It’s been the theme park controversy that has divided Disney Parks fans.
Disney’s iconic attraction, Splash Mountain, has recently closed at the Walt Disney World Resort (and soon to be at the Disneyland Resort), and Disney fans are torn over the iconic water ride being transformed into a new attraction.
With Disney’s push to be more “inclusive,” the Disney water ride is being revamped due to its controversial Song of the South (1946) theme, but shutting down Splash Mountain leaves Disney facing a big problem across its Parks, media, and history as a whole.
“Tiana’s Bayou Adventure” will be opening in late 2024, picking up where the movie left off in New Orleans. The new ride at Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Park will follow Princess Tiana, Prince Naveen, and Louis as they prepare for their first-ever Mardi Gras performance, featuring the vibrant songs from the 2009 animated film Princess and the Frog.
The artist’s renderings and models revealed at the 2022 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 aims to remove allusions to the Song of the South (1946). The ride launched back in 1989 with 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.” 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 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.
The issue, however, is that this catchy song has become a staple Disney tune, one that brings nostalgia, joy, and magic to Disney Park Guests.
Many Guests – particularly because the movie it originates from is unavailable to watch – do not even realize that the song comes from Song of the South (or any movie at all). The song has become so synonymous with Walt Disney World theme parks, parades, and Sing-Alongs, that younger Guests believe the song to just be a generic “Disney” song, much like how the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse theme song (“M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E”) is played everywhere.
Song of the South has long been criticized for its racist portrayals of Black Americans. Song of the South is set in the Reconstruction-era American south, just as the Civil War has concluded and slavery has ended.
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.
The issue in the movie lies in that it appears to show a glorified image of slavery. Disney’s film adaptation never makes it clear when the story is taking place, but it’s easy to assume that the Disney movie is set before the Civil War and that Remus and Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel) are slaves.
The original author of the stories Walt Disney was inspired by, Joel Chandler Harris, wrote a version of the post-slavery South that wasn’t real. In reality, freed Black people were denied education, hunted by racists, and terrorized for doing “normal” jobs. In Harris’ stories, formerly enslaved Uncle Remus loved his former owners so much that he didn’t want to find a new life after emancipation. Instead, he stayed on the plantation, lived in a shanty, and told stories to the white children who lived in the mansion.
Walt Disney himself was so convinced his film would be a classic that he successfully campaigned for James Baskett to receive an honorary Oscar. The picture also won Best Original Song for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” which cemented the song as a Disney classic.
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+.
And there lies the problem – “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” is now so far removed from its original source material that Disney fans don’t understand its history. The song is sung by James Baskett as Uncle Remus in the movie, and the word “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” was reportedly invented by Walt Disney, who was fond of nonsense words such as “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Cinderella (1950) and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins (1964).
Ken Emerson, author of the book “Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster And The Rise Of American Popular Culture”, believes that the song is influenced by the chorus of the pre-Civil War folk song “Zip Coon”, a “Turkey in the Straw” variation: “O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day”.
For many years, the song was part of an opening theme medley for the “Wonderful World of Disney” television program and it has often been used in other Disney productions, such as the popular “Sing-Along Songs” series and Disney parades.
In short, the Oscar-winning song has become a Disney staple.
When Splash Mountain was announced to be closing, 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.
“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” has now been slowly removed from the Disney Parks – it was removed from the Magic Kingdom entrance music loop at Walt Disney World, deleted from the music playlist in Downtown Disney at Disneyland, taken off the King Arthur Carrousel, and replaced in the Magic Happens parade.
Disneyland officials said back in 2020 that the removal of the “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” song from the theme parks is part of a continuous process to deliver an environment that features stories that are relevant and inclusive.
The issue facing them now, however, is that the song has become part of Disney nostalgia. Though Splash Mountain is being replaced, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” may never be able to be removed entirely.