Bringing back the Sparkle – Designing the Rivers of the Far West

Ladies and gentleman. Welcome aboard ‘Designing Disney’ readers! This is your captain speaking to you from the pilothouse. We’re now leaving Thunder Mesa and embarking on a steam-powered journey along the Rivers of the Far West. On our trip, we’ll discuss the design of this impressive immersive environment and point out some longlost details that were reintroduced by the refurbishment program that is executed at the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Disneyland Paris. With me up here in the pilothouse is mister Jeff Burke (Show Producer Frontierland, Disneyland Paris) and miss Beth Clapperton (Art Director, Euro Disneyland Imagineering).



Secure all cargo! All passengers aboard! Bowman, cast off bow lines.

Engine room, full steam ahead!



First coming up on the port side is the icon of the region, Big Thunder Mountain. It’s the site of the biggest gold strike in these parts. But in spite of its richness, the mine was riddled with trouble and strange happenings. I heard the mine is located on the outskirts of a sacred Indian ground. Miners believed that restless spirits had taken over the mountain itself and got spooked off.


First Mate

Attention deck watch, Smuggler’s Cove on starboard side.

Mister Burke

Smuggler's Cove was created as a river pirate hangout. But it also used to practically serve the purpose of a ride load and unload area for the River Rogue Keel Boats. These boats were adapted from the original Mike Fink Keel Boat designs borrowed from Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

The design for Smuggler's Cove is based on natural caverns, caves and river inlets that water has carved out over time along the sandstone rock formations that line the banks of the Colorado River, particularly where it flows through Arizona.

Historically speaking, there were plenty of gangs of thieves and smugglers who would hide along the rivers of the American Midwest. They would attack unsuspecting pioneers who were heading West by boat or raft. These pioneering folks in search of a better life out West often carried all of their worldly belongings but rarely had much money. They were robbed of all they owned by the smugglers along the rivers of the American Midwest.

By contrast, the (fictive) smugglers along the Rivers of the Far West (at Disneyland Paris) quite often successfully stole large sums of wealth when they attacked unsuspecting boat travelers. This was because many of these travelers were carrying considerable amounts of gold or silver ore that they had personally mined.

First Mate

Attention deck watch, fisherman’s cabin on starboard side.

Prepare to fend off nets and fishing lines.


This cabin belongs to the oldest resident living along the shores of the Rivers of the Far West: Catfish Joe and his dog Moonshine. Rumor has it that he’s the only fisherman who has never managed to catch a fish in these waters.


Mister Burke

Old Joe and his cabin is not an original concept for Disneyland Paris. The structure and the audio animatronic figure were adapted from a similar staging along the banks of Walt Disney World's Rivers of America because it enhanced the overall story of our Frontierland.

When we borrowed the idea of "Beacon Joe" from Walt Disney World's Frontierland, we wanted to give the figure his own personality so we made him "Old Joe", the fisherman who greets passing boats with his barking dog. We enlarged the dock he sits on and expanded the size of his shack as well as extending the shack's roof sides so it would protect "Old Joe" from the inclement Paris weather.



As we continue on, keep an eye on the riverbanks. There’s a chance we might catch a glimpse of moose. Moose are the largest of all deer species. Moose have long faces, a large upper lip and a flap of skin beneath their throat. Males can be recognized by their huge, broad, flat antlers. Moose inhabit the northern part of North America and Eurasia. They eat both terrestrial and aquatic plants. Females give birth to one or two calves in spring.


Mister Burke

The group of male, female and baby moose were staged on the banks of the Rivers of the Far West as an example of the wildlife to be found along rivers in Washington, Wyoming and Colorado - all gold mining territories.


Now we arrive in an area where two impressive natural phenomenons can be witnessed. On the port side, there is a beautiful natural-arch bridge. On the starboard side, you can see the Frontierland geyser basin.

Mister Burke

The Natural Arch Bridge that's connected to Big Thunder Mountain's south side and then plunges into the river is styled after Double-O-Arch which is found in Utah's Arches National Park. The original geyser basin is based on Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs.


Miss Clapperton

During the most recent refurbishment, the existing geothermal area was broken up into two sections to provide more visual interest rather than one type of treatment across the whole zone as per the original scheme.

The left-hand section is to be the oldest, inactive and overrun with plants. This part still features the skeleton of the dinosaur as children love discovering this element. The central and foreground zones feature the actual geysers. They erupt with varying timing/sequence and intensities over a 4,5-minute programming sequence. The intensity of a geyser is now recreated with pressurized water and water mist. This is more efficient and less costly than the liquid nitrogen that was originally used. We added compressed air as an audio effect to enhance the experience.


The new geyser basin was painted based on visual references from different “real” geothermal areas. The central and foreground zones were given a punchy and lively color scheme to emphasize its active state and to contrast with the often-grey climate in the Seine and Marne region. The new ‘cathedral’ rock feature and its run-off zone were painted in a red hue to create a visual link between the geysers and Big Thunder Mountain.

The steel structure underneath the rock-work was stabilized by applying a structural foam cavity filling process. A simpler valve system, all new stainless steel piping, motors and pumps were installed. Maintenance access across the full zone was assured, as well as improved access to the technical room under the area. Finally, a new lighting design was provided, including all new fixtures and cabling.



Our journey across this vast body of water that makes up the Rivers of the Far West has almost come to an end.

Miss Clapperton

And vast it is! The Rivers of the Far West hold approximately 43 300 m3 of water.

Mister Burke

In August of 1991, it took us nearly four days to fill the man-made lake. The water was brought in via a huge pipe located in the wall just below the Rustlers Roundup Shooting Gallery. When the day finally came to fill the Rivers of the Far West with water, it was a thrilling experience! When the water started gushing out of the pipe, the entire Disneyland Paris Frontierland team on site started to cheer. But for me the biggest thrill was to see the Mark Twain, the Molly Brown, the River Rogue Keel Boats and the Indian Canoes set sail on the Rivers of the Far West for the first time. That was absolutely spectacular!



Ladies and gentleman, we’re now approaching Thunder Mesa Riverboat Landing. We hope you enjoyed your voyage with us, and that you’ll visit us again real soon!


The “Captain” of Designing Disney would like to sincerely thank mister Jeff Burke (Show Producer Frontierland, Disneyland Paris) and miss Beth Clapperton (Art Director, Euro Disneyland Imagineering) for sharing their marvelous stories! It will help us to experience Disneyland Paris like we never experienced it before!


Photos: Bert Snyers