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Welcome, World Travelers! Why Was Splash Mountain Controversial?

by James Coulter

After 30 years of sending riders splashing into the briar patch, Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World has closed. The ride will undergo extensive refurbishment to be re-themed as “Tiana’s Bayou Adventure,” based on the popular 2009 animated film, Princess and the Frog. The new ride is expected to open in 2024.

Previously, the former attraction was themed to the animated Brer Rabbit segments from the 1946 movie, Song of the South, a film deemed so controversial due to racially-insensitive elements that Disney has yet to release it on either home media or streaming.

The problematic nature of the ride and its source material is partially the reason why the attraction will be changed. The re-theme was announced in 2020 shortly following the protests of George Floyd’s death. For this reason, the announced change has been accused by some detractors of Disney pushing “political correctness” and a “woke” agenda.

But is the Splash Mountain re-theme necessary? Does the old ride deserve to be tossed into the briar patch? And does Tiana deserve to take its place as the princess of her bayou adventure? Answering that question will require delving into three quarters of a century’s worth of history. So, strap yourself in because this is going to be a wild ride.

Note: This article will be citing and summarizing information as presented by two YouTube videos: Tony Goldmark’s “Splash Mountain: Why Tiana’s Almost There (And Why That’s Okay)” (https://youtu.be/U5hIamKrdxk) and DreamSound’s “Disney’s Racist Ride.” (https://youtu.be/1iz4FwBUN2M) Please watch both of those videos if you want a more thorough in-depth analysis.

Part 1: Song of the South

Released in 1946, Song of the South was Disney’s first live-action film and its first full-length feature to combine live-action with animated elements. The movie is based on the Uncle Remus tales as written and compiled by Joel Chandler Harris—a childhood favorite of Walt Disney.

The film is about Johnny, a young boy who has been sent to live with his wealthy mother on her southern plantation. Initially, Johnny does not care for his new home, but he soon grows to love it after meeting Uncle Remus, a kindly old plantation worker who tells him stories about Brer Rabbit. Unfortunately, Johnny’s mother does not take kindly to him befriending the elderly black gentleman (because racism) and has Remus sent away. Johnny chases after him, gets hit by a bull, and only recovers after Remus returns and promises to stay.

On a technical level, Song of the South was praised for its blend of live-action and animation, a technique that would be later perfected in 1964’s Mary Poppins. However, the film has also received criticism for its portrayal of African-Americans. Most of the movie’s black actors play workers on a Southern (post-Civil War Reconstruction-era) plantation portrayed as happily serving under its white owners, and the characters speak in racially-insensitive broken English (which, unfortunately, was common during movies at the time).

Even when it was first released in 1946, Song of the South sparked controversy for its racial insensitivity. The movie was protested with picket lines, denounced by the NAACP, declared an “insult to American minorities” by a U.S. Congressman, and decried by one movie critic as “as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced.” (This was only a few years after Hollywood produced Birth of a Nation, an infamous movie that glorified and helped revitalize the Ku Klux Klan!)

In fairness, the movie attempted to convey a progressive message about racial tolerance. In a time when most movie theaters were segregated (to the point where not even the actor who played Uncle Remus was allowed to watch its premiere), a movie about a young white boy learning to overcome the racial prejudice of his elders by befriending people marginalized as a “lower” race and class and treating them as his equal is somewhat radical.

The movie also provided prominent acting roles to James Baskett (Uncle Remus) and Hattie McDaniel, a black actress who had previously starred in the equally controversial Gone with the Wind a few years prior. And while Baskett was unable to attend the movie’s opening night, Walt Disney did campaign relentlessly for him to be given an Academy Award for his performance, claiming that the man deserved it for his hard work.

Regardless, due to its negative reception, Song of the South was re-released theatrically in 1956, with no re-release during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (for obvious reasons). The movie would only be shown later in 1972, 1980, and 1986 (more on that later). Since then, it has never had a theatrical release, and it has never been released on home media or streaming in America.

So why did this controversial film become the basis of a thrill ride? Well…

Part 2: Splash Mountain

Flash forward to the mid-1980s. Michael Eisner took charge as the new Disney CEO, and he had big plans for Disneyland. To change its public perception as being a park for “little kids”, he wanted to build new thrill rides to draw in an older teen demographic. Star Tours, which opened in 1987, was one of those attractions.

Another ride he proposed would be a log flume ride. Disney did not have an outdoor water ride, and something like Timber Mountain Log Ride at Knotts Berry Farm would most likely draw in guests during the hot summer months. As Critter Country (then Bear Country) was the only place in the park with enough available space, the ride would have to be built there and themed to the area.

