The Splash Mountain Problem

Splash Mountain is an iconic ride to the Disney Parks and a classic. At Disney World, it’s part of the trifecta of mountain rides that are part of the quintessential Magic Kingdom experience. Most television specials that included a trip to Disney (usually airing on ABC) always have that iconic shot of the characters going down the big drop. This ride has had quite the history and is having quite the present. It was recently announced that the ride would be rethemed to Princess and the Frog. While the park reopens during these covid times influenced in no small part by Disney losing approximately 3 billion dollars in a single quarter, this ride in particular has experienced so many issues and its part of the larger picture of the issue with the Disney parks. There’s a lot to cover so let’s just dive in.

The history begins with a former beloved and now forever vaulted movie Song of the South. This movie is a retelling of the Uncle Remus stories and a mix of love action and animation. The animation is beautiful and smooth as anything is during the time and the live action bits are really slow moving and boring as is typical of the timing of a lot of films of the day. The movie is also racist. People will say it’s not and defend it, but that seems to hinge on no one calling the African Americans in the film slaves and instead workers. They seem to miss that in the animated shorts people always want to be released as a collection, there is a literal baby doll made of tar used to trick Brer Rabbit. The doll is what it sounds like and it is extremely uncomfortable. There’s also the fact that despite Uncle Remus being arguably the main character of the feature, his actor was banned from the premier in Georgia and this issue was never rectified.

The movie would enjoy rereleases every so often. Back then, Disney would rerelease their movies in theaters every few years to earn extra revenue. Disney was actually slow to jump on the VHS trend due to the idea it would cheapen their features and their prestige. But money talked and they would release their movies over and over again as VHS would often wear out over time. The point of contention was DVDs and how long they last mixed with their rereleases not doing as hot. Their last try at the rerelease game was turning the movies 3D. They had already experienced less of an audience to watch these as people had a copy readily available at home and the “going into the vault” gimmick was no longer such a big sell. You can blame this whole issue on the live action movies we have now. It’s a way to get butts in seats to see their movies yet again. I’m getting off topic.

Song of the South at the time was a hit. The animated characters were beloved, zip-a-dee-doo-dah became the anthem for the Disney company (yes the song is from this feature), and everything seemed to be going great. Until Disney rereleased the movie to theaters one time too many. The world of 1986 was very critical of the dated movie and its race portrayal. While they loved the fluid hand drawn animation, they didn’t love the old south and its very dated portrayal. Disney shelved the movie forever after the backlash. Despite this, it wouldn’t stop a ride based on the animated characters (sans uncomfortable tar creatures) from first opening on July 17 1989.

Walt Disney was in love with America and a true patriot through and through, good and bad. Many of his original park attractions were all about glorifying America and its presidents. At the 1964 New York World’s fair, Disney debuted an animatronic Abraham Lincoln giving an address to the audience in the state of Illinois pavilion. This animatronic at the time was stunning and a marvel to the attendees. He transferred this show to Disney Land and this show became the basis of the hall of presidents at Disney World. A similar worlds fair show was The Carousel of Progress. This show showed a family over several periods in America and the technological advances of each era. Funnily enough the future segment is now known as the present segment because time has entirely caught up to this section. The ride features a spinning theater where the show sets are on a rotating platform and so each of the four scenes spin out as that segment ends.

The Carousel of Progress was retired from Disneyland and transported to Disney World sometime before the bicentennial. A show was then put into the theater called America Sings. It opened June 29 1974 and featured a plethora of animatronic animals signing songs from America’s colorful history. It was a celebration of 200 years. The show was popular at first. The characters were designed by the legendary Marc Davis. He is also the character designer for Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Rabbit. But as time went on and the show more distant from the event it celebrated, it was less attended. The show also claimed the life of 18 year old Deborah Gail Stone. She was tragically crushed by the spinning wall of the rotating theater. These factors meant that the show was set for closure and was shuttered on April 10 1988.

Disney knew the closing of this show was imminent even before the Stone incident. But what to do about all of those animatronics? Disney also has an image issue the then CEO Michael Eisner was dead serious on fixing and that was the image of the parks for kids and families. He wanted to hit that teen and adults without children demographic. This led to the creation of several different rides and stage shows and at one point even a dance club for teens. It was the 80s. He wanted more thrilling rides, particularly a log flume, and also a solution to the least visited area of the park (formerly bear country, now critter country). So what would get you a log flume ride with thrilling drops and be a good place for all the signing animatronic animals and attract people to an low traffic area of the park?

