Should Disney Change Splash Mountain?

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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I got blindsided last week when I suddenly got requests from podcasters, websites and local reporters to comment on the initiative to re-theme the Disney theme park attraction Splash Mountain—that was inspired by the movie Song of the South—to the Disney animated feature The Princess and the Frog.

I assume I was contacted because I wrote the book Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South and have previously talked about the film at events.

Song of the South has always been a controversial Disney film, which is why the company voluntarily pulled it from theatrical distribution in 1986 and has never released it on any version of home media.

As a result, many misunderstandings about the movie and its content have been generated over the decades since people have had difficulty seeing it and must rely on false representations from others. Filmmaker Spike Lee considers the film racist, but admitted to Disney Legend Floyd Norman he had never seen it when he made that decision.


Splash Mountain attraction poster featured the characters from Song of the South.

It is important to remember that Walt Disney considered the film as much a fantasy as his other previous films, and not a documentary. His intent was to share American folklore rather than once again utilizing European fairy tales. Certainly the tales of Uncle Remus are very important in the history of Black America in terms of providing hope and joy for a downtrodden people.

However, the point is that no matter how someone feels about the film, it doesn't have much to do with Splash Mountain. CEO Michael Eisner insisted that there be no reference to Uncle Remus or any human beings at all for that matter. The problematic scene from the film where Brer Rabbit is trapped by tar was transformed in the attraction to him being trapped in honey.


Splash Mountain opened in Disneyland in 1989, and the land's name changed from Bear Country to Critter Country.

Basically, few if any guests who ride the attraction know much about any connection to the film except vaguely and in addition, none of the problematic aspects of the film are depicted in the attraction at all.

Changing an attraction is not as easy as it seems. Even making minor adjustments to an attraction requires time and money. The Walt Disney Company might decide that the time and money would be better spent on something else. especially with the business losses as a result of the pandemic and the challenges with now handling seating on the ride for social distancing.

Shifting Splash Mountain to a The Princess and the Frog (2009) theme causes some concerns as well, not the least of which is that the film was not as financially popular as other recent films like Frozen (2013), so it might not attract a larger audience. Transforming Maelstrom at Epcot into a Frozen attraction and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure Park into a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction were done to take advantage of more popular recent intellectual properties and ones that were sparking sequels and demands for merchandise. Those factors made an investment of time and money a good business decision because it would generate more attendance and income.

The Princess and the Frog seemed to delicately "side step" the issues of racial inequalities during the time period that was depicted. Tiana is rejected for a loan for her restaurant probably more because she is a woman and single, challenges that other Disney princesses faced, rather than that she is African-American.

Are Dr. Facilier, Mama Odie and the concept of voodoo itself racist stereotypes? Is the La Bouff family an example of white privilege and are they ridiculed by their comedic portrayals in the film for it?

In addition, 1920s New Orleans was more urban and fancy than the rural backwoods look of Song of the South that is depicted in the overall design of the Splash Mountain attraction so that would entail a significant overhaul. The delightful characters in the attraction would seem out-of-sync with The Princess and the Frog so they would not be able to be re-used effectively so that would increase the cost.

Shifting Splash Mountain to The Princess and the Frog opens up a Pandora's box of possible questions and problems without significantly enhancing the enjoyment for guests.

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 not dedicated at Magic Kingdom until October 2, 1992, but was up and running in a "soft opening" for roughly over two months during that summer.

Strong business reasons motivated the creation of Splash Mountain.

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 2 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-Animatronic animals.

However, a decade after opening, the show had significantly decreasing attendance and had seemed to have outlived its original focus, as well as sparking questions about how it "themed" into a Tomorrowland environment.

The Walt Disney Company planned to close the attraction (which it finally did on April 1988) and install something else. All the charming America Sings Audio-Animatronic 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 Splash Mountain 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 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 animal 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, 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 any possible controversy.

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!" so the riders could 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 as warning potential riders about the wet climax.

"The entire set is made of cement—right down to the watermelons," Stone stated.

