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How Problematic Was Splash Mountain?

It’s one of Disney’s – and the world’s – most iconic theme park attractions.

With its crazy drop, incredible theming, and iconic soundtrack, Splash Mountain has become a Disney Park fan-favorite water ride. Disney fans, however, are currently divided over the iconic Splash Mountain attraction at both Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort being transformed into a new ride. With Disney’s push to be more “inclusive,” the attraction is being revamped due to its controversial Song of the South (1946) theme.

But what actually are the controversial connotations beings the Song of the South movie, and why is Disney distancing itself from this 1946 entry in its movie catalog?

Splash Mountain

Credit: Disney

Princess Tiana will be coming down the bayou in “Tiana’s Bayou Adventure,” opening in late 2024. The ride’s new story picks up where the movie left off in New Orleans, following Princess Tiana, Prince Naveen, and Louis as they prepare for their first-ever Mardi Gras performance and featuring songs from the 2009 animated film. The artist’s renderings and models seen at the recent D23 event in California were met with positive reactions; during the day, the attraction appears similar to the current Splash Mountain, but at night, the attraction will come to life with special projections, lights, and fireflies. 

This new Princess and the Frog overhaul of Splash Mountain looks to remove allusions to the Song of the South. The characters, songs, and locations from this live-action movie all form the basis for the beloved log flume ride featured at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. The ride launched back in 1989 and includes elements from the film’s animated segments, led by Br’er Rabbit, and antagonists Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear.

Most iconic is Splash Mountain’s use of the popular song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, which has become a staple Disney tune. Guests at both the Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort noticed the quiet removal of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from theme parks: the soundtrack of the Festival of Fantasy parade, which returned to the Magic Kingdom on March 9, 2022, saw the eradication of this upbeat song, while in August 2020, Disneyland quietly removed “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the Disneyland Resort esplanade music loop — the courtyard area in between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure.

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Credit: Disney

But why so much effort to change what many theme park goers consider a “perfect ride”? Well, for starters, the movie that Splash Mountain is based on has been criticized for its depictions of race relations in the South.

Song of the South is set in the Reconstruction-era American south, just as the Civil War has concluded and slavery has ended. Directed by Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson and produced by Walt Disney himself, the film is based on the Uncle Remus stories as adapted by Joel Chandler Harris.

Harris’s stories have always been surrounded by controversy, for many believe this to be an example of a white man profiting off slave stories, with their Negro dialect, racist stereotypes, and set on an Old South plantation. At the time, though, his work was praised for popularizing and preserving black storytelling traditions, so Walt Disney purchased the rights to the stories in 1939, paying Harris’s family $10,000.

The movie stars James Baskett as Uncle Remus in his final film role and follows seven-year-old Johnny (Bobby Driscoll, from Peter Pan fame) who is visiting his grandmother’s plantation for an extended stay. Johnny befriends Uncle Remus, an elderly worker on the plantation, and listens to his tales about the adventures of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear. Johnny learns from the stories how to cope with the challenges he is experiencing while living on the plantation.

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Credit: Disney

When it premiered in Atlanta in 1946, the film’s leading man James Baskett was unable to attend due to segregation in the city. As a result of the film’s controversial legacy, Disney has not released Song of the South in any home video format in the United States, and the film has never been available on its streaming platform Disney+.

In 2019, Disney CEO Bob Iger said “it wouldn’t be in the best interest of our shareholders to bring it back, even though there would be some financial gain.” Song of the South, then, will never be available even with an “outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer on the streamer. “I’ve felt, for as long as I’ve been CEO, that Song of the South – even with a disclaimer – was just not appropriate in today’s world,” Iger went on to say.

So why is the movie “not appropriate in today’s world”?

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Credit: Disney

Well, the problem isn’t necessarily what Song of the South presents, but what it chooses not to present. It appears to show a glorified image of slavery. Although Harris’ Uncle Remus stories were set in Georgia after the Civil War, Disney’s film adaptation never makes it clear when the story is taking place. It’s easy to assume, therefore, that the Disney movie is set before the Civil War, and that Remus and Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel) are slaves.

Strangely, the words “slave” and “slavery”, though, are never said in the film, and the specifics of the relationship between the blacks and whites are left vague. The movie thus portrays the plantation system as a fairytale, a world where blacks and whites live in harmony – even though the Blacks still work in the fields.

