‘The Lone Ranger’ in Disneyland: The Untold Story of the Film’s Scrapped Big Thunder Mountain Overlay

Yes, there could have been more than one Disney attraction featuring an audio-animatronic Johnny Depp

The Lone Ranger

Ten years ago, Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” galloped into theaters everywhere.

An updated and deconstructed version of the character known primarily for his black mask and white horse (named Silver), the movie was a big-budget, high-concept adventure film from the same team behind Disney’s lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise – director Gore Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and star Johnny Depp, who would star as Tonto. (Armie Hammer, hot off “The Social Network,” would be the man behind the mask.)

The last time the character had graced the big screen was in 1981 with “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” a project that went through a similarly troubled production and suffered similar critical and commercial indifference. (It is, like 2013’s “The Lone Ranger,” also very underrated). But Disney had hoped that the combination of the “Pirates” veterans and the more modern take on the material (with the story told from Tonto’s point-of-view) would be enough to lure contemporary audiences to the Western.

But, of course, that didn’t happen. The movie didn’t meet Disney’s sky-high expectations and plans for more “Lone Ranger”-related projects, including several sequels, were scuttled. And one of the things that went away with the failure of “The Lone Ranger” was a Disney theme park attraction based on the movie. Now, for the first time ever, is the untold story of that proposed attraction.

Hi-Ho Silver, Away!

In the early 2000s, Terry Rossio and his then-writing partner Ted Elliott began an inquiry into the rights of “The Lone Ranger.” The masked character began life on a regional radio serial in 1933, the brainchild of WXYZ (Detroit) owner George W. Trendle, before becoming what would probably be referred to today as a transmedia phenomenon. “The Lone Ranger” was translated into comic books, novels (largely written by the radio serial’s Fran Striker, who co-created the character), movies, and a long-running, well-remembered television series that aired on ABC from 1947 to 1959. The character, driven by his staunch moral compass and aided by his Native American sidekick Tonto, struck a chord with audiences, particularly young kids, who listened and watched in rapt attention.

One of those longtime fans was Rossio. Together with Elliott, he met and had lunch with Fred Foy, the announcer from the original radio serial who introduced the show over the galloping strains of Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”

“In addition to loving the classic tale, we wanted to give a try at a genuine crowd-pleasing western,” Rossio said. Rossio and Elliott had dreamt of creating a big-budget studio western. But they had to find something audiences could latch onto or their project would never get made. “The Lone Ranger” was the answer. “You need to align with intellectual property to give the studio confidence to move forward,” Rossio said. After attempting to set the project up at Red Wagon Productions in 2002, Elliott and Rossio reunited with some familiar faces.

They pitched their take on the material — which like their screenplay for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” would combine high-octane action with supernatural flourishes and bursts of extreme horror — to “Pirates” producer Jerry Bruckheimer and his associates Chad Oman and Mike Stenson. Intrigued by the pitch, Bruckheimer needed to know more. An extensive investigation was launched into who exactly owned “The Lone Ranger” property. The “chain of custody” document that this search produced is deeply fascinating and charts the course of the rights from the character’s inception (amazingly, during the Depression, a destitute Striker sold the rights to Trendle for $10) to Disney’s near-miss with the character’s ownership following their acquisition of the Wrather Corporation, as part of an elaborate effort to finally own the Disneyland Hotel. (At the same time Disney bought the company, Wrather’s widow sold off the rights to the company’s entertainment holdings.)

Disney might not have owned “The Lone Ranger,” but they were still going to make the movie. In 2006, Rossio, Elliott, and their “Pirates of the Caribbean” filmmaker Gore Verbinski, began to discuss “The Lone Ranger.”

Rossio and Elliott’s script is a markedly different take on the material than what ultimately ended up on the screen. In the third draft, dated Nov. 17, 2008, the supernatural overtones hinted in the final film are made explicitly clear — werewolf-ish coyotes stalk an abandoned western town (one of the more evocative images from this sequence was a lone piano player, nervously performing to keep the coyotes away at night); a locomotive is hidden deep within a haunted mountain; and instead of being vaguely implied, the Wendigo is a very literal villain. Disney then, as it is now, was a synergistic machine, well-oiled and elegantly integrated. If “The Lone Ranger” was going to be a big hit, every lever in their vast corporate machine would have to be pulled. As the movie was being developed, another arm of the company reached out to Elliott with an idea – what if Walt Disney Imagineering could bring “The Lone Ranger” to the Disney parks? Could that lever be pulled? 