While stuck in traffic one day, Tony Baxter has the solution. Splash Mountain. It was a ride that could marry two different Marc Davis projects and solve all of their issues. The rest is history. Tony Baxter may also have been subconsciously influenced by a small ride in six flags over Georgia called “Tales of the Okefenokee”. It was also a retelling of the Uncle Remus stories. It was charming enough and Baxter did ride it and remember it fondly, but the two don’t have much direct correlation. It’s more an interesting aside in this piece.

At first, Splash was to be named Zipadee River Run. Eisner, short sighted as always, wanted the ride to tie in with the 1984 film Splash and help market the film. The name was changed to Splash Mountain to appease him. Luckily no one took his awful advice here. The ride was also brought to Disney World with some improved differences and more cohesive animatronics since it wasn’t a mishmash of America Sings characters and Brer characters. The ride was a success and was part of what changed Disney’s image overtime to be for everyone.

It’s been over 30 years now since the iconic ride was established. In light of companies finally becoming woke to a lot of their inequalities, Disney made an announcement that Splash Mountain was receiving a retheme to Princess and the Frog. The ride will take place after the events of the film. The plans for this Disney said have been ongoing since 2019. While the announcement may have been made to coincide with a lot of companies trying to be woke, the plans themselves have obviously been going on for some time, clearly evidenced in the concept art reveal.

People of course are doing what they usually do when things change and freaking out and signing petitions. I think this is a great decision. The Brer characters are dated. Many think that they’re original to the park and without Disney wanting to do anything with them to divorce them or the origins, something that would be difficult to do anyway, no one really knows who they are. As a kid I thought they were original park characters. It’s time to retire them. And if you want to remember these characters so bad, scalpers are selling their plush online for ridiculous prices. Go have a bidding war. Another complaint is that Tiana should get her own ride. And she is. This will be her own ride. I think this is a great franchise to take over the former bayou home of the briar patch. I’m excited to find out what Disney does with the concept. The art itself of what they expect to accomplish is beautiful.

Our story isn’t quite over yet. When Eisner left the company, we left quite a mess for his replacement CEO Bob Iger. Eisner had planned for a Disney decade and to propel the parks forward but continuous set backs dampened his spirit over time. While he is responsible for a lot of positive rides and changes, he is also why California Adventure, Disneyland’s second gate, was so awful at release. He was in charge for the sorry state of Hong Kong Disneyland and for the awful original name of Euro Disneyland (now thankfully Disneyland Paris and not named after a currency). And it’s part of why Disney World in particular is in a bit of a rough state.

Reopening after being closed for so long, and rides sitting unmanned, has shed light on a lot of Disney World technical issues. The popular People Mover ride has yet to entertain guests since reopening, Splash Mountain is experiencing a lot of issues and evacuations, animatronics are being taken out of rides for extensive repairs, and during the Animal Kingdom opening, several rides experienced issues that led to temporary closures. Right before the closures a Jungle Cruise boat sank. Disney is in need of a lot of TLC.

Splash in particular is in rough shape. This article came about due to the recent sinking of one of the boats leading guests to evacuate themselves to the emergency walkway. On opening day it broke down on the lift hill to the final drop and had to be evacuated, there’s always something new. It’s not every attraction, but it’s hard to deny that Disney needs work and it really highlights how much Splash needs the retheme downtime for a complete overhaul. I ask hope that the covid situation, which is slowing down a lot of projects, will allow Disney to put the work in they need to with their current rides. We can only hope the most recent CEO, Bob Chapek, will be able to fix the issues plaguing the park.

And there you have it. This was a look at all the issues and intricacies of the Splash Mountain situation. As I said, I’m a fan of this change. I think it’s great. Princess and the Frog needs more representation in the parks and having Tiana in one of the most iconic ride locations will be great. Tiana is the best Disney Princess hands down. I’m excited for the change. Walt Disney himself ever wanted his parks to be finished. He wanted them to constantly change and evolve with new Disney IPs and new technologies. This is a continuation of his original want for the parks. And Marc Davis will be brought back on as a creative director to oversee the art for this ride. You can’t get better than that.

One last thing to note before this article ends is that currently Disneyland Tokyo is unsure if they’ll change their splash mountain. Disneyland Tokyo and Tokyo Disney Sea are not actually owned and operated by Disney but by the Oriental Land Company. They pay Disney for the rights to the IPs and contract out Disney imagineers while also paying Disney royalties. This is why these parks are inarguably the best Disney parks in the world. They’re currently in talks about what they should do, but considering they always get the best version of every ride, I feel they’ll wait to see how the retheme turns out. Which will hopefully be good.

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