Splash Mountain Out! Tiana In! Digging a Little Deeper

Splash Mountain Out! Tiana In! Digging a Little Deeper

This week Disney announced that Splash Mountain at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World would be re-themed to the film “Princess and the Frog”. This post and podcast tries to dig a little deeper at this announcement, its context, and what it means moving forward.

I’m your host, J. Jeff Kober. You can find our podcast here on PodbeaniTunesSpotifyMyTuner, and ListenNotes. Key concepts and quotes are found below along with lots of images, but my own thoughts and impressions are best laid out on the podcast. So please visit both.

Disney’s Announcement

“Today we are thrilled to share a first glimpse of a project Imagineers have been working on since last year. Splash Mountain – at both Disneyland park in California and Magic Kingdom park in Florida – will soon be completely reimagined. The theme is inspired by an all-time favorite animated Disney film, “The Princess and the Frog.” We pick up this story after the final kiss, and join Princess Tiana and Louis on a musical adventure – featuring some of the powerful music from the film – as they prepare for their first-ever Mardi Gras performance.

“Tiana is a modern, courageous, and empowered woman, who pursues her dreams and never loses sight of what’s really important. It’s a great story with a strong lead character, set against the backdrop of New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou. In 1966, Walt himself opened New Orleans Square when it became the first new “land” added to Disneyland park, so it feels natural to link the story and the incredible music of “The Princess and the Frog” to our parks.

“The voice of Princess Tiana and Tony Award-winning actress, Anika Noni Rose, shared, “It is really exciting to know that Princess Tiana’s presence in both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom will finally be fully realized! As passionate as I am about what we created, I know the fans are going to be over the moon. The Imagineers are giving us ‘The Princess and the Frog’ Mardi Gras celebration we’ve been waiting for, and I’m here for it!”

“The approach to retheming or “plussing” attractions (as Walt Disney referred to it) begins with Imagineers asking the question, how can we build upon or elevate the experience and tell a fresh, relevant story? It’s a continuous process that Imagineers are deeply passionate about. And with this longstanding history of updating attractions and adding new magic, the retheming of Splash Mountain is of particular importance today. The new concept is inclusive – one that all of our guests can connect with and be inspired by, and it speaks to the diversity of the millions of people who visit our parks each year.

“Charita Carter, the senior creative producer leading the project at Walt Disney Imagineering shared, “Like Princess Tiana, I believe that courage and love are the key ingredients for wonderful adventures. I am delighted to be a part of bringing this fun-filled experience to our guests.”

“For Imagineers, change is rooted in a tradition set by Walt Disney who encouraged new innovations, new ideas, new scenes and current storytelling. And the experiences they create can be enjoyed by guests who visit our parks from all over the world.

“As part of the creative development process, conceptual design work is well underway and Imagineers will soon be able to conduct preliminary reviews and develop a timeline for when the transformation can start to take shape. 

“Stay tuned for more!”

Does Disney Do Diversity Well?

Photo by Disney.

Here are some highlights in Disney’s efforts to promote diversity:

1.In wake of the killing of George Floyd The Walt Disney Company pledged $5 million to support nonprofit organizations that advance social justice, beginning with a $2 million donation to the NAACP to further their longstanding work promoting social justice by eliminating disparities and racial discrimination through their advocacy and education programs.

2. Disney launched Disney Launchpad: Shorts Incubator Creates New Opportunities for Filmmakers to Share Diverse Perspectives.

3. Through Disney’s Heroes Work Here initiative, the Company has hired more than 10,000 veterans since 2012. Disney’s ongoing commitment includes millions of dollars of support to veteran and military organizations.

4. Business Employee Resource Groups are organized throughout Disney to cultivate an inclusive culture for all Disney employees around the world. Groups of passionate employees offer their time, expertise and cultural insights to help Disney improve the workplace and be create a more diverse offering in the marketplace.

5. In 2019 nearly 2,000 Disney employees participated in LGBTQ Pride events in Los Angeles, Long Beach (California), San Francisco, Orlando, New York, London, Dublin, Paris and Munich. Disney is a leader in LGBTQ workplace equality and content and is committed to inclusive workplaces, and supports welcoming environments in local communities.

6. Disney recently held a workshop for Native American students and community members in Minneapolis. The class, led by the Walt Disney Television Creative Talent Development & Inclusion team, was hosted in partnership with the American Indian College Fund to pull back the curtain on careers in TV and film.

What About the Imagineering Purist?

There is a big cry from people who say, “Okay, I get it. I even like Princess and the Frog. I can even see how it could be adjacent to New Orleans Square in Disneyland. But out in the middle of Frontierland at Magic Kingdom?”

Well, let’s discuss Disneyland first. Originally this section of the park was an Indian Village, with area tribes invited to come and perform their dances and share their culture. What is the Briar Patch, with the grass on top of the roof, was referred to as the Indian Trading Post, which allowed you to purchase Indian arts and crafts like turquoise jewelry and leather belts. The only attraction was the Indian War Canoes, and there were restrooms with titles, “Braves” and “Squaws”.

Early Disneyland Map.

While not sounding politically correct today, in all fairness, it was a well intentioned exhibition, almost in a World Showcase style of understanding others. Native dances were performed for crowds regularly, and the audience was invited to join in the Circle dance at the end, where all held hands.

Photo by Disney.

