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Napa family builds second Disney-inspired backyard coaster: Little Thunder Mountain

The LaRochelles have done it again.

This Napa family, which already generated national headlines for building one roller coaster in their backyard, has built a second.

And it’s bigger and better than the last.

“It’s pretty cool,” said co-creator Michael LaRochelle. “You always dream about being able to do things like this, but you don’t usually get to.”

“This is what we’re passionate about,” said his brother Sean LaRochelle.

That, “and pushing ourselves to do more than we thought we could,” said co-creator John Eggers.

Their goal? “Redefining what a backyard roller coaster is.”

About a year ago, the LaRochelles debuted their first coaster in the backyard of their Carneros-area property. A version of Disney’s Matterhorn, they named it Alpine Escape. It even included a yeti monster named Jarold.

It was a blast, but Sean and his co-creators weren’t completely satisfied.

“There were a lot of things I felt we could have done better,” the second time around, said Sean. And he did have a summer break from his masters in architecture program at Clemson University in South Carolina. And his brother Michael would be home for the summer, and so would their sister Nicole and other family and friends.

And Little Thunder Mountain was born.

Members of Napa's LaRochelle family-- and many friends -- recently built their second backyard roller coaster. It's called Little Thunder Mountain (after the Disneyland original) and includes 900 feet of track, water features and plenty of drops and dips. Take a look here.

The newest creation by the group, known as Magictecture, replaces Alpine Escape, which was dismantled to make room for the new coaster.

Little Thunder Mountain “is a bit more sophisticated and bigger,” than Alpine Escape, said Sean.

For one thing, it’s three times the footprint. It has twice the amount of track, or about 900 feet. The mountain stands about 22 feet at its tallest. The track is now 24 inches wide, instead of 18 inches. And it was made using computerized machining equipment. There are multiple water features, drops, dips and even a surprise ending that the rider “triggers.” Everything is computer-controlled.

“I’m a glutton for punishment,” said Sean with a laugh. “We got here in May and have been building ever since.”

The story of Little Thunder Mountain begins in the town of Backster’s Whistlestop, explained Sean.

As the guest approaches the town, they come to realize that it has been overrun by a gang that has taken over the mine that supports the town. You (the rider) are deputized and put aboard a train to render justice. You encounter the terrifying Baby-face Morgan. As you escape from the mine, it appears to collapse around you.

Throughout the entire “set,” an original music soundtrack, created by Eggers, plays in the background.

If you build it, they will come

Once word spread amongst the LaRochelles and their roller coaster friends, volunteers started stepping up.

Sister Nicole LaRochelle, who just so happens to be earning her master's in historical preservation at Clemson College and College of Charleston, designed and built a stretch of faux storefronts adjacent to the coaster. The ghost town includes a saloon, bank, general store, post office, assayer office, undertaker, livery stable and doctor's office.

It was a lot of work, but “it was fun to put together,” Nicole said.

Mike and Averie Field of Champaign, Ill. became friends with Sean after following his social media posts about the Alpine Escape coaster. So when Sean invited Mike, who works in electrical and animatronic design, to become part of the Little Thunder Mountain build, “I was thrilled,” said Mike.

The Fields worked remotely on their parts of the project but came to Napa for five days for a “friends and family” roller coaster reveal.

“It’s awesome,” Mike said of the coaster. “The level of detail is amazing.”

“I’m impressed with the collaboration and the number of people who have come together to do this,” said Averie Field. “It blows my mind.”

Cat Alvord is another new member of Magictecture. She’s an animatronics student from North Carolina who came to Napa to work on the project.

“It’s been incredible to be a part of this,” said Alvord. “Everyone’s so talented. I’m so glad Sean reached out to me. And now I’m California,” helping build a roller coaster.

“People just want to be part of a project,” like this, said Sean. “It’s a labor of love,” he said. “What we all have in common is story-telling and theme-designed rides. And when we all come together and bring that shared love and experience we can produce something like this.”

As with Alpine Escape, the LaRochelles don’t plan to keep Little Thunder Mountain. It’s a temporary project, said Sean. The goal is to tear it down by Labor Day.

“It’s sort of bittersweet,” he admitted. 

Jacques LaRochelle, father to the family, described the final result as “beautiful.”

“My kids are amazing,” he said proudly.

Magictecture recently hosted a party for friends and family to visit the “town” and try out the coaster. It’s not open to the public. 

Do Disney theme park builders know about Magictecture’s latest backyard roller coaster?

Yes, said Sean. A contact from Disney Imagineering arranged for Sean to take an online class over the summer about “professional practices” for theme park engineers. And Sean previously participated in the Disney College Program.

Sean still has to complete his master’s degree, but “we’re in touch,” he said of the corporation.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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