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Disneyland Article
The Much Missed Restaurant Disneyland Tore Down To Build Star Wars Galaxys Edge

Big Thunder Bar-B-Que
Julie Tremaine
April 16, 2023
April 23, 2023
Ask any longtime Disneyland fan which food they miss the most, and you’ll likely get one of two answers: They’ll say the McDonald’s Fry Wagon, or they’ll say Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue. When it closed, so went the only family-style table service restaurant at the resort. Nowhere on Disneyland property has offered anywhere close to the all-you-can-eat model for that kind of value since it shut down.

For this, we can blame “Star Wars.”

It seems like everyone who attended the park between 1986, when the restaurant opened, and 2016, when it closed permanently, has a story to tell about Big Thunder Ranch. Maybe that’s because the space had so many lives.

Whatever it was to you, it was unquestionably a place that left a hole in the Disneyland experience with its departure. It wasn’t the only restaurant with character dining, but it was the only sit-down restaurant with live entertainment. But more than just marking the departure of the last twangs of country music in Disneyland, the shuttering of Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue meant the loss of an extremely good value for in-park dining.

Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue used to sit between Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Tom Sawyer Island, in a space Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge now occupies. Unlike Walt Disney World, which essentially has infinite space to expand, Disneyland’s small footprint means that to make room for new attractions, something usually has to go. In this instance, it was a family-style restaurant where your food was served to you in tin pails, and you ate it at long, communal tables where you were as likely to make new friends as you were to get barbecue sauce on your shirt.

The lunch and dinner menus, according to Disney Food Blog, were the same, including barbecue chicken, ribs and smoked sausage; sides like cole slaw, beans and corn bread; and old-fashioned desserts. For lunch, it was $19.99 for adults and $9.99 for kids under 9. For dinner, it was $24.99 and $9.99.

“It was a great place to get together,” Jeff Reitz told SFGATE. “There’s no other place at Disneyland where they do a family-style meal like that.” The Disneyland superfan who holds the Guinness World Record for most consecutive days attending the park, Reitz was there for what he calls the “last supper” at Big Thunder Ranch, on Jan. 10, 2016.

His original reservation on the last day was for 10 people, but the group ended up being 18, as more friends wanted to have one last meal there. “It was always a great place where we could go and share, or have as much as you wanted, and then go hit the teacups,” Reitz said.

“That was always a tradition,” he added. “We’d pack it in, the ribs and chicken and everything, and go straight to the teacups and then Matterhorn Bobsleds.”

Despite its outsize place in Disneyland fans’ stomachs, the restaurant had a bit of an identity crisis through the years. After Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened in 1979, Disney added a petting zoo called Big Thunder Ranch to the area. In 1986, the company converted the spot to a barbecue restaurant with a western theme and country and western musicians entertaining guests as they ate. Ten years later, in anticipation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” release, Disney changed the restaurant to a theater hosting a “Festival of Fools” show in 1996. The Festival of Fools closed in the late ’90s, and the restaurant returned to its barbecue roots until 2001, when it closed again, to be used only as a private party space.

In 2009, the spot reopened as Celebration Roundup & Barbecue, this time with appearances by Woody and Bullseye as people ate. When attendance didn’t meet expectations, Disney reinstated Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue, which it remained until the restaurant closed.

The only place to experience dinner and a show these days is at the Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland, an underutilized quick-service counter inside a grand Old West theater, where you can eat chicken tenders and ice cream while a pianist tickles out some old-timey tunes.

Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue is gone forever, but its spirit lives on. Because the restaurant was open at a time when the internet was fully formed, there are plenty of real recipes from the actual restaurant that you can recreate at home. And Walt Disney World just opened a dining location that shares the spirit of Big Thunder Ranch. Roundup Rodeo BBQ, which opened in March in Toy Story Land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios Park at Walt Disney World, serves “Toy Story”-themed family-style barbecue for $45 a person. (Adjusted for inflation, the $25 meal at Big Thunder today would cost about $31.)

Marcy Carriker Smothers, the author of “Eat Like Walt” and other books about Disney food and history, believes there’s still a place for the restaurant at Disneyland. “With the new developments they’re making at Downtown Disney, I would love to see Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue brought back,” she told SFGATE. The resort is closing old restaurants in favor of new dining experiences like Din Tai Fung and Porto’s.

“I think that if we had the restaurant outside the gates where it would not require admission to dine there,” she said, “and brought back the chuck wagons and family-style dining and that great entertainment, the delicious barbecue food, the the family seating, the red and white checkered table cloths, it would be phenomenally popular.”

Attractions Referenced

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Big Thunder Ranch

Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo

Festival Arena

Hunchback Of Notre Dame Festival of Fools

Tom Sawyers Island

Woody’s All-American Roundup

Restaurants Referenced

Big Thunder Bar-B-Que

Westward Ho Conestoga Wagon Fries

Lands Referenced

Star Wars Galaxys Edge

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