches from the mountains later on.
SCRIPT: (Part 2 of Westerm Expedition Song) Head Bandit: There are miners in this here West Who all think they’re the best, And think they are the kings of Thunder Mesa. HORSE: Snorts a laugh, nodding his head in agreeing with his owner. Head Bandit: Well, some may insist of their fame, I’ll put them all to shame, Because That Gold is a callin’ and it’s callin’ my name. Accompanied Bandit 1: We’ll let you go this time, don’t slip, Accompanied Bandit 2: Rainbow Ridge is up the cliff Accompanied Bandits (Unison): So long till’ your gold is a callin’ And it’s callin’ our name (Evil Laughs insue from the Bandits) ACCOMPANIED BANDIT'S HORSES: Snorts a laugh, nodding his head in agreeing with his owner.
Guests believe they’ll go under the Train Track robbery. That is, until the tram gets a mind of its own and passes right between the robbing bandits and the train conductor, who oddly looks very familiar to Tony Baxter. (Note: I thought if Marc’s in Big Thunder, it’d be a nice touch to add Baxter to Western River – It’d also add to the new Thunder Mountain Backstory). Steam pumps from the train, barely missing the tram as it decides to go up the waterfall in the background, right in time to see the lost boomtown of Rainbow Ridge.
As we go from a dense forest near the water to bright mesa backgrounds, guests are enticed by seeing Marc Davis original concept art come to life in the town’s residents as bold colors surround the town in a frontier nighttime fantasy. Bars, parties, and normal residents all in celebration of the Bullion Industries striking gold nearby. You can hear the town signing the chorus of the Western Expedition Song as guests travel foreword.
Chorus 2 (Rainbow Ridge Saloon Style Rendition) (Repeated x2): Now there’s miners in the mountains And riches in the Range The Wild West is callin’ And it’s callin’ my name The gold isa’ plenty And the boomtowns are alive Cut down a forest And leave cabins behind Pianos are a playin’ We’ve made it better as anyone can see The Wild West is callin’ And it’s callin’ for me
As you turn around, you see a campfire left unattended, which quickly catches on the dry grass and spreads into a forest fire. The tram avoids falling trees and sudden run ins with flames as it quickly takes cover in a cave.
SCRIPT: Amy the Armadillo (appears in a fallen tree): There’s a safe cave up ahead! You can escape the forest fire! Hurry - to the left!
As you go further into the cave, you see the tram heads back unto a track. It follows a bright sign labeled “Gold this way” and equipment that says “Bullion Industries” on it. Could this be the newly founded goldmine that started the Rainbow Ridge celebration?
The tram starts to quickly incline upwards, leading to the top of the giant mine shaft. As you take a couple turns, you notice more strange happenings, such as another rattlesnake, and mine workers tied to a work desk with red bandanas across their faces. The final turn leads you to a large canyon underneath as the tram accelerates in speed and goes forward. It comes to a complete stop as you find the entrance to the gold area of the mine… and also the bandits you saw in the river.
SCRIPT: Head Bandit (Sung): This gold is mine to take And it seems you took the bait You’re gold is a callin’ And it’s callin’ my name HORSE: Snorts a laugh, nodding his head in agreeing with his owner. Bandits begin to hold guests at gunpoint Head Bandit (Spoken): Since your reluctant to incline, to our raiding western life….It’s back to the canyon for you, Wranglers.
As you hear two clear gunshots go off, the head Bandit shoots the tram rope and causes the tram to accelerate backwards into complete darkness and out of the mine shaft. This also brings guests outside the show building and back into the exterior of the attraction, serving around mountains and trees. As you make another small swerve, you notice the Armadillo has hit the brakes on the tram by pulling a large lever.
SCRIPT: Armadillo: Hold On!
The Tram then glides down Rivers of America past waterfalls, rocks, and canoes down below until it makes a stop in Rainbow Caverns, a beautiful revision of the old Rainbow Caverns at Disneyland. At the end of these Caverns… We see the Armadillo one last time.
Final Chorus (Amy the Armadillo): The Mountains are a singin’ And the geyser’s are alive It’s Rainbow Ridge’s echo It’s impossible to describe The animals are dream of beauty And it’s cowfolk dream of fame Rainbow Ridge is a callin’ And it’s callin’ your name
As we hear vocals of the last verse and the chorus of the Western Expedition Song, we go to unload out of the tram, exiting out of the other side of the mine tram plant. We see newspapers of a new group taking over thunder mesa and more robberies from the bandits. The last newspaper seen by the exit has a picture of the main bandit we encountered with the picture seeming to wink at guests as they leave the Rainbow Ridge Mountains.