Why Disney’s ‘racist’ Splash Mountain ride had to close
As the plastic log boat accelerated into the darkness, a chirpy voice rumbled from a speaker: “Enjoy your last splash!” Continuing to pick up speed, the flume rounded a corner. Waiting there was an animatronic fox. “Where’s that Br’er Rabbit?” it inquired in a troweled-on American South accent.
Br’er Rabbit is the hero of Walt Disney’s 1946 musical comedy Song of the South. But few of the thousands who queued for over three hours for the final day of the Splash Mountain theme-park ride at Disney World in Orlando on January 22 will have had first-hand experience of the film. Song of the South has been widely condemned for celebrating Slavery-era stereotypes of African-Americans. Disney has suppressed it since the mid-Eighties.
Still, despite the corporation’s determination to erase all traces of Song of the South, the spirit of Br’er Rabbit has lived on in the three Splash Mountain rides it operates at parks in Orlando, Anaheim California and Tokyo. Splash Mountain is best known for its final set-piece, in which park-goers slalom down a 27-metre simulated white-water rapid. However, the attraction – the California original of which cost $75 million to develop – is first and foremost a love letter to Br’er Rabbit. Or, at least, the Song of the South’s version, which bastardised a character which had originated in African-American folk tradition.
He’s all over Splash Mountain. As are his enemies Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Along with its theme song, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. Or at least they used to be. This week, Disney finally pulled down the shutters on one of its most controversial rides, nearly 34 years since it opened. In an acknowledgement of the racist roots in Song of the South, the corporation is to turn Splash Mountain into the more inclusive Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, inspired by the 2009 animation, The Princess And The Frog. The California Splash Mountain is to be similarly re-themed.
Disney parks have emerged as the latest frontier in America’s never-ending culture wars. The company is understood to have quietly drawn up plans to reboot Splash Mountain some time ago. However, the matter came to a head in 2020. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, employees at Disneyland demanded the ride be re-vamped.
“The bones of the attraction are good. But I think it’s time for us to take a serious look at where our stories come from. And how people of colour are represented on screen and in the parks,” Frederick Chambers, a Disney World park employee (“cast members” in the dystopian lingo of the company) told CNN.
"If, at the end of the day, a racist caricature is replaced by the first black Disney princess [Tiana from Princess And The Frog], I will feel like this was all worth it. I don’t believe Disney has ever had an attraction with black lead characters. It’s time to change that.”
Revamping Splash Mountain has not been without controversy. While a majority of Disney fans are supportive, a few have decried it as cultural vandalism. They claim that nothing in the ride itself can be considered racist. And they accuse Disney of bowing to the mob.
“Disney has not released Song of the South in recent memory because it would not be worth the hassle…but that by no means justifies the negative backlash,” wrote one Disney fan on Reddit. “Slavery plays no direct role in Song of the South at all. The Br’er Rabbit stories may have been made by slaves, but were based on African folktales of similar construction that predated slavery. The stories themselves are not in any way reflecting on slavery in a positive or negative light.”
Most Disney aficionados, though, have accepted the closure as inevitable. That isn’t to say Splash Mountain has gone unmourned. Within days of the shuttering in Orlando, eBay sellers were offering what they claimed was water from the ride – with prices going as high as $150 for four ounces in a jar.
“The Disney community can be very weird sometimes,” one Splash Mountain fan told the New York Times. “I honestly don’t know how else to put it.”
Splash Mountain is merely the latest challenge faced by Disney, which opened its theme parks in an era when casual racism was rife. Before Splash Mountain, the big flashpoint was Jungle Cruise, at Disney World Orlando. In 2021 Disney announced it was revamping the Jungle Cruise area to remove “problematic” aspects of the attraction.
Jungle Cruise opened at Disneyland in 1955 and was loosely based on John Huston’s The African Queen. It’s a favourite of hardcore Disney fans. Queue times can be up to two hours on busy days. It has even inspired a flop Dwayne Johnson/Emily Blunt movie.
My final splash down into the Briar Patch! I’ve ridden up front three times today and this was the most wet I’ve gotten! Only fitting haha! So long Brer Rabbit! I’m ready for Tiana! #SplashMountain pic.twitter.com/PDnQHj1TuL
— Theme Park Express (@ThemeParkExpres) January 23, 2023
But Jungle Cruise has also drawn criticism over its portrayal of African people wielding spears. “The Jungle Cruise has always had more than a whiff of ‘Great White Hunter’ in its depictions of the local natives,” Len Testa, co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World told Marketwatch.
“The audio that plays for guests standing in line might as well be called ‘British Colonialism’s Greatest Hits.” (This audio loop includes Song of India by Paul Whiteman and The King's Horses (And the King’s Men) by Jack Hylton and his Orchestra).
“For many people of colour who rode the Jungle Cruise, this section of the attraction was awkward and uncomfortable,” Chris Wakefield, a bi-racial journalist and Disney fan who hosts theme park podcast, The Wakefield Report, told the Telegraph in 2021.
