The Last Halloween Round-Up? Sad Days at Big Thunder Ranch...

Yes, we are all happy that Star Wars Land is going to be a reality. The old fans, the newer fans, the misguided in between, we are all happy. The only problem with the creation of the upcoming and long dreamed of Star Wars area at Disneyland is that one of my most prized areas of the park is going to go away: the Big Thunder Ranch area.

When it was first announced that Big Thunder Ranch was going to be closed for good going into construction, some people panicked and thought Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was going bye-bye as well. Not the case, especially since Disney just spent a lot of money overhauling the ride in making it even cooler only a couple of years ago. No, as far as can be surmised, the popular Western railroad-themed rollercoaster directly across from the ranch area is staying put, making people who like to be tormented by TNT-wielding goats all the more joyous. 

I am not necessarily a fan of barbecue. I have been taken to task by my friends for it, some of whom are carnivores to the near point of cannibalism, as I see it. I prefer to be the omnivore nature meant me to be, and even survive as vegetarian around 60-75% of the time. But I am a burger connoisseur, and so meat never truly goes out of the picture for me. Regardless, I have just never warmed to barbecue and its too damn sweet for me sauces (though I will partake of a good spicy sauce when confronted with it... no turning that down).

As a result, I have never actually eaten in the barbecue dining and theatre area inside the Big Thunder Ranch area. I have walked through many a time, and have stood and watched the occasional group of musicians perform on the stage in the barbecue area. I have even seen Woody and Jessie from Toy Story parade about signing autographs and making every kid go bonkers. But I never felt at home sitting down amongst a pack of ravenous moms and dads and caterwauling kids sucking meat off of ribs and adding an extra color or two to every piece of apparel hanging on their sweat-laden bodies. As pleasant as it sounds, no.

So, why do I love, and why will I dearly miss, the Big Thunder Ranch area? Simple. Halloween. As ballyhooed as Disney's annual money-churning Halloween parties are, as crazy as people get over even trying to secure tickets to at least one of those parties each year, as frantic as my friends get when they do manage to snag tickets themselves, for me, the only area of Disneyland that really says "Halloween" to me is the Big Thunder Ranch area.

Even more so than the Haunted Mansion, which naturally, does have Halloween charm all year around, but because of Jack Skellington, also has Christmas spilled over into it. Quite heavily. And while I am one of those that has never relented his fascination with what he considers one of the most gorgeous animated features ever, I am a little tired of the annual makeovers of the Haunted Mansion for each September-December period. (It actually closes around January 5th, but who is counting?) My longtime chum Alexis, with whom we spent the day on Tuesday while I took these photos at Disneyland, even whispered to me that she really wished the Haunted Mansion was still normal (abnormal) during at least Halloween. It makes sense to me, since the movie takes place as Halloween is ending. If the Haunted Mansion maintained its usual ghostly pallor at least through the 31st, it would be no contest.

The Big Thunder Ranch area even usurps Main Street in Halloween flair. Sure, the entrance has the giant character pumpkin heads standing guard over it (that, frankly, seem a little worn after several years), and yes, there is that giant Mickey pumpkin in the Town Square that is magnificent for family photos. There are decorations all over Main Street, from one end to the other, every little thing is orange and yellow and pumpkin this and that. And none of it warms my heart like the Big Thunder Ranch area. It is most likely due to Main Street being such a busy thoroughfare that is hard to relax and take any of it in for very long, especially when you add horse-drawn carriages, motorcars, marauding packs of Dapper Dans, and a thousand strollers to the mix.

But Big Thunder Ranch still seems so secluded. It is deceptively well-hidden. Everyone knows where it is, but it still feels like everyone kind of forgets it is there until you either leave Fantasyland via the exit by the bathrooms next to the Village Haus (the Pinocchio-themed restaurant), or come from the opposite direction walking along the Rivers of America. You can't mistake it once you are there at this time of year. Pumpkin-headed people greet you at the sign at the entrance and in the woods to your right. The barbecue area is so deeply decorated that it is hard not to imagine you and a hundred other BBQ patrons were traipsing through the insides of a monstrous, record-shattering pumpkin, and you have become wrapped within its colorful entrails. (Well, that's how I see it...)

In visiting this area for the past few years, we have gotten to see special contests and activities that are part of Mickey's Halloween Party (which take place in a walled off fortress-like area open only during the nights the parties are held), but one of the most fun is when they have professional pumpkin carvers onsite, many of whom spend their time carving images of Disney characters, both famous and obscure, throughout the season. Unfortunately, we did not get to see that this year, and to be honest, the lack of actual carved pumpkin attendance was pretty disappointing. There were a handful around, but not like before. I chalk this up to the place going away, as it appears the usual Disney oomph is not being put into it this time. It is probably wise anyway. Shouldn't really entice an audience to want to come back to something that is going extinct.

But my main reason for visiting the Big Thunder Ranch area each Halloween is the log cabin. Built in 1986 simply to be something for visitors to view, and used for many other things in between, including a gift shop and coloring station, at Halloween in recent years, the log cabin becomes the Scare-Dy-Crow Shack, a old-timey Western home for pumpkin people involved in all sorts of mischief, and displaying images from Halloweens past. For me, it is a shot of pure Halloween adrenaline. The best part is that there are rarely more than four or five people inside the cabin at any given time, so you can get a real feel for the place and kind of dig in and enjoy the old posters, postcards, toys, and trinkets, as well as the colorful costumes on the various pumpkinhead people hanging out inside.

Tiny pumpkins are stacked on top of slightly bigger pumpkins to make candle holders. A smiling pumpkinhead sheriff with a draped hat stands in the corner next to his nemesis, a masked pumpkinhead with a more crooked grin bedecked all in black. Across the room is an elegant lady pumpkinhead on a bench, which gives visitors an ample place for a photo opportunity. (Sadly, my one picture of her did not come out well.) And in a nook off the center of the cabin, with stanchions blocking the area to keep people from getting in on the action, are two more pumpkin cowboys arguing over a game of poker.

At the end of the cabin is a gorgeous fireplace area, and set into it a cauldron, which lights up green and has something mysterious bubbling and misting out of the top. It is marvelously atmospheric, even when you have just stepped in two seconds before from a brightly lit Southern California day. The cabin itself has a couple more pumpkin people staging a hoedown in front of the side entrance, and a real life fiddler -- Farley the Fiddler, to be precise -- was there entertaining tourists and handing out stickers, while he played a mix of traditional music and Disney standards. [You can follow Farley the Fiddler on his Facebook page here.] 

Just outside the cabin is the area where one of the large, lovely draft horses is kept, and where you can nuzzle his nose should you wish. (He's a pretty sweet horse.) And right across is the goat petting area which is fairly irresistible to most of the young and some of the old.

I knew this would be my one chance to visit the park before Halloween, though honestly, if I really wanted to go by that date, I would just have to hitch a ride with Jen to work, since that is where she is employed. But it's not as much fun to hit Disneyland on your own (though you can use the Single Rider Lines all you want). [As a note, the Big Thunder Ranch area will close for good on January 10, 2016.]

So, this trip to the Big Thunder Ranch area at Halloween time will have to serve as my main memory of the place, general lack of carved pumpkins and all. If you have ever been able to attend this area, I hope your remembrances are as fond as mine.


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