Wishful Thinking


“The Lone Ranger,” especially the earlier version of the project, makes perfect sense for the Disney parks. Reading the Rossio and Elliott draft of the screenplay, Frontierland iconography pops up again and again, particularly in the climax, with a sequence involving a train inside of a cave that explicitly recalls the first lift hill of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. “Of course, ‘The Lone Ranger’ is set in Texas. But as a Western, there is an expectation that there will be a desert, with tall cactus, sandstone cliffs and towering buttes. Landscape features that you don’t find in Texas,” Rossio said. “We chose to fulfill audience expectations, and that led to choices similar to Big Thunder.”

While the film project was still in development, Rossio got an unofficial memo from a young Imagineer. The memo outlined the potential integration of “The Lone Ranger” into the Disney parks. The document is fascinating, both for its tone of unbridled enthusiasm for a project that would become one of the most notorious flops in Disney (and Hollywood) history, and because it’s like peeking into an alternate reality where you could hang out with Tonto and Audio Animatronic versions of Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer greeted you while you were careening along the self-described “wildest ride in the wilderness.” There was a precedent for Disney intellectual property to invade that area of the park – back in the late 1950s there would be “Zorro Days” in the park, where actors from the popular Disney-produced “Zorro” television series (Guy Williams, Gene Sheldon, and Henry Calvin) would greet guests and perform in wild west stunt shows. 

At the time the memo was sent, the movie was scheduled to hit theaters in 2010. A vast and varied array of options were presented, ranging in ambition and complexity. Detailed is everything from “an all-new E-Ticket Attraction, using the Festival Arena, Big Thunder Ranch, and Circle D Ranch area” (which is the area now being utilized for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge) to “a standard meet-and-greet.” More interestingly was the idea that, with a few small tweaks, the entire land could be transformed into something out of the movie – wanted posters would be plastered on the outside of buildings, arrows would stick out of signposts, and a distressed Texas flag would wave proudly over Frontierland. You wouldn’t just be visiting one of your favorite lands, but you would be stepping into Waystation, Texas (changed to Colby, Texas, in the final film), home to the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

Out of the proposals, the most tantalizing was the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad overlay. Subtitled “Curse of the Silver Mine,” there would be new additions to the queue (“mine cars full of silver, wanted posters”) and all-new animatronics, including Tonto, The Lone Ranger, and Zachary (a character deleted from the final film), in the attraction itself. There would also be those terrifying coyotes from the script, and an integration of the frantic piano playing that made for such a memorable moment in the original script (this would be an audio cue in the old Rainbow Ridge township towards the end of the ride). Best of all, Big Thunder Mountain would now be equipped with an onboard audio system. (Space Mountain, across the hub, had received onboard audio during a refresh in 1996.) But this wouldn’t have just been any onboard audio. You’d be rocketing through the canyons to the sounds of the “William Tell Overture.” As the memo states, the music is “better known as the Lone Ranger’s theme.” And what a theme it is.

There was precedent for this idea – in 2006, Pirates of the Caribbean had gone through an extensive refurbishment that added Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, along with Captain Barbossa and a number of flourishes directly from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies (it was timed to the release of the $1 billion grossing sequel “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”). Yes, had these ideas gone through Disneyland would have had not one but two attractions featuring an audio-animatronic Johnny Depp. Can you imagine?

The “Lone Ranger” memo was designed and sent by Brandon Kleyla, who at the time was a 20-something, unproven Imagineer but who Disney fans now know and love as the driving creative force behind the Jungle Cruise-inspired Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel and its more overtly “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”-indebted sister location, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, at Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Village Resort. At the time, though, he was a contract employee in the dimensional design department with a lot of free time on his hands. 

“It was essentially the print department,” Kleyla said. “I was bored. I’d get my work done in the morning and spend the rest of the day sitting there looking at stuff that was getting pitched and coming up with my own ideas.”

In other words: he was low on the proverbial totem pole.

