Splash Mountain Double Anniversaryby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
"Splash Mountain takes guests on a waterborne journey via a buoyant log through the backwoods, swamps, and bayous of the old South as it was depicted in the Disney movie, Song of the South. Showcased in 15 scenes from the motion picture, whimsical music and the mischievous antics of 103 audio-animatronic figures provide a rich audio-visual treat for guests as they experience thrilling lifts and drops in a fast water ride." – from the Disneyland Press Release 1989.
While it is not as big an anniversary like so many others being celebrated this year, Splash Mountain opened at Disneyland on July 17, 1989 and three years later on July 17, 1992 at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
Officially, the attraction was dedicated at Magic Kingdom on October 2, 1992, but was up and running in a "soft opening" for roughly over two months during that summer.
I did a presentation on Splash Mountain for the local Orlando chapter of the Disneyana Fan Club meeting on June 8 and will be doing a similar presentation for the Winter Park Public Library on July 21 at 2:00 p.m.
My unhidden agenda for doing this presentation and relating it to the film Song of the South is to get people excited and interested in buying a copy of my book, Who's Afraid of the Song of the South.
However, I thought MousePlanet readers might be interested in part of the information from those presentations as well, especially on Splash Mountain's double anniversary.
So how do Disney theme park attractions like Splash Mountain originate? It is not as simple as thinking "this would be a cool idea" because of the vast amount of time, labor and money involved; there needs to be some solid business reasons.
First, Bear Country ("A Honey of a Place since '72") at Disneyland was suffering.
Even though it had the popular WDW attraction, Country Bear Jamboree, that show was the only thing to draw guests to that area. There were a handful of other items in the area like a restaurant, a small arcade, two merchandise shops, the Mike Fink Keel Boats and the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes, but those were not enough to attract guests away from the other fun-packed lands.
Bear Country was a dead end. Guests had to enter and exit through the same pathway. There was no other option than being stuck in that horseshoe bend of the Rivers of America.
Even on a busy day at Disneyland, as little as two percent of the daily guests ventured into the area; it desperately needed at least one other big attraction.
Second, Executive Vice President (basically head of Disney Parks and Resorts) Dick Nunis had long been lobbying for a water flume ride.
Six Flags Over Texas got a log ride in 1963 from Arrow Development, who had created many of the Disneyland rides like the Matterhorn Bobsleds, and it was instantly popular.
The Calico Log Ride (later renamed Timber Mountain Log Ride) at nearby Knott's Berry Farm was designed by Bud Hurlbut and was a themed experience to capture some authentic aspects of the California logging experience.
It opened July 11, 1969 with actor John Wayne taking the first ride with one of his sons, and was a huge hit that remained so for decades. Young Tony Baxter skipped school to be there on opening day and to check out how the ride worked, like how the logs were pulled up an incline without chains.
However, the more Nunis argued that other parks had log flume rides, the more the Imagineers argued back that it was the very reason that Disneyland shouldn't have one because Disneyland was different.
Third, the Tomorrowland attraction, America Sings, had opened June 29, 1974 with much hoopla to take advantage of the upcoming Bicentennial celebrations. Utilizing the Carousel of Progress stage, an audio-animatronics eagle and owl took guests on a tribute journey through the Great American Songbook as performed by a large cast of audio-animatronics animals.
However, a decade after opening, the show had significantly decreasing attendance and had seemed to some to have outlived its original focus, as well as sparking questions about how it "themed" into a Tomorrowland environment.
The Disney Company planned to close the attraction (which it did finally did on April 1988) and install something else.
In fact, there had been discussions with filmmaker George Lucas in 1986 about transforming the space into "Plectu's Fantastic Intergalactic Revue", an attraction where a flying saucer transporting a space circus crashes into the building and guests would be able to see the different acts, led by the three-armed ringmaster P. T. Quantum, while the performers awaited rescue.
All the charming America Sings audio-animatronics characters would be stripped and cannibalized for parts.
"Sitting on the Santa Ana freeway (Interstate 5), trapped in the Southern California commuter rush, Imagineer Tony Baxter was hit with the inspiration for a new Disneyland attraction," wrote Imagineer Bruce Gordon, who was a show producer on the attraction.
With the Anaheim Hills as a backdrop as he impatiently waited in traffic, supposedly, Baxter had an epiphany that Disney could design a traditional E-ticket attraction that would be a mountain log ride, and repurpose and save the America Sings audio-animatronics characters to tell the story of the Disney animated feature, Song of the South (1946). It would solve all three challenges.
He rushed into Imagineering and enthusiastically convinced his fellow Imagineers. That is the legend, and it is a great story.