During the film’s production, the Disney production team already felt uneasy. Disney publicist Vern Caldwell wrote to Song of the South producer Perce Pearce to say “the negro situation is a dangerous one. Between the negro haters and the negro lovers there are many chances to run afoul of situations that could run the gamut all the way from the nasty to the controversial.”

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Credit: Disney

It also appears that Walt Disney knew he was working with contentious material. Walt hired Clarence Muse, the first African American to appear in a movie’s starring role, to be a screenplay consultant. Muse, however, quit when the original screenwriter, Dalton S. Reymond, ignored his suggestions to portray the Black characters as more than stereotypes.

The movie was released to mixed reviews. Through the NAACP applauded the Disney movie’s technical blend of animation and live-action, the organization said in a statement that it:

“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 … [the film] unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship, which is a distortion of the facts.”

Richard Dier, of The Afro-American, called the film “as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced.” Further, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther took offense, publishing a faux letter to Walt Disney after the film’s release stating:

“No matter how much one argues that it’s all childish fiction,” Crowther added, “the master-and-slave relation is so lovingly regarded … with the Negroes bowing and scraping and singing spirituals in the night, that one might almost imagine that you figure Abe Lincoln made a mistake. Put down that mint julep, Mr. Disney!”

Over the decades, Song of the South, like many other Disney movies, was re-released into movie theaters, first in 1956, then in 1972, 1980, and 1986. In total, it has made over $65 million at the box office.

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Credit: Disney

When Splash Mountain’s Song of the South (1946) theme was announced to be removed to provide a more “inclusive” ride experience, Guests petitioned to keep the ride with its famous songs like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Ev’rybody’s Got a Laughing Place,” but to no success.

But why did Disney Imagineers use the controversial Song of the South to start with? Well, Disneyland was in need of a water ride, and the only free space was found in the Bear Country section of the Disney Park – close to the Country Bear Jamboree.

Disney needed an attraction that suited the already established theme, and beloved Imagineer Tony Baxter had the solution. He theorized Disney could reuse some old animatronics from “America Sings” and recreate the animated segments from Song of the South, but then-CEO Michael Eisner was evidently concerned about the racist undertones of the 1940s movie. Eisner asked that Uncle Remus not be included in the attraction and also suggested that the ride be named Splash Mountain, as a way to promote the Tom Hanks mermaid movie Splash (1984) (not to actually distance itself from Song of the South).

Plans to build the Disney ride were unveiled in January 1987, with Disney officials stating they would not be expecting criticism for its Song of the South theming due to the ride only including the film’s animated animal characters. The popular attraction opened in 1989 to positive reviews and can now be found at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland.

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Credit: Disney

With the Walt Disney Company striving for a more “inclusive” environment, it is only fitting that Splash Mountain be a part of this movement then. With its subtle references to Song of the South and the connotations these bring, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will breathe new life into the log flume – and fittingly star Disney’s first African American princess.

Disney Parks has revealed the following details about the new attraction coming in later 2024:

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will open at the Disneyland Resort (and Walt Disney World Resort) in late 2024. The new attraction’s story will pick up right where “The Princess and the Frog” left off. At the end of the film, Princess Tiana realizes her lifelong dream when she opens her restaurant, Tiana’s Palace. We pick up the story during Carnival season, when Tiana is hosting a party for the people of New Orleans. She discovers her celebration is missing a key ingredient and needs our help to find it. On Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, we’ll join Tiana and Louis on a trip to the bayou, where they meet all sorts of unexpected new friends who have a special role to play at the party.

The attraction will get a whole new look and feel. Plus, Imagineers are blending tried-and-true techniques with the latest technology to make this feel like an entirely new attraction.

Additionally, it was announced that talented voices from the film will reprise their roles in the attraction, including Bruno Campos as Prince Naveen, Michael Leon Wooley as Louis, Jenifer Lewis as Mama Odie, and the one and only Anika Noni Rose as Princess Tiana. This is especially exciting news since music will be a big part of the experience on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.

About Melissa Cannioto

Melissa is an author, adventurer, and chatterbox, who has worked at Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris, and Adventures by Disney! A British native, she has traveled the world seeking new experiences, and now resides in Florida with her husband, an Air Force pilot. Find her children's book at @bear.hug.book