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Retroland: Disneyland Through the Ages - Part 2: Frontierland

Updated on February 14, 2013

Part 1 of the Retroland series looked back at some former attractions in Tomorrowland and Adventureland. In this installment of Retroland, we’ll saddle up for a look at the uniquely designed attractions that established Frontierland’s Western identity: the Rainbow Ridge Pack Mules, the Rainbow Caverns, the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train (aka the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland) and Nature's Wonderland.

Coaches, Wagons, Caverns and Mules

Uncle Walt shows off his stagecoach to Orange County officials in this promotional picture. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives. CC lic:
Uncle Walt shows off his stagecoach to Orange County officials in this promotional picture. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives. CC lic: | Source

There was a time when a kid could climb up on a live mount and ride the great range of Frontierland. The Rainbow Ridge Pack Mules would take guests on an adventure deep into the unknown wilderness of Disneyland’s rugged back country, through canyons, deserts and rustic forests. The journey would lead them alongside the Rivers of America, on trails shared with Conestoga wagons, stage coaches and buckboards. As the years progressed, new features were added to the area, such as the mysterious and colorful Rainbow Caverns, its stalactites dripping liquid minerals, magically forming colorful pools below. Wild critters could be spotted by guests riding through Nature’s Wonderland. Inspired by the True-Life Adventure film series, this section was populated with an assortment of audio-animatronic animals. Traveling deep into the Western wilds, kids could really believe they were trailing a posse in the Old West, or scouting out a suitable clearing for settlement.

It was a less litigious time back then, and parents didn’t feel the need to buckle up their precious snowflakes and guard them from every little bump they might encounter in their young lives. Since the family had likely driven to Disneyland with the kids splayed out in the back of a station wagon without benefit (or even the thought) of safety restraints, setting youngsters atop real animals on paths without guard rails didn’t generally cause the slightest concern. Concern was raised, however, when the stagecoaches started tipping over, so those were removed. As the years marched on, kids grew less enthralled with slow-paced western themes, and costs to maintain the animals outweighed the benefits of keeping live attractions that demanded feed and care. After almost two decades of helping kids live their dreams of roaming the great ranges of the wilderness, the pack mules rode out into the West for the very last time, and the sun set on the other founding attractions in Frontierland, as well.

End of the Line

What's left of the tunnel and trestle that once stretched across the Bear Country lake in Nature's Wonderland. CC lic:
What's left of the tunnel and trestle that once stretched across the Bear Country lake in Nature's Wonderland. CC lic: | Source

Today, in the location where kids once held the reins of actual live animals and gently sauntered at a pace that allowed guests to take everything in, Thunder Mountain Railroad now towers with the promise of mechanized thrills. The self-billed “wildest ride in the wilderness” roars down its track, hurtling guests at speeds that give little chance to notice remnants from that bygone era, even if riders know what to look for. White the original Rainbow Caverns is no more, an homage to the Caverns does exist, and at least the opportunity to see that nod to Disneyland history is offered at a viewable rate, as it’s presented in the roller coaster’s initial ascent at the start of the Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. An intact section of the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train attraction does remain, placed very near its original location, at the end of the Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. It’s the half-scale façade town of Rainbow Ridge, which can also be seen from the roller coaster’s queue line.

Western Expansion

Frontierland’s adventures stretched beyond the present site of the Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster. The mine train meandered down along what is now the Thunder Mountain Trail, all the way to the Thunder Mountain Barbecue’s current location. Along this route, signs of the former Nature’s Wonderland attraction remain to this day. Standing on the wood-planked bridge on the Thunder Mountain Trail, with the roller coaster attraction on one side and a little pond on the other side, visitors who see the tunnel above the pond might notice a bit of broken track emerging from it. That was part of the path the great Rainbow Caverns Mine Train (later dubbed The Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland) took through the wilderness. Down in that very pond below, a couple of hungry bears would glance at passers-by while gnawing away on a freshly-caught fish lunch. In the water very near the bears, a special effect was in place to give the appearance of fish jumping just at the surface of the water. While fish are no longer seen, the water ripple effect itself is still in place, and patient observers will be rewarded with a little splash from the past.

From 3:03 to 4:56 in the following video, you’ll get a 1964 taste of the mine train ride, and a look at the lush Rivers of America area as viewed from the deck of the sailing ship Columbia.

And here’s a brief tour of Frontierland secrets, with revelations of where parts of old attractions can be found among present-day attractions:

Frontierland Secrets

For a very detailed and wonderful read on the entirety of the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland, see Alan Adams’ highly descriptive account of this retro-attraction at Daveland.

Western Heritage

Today’s guests thrill on a roller coaster and chow down at a big barbecue only because, once upon a time, a park outfitted mules for kids to ride. Were it not for those early wilderness attractions, branding Frontierland with its trademark wild west personality and bringing the great unsettled West to life, there wouldn’t have been much Frontierland to speak of in Disneyland’s early life.

© M.S. Ross - All Rights Reserved

Were You a Trailblazer?

If you have recollections of the Rainbow Ridge Pack Mules, the Rainbow Caverns, the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train or Nature’s Wonderland, share your memories in the comments section below.

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