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 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.

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. He had used some of the money he made from the original film to open the Los Angeles Ebony Showcase Theater in 1950 to offer African-American performers the opportunity to play roles other than maids and butlers.

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 created for 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.

With the introduction of the new attraction, Disneyland's 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," Eisner stated, "but we are not afraid to spend the money if it is worth it for a one-of-a-kind attraction."

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 are significantly more Audio-Animatronics 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."

So the question is whether changing the theme of the attraction to The Princess and the Frog is a wise decision financially and emotionally given the exorbitant expenditure of time and money it would entail.

 

Comments

  1. By carolinakid

    Disney does not want to be on the wrong side of history on this one. I’m sure they’re rejoicing that they canned Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House 40 years ago!

  2. By carolinakid

    Excuse me, but time flies by. It was 50 years ago when Aunt Jemimas was changed to Magnolia Tree Terrace. Then, in 1971, it became River Belle Terrace.

  3. By Berry Princess

    IMO I wouldn't mind a ride for the Princess and the Frog because we do like the movie but at the same time people are forgetting that a ride like Splash leaves out very young ones. You can't transform a ride like Splash Mtn to a Princess themed ride that has a height requirement. You would leave out a lot of little kids not at the right height or that might be to scared of a drop like that. I do think a Princess and the Frog would make for a great ride but not re-theme on Splash Mtn for it. It needs to be done from the ground up and given its own spot. If Disney ever does do a rumored Fantasyland expansion and takes out the Fantasyland Theater it would be a nice spot to do a ride and even a Tiana themed food spot/restaurant would be fun to have.

  4. By Promo-Man

    I hope that it I not changed

  5. By Dave1313

    No reason to change it.

    As for the cost impacts suggested, and the Princess and the Frog being New Orleans based, the solution is obvious. Build The Princess and the Frog ride by re-theming Pirates of the Caribbean! (at least in Disneyland - since it's already in New Orleans Square). You only need to gut the internals of the ride, the exterior is good to go! Not sure what to do for the other parks, since there is no New Orleans Square in WDW.

    (Just kidding on that last part . I'd not seriously suggest replacing Pirates. But I also see no obvious reason to change Splash Mountain, for all the reasons cited in the article)

  6. By imthewalrus79

    I would say from a marketing standpoint, changing the ride from a movie the company doesn't really want to promote to one they don't have an issue with advertising and selling makes some sense.

    Or, instead of changing the ride, why not take B'rer Rabbit, B'rer Fox, B'rer Bear and the characters and environment shown in Splash Mountain and try to do something with them, maybe a Disney Channel or Disney+ series. If it's successful, it would do some good in making those characters stand on their own rather than totally be tied to a problematic movie for the company

  7. By maxbuffmelvin71

    I am big fan your articles and books Jim. I hope they leave Splash Mountain alone. This is my favorite attraction of all time and I will be crushed if Disney caves into this frivolous pressure. I enjoyed the Princess and the Frog movie and it maybe my favorite movie since the turn of the century but I do not like it enough to close an existing attraction to replace with this. I like imthewalrus79's idea of some kind of redo on Disney Channel or Disney+ similar to the recent Three Caballeros series on Disney+.

  8. By LeeStafford

    I'm sorry but Princess and the Frog is too forgettable of a movie. It's on par with Good Dinosaur. I've seen SOTS and it's not a great movie but it's got good music and the controversy around it seems unwarranted.

    "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - GS, 1905

  9. By Dave1313

    Well, that's that...

    New Adventures with Princess Tiana Replacing Splash Mountain at Disneyland Park and Magic Kingdom at WDW.

  10. By Berry Princess

    Yep saw it this morning. I saw someone comment this was in the works already since last year. I am not sure if that is true or not but either way I don't get why they don't come up with something new and build from the ground up instead for Princess Tiana.

  11. By uamo

    Sign this petition if you are tired of bowing to cancel culture. It is really gaining steam! https://www.change.org/p/everyone-to...and-disneyland

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