"I can't say I actually thought of Splash Mountain on the freeway," said Baxter to interviewers in recent years," but I did ponder it on more than a couple of rides to and from work. I would say that I definitely had time to think about it while sitting in traffic."
When Baxter did finally formulate the idea in the summer of 1983, he did excitedly propose it at Imagineering as soon as he got into work.
"Tony came up with the idea and suggested it that morning after being trapped in traffic and by the end of the first day, we knew what the show was going to be," stated Gordon. "That's the fabulous part of the attraction. We heard the idea, and it just clicked. It was a natural. Show Designer John D. Stone came up with a storyboard that showed what the attraction would look like, and Splash Mountain was on its way."
Imagineer Marc Davis had animated on the film Song of the South and his designs of the characters in America Sings were reminiscent of that same style, as was soon discovered when the Imagineering Information Resource Center was raided for model sheets from the original film.
The Imagineers watched the film several times to get a sense of the story, the colors, and the characters.
"The three of us—Tony, Bruce Gordon and myself—literally spent the next three days in Tony's office preparing about 30 storyboards and outlining the entire project," recalled Stone in a 1989 interview.
"The character sketches were pinned up on the wall next to a list of scenes from the film, each of which would be transformed into a scene in the ride. The characters were divided up by type—happy, lazy, silly—then matched with the scene where they fit best," wrote Bruce Gordon in Disneyland: The Nickel Tour (1995).
When they discovered that they had leftover audio-animatronics characters, they were incorporated into the big showboat finale.
"After we developed a 1/20th scale model, Bruce Gordon was the person who started showing it to everyone and getting everyone at WDI, including the financial people, excited about the project," recalled Stone. The whole thing from idea to storyboard to model came together in less than a month.
However, some Imagineers were not excited about the project at all, preferring to showcase their own ideas. So, when new CEO Michael Eisner was given his first tour of Imagineering in 1984 where new projects could be pitched to him, Tony Baxter and the Splash Mountain model were pushed into a back corner.
Eisner had chosen to bring along his 14-year-old son, Breck Eisner, who while his dad was being shown the projects that WDI had on its top agenda, wandered over to the Splash Mountain model. Toward the end of his tour, Eisner noticed his son in the back and came over and found that his son really liked the model.
Eisner was looking for more teen-oriented projects, and from a financial standpoint, liked the idea that value could be added with little additional cost to the project with the inclusion of audio-animatronics characters that were set to retire and expire.
Tony, Bruce, and John had come up with possible names ,including "Song of the South Log Flume Ride", "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", and "Zip-a-Dee River Run."
Eisner didn't care for any of them and suggested the name "Splash" to tie in with the successful Disney live action film (a film that Eisner loved so much that he planned for a nightclub around the theme at Pleasure Island and put into production a television sequel to the film called Splash Too, the first movie to be filmed at the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida). Eisner said they should even include a mermaid in the attraction.
The Imagineers argued that a mermaid was not appropriate for the story of Song of the South. Eisner insisted that the character of "Uncle Remus" not be included because of possible controversy—the Disney Company withdrew the film from U.S. theatrical release in 1986 and put it in the vaults.
At one point, Eisner looked at the model and said, "It's a mountain… you have a big splash at the end… it's Splash Mountain."
Because things were so backed up with other projects, approval for the go-ahead on construction took almost two years until 1986, and then over another two years to finish the project. Roughly six years elapsed from the initial idea to official opening. It was reported that the firm responsible for the flume technology had been unable to fulfill all its guarantees, which caused delays from the originally announced opening in January.
Disney had already showcased a Splash Mountain float and the Splash Mountain dancers in the December 1988 Hollywood Lane Parade. The float with Chip 'n' Dale in red ski caps and scarves riding in the log was also part of Disneyland's Christmas parade in 1988.
When the final drop was first tested, riders got totally drenched. Baxter was so wet that he had to leave the park and change clothes. The log itself was filled with water. No amount of modification to the flume could solve the problem, so the logs had to be reconfigured.
The original 45 log vehicles had to be replaced by vehicles 500 pounds lighter. Each log's seating capacity had to be trimmed from eight to seven, reducing the per-hour capacity (today, each vehicle accommodates six riders). According to the Imagineering back story, the logs were hollowed out by sharp-toothed, overeager beavers who lived in the area.
While testing was happening with weighted sacks used to simulate actual guests, Eisner showed up and wanted to ride. The Imagineers were more than reluctant, but Eisner was adamant.
Water levels were still being checked and adjusted. The Imagineers took a huge black trash bag and punched a hole in the end and pulled it over Eisner's head to offer some small protection from the final splash.
Six Imagineers crammed in behind him and when they reached the final lift (where the vultures are), there was still scaffolding around, so Baxter had to yell "Duck!" to maneuver under the temporary structure.
