A home roller coaster builder who constructed a 26-foot-tall homage to the Matterhorn Bobsleds is hard at work on his next peak in the iconic Disneyland mountain range with a crew of 60 partners.
The Little Thunder roller coaster, created in the Napa backyard of ambitious Imagineer Sean LaRochelle, is slated to open on Aug. 7 at the Anaheim amusement park as an homage to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Little Thunder will be twice as long as the Matterhorn: Alpine Escape backyard coaster, which was created in 2020 as part of a pandemic project that went viral.
LaRochelle enlisted the help of twice as many individuals for Little Thunder.
“It’s just very incredible to see what individuals can do when you put them together,” LaRochelle remarked over the phone. “They come up with something incredible. ‘Oh my my, this is so insane,’ you think. I’m simply sitting here watching magic happen in front of my eyes. It’s fantastic.”
After working in the construction business, the 29-year-old college student is currently pursuing his master’s degree in architecture at Clemson University. Instead of taking an internship, he opted to develop Little Thunder.
“Right now, my full-time job is this coaster,” LaRochelle said. “I could go and make 15 bucks an hour doing something, but I wouldn’t be able to devote my full attention to this.”
Unfortunately, the demolition of Matterhorn: Alpine Escape was necessary for the development of Little Thunder.
“These things are temporary, they’re not permanent,” LaRochelle said. “They can’t stay here. I’m calling them kinetic sculptures.”
Everything from the original backyard coaster, including the timber and substructure, was salvaged and utilized for Little Thunder. The former Alpine Escape sign acts as the new coaster peak’s floor.
“The Matterhorn lives on through this ride,” LaRochelle said. “I do miss it. It was a lot of fun to ride, but I’m a lot more proud of this ride and what we’re accomplishing.”
When LaRochelle was working on the amateur coaster project in his parents’ Napa garden last year during the COVID-19 epidemic, he was already hatching thoughts for a sequel to Alpine Escape. Back in November, he set a goal of completing the whole Disneyland mountain series of attractions, including Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Space Mountain.
The $15,000 Little Thunder project took eight months to construct and takes up almost the whole backyard of his parents.
“When I showed my dad the plans he just about had a heart attack,” LaRochelle said. “My parents are incredibly supportive and encouraging. My dad’s been out there pretty much every weekend helping us. He’s an engineer, so he loves this sort of stuff.”
What’s the main difference this time? LaRochelle and his colleagues performed all of the initial design and planning up front.
“Basically we just mavericked the Matterhorn. Literally it was like we’re just going to put track wherever we want as we go, but we ran into a lot of issues,” LaRochelle said. “We solved all the problems from the last one as far as how the coaster actually runs the track.”
The Little Thunder track was meant to be disassembled and relocated using a plasma cutter.
We’ve taken our backyard roller coaster construction to the next level,” LaRochelle said. “We’ve become a bit more technical and professional. We learned to plan things out a bit better.”
Over 750 feet of track, the 14-foot-tall Little Thunder will have a lift hill, an 8-foot drop, banked corners, and a helix. The two-foot-wide track is half the width of Alpine Escape.
A dark ride-style display element in the midst of the 2 1/2-minute experience is followed by a compressed air launch that sends the coaster carts racing from 0 to 25 mph in 1.2 seconds.
“We want to challenge ourselves,” LaRochelle said. “If we just made another gravity coaster I feel like we would just be doing the same thing.”
A locomotive leads a pair of mine car-style carts, each carrying a single passenger, on the three-car coaster train. LaRochelle’s brother is hard at work attaching the wheel components to the carts. A buddy in Texas created the train car, which was meant to appear like a Shay locomotive with side-mounted driving shafts.
“It’s based off of a real train that was used for mining and lumbering operations,” LaRochelle said. “They could go up and down really steep inclines like a roller coaster.”
Midway through the experience, the coaster ride comes to an abrupt halt for a theatrical element that expands on the Little Thunder tale.
