Last Thursday, the good folks at Disney announced that a classic ride was going to be rethemed. Splash Mountain, currently themed to the movie Song Of The South, was going to be rehauled to a Princess And The Frog theme at an unspecified future date.
This announcement sparked controversy, as is the case with every single change Disney ever makes to the parks, though this one has some serious connotations.
For my thoughts on change in the parks, and I suppose in general, I invite you to read this post from last year: https://jennifermorash.com/2019/08/07/how-winnie-the-pooh-taught-me-to-let-go/ Actually, you should read it, it’s probably my favourite past post.
History Of Splash Mountain
Splash Mountain debuted at Disney Land in 1989, and at Disney World and Tokyo Disney in 1992. The California version reused animatronics from the America Sings attraction and was located in Critter Country near its border with New Orleans Square. In Disney World, they placed it in Frontier Land, while Tokyo Disney also placed their version in a Critter Country area.
Splash Mountain combines the traditional Disney dark ride in a boat system with a log flume, and follows the adventures of Br’er Rabbit and his encounters with Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Most of the ride is slow, taking the rider through scenes with a few smallish drops, but comes outside at the end for the big drop.
Song Of The South
Released in 1946, Song Of The South is a combined live action and animation film based around the Uncle Remus books by Joel Chandler Harris. It takes place in Georgia during the Reconstruction Era.
The plot more or less centers around Uncle Remus, a freedman, telling stories to a wealthy young white boy staying at his grandparents’ plantation for the summer. Those stories are the animated segments.
I will make one clarification in the movie’s defense, and only one: it does not depict outright, actual slavery, as some people assume it does. It isn’t stated anywhere in the film that it takes place during Reconstruction, but it does, according to the book. It’s easy to think that it does, however, and that alone can be damaging.
That said… this movie is quite horrendously racist. It glorifies the relationship between black plantation workers and their white “employers”, picturing it as this idyllic utopia where master and worker were both just as happy as could be.
Moreover, it makes use of an African American dialect as interpretted by white men, which was neither accurate or complimentary. It takes traditional African American folk tales (the Uncle Remus tales were originally that before being transcribed into a book) and appropriates them for the use of white men.
The film is beautiful visually for its time, and I admit does have a charm if you view it without the lens of history, but at its core it is racist and really offensive to both black people and supporters of black people.
Back To The Mountain
So, like I said, Splash Mountain took its theme only from the animated segments, so you only see animatronic animals having a grand old time. There is nothing racist or particularly problematic in the ride itself. I think that may be part of why some people find it hard to understand why others find it so offensive.
It’s not what the ride shows that’s the problem, it’s the fact that it is based on a movie so problematic that Disney has completely pulled it from the public. It has not, and never will be released on DVD, Blue Ray or on Disney Plus. The only way one can watch it is to track down an old VHS copy. Given how much Disney likes to play on nostalgia for older films, that should tell you something.
Moreover, it’s showing a set of once beloved folk stories and twisting them into propaganda for white supremacy. Or at least showing the end result of that. I don’t think for a moment that the talented imagineers who initially designed and built the ride meant to do anything of the sort, but ignorance isn’t a good excuse to keep something that isn’t right.
The announcement has stated that the new theme is going to be the Princess And The frog movie, with Disney’s first black princess. This is a movie that took the old fairy tale and gave it a closer to contemporary twist. It doesn’t take place during the present day, but it isn’t medieval times, either. To be specific, it’s in 1926 New Orleans.
The ride is going to follow a story that begins after the final kiss of the movie and follows Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen as they prepare for a Mardi Gras performance. Details are, at this time, pretty scarce.
Arguments and Counter-Arguments
I’ve been hearing a few arguments over and over against this retheming. I’ve answered a lot of them in various places, but I want to address them here. Actually, this is why I wrote this particular blog, I just wanted to go into the background above first.
- It doesn’t fit the theme of Frontier Land!
This one is, technically, true. Louisianna isn’t exactly the western frontier. However, you know what else isn’t the western frontier? Reconstruction Era Georgia. The funny thing about this one is that it never even crossed my mind that the current Splash Mountain is a bit out of place until this issue came up. And the Disney Land (no announcement at this time about Tokyo Disney) will have a very fitting area for it. There’s loads of critters in that movie and, well, New Orleans Square is right there.
- There’s no waterfalls in Louisianna.
It’s true that the bayou isn’t exactly known for its waterfalls, but there actually is one in the movie. I only realized this today, though, while listening to the audio description of the end credits animation, but Tiana and Naveen do go over a waterfall there. Also, there is no reason that it needs to be a naturally occuring waterfall. Until we know where the drop portion fits into the story, I think we just have to trust Disney.
- But the ride isn’t racist.
Maybe, maybe not. I would say that being based on a very racist IP (intellectual property) does make it racist, but even if the ride shows no racism, it doesn’t change the fact that there is a ride at Disney that is extremely hurtful to a lot of people. Can you look me in the eye and tell me that you’d like to see people being hurt so you can keep your favourite ride? Can you look them in the eye?
- But it’s a classic.
So was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. So was The Scary Adventures of Snow White. So was Horizons. Those are all either gone or changed into something new, as are many other attractions. Walt never intended the parks to stay the same. Change is hard, but it’s going to keep happening. I get it, guys, I do. I loved Horizons and Mr. Toad quite dearly. I miss them. But I let them go. You can, too.
- Disney is just doing this to placate people.
Firstly, is that such a bad thing? If there is a public outcry for fixing something wrong, is it so bad to fix it? Secondly, while I think the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder may have spurred them to make the announcement, Disney stated in the press release that this has been in the works for over a year, and I believe them. There’s concept art, guys. Detailed concept art. You can’t whip up plans this detailed in that short of a time. I think they would have waited longer to announce it without recent events, but the plan was already there. This was going to happen.
- I’ll never get to ride my favourite ride again.
Yes, you will. I don’t think this is going to happen for awhile. Disney already has some enormous projects under construction, others that were announced but had their start delayed, and a whole bunch of lost revenue. There was no date or even vague time frame with the announcement, I don’t think that this thing is going to start being rethemed until at least 2022. Probably 2023. You may not want to go to the parks yet in our current Covid situation, but if you’re a diehard Disney fan you could likely get down there to say goodbye to Br’er Rabbit before the change begins.
Whew. This has been a long one, but I’m almost done with my soapbox speech. Clearly, I’m in favour of this change. Actually, I’m excited about it. I’ve always loved the mechanics and ride system of Splash Mountain, and hated its theme. I saw Song Of The South as a child, though I couldn’t tell you what year. It must have been in its final theatrical run in the 80’s, as Disney used to re-release its old films to theatres every now and again before the rise of home media. Once I got old enough to understand what lay beneath that movie, I’ve been super uncomfortable with this ride. Did I ride it? Yes. Did I have fun? Yes, that drop is fun. Did I feel guilty? Yup.
This is a good thing. This is a right thing. The Princess And The Frog is a wonderful movie, and not just because it finally gave us a Princess that black kids could look at and see themselves in. It’s just plain great, and the music is fabulous.
And, hey, maybe now we’ll have beignets and mint julips in the Magic Kingdom, like they do out in California.