At Disneyland, what is Frontierland?

Jessica Ellis

If you’ve dreamed of being a cowboy or a pioneer, slap on your cowboy hat and guide your horse over to Frontierland, the Wild West area of Anaheim’s Disneyland. Originally one of the largest areas of Disneyland, Frontierland has undergone many changes over the years, adapting to politically correct concepts and managing the loss of interest in the Western era. Celebrating the 18th and 19th century of American exploration, this section of Disneyland allows visitors to meet Mark Twain, explore with Tom Sawyer, and listen to some good old fashioned cowboy humor.

Frontierland was built to evoke the time of American pioneers.
Frontierland was built to evoke the time of American pioneers.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, Frontierland was one of its main draws. With the advent of television, interest in shows about the Wild West led to a desire for a real cowboy experience. The initial focus of the area was not on elaborate rides, but rather to make a natural environment that could be crossed by Conestoga wagons, pack mules and canoes. Visitors to the original area could travel through the Living Desert, an area filled with anthropomorphic cacti and bubbling pots of rainbow colored mud, riding on a stagecoach or wagon or your own mule. Around Christmas 1955, frontier visitors could also traverse the rivers of America onboard the Mike Fink Keel Boats.

The original Frontierland contained stagecoaches and pack mules.
The original Frontierland contained stagecoaches and pack mules.

After several years, the Living Desert area was expanded to create the Rainbow Mountains, home of the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train, later called the Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland. While featuring many of the same sights as the original attraction, the expanded version contained dazzling caverns full of waterfalls and glowing pools. At night, the train would even pause to allow guests a view of the fireworks displays. In 1979, the area was updated again, replacing the slow-moving mine train with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, billed as the “wildest ride in the wilderness!”

In the early years, Frontierland hosted an Indian village with cultural displays and the guest-propelled Indian War Boats. Changing political views regarding the treatment of Native Americans in the Old West led to a serious drop in popularity for these attractions, which some people found offensive. Today, you can still ride a canoe through the Rivers of America, but it is restyled as Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes.

The Rivers of America in Frontierland are also home to two large ships, offering guests different experiences of the maritime culture of early America. On the Mark Twain Steamship, guests take a narrated voyage introducing them to the sights of the frontier and tales of the popular American author. The Sailing Ship Columbia is a replica of the first American ship to travel the entire globe, and takes guests on a similar trip around the river.

Guests who wish to follow the footsteps of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn can take a raft over to Tom Sawyer Island, recently restyled as Pirate’s Lair at Tom Sawyer Island. The island maintains the authenticity of the original Frontierland, giving explorers space and unlimited time to climb tree houses, sneak through dark caves, and hunt for treasure. The additional pirate theme was added to coincide with the 2007 release of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and has mostly met with approval from park regulars.

In recent years, the area has been revitalized with the introduction of the cowboy characters from the blockbuster movies Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Woody and Jessie are often to be found around the area, attracting new young guests to the lifestyle of the Old West. Adults will also enjoy the live comedy shows that are held in front of the Golden Horseshoe restaurant, featuring old-fashioned slapstick humor that honors the style of early Wild West shows. Like much of Disneyland, Frontierland manages to combine nostalgia for a bygone era with the demands of a modern amusement park crowd.

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