Splash Mountain, Song of the South, and Moving Disney Forward

Splash Mountain

Now that America’s history of racism is being put under a microscope, it’s time for us to look at Splash Mountain, its history with the film Song of the South, and Disney’s potential paths forward.

I grew up at Disneyland, living just a brief 10-minute ride from the park throughout my entire childhood, and have visited the park more times than I can possibly count. Splash Mountain has always been one of my favorite rides, especially in the summer heat, and I never really questioned the story being told throughout the ride. When I learned of its ties to a highly problematic film that Disney would rather forget existed, my interest was piqued. It just seemed too strange to be true. Why would they theme a ride after a film that was so inaccessible? 

Out of curiosity, I hunted down the film the ride is themed after and immediately understood why they wouldn’t want to acknowledge its existence. I could easily see why they wanted to bury it–but why was there a ride honoring it? It was just too weird.

But I figured there was nothing much to be done at the time, and wrote it off as a piece of weird Disney trivia to whip out at parties. It’s strange and unexpected, but what could really be done? But now here we are many years later, and we might see some actual change. While Confederate monuments are being removed across the country, maybe this Disney ride with racist ties could transform into something better, too.

The Disney Film Disney Wishes You’d Forget About

Song of the South is complicated. It’s a partially animated, partially live-action film released in 1946 that focuses on the ‘Uncle Remus‘ stories that took place during the Reconstruction Era. While the film technically takes place after slavery was abolished, it’s often criticized for its idealistic portrayal of life on a plantation and racist and offensive tropes. Even as a kid who hadn’t yet sharpened my media analysis skills, I was left feeling uncomfortable with what I’d watched. It’s fairly blatant that the problems are glossed over to depict an idealistic Reconstruction Era fantasy.

Unlike Warner Brothers, who don’t hide their racist cartoons but rather put a warning in front of them, Disney decided to ignore that this film existed at all. The movie has never been available in its entirety on home release in the United States (the one I tracked down as a teen was a bootleg copy) and it’s obviously not available on Disney+.  Disney has reaffirmed its stance that the film won’t be released, even with a label like the Warner Brothers films. They just wish we’d forget about it and are incredibly reluctant to acknowledge that it even happened.

The topic of how to handle racially offensive material is a tricky one, and there’s a lot of debate about the proper way to go about it. I honestly think Warner Brothers went the best route by releasing them with a warning for historical purposes, but an argument can be made to the contrary and I respect that position as well. But this is where we are, now. The film is a glaring blip in Disney’s past that they regret, and in turn, they’ve made it an even larger discussion than it might have been otherwise.

Splash Mountain’s Ties to Song of the South

A new attraction at Disneyland was unveiled in 1974 – America Sings. The attraction was located where the current Innoventions attraction currently sits, and used the carousel theater to educate audiences about various points of history in the United States, including many animals devoted to Southern history. This mainly came in the form of singing and dancing animals depicting life on the bayou.

When the attraction was nearing its end in the ’80s, the Disneyland Imagineers were in the process of developing a log flume ride in Bear Country (now Critter Country) to attract more visitors to the area. It was a relatively new area of the park, only opened in 1972, and it was far removed from the rest of the park. Up until last year when they opened Galaxy’s Edge, it was a completely dead end. Without an actual ride, there wasn’t much of a draw.

Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter came up with the idea of theming the potential log flume ride after Song of the South, repurposing many of the animatronics from America Sings easily for the new attraction, and reskinning those that didn’t quite fit the fun ‘talking Southern animal’ aesthetic accordingly. A lot of the animals on Splash Mountain are directly lifted from America Sings with no change at all such as the mother possum, alligator band, and the riverboat dancers. He could also easily sync it up with the popular song “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah”

All in all, it was a great use of recycling, and the theming from America Sings blended in well with the chosen Song of the South aesthetic. But now we’re left with this uncomfortable association on Splash Mountain. The ride follows the Uncle Remus stories throughout. Going down the flume itself is representative of one of the Uncle Remus stories – Bre’er Fox throwing Bre’er Rabbit into the Briar Patch. But unless you’ve seen the super-secret Disney film or read the original Uncle Remus stories, it might feel like the story was created entirely for the ride. But once you know, it feels like an incredibly weird decision to make.

This is how we got Bre’er Bear, Bre’er Fox, and Bre’er Rabbit as the hosts of the ride, even though Disney wishes film didn’t exist. It was a weird mix of recycling and convenient theming that overlooked the fact that people would ask where these characters came from and discover that Disney had a racist secret. And once you do know, you have to wonder why they decided to go with the film as a central theme if they wanted to hide it.

Surely they had plenty of talking animals to choose from?  Surely they could have just reskinned more of the animatronics from America Sings, or chosen a different era to depict? Why did it have to be this one? 

Frankly, I don’t know. But this is what we got. So, now what?

What Can We Do About Splash Mountain?

One popular option is possibly The Princess and the Frog. There’s even a petition for this idea. The petition reads as follows:

I’m moving to persuade Disney to change the theme of Splash Mountain to Princess and the Frog. It fits in still in Critter Country or New Orleans Square. And it’s a film beloved by so many that lacks any major representation in the parks or their merchandise. Mostly, I think it’s important that our generation and future generations see such an influential company remove a ride that oppresses black culture, and replace it with a ride that celebrates black culture.

It is imperative that the Disney Parks work on diversifying the representation in their parks, and this is one major way to make this happen amidst covid (character meet-and-greets are canceled for safety). And if they could change the Tower of Terror into Guardians of the Galaxy in Disney California Adventure still using the ride mechanism framework, then this is most certainly a possibility within the abilities of Disney Parks. We have rides for Ariel, Elsa, Anna, and Snow White in US parks- but it’s time for a princess who isn’t white to have a major ride attraction.

Twitter LOVES this idea.

 

Though others feel that Tiana deserves better.

Emperors New Groove has also been brought up as a potential re-theme.

Or perhaps Zootopia.

Moana has also been brought up as a possibility.

Brother Bear is a good one, too, and would fit the original bear theme of the area. Granted, most of the original bear stuff is closed now, but you can still see it if you know where to look.

Some suggested Pocahontas, but many were quick to squash this idea. There’s no use replacing one problematic film with a different problematic film. Like, come on! 

Others feel that it should remain themed for Song of the South as this is one of the only depictions of these characters in the modern world, despite its flaws. 

I’m obviously on the side that thinks it needs a re-theme. I understand that last point, but I think there are other ways to keep historical characters alive besides having a ride focused around a problematic film. But which theme is my preference? It’s hard to say.

I think Princess and the Frog would best fit in New Orleans Square, but there’s not much space to add new rides there. Moana would stick out in Critter Country and doesn’t really fit the theme of the area. Emperors New Groove has the same issue. Pocahontas is a big no. So, I guess Brother Bear would probably be my choice.

But it’s not my choice. It’s Disney’s choice. Let’s see what they do.

The ball’s in your court, Disney.

Author: Angel Wilson

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. She identifies as queer.


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About the author

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She's contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She's written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. She identifies as queer.

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