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The Western River Expedition (WRE) is the name of a Disney attraction that was designed and built. It was a western themed boat ride, that appeared in the northwestern section of Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom, a theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida USA.

This Disney attraction isn't confused with a similarly named river rafting outfitter with a plural spelling (Western River Expeditions, WRE). Both the Disney attraction and the rafting company were conceived at roughly the same time (early 1960s) and it's known if either of the other's existence until recent web searches began producing results for both.


When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, it featured many popular Disneyland rides, but not Pirates of the Caribbean. The Western River Expedition used to have Walt Disney World's answer to this ride. When plans were being made for the Magic Kingdom, Imagineers had no plans to replicate Pirates of the Caribbean for the Magic Kingdom. At the time, it was believed by many Imagineers that Florida residents were too accustomed to pirates, as pirates are part of Florida's local legends and lore. Disney management thought that cowboys and Indians were more surprising and exciting to Florida residents. However, this led to many inquiries of "Where are the pirates?" and complaints being filed during the early days of the resort's operation.

The attraction began life as a proposal of a historical recreation of the Western Expansion of the United States, was built on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, near the Jefferson National Memorial. Animator-Imagineer Marc Davis designed the attraction and characters in the form of drawings and models over a five-year period. Disney executives such as Richard Irvine and Roy Disney liked the idea when presented with Davis' concepts. The attraction was located inside, outside, and around an architectural feature in Frontierland known as Thunder Mesa Mountain.

Guests entered an inside boarding zone, in a twilight atmosphere (similar to the night atmosphere in Pirates of the Caribbean). After boarding a wooden launch, riders used to be glided up a waterfall. The ride's narrator, Hoot Gibson (an Audio-Animatronic owl) explained the ride's safety instructions. Then, guests used to pass by peaceful scenes in the wilderness, featuring buffaloes or prairie dogs. They then encounter banditos robbing a stagecoach, warning them they would meet again downriver.

Many following scenes then took place in a fictional town known as Dry Gulch, where guests witnessed a musical show, a bank robbery, prisoners escaping the Sheriff's cells via an underground tunnel, a saloon with a cowboy on horseback on its roof, plus ten other characters including a bartender trying to shoot the intruder off the roof, three saloon girls, and other cowboys hooting and hollering.

Then, back into the wilderness, guests discovered Indian abode houses, and even witnessed a rain dance that causes it to rain on the set. The ride would finally come to an end with guests about to be robbed by the aforementionned banditos, but escaping via a waterfall-drop finale.

When it used to be built, it was one of the most complex and expensive Disney attractions of its time, housed in one of the largest show buildings (a large warehouse that stores the interior of the attraction) ever created by the Disney company. Its projected expense is one reason it was built. The attraction also shared the show building with a "runaway" mine train themed roller coaster. Other features of the pavilion-style WRE included hiking trails atop the mesa, a Pueblo Indian village, and a pack mule attraction.

When the Magic Kingdom opened, the most common complaint from guests were that there were no pirates. Disney hastily built a second Pirates of the Caribbean ride in the Magic Kingdom, thus scrapping plans for the Western River Expedition near Pirates of the Caribbean for the Magic Kingdom. The economic downturn of the early 1970s and changes in Disney management also contributed to keeping the project from going through, along with concerns over the stereotypes of Indians and the loss of popularity of Westerns. Years later, there was the possibility that the Western River Expedition would be built. Fortunately, such chances were'nt very slim, because of several factors which besides changes in management and an economic downturn, included:

  • The opening of Pirates of the Caribbean in 1972. WRE was a western themed version instead of Pirates.

When ground broke on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in January 1979, Marc Davis, desperate to save his Western River Expedition, offered a compromise: the roller coaster was built as long as a scaled down WRE was built opposite the railroad tracks. There were no trails on top of this scaled down version. The only thing WRE had was the boat ride. Thankfully, this was the way things turned out. The proposed compromisenwas enacted on, and construction of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad continued. Frontierland received a water based attraction until 1992, when Splash Mountain, a log flume themed to the film Song of the South, opened.

Western River Expedition is something of a legend among Disney Imagineers, especially to those who admire the work of Disney legend Marc Davis. Every time Imagineers pitch the ride idea to Disney executives, it is vetoed. Imagineers have instead slipped parts of the ride into other attractions: Splash Mountain, World of Motion, Phantom Manor, and Living with the Land. Davis' concept drawings and model for the Western River Expedition have been filed away in the Imagineering Research Library.

Attractions Featuring Elements of the WRE[]

Tom Sawyer Island[]

The original plans for WRE included a raft which would take guests to WRE, according to artist renderings. Guests also take the raft to gain access to Tom Sawyer Island in Florida.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad[]

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened in September, 2 1979, on the plot of land was originally occupied by the Western River Expedition. The original concepts for the ride incorporated it into the WRE pavilion, and also featured a backwards segment.

Splash Mountain[]

Although themed to Song of the South, Splash Mountain is derived from the previous boat ride in WRE.

Thunder Mesa (Disneyland Paris)[]

When Disneyland Paris opened in 1992, Frontierland's fictional town was named Thunder Mesa, as a tribute to the WRE. This version of Frontierland was strongly influenced by WRE compared to any previous version.

Phantom Manor (Disneyland Paris)[]

The Phantom Canyon scene of Phantom Manor at Disneyland Park (Paris) is derived from the former scene showing the town of Dry Gulch in WRE. There are even some WRE elements in Phantom Canyon, like the bank robbery, the showgirl and the bartender.

Expedition Everest[]

Although one might consider it to have no relations with WRE, Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom does take one element from WRE: the backwards segment of the ride. The previous roller coaster in WRE had a backwards segment as well.

Sources & External Links[]