“We looked at what Disney had done for all of their Big Thunder rides and each one has a unique story,” LaRochelle said. “We’re going to create a unique story for ours.”
The background of Little Thunder revolves around a violent bandit group that has taken over an Old West hamlet and a nearby gold mine business. Before boarding Little Thunder and proceeding into the mine to serve justice, riders are deputized. The animatronic leader of the outlaw band is waiting within the mine for a fight in the coaster’s dark ride section.
“You come face to face with this outlaw and you basically have a decision to make: Are you going to do justice or is justice going to be done to you?” LaRochelle said. “The ride changes depending on what you choose to do.”
For the interactive section of the trip, each mine cart is outfitted with a lantern and a handgun. As part of the background, riders are forced to make a life or death decision.
“That decision is going to change what happens to you on the ride,” LaRochelle said. “It will change depending on the rider’s actions.”
As a nod to the original Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the performance will have lasers, geysers, light sensors, fog machines, air pistons, and maybe even a dynamite-chewing goat.
Despite its small size and limited budget, LaRochelle pushed his team to make Little Thunder unique.
“We’re challenging the ride industry with what we’re trying to do,” LaRochelle said. “I can’t think of a ride where the experience totally changes depending on what you do. There’s a good reason for that. It’s really hard to do.”
When it comes to his backyard coaster project, LaRochelle exudes confidence and arrogance.
“It’s going to be mind blowing. It’s almost going to be too much, like maybe we should tone it down a little bit,” LaRochelle said. “We’re doing something different on a peanut budget. I’ve never ridden a ride like this. I don’t think a ride like this exists.”
The attraction line will wind through an Old West town complete with a saloon, hotel, bank, stable, undertaker, and a house made entirely of bottles.
“My sister is studying to be a historic preservationist. She’s designed the whole town to support and help tell the story,” LaRochelle said. “Every single building is named and has a backstory. She used historic methods to build the town — hand mixing adobe and digging posts the way that would have actually been done during that time period.”
A donor from the project’s Patreon account will name each of the town’s 12 buildings.
The Old West village will be named after Walt Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter, who planned and managed the building of Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
The railway and mountain building are finished, and rockwork is underway.
“We’re moving away from the big picture of the mountain and more toward the little details,” LaRochelle said.
This time, the crew chose foam over stucco for the rockwork since it is more flexible and cost effective.
“We’re taking more of a set design approach, which is a lot faster,” LaRochelle said. “It allows for more unique rock structures. Something that you’d see in Monument Valley in Utah or something like that.”
The next stage is to add texture to the foam rockwork in order to make the buttes appear more genuine.
“We’re having a big texturing party,” LaRochelle said. “We’ve got 30 people coming over and we’re going to split into teams and each person is going to tackle a certain section.”
The most important thing LaRochelle has learned while working on the Little Thunder project is how to be a better communicator and manager with his team of mechanical engineers, computer scientists, and animatronic specialists.
“Construction-wise, we have a set of plans so it’s like assembling a Lego set,” LaRochelle said. “The biggest challenge has been coordinating all of the people. I’m learning how to interact with a much bigger and more diverse team of people. I’m figuring out how everyone connects and how everyone fits into this puzzle.”
LaRochelle has developed a network of connections within Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Creative, and in the theme park business who have provided guidance and counsel on the Alpine Escape and Little Thunder projects.
The ambitious ridemaker will not be able to fulfill his ultimate goal of replicating the Disneyland mountain range in his parents’ garden in Napa. After Little Thunder, the graduate student, husband, and father of three is done making backyard coasters.
“We can’t afford to do another one of these,” he said. “After Little Thunder, I’m going to focus on finishing school.”
After graduation, LaRochelle and his family want to relocate to Florida, where he intends to work in the themed entertainment business.
“What I’ve learned from this is that you can’t do it by yourself,” LaRochelle said. “You need a good team of people. My goal is to find a really good team of people that I can join and then help create immersive stories.”
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