“I see this as yet another step Disney is taking to atone for previous incidents. I’m not sure if you’d call it racism or just insensitivity, but I’ll chalk it up as a win, if they are looking to rectify it.”
“Outdated depictions shouldn't be upheld simply in the name of nostalgia,” added theme park journalist Carlye Wisel.
Connected to this are claims Disney isn’t doing enough to address the issue of diversity within its theme park design teams. The “Imagineers” who create new rides and attractions are overwhelmingly white. Disney responded to criticism by forming a Diversity and Values team. Changes have already been made to the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride, at Disneyland in California, where pirates were previously shown auctioning off women. And to the Hall of Presidents, in Orlando, which has been amended to include a discussion of slavery.
“It is a great start. But I would caution Disney to not fall into some of the same traps as other organisations, where an inclusion director is hired and the organisation thinks that has solved the problem,” Chris Wakefield told Orlando Weekly. “Creating a diversity and inclusion team is like hiring a doctor to find out if you have cancer. It doesn't cure cancer; you are just finding out where it is and how easy it is to treat or cure.”
Yet theme parks are just the beginning of the challenge facing Disney, The company has been forced to address a legacy of racism that stretches back to its founding in 1923. As a white American born in 1901 Walt Disney was almost certainly insensitive to minorities. However, those who worked with him testified that he never expressed racist or anti-semitic opinions.
“Not once did I observe a hint of the racist behaviour,” said Floyd Norman, the studio’s first black animator. “His treatment of people – and by this I mean all people – can only be called exemplary.”
Brer @RonDeSantisFL, hope you is ready to save Splash Mountain. I sho’ ‘nuf don’t want to see folks stop payin’ to see us critters in Florida!
— Brer Rabbit (@BriarPatchz) December 19, 2022
Nonetheless, much of what was released in his name certainly was racist. Song of the South is the most infamous example. But what about 1941’s Dumbo, featuring a “Jim Crow” bird who speaks in deeply caricatured “African American” slang? Or Peter Pan, from 1953, with its appalling “Red Indians”?
The Walt Disney Company is sensitive towards these issues and has become drawn into what feels like a never-ending struggle to confront historical racism. As far back as 1993 it was required to change the lyrics to the song Arabian Nights from Aladdin. The original goes: “Oh, I come from a land/From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam/Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”.
Even in the early Nineties, this was deemed too much. The offending verse was tweaked by the song’s lyricist, Howard Ashman, for the VHS release. The new couplet went, “Where it’s flat and immense / And the heat is intense / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”.
However, some feel the movie still has issues. “Aladdin is a white fantasy,” Bitchmedia’s Aditi Natasha Kini wrote. “That’s hardly surprising, because the film is basically some white guy’s foggy notion of the Orient.”
Disney had to face up to its tainted heritage all over again when rolling out its streaming service in late 2019. Viewers were alerted to the problematic tone of much of the studio’s older output with a generic caution that films might “contain outdated cultural depictions”.
But even that was regarded as inadequate. Dumbo, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and the Aristocats (both featuring Siamese cats with exaggerated “Asian” features) were judged too offensive for a simple “outdated cultural depictions ” tag. In 2021, Disney included a more explicit warning.
It reads: “This programme includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now”. The message continues that rather than remove the content, “we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together”. Children under seven are furthermore “blocked” from viewing these films. They can only be accessed by adult Disney + account holders.
“I have no problem with the disclosures that appear before these films that contain insensitive portraits of people of colour,” Chris Wakefield told the Telegraph. “Is it a perfect solution? No. Does it leave the door open for families to have conversations? Yes. I have a two-year old daughter, and I fully anticipate having such conversations with her in the future while watching some of these films. Will steps like this, and changing part of the Jungle Cruise, Splash Mountain, etc fully heal and solve the problems of communities of colour? Of course not. But I take it as one step in the right direction.”
Disney in many ways embodies the soul of America; it's perhaps not surprising that it continues to erase the stain of racism. Its history is America’s history. And so, in a sense, America’s sins are Disney’s sins, too.
Still, there are limits as to how far backwards Disney is willing to bend. When Pirates of the Caribbean reopened, the toxic sea dogs were gone. But one familiar figure remained. Captain Jack Sparrow, the ne’er-do-well buccaneer based on the big-screen portrayal by Johnny Depp.
Depp’s career has spiralled since he and ex-wife Amber Heard clashed in court in the UK and America. He was fired from the Fantastic Beasts series. Meanwhile, his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has run aground. Even if Pirates returns in some shape or form, Depp is unlikely to feature.
And yet, there he is, star attraction in one of Disney’s iconic rides. The House of Mouse may be serious about racism. But in its theme parks, at least, Captain Jack Sparrow is the sacred cow it dare not throw overboard.