Initally, the ride was proposed as “Moonshine Run”, a combination log flume/shooter ride that would have had guests using laser guns to shoot at redneck bears making and smuggling moonshine. However, that initial plan was scrapped, and a new proposal was pitched to theme the ride after Song of the South.

The new ride would re-use animatronic animal characters from the defunct America Sings attraction. As the characters were designed by Marc Davis, who had also worked as an animator for Song of the South, the rustic southern animatronics would fit right perfectly alongside Brer Rabbit and the other animated Song of the South Characters.

To ensure it still had brand marketability to build an entire ride around it, the movie had a limited theatrical release for four weeks in 1986. If it received any protest or boycott, then the ride would be scrapped. The theatrical re-release proved successful, and construction went underway.

Originally pitched as Zip-A-Dee River Run, Splash Mountain (re-named to strangely tie in with the 1984 live-action movie Splash) opened in the newly re-themed Critter Country in Disneyland in 1989. Three years later, the ride would be built in Tokyo Disneyland and Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World.

While the attraction focuses primarily on the animated Brer Rabbit segments from the movie, quotes from Uncle Remus can be seen posted through the queue, and, of course, the main headline song is the movie’s famous “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah!”

Part 3: The Controversy

Being based on a controversial film like Song of the South, Splash Mountain has received criticism. Some fans insist the attraction preserves the story and characters of the Brer Rabbit animated segments while stripping away and toning down the other problematic elements of the movie. Other fans, however, claim the ride merely sanitizes those problematic elements.

In her video essay, Dreamsounds explains how many of the movie’s songs, which are also played in the ride’s queue, were based on racist blackface minstrel songs. In fact, the movie and ride’s most popular song, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah!”, was influenced by the minstrel song, “Zip Coon.”

“Disney definitely tried to separate the ride from the movie,” she said. “Although Disney tried to sift out the film’s problematic elements when making Splash Mountain…Song of the South would not exist without problematic racist traditions, so thinking it’s possible to separate the movie from them to make a ride is missing the point.”

Many fans have called for Splash Mountain to be changed. One Change.org petition, created in June 2020, requested the attraction be re-themed to Princess and the Frog, not only to remove the ride’s problematic origins, but also to give a ride to Disney’s first black princess. That petition received 21 thousand signatures.

“Disney parks should be a home for all to enjoy,” the petition read. “There is a huge need for diversity in the parks and this could help fill that need. Princess and the Frog is a beloved princess movie but has very little representation in the parks. Tiana could be one of the first princesses with a thrill ride, as well as giving her a much-deserved place in the parks.”

Nearly a month later, Disney officially announced it would re-theme Splash Mountain to Princess and the Frog. But while some fans were excited and others mildly disappointed, others complained the Walt Disney Company was kowtowing to “political correctness” and a “woke agenda.” Complicating matters was how the announcement was made shortly after the death of George Floyd and amidst the ensuing nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

But is this all true? Did Disney really decide to change the ride due to an online petition? Was Disney succumbing to a “woke agenda”? Most likely not. The blog post announcing the change claimed the Imagineers had been working on the ride concept since last year. Even then, as Tony Goldmark explained in his video essay, the timing between the petition and the announcement was too short for Disney to develop the new ride concept.

“This has all the earmarks of something that was pitched like a decade ago and the executives never quite thought it was worth the cost until now, but when the [petition] campaign went viral, it loosened their purse strings,” he said.

Since then, other petitions have been created to #SaveSplashMountain. One petition, at more than 100,000 signatures, even received four times the support than the petition to change the ride. Unfortunately, with the ride having recently closed for refurbishment, Disney seems set on its initial decision.

But was Disney’s decision inspired by an attempt to appear “woke”? Again, most likely not. The real reason seems to be the same reason Disney had re-themed the former Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to Winnie the Pooh: to theme the ride on a more relevant (and thus more lucrative) intellectual property.

After all, which seems more profitable? Keeping a ride themed off an old movie deemed so controversial it still hasn’t been released on home media or streaming? Or re-theming it to a more recent and more popular princess movie? In the end, Disney seems to care less about “Black Lives Matter” and more about seeing green.

On a more positive note, Tony Baxter, the original Imagineer who designed Splash Mountain, has given his blessing on the ride’s retheme and will even be coming out of retirement to serve as a consultant on its redesign.

Overall, Disney seems set on the re-theme from the controversial Song of the South to the more popular Princess and the Frog. Only time will tell how well the new attraction will be. But even if you’re blue about Splash Mountain, you can take solace in knowing that it’ll be the same old ride with a new coat of paint.

It’s the truth. It’s actual. Everything is satis-factual!

What do you think? Do you think it was right for Disney to close Splash Mountain? Are you looking forward to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure? Or are you going to miss Brer Rabbit and friends too much? Tell us what you think in a comment on our Facebook page.

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