It Was Time for Splash Mountain to Change

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It Was Time for Splash Mountain to Change

UPDATE: Disney has confirmed that Disney World’s Splash Mountain will be closing permanently on Jan. 23, 2023. Its last day of operation will be Jan. 22, 2023. No timeline has yet been given for the closure of Disneyland’s Splash Mountain.

I love Splash Mountain. It’s one of the best rides ever made by Disney, and even though it didn’t really exist when I was a kid (I was a teenager when it opened at Disney World, the only Disney park I went to growing up, and thus already had firmly established favorites at the Magic Kingdom that were deeply entrenched by nostalgia), it’s still one of my favorite rides at any Disney park. Heck, I ranked the California version as the best ride in Disneyland. When you look at what makes a great theme park ride—the synthesis of theme, visuals, music, story and ride experience—it’s hard to find any design flaws on the surface. And despite all that, it’s absolutely time for the current version of Splash Mountain to go.

Splash Mountain might seem to be about as perfect as theme park rides get, but it has one major foundational flaw that should’ve prevented it from ever leaving the drawing board. It stars characters from Song of the South, the 1946 film that Disney has kept hidden since 1986—three years before the first Splash Mountain even opened. Yes, the ride ignores the more blatantly problematic portions of the movie—there’s no Uncle Remus, no human characters, no references at all to race relations or sharecropping. But it’s still inherently linked to a movie that Disney has been embarrassed by for four decades—a movie that portrays race relations in 19th century Georgia in a positive, nostalgic light. A movie that’s based on a white man’s commercial adaptations of African folktales and slave stories. You can’t separate Splash Mountain from Song of the South, and there’s no reason to reference that movie at a theme park.

Earlier this week Disney announced that it would be retheming Splash Mountain at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom into a ride based on the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog—the first (and so far only) Disney animated feature to star a Black lead character. Disney traditionalists, who grouse about any changes to the theme parks—complaints I often find myself agreeing with—were unhappy. So were racists. (There might be some overlap there?) But the overall response was refreshingly positive. Most people seem more excited about the prospects of a ride based on a popular, recent film starring a beloved Disney princess than they are about a ride that goes out of its way to cover up the unloved and disowned 75-year-old film that it’s based on.

Here’s a bit of context for people who haven’t ridden Splash Mountain or seen Song of the South. I’m just old enough to have seen the movie in the theater during its last rerelease in 1986, and mostly all I remember is that, other than the songs and cartoons, it’s beyond boring. Its racism is overt, but not in the aggressive, transparently hateful way that The Birth of a Nation’s is; it wants to be a heartfelt depiction of racial harmony, but in the process it gives a deeply ahistorical picture of what race relations were like in the South after the Civil War, while also encouraging Black people to be happy with a system that inherently dehumanizes them. The movie basically says that Black people were better off when they were toiling in the fields for white landowners, and although technically the time period in which its set would make Remus a sharecropper and not a slave, the movie avoids addressing the difference between those two. Not that there was much of one: Southern Black sharecroppers were still subject to racist laws and practices that prevented them from enjoying the freedoms they had been granted. There’s also a moment where Uncle Remus, the kindly old man who shares the animated folk stories with the movie’s young white lead, talks about how much he misses the past—a past in which he would’ve been a slave, and not just a sharecropper with a nominal amount of freedom.

Disney wisely left all of that out of Splash Mountain. They focused on the movie’s animated portions, which depict the African-American folktales that Atlanta writer Joel Chandler Harris wrote down under the Remus name in the 1870s and ‘80s. These stories star a classic trickster figure in the form of Br’er Rabbit, who regularly outsmarts Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear as they try to catch and eat him. Song of the South featured three shorts starring these characters, and all of them are referenced in the story of Splash Mountain. Other than Br’er Fox’s voice, which sounds distressingly close to a stereotypical minstrel character, there’s nothing much in the ride itself that would strike somebody as racist.

The ride doesn’t just ignore the live action parts of Song of the South, though. It also changes a key part of one of the animated shorts, the central plot point of the segment known as “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby.” In the folktale and the cartoon, Br’er Rabbit gets stuck to a ball of tar that Br’er Fox dresses up like a baby. To escape he tricks the fox into throwing him into a briar patch—a fall that Splash Mountain turns into its signature 50 foot drop. Obviously Disney wouldn’t touch the term “tar baby,” even in the 1980s, and so in the ride Br’er Rabbit now finds himself stuck inside a honey-filled beehive.

