Skip to main content

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!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Time Nat Winecoff Invented Disneyland

Walt Disney's creative vision and dogged determination made Disneyland a reality. The park embodies his dreams and ideals, but the hard fact is that he needed a lot of help to coax his ideas into tangible reality. Many assume that Walt turned to his world-class staff of artists to develop his park, but they formed the reserves. In fact, Walt formed a cadre of white men mostly in their forties from outside the studio to invent Disneyland.

September 1952 was a pivotal time at the Disney lot, five months before the release of Peter Pan. Walt had built himself a party house farther from the studio, was distracted by his backyard train and other hobbies, and had begun spending weeks at a time in Europe. He returned from his fourth summer in Europe to find that his brother, Roy, had apparently foiled Walt's plan for a Mickey Mouse Park on studio property in Burbank with a whisper campaign among city politicians and money men.

Walt was as restless as his brother Roy was conservative…

Bruce Bushman, Disney Legend

Original imagineer Bruce Bushman has not been recognized by the Walt Disney Company as a "Legend," and that's an omission—he had a tremendous influence on the design of Disneyland.

Bruce was born in New Jersey on April 20, 1911, the son of film star Francis X. Bushman and his first wife, Josephine Fladune. He and his brothers and sisters were raised in Baltimore by their mother. Josephine moved to Santa Monica, California in the late 1920s and Bruce followed around 1931. He attended UCLA and the Chouinard Art Institute and made his living as an artist before joining Walt Disney Productions in the late 1930s.

Bruce was a layout artist on Pinocchio (1940), co-art directed the Nutcracker Suite sequence in Fantasia (1940), and laid out many short cartoons. His first screen credit was on the short First Aiders (1944), and he contributed to the classic short Pigs is Pigs (1954).

Bushman became a sketch artist for the live action film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in late 1953, …

Want to Invest in Disneyland? Read this Prospectus.

What's a Disneyland? you ask. It's late September of 1954, and you would be forgiven for not knowing the slightest thing about it. Disney had been approaching General Motors, General Foods, General Mills, General Electric, but that list doesn't include your company.

Television insiders were surprised six months before when Variety and other papers said that Walt Disney had agreed to join dozens of other celebrities to host a television show, but it wouldn't debut until the week of Halloween. At the time, there was mention of a kiddieland, but you ignored that as just ballyhoo for the new variety show. It's show biz, not your biz.

You run a company like Sunnyview Farms, makers of jams, jellies, and sugary candies. Maybe you're Anne Cole, designer of swimwear, or the Bekins brothers, leaders in the moving and storage trade. You could be in charge of advertising for the Pen Corporation of America, or the Shoe Corporation of America, for that matter. Maybe you are …