“This was years before becoming a full-time actual Imagineer,” he stressed. He alternately described the “Lone Ranger” project as “a homework assignment” and “a young, naïve Imagineer’s wishful thinking,” but he may be underselling the legitimacy of the proposal. Kleyla said that he had done some quick photoshop renderings of the Frontierland re-theme and at one point he overlayed the blueprint for a proposed “Lone Ranger” stunt show over the piece of land that was once earmarked for a similar “Young Indiana Jones”-themed stunt show (once again in the Big Thunder Ranch area, tucked behind Big Thunder Mountain Railroad). He even had an unexpected Walt Disney Imagineering heavyweight in his corner – Tony Baxter, the man responsible for Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure, and EPCOT Center’s Journey Into Imagination. Baxter was a fan of Kleyla’s vision and, years later, had a friendly bet with the young Imagineer over how many times they could see “The Lone Ranger” theatrically. “I saw it 12 times in theaters, I think he saw it 13 times,” Kleyla says. “It’s a summer blockbuster. A great, big-screen summer movie.” To Kleyla’s way of thinking, it would also make a great, big Disney attraction.

Later on, while Baxter was working on a land themed loosely to Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” (which would have occupied the same parcel of land that many of “The Lone Ranger” options would have), he gave Kleyla a pivotal piece of advice. Chiefly, it didn’t matter if the movie was a hit or not.

“It doesn’t matter if the movie succeeds or doesn’t, this has been burned into peoples’ brains for the last 100 years. Everybody wants to go to the land of Oz. We’re just using this movie as an excuse to do it,” Baxter told Kleyla, who likened it to “Waterworld,” a widely panned movie from 1995 that underperformed at the box office but has nevertheless inspired a long-running, award-winning water-based stunt show at Universal Studios theme parks in Hollywood, Japan, Singapore and Beijing.

Baxter’s philosophy still governs Kleyla’s thinking today. “I guarantee you, today, people would still get their picture with the Lone Ranger,” Kleyla said. “It’s got nothing to do with the movie. It’s like Pandora. Everybody loves the land. People don’t care about the movie.” Kleyla should know – he worked on both Pandora: The World of “Avatar” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida and the Beijing version of the “Waterworld” attraction for Universal Studios.

Train Wreck

Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer at the world premiere of “The Lone Ranger” at Disney’s California Adventure theme park (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Of course, the railroad to hell is paved with good intentions, and as his enthusiasm for the project continued, “The Lone Ranger” movie derailed (spectacularly). In August 2011, Disney abruptly shut down production, citing a ballooning budget under Verbinski’s notoriously exacting supervision (James B. Stewart’s wonderful nonfiction book “Disney War” detailed his contentious relationship with the studio on the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” that saw him “quit or come close to quitting” four separate times). By the end of the year, a new budget had been agreed upon and a summer 2013 release date penciled in. This time, though, the production team would be using a different screenplay.

“Gore was pretty adamant he wanted to change the character, and take over, and do a rewrite of the screenplay,” Rossio said. “I did an outline for the shooting script, but the final product was fashioned by Justin Haythe.” (At the junket for the film, Verbinski claimed to have not even read any of the Rossio/Elliott drafts.) This new version of “The Lone Ranger,” with its svelte new $215 million budget, was far afield of the script with which Kleyla and other Imagineers were initially so smitten.  

Gone were the supernatural overtones that would have made for such delicious theme park fodder, replaced with more nebulous themes about the dangers of technology and the exploitation of indigenous cultures, plus a nifty or aggravating (depending on your thinking) wraparound segment with an elderly Tonto in a traveling Wild West show in 1933 San Francisco.

“In my version of this movie, the only thing supernatural was the question of – is Tonto suffering from Alzheimer’s or is there mysticism present here or is it greed or is it Wendigo or can he turn into a bird or not…,” Verbinski told me at the time. “And I think those are wonderfully unanswered questions. I just wanted it to be about trains and about progress and that’s your villain.”

At the very least a key part of the various “Lone Ranger” proposals – a runaway train! – survived.

But Kleyla wasn’t ready to hang up his white hat just yet. He turned to one of his favorite people and allies, Marilyn Magness, to pitch her more of a live entertainment approach. A live show could be staged at the Golden Horseshoe, on the rooftops of Frontierland, on the Mark Twain Riverboat (as a combination stunt show/photo opportunity that would reset every time the boat made its trip around the Rivers of America) or through characters just meandering through the land via the company’s Streetmosphere initiative (a process where actors interact with guests while in character, pioneered during the opening of the Disney MGM-Studios with the “Citizens of Hollywood,” “a pretty ridiculous cast of would-be’s and has-beens indicative of the era” according to Disney).