Still as exciting new attractions in New Orleans began to encroach nearby it no longer seemed a right fit. The wild success of the Country Bear Jamboree at Walt Disney World ended the Indian Village. In its place was Bear Country, which had a Northwest Woods aesthetic, with clapboard style architecture as bookends to the front and back of the land, from Hungry Bear Restaurant to Mile Long Bar and Teddi Barra’s Swingin’ Arcade.

Disneyland Map around 1972.

The only thing “southern” about this location was that Wendall sang Fractured Folk Song in front of a backdrop of a confederate bear statue. Disney intelligently pulled that statue down a long time ago. It still hasn’t protected Buford, however.

This backdrop still exists in the Tokyo version of the Country Bear Jamboree. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

When the bears didn’t create the same response as guests had given it at Magic Kingdom. In time, the answer came in regards to Splash Mountain, which would change the Bear Country theme to Critter Country.

One of the original depictions of Splash Mountain by Disney.

The bears were critters too, but even a major flume ride didn’t seem to improve attendance. The answer was to add one of the best selling plush in the Disney cannon–Winnie the Pooh. But what is The Hundred Acre Wood of Winnie the Pooh takes place in a British Countryside. It’s location is also out of place in Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom, but then again, so was/is Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Video of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

So the Disneyland that everyone loves already has some quirks mingled among the attractions. But for arm chair Imagineers, their biggest concern is really how it fits between Pecos Bills and Big Thunder Mountain, both very western themed attractions. How does the south fit here? It doesn’t. It never did. Splash Mountain should have never been there in the first place.

Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom. Design by Disney.

Imagineers knew that Splash Mountain was not a right fit in Magic Kingdom, but they made the best of it. The color palette of Splash Mountains mud banks was shifted from the earthly brown that would have been correct for the Deep South setting to a stronger magenta shade that would work better next to the Western rock work of Big Thunder Mountain.”

There are other things that thematically don’t align in the parks. Steamboats did first arrive in the late 1700’s, but they didn’t look anything like the Liberty Belle which is more considered a riverboat. Those riverboats line up well around Mark Twain’s beloved Mississippi in the foreground of Tom Sawyer’s Island, but it’s a complete miss when docked in a colonial setting like Liberty Square, which should have probably had a ship more like the Columbia. At least they should have had one of each like Disneyland. But the Columbia ship didn’t handle crowds and run as reliably as the Mark Twain at Disneyland, therefore they built not one but two river boats, the Joe Fowler, which had two stacks like the Mark Twain, but was irreversibly damaged during dry dock repair; and the Richard Irvine with its one stack, which remains today as the Liberty Belle.

Beautiful, but not really Colonial. Photo by J. jeff Kober

Some suggest that a completely different attraction to Princess and the Frog be placed elsewhere, and that the politically incorrect Splash Mountain be replaced with something else. Western River Expedition is one such suggestion. It was the original intended attraction when the park was first built. But Marc Davis’s drawings created caricatures of native Americans, with a seminal scene being a rain dance on top of a plateau. But as the country rolled through the Seventies, messages from books and films like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, made that look not quite right. It is probably out of this political correctness that some thought Splash Mountain would be better since no blacks would be portrayed.

Rain Dance in Western River Expedition. Image by Disney.

Some old timers also suggest that the characters from Splash Mountain be returned to America Sings and be rebuilt. I’m in that category of thought, though an historic romp through American music was never a right fit for a world on the move like Tomorrowland. I loved this attraction, but really, almost every scene hand a town drunk in it. Even by today’s standards, there’s a lot here that probably isn’t that politically correct.

One of the geese always looked like he had too many mint juleps. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Long and short, while we want our thematic details to be perfect, they have a long history of not being quite right. Everyone gives it their best try, but sometimes we fail to be sensitive to what is going on. People in the past didn’t get it right, but people today probably aren’t going to get it perfect either. For instance, even in the brand new Mickey ‘n’ Minnie’s Runaway Railway which (Charita team produced along with Kevin Rafferty), you get this very strange moment in the cartoon pre-show where Minnie kicks Pluto into the trunk.

Minnie swings back her foot to kick Pluto into the trunk. Cartoon by Disney.

It is the most bizarre “out of nowhere” piece of animal cruelty as we see Pluto crushed inside the trunk. It will figure “somewhat” into the scene as they bump over railroad tracks and the trunk flies open. But it still makes no sense. At some point, a lot of people–not just myself–are going to say, “this is an insensitive moment, even though having a little fun and humor was at the heart of it.” You can see it play out in the film below:

In my business, the two programs that I teach that should be most sought after, is how to learn from our mistakes, and how to understand and forgive others. What I’m trying to say is that we are evolving and hopefully improving. While we need to stand up for what is right and just, we also need to be more sensitive of others, and we need to give people the space to learn the lessons they need to in life.

Walt said it best when he said, “Disneyland will never be completed, as long as we have some lessons to learn.” Maybe it wasn’t quite said that way, but beyond creativity and imagination, we need understanding and empathy.

Speaking of Empathy and Understanding, there are two really important podcasts/posts I recommend:

The first is about understanding and empathy in some stories I share about our autistic son at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The are shared in the context of the current Black Lives protests.

The other is Your American Adventure: Part I where we talk about some truly great heroes who made it possible for all Americans to enjoy the freedoms we should all enjoy today.

J. Jeff Kober

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