Why Does Big Thunder Mountain Break Down?

Haven’t we all been there? You’re a Disney master and so you’ve got this down to a fine art; straight on rope drop you made your way to Big Thunder Mountain, joined the queue, fought with the fastpass machines, got your ticket and wandered off to Pirates to wile away the time before you’re due back. You return, clutching that precious piece of card in hand, feeling pleased with your up coming ten minute waiting and pitying the poor suckers who actually queue normally for the ride. And then you realise something is wrong…all is VERY quiet in Frontierland.

The wildest ride in the wilderness has come to a halt again.

Big Thunder Mountain has a reputation for unreliability. Rare is the day when it runs without interruptions. Yes, all rides stop. Constantly moving ones like Buzz and Phantom Manor often have brief pauses, normally whilst disabled passengers are embarking/disembarking. But BtM seems to have more issues than any other ride in the park. Even the seemingly more complex Rock n Roller Coaster (faster, intricate launch system, inversions…) is more reliable. So why does BtM stop so damn much? Particularly since it was just closed for over a year. Shouldn’t they have fixed whatever it’s issues are? Is there something wrong with it?

Let’s start by saying, I don’t know.

Okay, not a great start to the article but hear me out.

What I mean to say is ‘I don’t know for certain‘. The only people who do are those who work on the ride and those in charge of these things at Disney. What I can outline is the reasons roller coasters stop working which, at the end of the day, come down to relatively few things.

Just to get it out the way, one of those it isn’t is bad design – the Paris version of the ride was made by Vekoma who are THE biggest roller coaster manufacturers in the world. They’ve been making thrill rides for 40 years (including the recent Seven Dwarves Mine Train). These guys know what they’re doing.

So if it isn’t design, what is it?

 

 

People

Every machine has one major area of fault – the squishy thing trying to use it. Sometimes people just aren’t quite as efficient as the coaster would like them to be. At peak times the ride can be running five trains of 30 people each with two in the station at the same time. Not every one of those people is going to get on and off the ride as quickly as it would like.

The timings for a ride like this are very precise. Roller coasters with multiple trains run in blocks and no two trains are allowed to be in the same block at the same time with the exception of duel stations like the one BtM has. Of the five trains, two are in the station, one is in the track section before the station waiting to come in and two are on the mountain.

Say a person is slow getting on the train. This means the train waiting to enter the station can’t do so, which means the train behind that can’t enter the last section of the track and has to be stopped, which means the one before that also has to be stopped and so on…

Obviously this can occur because of people with mobility issues and no one (hopefully) would begrudge their ride being interrupted briefly so a disabled person can get on and off. It also occurs because people aren’t predictable – some are too busy laughing with their mates to listen to instructions, some try to sit three on a seat even though the attendant says they can’t, some need to be told five times to take off that head gear which will inevitably fly off during the ride and cause a hazard.

Then of course you get the truly stupid like those who stand up on a ride, forcing the operator to emergency stop it.

If you stop out on ride for a brief time it’s probably people related.

 

The Weather

Unlike, say, Rock n Roller Coaster, BtM has to deal with the elements. And unlike the UK theme parks it has to do this 365 days a year. Weather and thrill rides are not always good friends.

Rain, unless it’s of torrential downpour levels, tends not to be an issue but ice and wind are. I visited the parks just before Christmas 2010. I don’t think it got above 0°C the entire time we were there and it was snowing heavily when we went into park for EMH our first morning. I was amazed by how much they managed to get running but BtM wasn’t one of them. It did reopen later in the day once they’d managed to de-ice it and test it but if it’s too icy and the breaks don’t work…yes, that’s bad.

Wind is the other big problem (no sniggering in the back). The mine trains are very exposed up on the mountain and high winds can do two basic things – speed the trains up or slow them down. Both of these make the safety systems very unhappy. Too slow and it may not, when fully laden with riders, have the momentum to make it to the next hill lift. Too fast and the breaks won’t slow it down adequately.

Which leads me on to…

 

Computer Says ‘No’

Unsurprisingly tonnes of metal filled with 30 people travelling at 40 mph requires some pretty hot safety systems. Some of which are obvious such as the familiar clatter of the anti roll back every time you climb a hill lift, but most are completely invisible to the general public and it’s these more than anything that ruin your well planned BtM ride.

By far the most common reason for BtM to stop is a safety system has kicked in for one of a myriad of reasons. Most of which are to do with sensors. These detect where the trains are (to see if they can be safely released into the next section of track) and what speed they’re going at. If even ONE sensor detects something that isn’t quite right then the whole ride system stops. And rightly so. However 99.9% of the time there’s nothing actually wrong at all. It might simply be a poorly calibrated sensor. Maybe a leaf fell past one, obscuring the connection. Either way the ride stops and it’s not simply a matter of pressing the ‘go’ button again.

Most theme parks (and I can’t see Disney being any different) have to follow a clear procedure each time it goes down and this includes calling in the maintenance team as ride operators are not allowed to restart the ride themselves. The horrible incident with the Smiler at Alton Towers was a stark reminder of why these systems have to be in place no matter how inconvenient they are to the guests. In that situation, the ride stopped due to unusually high winds causing issues with the speed the ride was running at. The engineers – having already been called out a few times that day for the same problem – decided there was nothing wrong with it and restarted the ride without visually checking the track and hence didn’t see that there was an empty carriage stuck… When a ride goes down the engineers have to be certain that there’s nothing actually wrong with it and it is safe to restart. That’s not a five minute job, especially with BtM where it’s very hard for them to go and actually inspect the track themselves. This takes even longer if guests have to be evacuated off the ride. BtM is not an easy ride to get people off simply because of the area it covers. If you get stopped on the second hill lift and they can’t get the trains back to the station, it’s a long walk back!

 

The Most Unreliable Ride In The Wilderness?

So, does BtM stop too much?

Yes.

Do I think there’s something ‘wrong’ with it?

Yes.

Not in the sense that it’s dangerous because frankly it wouldn’t be open if they even suspected there was a real issue. Rumour has it that Disney know exactly what’s up with it but will sort it out at a later date. My guess? Overzealous sensors. The safety system is a bit too twitchy. Which, to be fair is a difficult balance to get right – you don’t want it stopping unnecessarily several times a day but you also don’t want it ignoring even the smallest fault that could be disastrous.

So why haven’t they fixed this yet? I suspect there isn’t an easy fix. Certainly not one they can do whilst it’s running every day and closing it in the anniversary year whilst it’s just been down for over a year…yeah, that’s never going to happen. And even if they did close it there’s no 100% guarantee that it would be any more reliable after. Until any new system is tested in the wild it’s impossible to tell whether it’s still prone to jumping the gun. After all, they’re always going to err on the side of caution when it comes to safety systems.

 

Let’s face it though: the Paris Big Thunder Mountain is the best in the world even if it is temperamental. It’s the fastest, with the best layout and now the explosive finale is in place it has everything the other parks do and more. I’ll take a couple of hours of down time a day over no ride at all for several more months.

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