Splash Mountain Controversy

The Transformation of Splash Mountain: A Dive into Controversy

Editor’s Note: Theme Park Magazine is thrilled to introduce Adam Fagenson as our newest freelance columnist. With the inauguration of our thought-provoking column, “Theme Park Think Tank,” we’re venturing into the heart of some of the most debated subjects in the theme park world. Although Theme Park Magazine remains impartial on these hot-button issues, Adam will present you with meticulously researched analyses, exploring various angles of a controversial theme park subject every two weeks. Your insights and opinions aren’t just welcomed; they’re encouraged. Today, we tackle a question that has stirred the passions of fans and casual visitors alike: Was Disney’s decision to close Splash Mountain and retheme it the right call? Dive into the perspectives, scrutinize the reasoning, and then share your thoughtful and respectful opinion. We’re eager to hear what you think!

Splash Mountain is closed at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Both rides are being rethemed into “Tiana’s Bayou Adventure,” based on the 2009 animated film, The Princess and the Frog. Despite this change creating an uproar online among Disney fans and casual visitors alike, the reimagination itself is not news.

Although the change was announced three years ago, the logs took their final laps in January and May of 2023, respectively, creating unmatched wait times of up to 220 minutes on the days before their closures.

Though many fans understood the closures reportedly stemmed from racism within Song of the South, Splash’s source material, few understood what about the film made it “racist.” If Splash Mountain was so beloved, why would Disney change it?

Unraveling the Controversial Past of Song of the South

Song of the South has been intentionally scrubbed from Disney’s legacy. Despite Walt Disney’s reported efforts to depict African American culture authentically, the film, according to the NAACP and critics, is rife with racist and stereotypical characterizations of former slaves in the post-Civil War American South. In this portrayal, the power structures of slavery remain intact, as they existed before the Great Emancipation, with Black workers tilling the land and cooking meals, while the white family abstains from such labor.

Upon its release, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, sent this message to every major American newspaper. “The [NAACP]… regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the North or South, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery… Song of the South unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master–slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.” Due to its problematic nature, you certainly will not find Song of the South streaming on Disney+.

The Duality of Song of the South

However, half of Song of the South did not feature former slaves, the “idyllic master-slave relationship”– it was animated. Apart from a brief interaction between the live-action Uncle Remus and Mr. Bluebird on his shoulder, there are no people at all. In this half of the film’s duration, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear act out Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus Stories, retelling African American and Muscogee Creek Indian trickster tales. Initially written in eye dialect, a textual technique designed to mimic speech patterns specific to a speaker, a handful of these stories made their way into Song of the South and thus Splash Mountain.

The story “How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp For Mr. Fox.” became central to the ride. Here, Brer Rabbit outsmarts Brer Fox by convincing him to “fling [him] in dat brier patch” in the same dialogue that used to play as riders climbed Splash’s final hill. Of course, as Brer Rabbit was “bred en bawn in a brier-patch,” he easily survives being thrown into its thorns, and so do the riders, who safely reach the bottom of the hill before entering the “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” finale.

According to the Song of the South screenwriter Maurice Rapf, these Brer Rabbit tales are stories that not only acknowledge the master-slave relationship but empower the enslaved rather than their masters. In an interview, Rapf described, “If you read the fables carefully you’ll find they’re stories of slave resistance.” It isn’t hard to see how – Brer Rabbit’s ability to outsmart his oppressors is analogized to slaves outsmarting their masters by ultimately avoiding harsher punishment from them.

Song of the South protest - April 2, 1947 - ML Cohen, photographer - Oakland Museum of California
Song of the South protest – April 2, 1947 – ML Cohen, photographer – Oakland Museum of California

“Walt Was Not a Racist”

Rapf recalls how Walt Disney aimed not to offend African Americans in his portrayal of 19th-century Black culture. “Walt was not a racist… I constantly tell the story about going to see Disney and him saying to me, ‘I want you on it to prevent it from being anti-Black.’ Disney and I talked about it all of the time. There was always this great risk,” Rapf recalled.

Despite such attempts at avoiding backlash, the Uncle Remus Stories allegedly contained the seeds of controversy that caused Splash Mountain to close. As a character, critics point to Uncle Remus as being a stereotyped Black man whose behaviors find influence in blackface minstrelsy of the late 19th century. The namesake doll of “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story” was noted as a racial slur that Song of the South opted to include, despite a vast library of tales that could have been adapted.

These racially-charged characterizations allegedly boil down to Harris’s inherent biases– the narratives he wrote about are offset by his perception of Black culture and the sociopolitical climate in which he documented these tales.

Splash Mountain: An Attempt at Cultural Sensitivity

However, during the production of Splash Mountain, Walt Disney Imagineering made a far greater effort to avoid racially offensive material in the ride. According to an interview by Zeitgeist Entertainment with Tony Baxter, the former Senior Vice President of Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney worked hands-on with the NAACP; the organization decided what was suitable to include in their ride.

The NAACP advised Disney to completely avoid the “tar baby” reference and the character of Uncle Remus. Instead, Brer Rabbit gets caught in pools of honey rather than in the tar baby, and Uncle Remus’ narration was confined to wooden signs in the ride’s queue.

Though the NAACP held strong objections to Song of the South, representatives did express appreciation for the dialect used in the ride as a reflection of their ancestry.

We Want Your Thoughts

Now, we turn the question over to you. What do you think?

Was closing Splash Mountain the right decision?

Did Splash Mountain reflect racial insensitivity?

Wherever you stand, feel free to drop your comment below to start a conversation, but please be polite when posting or responding to others.

Disclaimer: Theme Park Magazine champions a diversity of viewpoints on controversial theme park subjects, aiming to foster enlightening dialogues. However, the opinions expressed in this column, comments, or guest articles do not necessarily reflect the magazine’s beliefs or stance. Readers are encouraged to explore and engage with these topics in the Comments/Discussion section below but are asked to maintain respect and refrain from personal or inflammatory remarks.

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Featured image by Joe Tracy for ©Theme Park Magazine.

Adam Fagenson is a writer, T.E.A. member, and lifelong theme park enthusiast with plenty of curiosity about the inner workings of rides, attractions, and themed experiences.

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