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A Beautiful Mine

Did Walt want to take his guests through amazing caverns with out-of-this-world rock formations, or did he want to fascinate them with a trip in an actual train of ore cars? Regardless of which impulse came first, the result was a ride called a mine train that included a visit to a spectacular cave instead of a working mine: the Rainbow Mountain Mine Train opened July 2, 1956.

The U. S. southwest is dotted with some 70,000 mines. Not just gold and silver, but copper, iron, coal, zinc, boron, potash and dozens more. The Rainbow Mountain Mine Train could have visited a replica gold mine, as the Calico Mine Train at Knott's Berry Farm did four years later, in 1960. In 1961, Frontier Village in San Jose produced the Lost Frontier Mine Ride. Mines, not caverns.

Walt Disney was fascinated by nature. He hired nature photographers from around the world, and he was friends with serious nature hobbyists like Edgar Queeny. It is quite reasonable to think that Walt might have driven Route 66 toward Arizona and been lured by a sign outside Needles advertising Mitchell's Caverns. J. E. "Jack" Mitchell was just Walt's kind of guy.

Mitchell would have explained that the majority of caves are of the solutional limestone (Karst) variety. Unlike many limestone caves, Mitchell's was dry. Sixty-five degrees year-round and no humidity.

Walt was likely familiar with caves--with their stalactites (hanging "tight" from the ceiling), stalagmites, flowstones, helictites, and soda straws--having grown up in Missouri, the Cave state. Walt probably visited Meramec Caverns, outside St. Louis, or one of about 6,000 others in the state. Keenly interested in tourist attractions, Walt might have seen Mammoth Cave in Kentucky or Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

What if the little Snow White vehicles were powered by steam engines? Instead of electric motors that draw power from the track, what if they burned wood or coal to make steam? It wouldn't work, because the sound-stage-like barn in which the ride takes place would quickly fill with smoke. So, although the sketches showed a small version of an 1880s Porter 0-4-0 engine, the Mine Train had to be powered by electricity. That's true in real mines, as well.

Would you guess that the engine is in the tender?
Re-drawn from original by J. R. Dunlop

Much has been written about how dark ride designer Claude Coats art directed Rainbow Caverns, using painted flats, recirculating water pumps, and strategic lighting to create a luminescent wonderworld inside a windowless metal shed. Most of us who rode through it never questioned whether the "caverns" were as rock-like as the scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean. They weren't. Coats used plywood flats with painted shadows to create the illusion of being surrounded by stone.

With the lights on, Claude Coats' scenic tricks are revealed.
Coats famously reported to Walt that the team's scientific consultant, Dr. Heinz Haber, had "proved" that rainbow waterfalls were impossible--the colors would blend to gray in short order. Walt's response has been repeated countless times: "It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

This article has struggled to find new things to say about Rainbow Caverns, in the wake of imagineer Christopher Dylan Merritt's overview drawing, imagineer Sam Towler's impressive working model on display at Walt's Barn, Disneyland historian James D. Keeline's mine train expertise, the "E" Ticket, and dozens of others who are particularly knowledgeable. Please share your knowledge (and opinions) of Rainbow Caverns in the comments.


  1. As a very little girl in 1956, how Claude accomplished this wonder never entered my head. It was simply magical, something Walt did for me every week on TV, except this was in COLOR!


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