Before that drop, Splash Mountain is a relatively tranquil boat ride through various vignettes starring adorable audioanimatronics of singing swampland creatures. After the plummet, riders emerge into one of my personal favorite scenes of any Disney ride: a riverboat full of animals singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the Oscar-winning song from the movie. It’s glorious, and with only minor alterations and a new soundtrack these aspects of the ride could still fit the new Princess and the Frog theme.

If you’re one of the Splash Mountain fans who think retheming it is an overaction, reread the two paragraphs above. Yes, Disney’s Imagineers might have avoided the most blatantly racist parts of Song of the South when they designed the ride, but they couldn’t completely sever that connection. No matter how they changed it, the ride’s climax is still based on a story about a “tar baby.” “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” one of the most famous and beloved Disney songs, is most likely adapted from a blackface minstrel song written in the 1820s that inspired a long-running stereotypical blackface character. If you spend any amount of time reading about Splash Mountain, its characters or its music, you will almost immediately learn about the ride’s racist origins. They’re inseparable. And that’s why the best thing Disney can do is remove the current story and characters.

I can understand the pain and disappointment some are feeling. I know what it’s like to see your favorite theme park ride disappear—my two favorites as a kid left the Magic Kingdom in the ‘90s. Unlike Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, though, Splash Mountain isn’t going away. It’s just getting a new story and a new theme. It’ll still be a log flume through a swamp with a massive drop near the end. And there’s a very legitimate real-world reason for this change, unlike with most ride updates or overlays. Splash Mountain is directly related to America’s long history of systemic racism, and it’s always been weird that Disney built it while simultaneously banishing the movie it’s based on. (The explanation for this contradictory approach towards Song of the South has to do with the ride’s audioanimatronics—Imagineering was looking to repurpose the animals from the shuttered attraction America Sings, and apparently Song of the South was the only Disney movie that really fit the bill. The ride proceeded as scheduled even with the company otherwise banning the movie.)

Upset Disney fans have put forth a number of arguments against this change. Some say that a ride set in New Orleans won’t thematically fit in Frontierland, where Splash Mountain is based in the Magic Kingdom. (Nevermind that a ride set in the swamps of Georgia doesn’t really fit there anyway.) Others assume Disney will replace the dozens of audioanimatronics currently used in the rides with screens and projections, resulting in a less complex, less interesting attraction. (Considering almost all of the animals currently seen in the ride would also exist in the swamps of Louisiana, I think it’s a stretch at this point to think all the robots will be ripped out.) Some simply refuse to understand why people would have problems with the ride as is, insisting that it’s not racist and that people who are complaining are simply “virtue signalling” or looking to be offended, and accusing Disney of caving to a “woke” “SJW” “mob.” (These people are hopeless. Don’t even try to argue with them.)

None of these reasons are good. None of them are an excuse to leave references to Song of the South in the theme parks today. There is no good argument in favor of keeping Splash Mountain the way it is. Disney isn’t “erasing history” or destroying its own artistic creations by making a log flume ride based on forgotten old cartoons into something that won’t hurt or offend people. If anything, the original Splash Mountain “erased history” by trying to cover up its source material’s inherent connection to white supremacy.

Again, I’m going to miss this music. If they do remove all or most of the audioanimatronics, I’ll miss those as well. If that riverboat full of singing chickens and a piano-playing pig is removed, I’ll legitimately be sad. But I know I’ll love the new music. (Seriously, The Princess and the Frog’s songs are great.) I’ll love seeing the movie’s characters come to life, especially if it’s through audioanimatronics and not projections. If the ascent up the hill before the big drop is themed to Dr. Facilier’s “Friends on the Other Side” musical number, I’ll almost definitely love that, too. And the physical sensation of the ride shouldn’t change a bit.

Mostly I’ll love being able to ride one of Disney’s best and biggest rides without thinking about the systemic racism and oppression my people inflicted upon others. Acknowledging the sins of our past is vital, even at a theme park, and Disney has done an admirable job of that with updates to the Hall of Presidents script and the American Adventures show at Epcot. It’d be hard to give that context in a ride like Splash Mountain, and would frankly ruin the fun of the whole thing. Changing it to a different story that doesn’t have that baggage is a good decision.

It’s past time for Splash Mountain to change. It was out of place when it opened 30 years ago and has only become increasingly awkward since. With The Princess and the Frog Disney can theme the ride to a better and more popular movie whose setting is basically the same, but isn’t rooted in white supremacy. With this update Disney will be removing a singularly problematic part of its theme parks, making them more inviting and less troubling than they currently are. This had to happen. It’s that simple.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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