At the end of the ride, Eisner's only response was, "Can we go again?"
That final plunge down Chick-A-Pin Hill is 52 and a half feet long on an approximately 47-degree incline. Guests descend at a speed of roughly 40 miles per hour. In addition, there are a dozen water cannons that go off at the bottom to add to the spray, giving the spectators watching their friends a more dramatic experience as well.
"The entire set is made of cement—right down to the watermelons," stated Stone.
The foundations were put below ground level so the final structure would not dwarf Sleeping Beauty Castle or the Matterhorn, but would still be impressively tall as a "weenie" to draw guests. Concrete was used so it could stand up to the damp created by the water and could be built in far less time than a normal steel structure. Concrete also offered the some special opportunities for painting the flume itself.
"You begin the ride on the outside with the real grass hanging over the knolls and its rough rocks, and then you go inside and it's just like Uncle Remus telling the story of Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear," enthused Stone. "The screen suddenly bursts into lavish animated colors, and you're in the middle of a cartoon. That's exactly what happens in this ride once you go inside."
The attraction loosely follows some of the incidents in the animated sections of the Song of the South film. Brer Rabbit runs away from home and finds himself in more adventures than he intended.
He continually outwits Brer Fox and Brer Bear until he is trapped in honey (rather than the politically incorrect Tar Baby in the movie) and taken to Brer Fox's lair to be eaten.
As in the movie, he convinces Brer Fox to toss him into the spiky Briar Patch, where the plucky rabbit survives because he was born in it and thus is intimately familiar with it.
The grand finale has the Oscar-winning "Zip a Dee Doo Dah" song being sung by critters on a massive rocking showboat (one of only two things on the attraction not sculpted out of cement; the other is the mule cart in the same scene) as Brer Rabbit rediscovers the comforts of the home he tried to abandon.
"The ride tells a story, and like every story it has a moral," explained Stone. "Our moral, similar to that of The Wizard of Oz, is that if you're looking for adventure, the best place to find it is in your own backyard. We really selected the best elements of the film to tell the story in our attraction."
Imagineer Bruce Gordon wrote new lyrics to some of the classic songs to help explain the story to guests as they wind their way through the attraction. Actor Nick Stewart, who was 70 years old, was called back to record lines for Brer Bear, a character he voiced in the original film. Jess Harnell does the voices of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit, one of his very first professional voice work jobs. Audio-animatronics figures for Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear were the only new ones in the original attraction.
Imagineer Dave Feiten programmed (and often reprogrammed several times) all of the characters and fixed story problems, eventually removing 10 figures to help the flow of the story and moving others to different locations.
"It was a lot of work, but worth the extra time," Feiten explained. "Every time you do something, once it's done you see ways that you could have done it better, and this gave me that opportunity."
With the introduction of the new attraction, Bear Country became Critter Country, since there were so many other animals than just bears. Exceeding $75 million, it was one of the most expensive attractions that Imagineering had built up to that time.
"It was an expensive ride," stated Eisner, "but we are not afraid to spend the money if it is worth it for a one-of-a-kind attraction."
Historically, this was the first time that any Disney ride based on animated cartoon characters from a Disney film had been built outside of Fantasyland.
At the dedication (with a line of eager guests stretching to beyond where the Mark Twain boarded), Eisner told the gathered press that "With the opening of Splash Mountain, I believe that Disneyland is now at least a two-day trip, and the time has come for a second gate… We have several projects on the drawing boards once all the problems are resolved. The Imagineers are never short on ideas."
The dedication took place at approximately 10:30 a.m. with actor Jim Varney and 12 celebrity children (along with Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Mickey Mouse) turning on a big water pump to "fill the ride" and create a splash. The ceremony took about 15 minutes.
The attraction is at three Disney theme parks: Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Tokyo Disneyland. There are some slight differences between all three in terms of duration, length of flume, and number of drops, although all three feature the same scenes in a fairly identical layout.
At Walt Disney World, the project was turned over to an entirely different team of Imagineers led by Eric Jacobson. There had to be some significant exterior color changes to blend into the Frontierland color scheme (rather than the Georgia-looking coloring at Disneyland).
Also, at Walt Disney World, there is a stronger presence of Brer Frog (Uncle Remus' fishing buddy in the original movie) as a storyteller.
There are significantly more audio-animatronics characters in the Disneyland version because they were rescued from America Sings. In Florida, there are fewer such figures because they were expensive to build.
"What we've done is taken all the best elements of an outdoor flume and combined them with a spectacular show," said Stone when the attraction opened. "At Disneyland, we can't build a log ride just for the sake of building a log ride. It's got to be better. It's got to have a themed story."