“A live-action, ‘Lone Ranger’ stunt show would have been great,” Rossio said. “Pretty much anything done live at the park is special and worthwhile.” This version of ‘The Lone Ranger’ in Disneyland would have probably been, from a logistics standpoint, the easiest to achieve.

Magness, who started out as a performer at the fan-favorite, decidedly “Lone Ranger”-ish Hoop Dee Doo Revue in Walt Disney World, expressed enthusiasm for “The Lone Ranger” joining Disneyland’s entertainment offerings. At the time she was Director of Creative Entertainment at the company, working closely with Walt Disney Imagineering on live shows and nighttime spectaculars. But by the time the “Lone Ranger”-based live entertainment would have been formalized, Disney was beginning to lose faith in the movie. Walt Disney Studios would have had to at least partially underwrite any “Lone Ranger”-themed addition to the park, as they would later do on the additional scenes for Star Tours inspired by the sequel trilogy. But Walt Disney Studios had spent enough money already. And Kleyla, now a full-fledged Imagineer, was busy working on projects like Trader Sam’s and several similarly failed projects based on Disney properties like a physical Mystery Shack from the Disney Channel animated series “Gravity Falls” (a project he pitched to legendary Imagineer Kim Irvine but, according to Kleyla, “Nobody understood the show until years after it was canceled”), a full-sized Bull Dog Café from “The Rocketeer” and a version of the Terminal Station Bar from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Those last two projects were both for a revamped version of Disney California Adventure. When the Red Car Trolley would pass by the bar from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” pneumatic lifts in the bar’s foundation would gently shake everybody inside. Your specialty cocktail would sway in your hand.   

And while none of the plans outlined in Kleyla’s memo gained traction, both “The Lone Ranger” (and the iconic “William Tell Overture”) made their way into the Disneyland Resort – sort of.

On June 11, 2010, Silly Symphony Swings opened at Disney California Adventure. A re-theme of a drably conceived, off-the-shelf swing ride, it was based on the beloved Mickey Mouse short “The Band Concert” (technically not a “Silly Symphony” short but hey) from 1935 — because if it’s anything modern kids are hankering for, it’s attractions tied to prewar shorts. The short prominently features the “William Tell Overture” and so does the ride. While not quite as exciting as riding a runaway train through peaks and dangerous gorges, the experience was proof that the idea of using the iconic music in a theme park attraction held water. “You go ride Silly Symphony Swings with ‘William Tell’ and it’s like, This is great music for a ride,” Kleyla said.

On June 23, 2013, “The Lone Ranger” had its world premiere at Disney California Adventure. A full-sized version of the train and the horse that played Silver flanked the red carpet and chipper Disney cast members handed out Lone Ranger-style masks to those that had gathered to watch Hammer, Depp, and Ruth Wilson parade down the red carpet. Kleyla camped out for the premiere and ended up chatting with Depp and Verbinski as they shook hands and said hello to fans. Rossio was there too and spoke warmly to Kleyla, although these days the writer is blunter in his assessment of the finished film.

“The action train sequences are a filmmaking triumph,” Rossio said. “The characterization of the Lone Ranger was not appealing to audiences, and the addition of the ‘evil corporation’ railroad baron aspect is not compelling. I don’t understand why Helena Bonham Carter is in the movie. Johnny Depp as Tonto doesn’t really play.”

The film went on to earn more than $260 million, well below Disney’s projections. Subsequent installments were quietly canceled, actors were let out of their three-picture contract and plans for any kind of future integration of the property into the theme parks was nixed, leaving the entire proposal as a tantalizing what-if.

And while any of the “Lone Ranger” projects would have been wonderful to see in a Disney park, adding some much-needed character and kinetics to Frontierland, at least we can find solace in the fact that, had they gone forward, they would already be changed or completely removed by now. With two very canceled leading men and a questionable portrayal of an Indigenous character, “The Lone Ranger” might be the most deeply cursed Disney release in recent memory.

If a beloved attraction like Splash Mountain couldn’t survive the march of progress, a “Lone Ranger” overlay of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad wouldn’t either. It was a goner either way.