Inspired by the animation in one of the Walt Disney Co.’s most misguided cinematic works, Splash Mountain and its imagery rooted in the dated and racist 1946 film “Song of the South” will soon be a thing of the past. Walt Disney Imagineering unveiled plans on Thursday to retheme the ride to its 2009 animated work “Princess and the Frog,” a fairy tale that stars the company’s first Black princess.
Splash Mountain, its connection to a problematic text and its future, has become a heated social media debate in this moment of cultural reassessment and nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd. A recent online campaign even called for a “Princess and the Frog” makeover to the log flume ride that’s become a park favorite in large part due to its 52-foot drop.
Disney said it has long discussed a Splash Mountain reimagining, and cited the need for the ride to embrace a fresh, “inclusive” concept.
“Princess and the Frog” was chosen as the new theme for the ride sometime last year, said Disney. The change will also take place at the Magic Kingdom at Florida’s Walt Disney World.
The timeline is dependent largely on how slowly or quickly society can resume a sense of normalcy as the nation wrestles with the current COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, Disneyland announced that its planned July 17 opening is now delayed.
“The Princess and the Frog” project is largely being overseen by Carmen Smith, Imagineering’s VP of creative development and inclusive strategies.
“We continually evaluate opportunities to enhance and elevate experiences for all our guests,” said Smith in a quote provided by Disney. “It is important that our guests be able to see themselves in the experiences we create. Because we consider ourselves constant learners, we go to great lengths to research and engage cultural advisors and other experts to help guide us along the way.”
This isn’t, of course, the first time Disney has tinkered with an attraction due to outdated cultural representations. Pirates of the Caribbean has received multiple updates, most recently one that removed a bridal auction scene in which women were relegated to property.
While Imagineering said it’s not ready to detail new show scenes for Splash Mountain’s revamp, the stars of “The Princess and the Frog” — Anika Noni Rose as Tiana and Michael-Leon Wooley as Louis — will reprise their roles, and their characters are seen in the concept art.
Splash Mountain opened in 1989, and its connection to “Song of the South” at the time didn’t necessarily draw national ire. A preview and review of the attraction in The Los Angeles Times failed to explore its ties to the controversial film, one that remains in the Disney vault and that the company’s current Executive Chairman Bob Iger has stated is “not appropriate in today’s world.”
Originally titled “Zip-a-Dee River Run,” a reference to the popular song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” itself a work with connections to a minstrel past, Splash Mountain was born of another cultural era, its themes chosen in part due to its location in Disneyland — currently Critter Country — and as a way to reuse audio-animatronics from a 1970s attraction called America Sings.
Disney’s famed Imagineer Tony Baxter, known for spearheading Big Thunder Mountain and his role in bringing the works of George Lucas into Disney parks, oversaw Splash Mountain’s creation and has served as creative advisor to Imagineering on the project. Baxter voiced his support of the makeover in a statement provided by Disney. In the comment, Baxter argues that Disney in the early-to-mid-’80s was often forced to look to the company’s deep past for inspiration, as its own films of the era struggled to resonate on a larger cultural scale.
“When Splash Mountain came to life over 30 years ago, the wave of Disney Animation that started with ‘The Little Mermaid’ had not yet begun,” said Baxter. “New stories would give us characters, music and wonderful places that now reside in the hearts of audiences everywhere. Following conversations with Imagineering’s leaders about the new attraction’s scope and resources, I had a great sense of reassurance — the attraction will be one to be proud of … bringing to life places, characters and music from the animated classic ‘The Princess and the Frog.’”