Splash Mountain left an indelible imprint on many Disney park lovers’ memories, and some have had a tough time letting go.
“I mean people were trying to sell the water,” self-described “massive Disney fan” Didi Francique recalled of the iconic ride’s last day of operation at Walt Disney World. “There was a little a memorial thing with people putting their Splash Mountain plushies right in front of it … ‘Save Splash Mountain’ shirts, ‘The last splash’ shirts.”
Francique opted out of the ride that day but had ridden it countless times. “When I was a kid, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t care,” he said. But he began to feel differently over the years as he learned about the ride’s roots in Disney’s film “Song of the South.” “That’s when I was kind of like, this is very questionable.”
The ride closed at Disney World in January and is expected to close later this year at Disneyland. Here’s why some Disney fans are more than ready for its retheming as Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.
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Why did Disney close Splash Mountain?
Splash Mountain opened in Disneyland in 1989 and Disney World in 1992, introducing a new generation of Disney fans to Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear, which were first animated in 1946’s “Song of the South.”
“Imagineers have a longstanding history of making updates and enhancements to attractions and experiences so they remain fresh and relevant, and the retheming of Splash Mountain is of particular importance today,” Disney said in a statement to USA TODAY. “Tiana’s Bayou Adventure builds on the story of Princess Tiana, a character whose pride and perseverance reminds us of a universal truth: within us lies the potential to make our dreams come true. This new concept is relatable, inspiring, and speaks to the diversity of the millions of people who visit the parks each year.”
Disney has not tied Splash Mountain’s closing to “Song of the South,” the way an online petition garnering more than 21,000 signatures did in 2020. However, when Disney CEO Bob Iger was asked at a shareholders meeting that March if the film would be added to Disney+, he said, “I’ve felt, as long as I’ve been CEO, that ‘Song of the South’ was – even with a disclaimer – was just not appropriate in today’s world.” That June, Disney announced plans to reimagine Splash Mountain with a “The Princess and the Frog”-inspired theme, noting plans had been in the works since 2019.
What is the problem with ‘Song of the South’?
“‘Song of the South’ is problematic from the get-go,” explained Harvard professor and literary scholar Maria Tatar, who co-authored “The Annotated African American Folktales” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. “It’s magnolias and moonshine.”
Though set in the post-Civil War plantation era, she said, “it feels like a time of slavery, and it looks like a time of slavery,” with Black laborers singing as they return from the fields. “They’ve been engaged in backbreaking work, but it’s never shown and it’s sort of romanticized.
“And you look at Uncle Remus. Where does he live? He wears cast-off clothes, and he’s dirt poor and he’s also physically worn down,” she said of the film’s hero. Even so, she said he becomes a “magical negro” – a trope Spike Lee, among others, has criticized in films – “who repairs the injuries in the white family and reconstitutes the white family at the same time that he’s living alone.”
Victoria Wade, a Disney fan who was ready for Splash Mountain to go, said, “A lot of people like to say, ‘Oh, it was just the time.’ Well, we can no longer use that excuse because we’re going to evolve.”
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What is the story behind Uncle Remus?
The Uncle Remus character, who tells Brer Rabbit’s stories in the movie, isn’t part of Splash Mountain. But the ride is inspired by the film, and the film is based on the tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, who drew from oral stories he’d learned from enslaved people during his youth.
“This is African American folklore. It’s an important part of the heritage of Black people in the United States,” Tatar said.
According to The Wren’s Nest, the Atlanta museum and cultural center that was once Harris’ home, “By writing down the Brer Rabbit stories and other African folktales he had heard, Harris preserved and popularized them.” But not everyone sees it that way.
Wade criticized “taking source material from slaves and just rewriting it.”
“It’s great that you don’t get to see the actual racism, but it’s just – do you understand its source material and why it’s offensive?” she asked.
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What is the story behind Brer Rabbit?
Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear existed in Black folklore long before Harris put their adventures in print, “Song of the South” brought them to life on the big screen and Splash Mountain introduced them to new generations of Disney fans.
“I know many African Americans who have grown up with Brer Rabbit, who taught them lessons about how to manage, how to navigate your way through a culture that has put lots of obstacles in your way, and how you manage not just to survive, but to thrive and succeed by using your wits, by being strong and courageous,” Tatar said.
She said the disconnect occurs in “seeing the cartoon version of these stories and not knowing the history, the oral traditions behind it, where the stories came from.”
“It gets back to the whole question of who has laid claim to the folklore. Who is reclaiming it?” she added. “In some ways, I think I would have preferred a reboot where African Americans are reclaiming these stories, creating a theme park ride that also does cultural work for them.”
Does Disney close rides on purpose?
Splash Mountain is far from the first ride Disney has retired or rethemed. From Horizons at EPCOT to Flying Saucers at Disneyland, many once-popular attractions have come and gone through the years.
“Our fans and guests are passionate about their connection to Disney, and we are passionate about delivering the best experience possible,” Disney told USA TODAY. “To achieve that, we’re continuously listening to guest feedback and thinking about ways to evolve our offerings. We’re leaning into our strengths as expert storytellers and innovators – the very foundations from which this company was founded – to bring a beloved canon of inspiring characters and fantastical worlds to life.”
The company, which marks its 100th anniversary this year, highlighted its ever-growing library of intellectual property and commitment “to make the guest experience more relatable and more remarkable for many generations to come.”
Francique still misses The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. “As many people as there were that last day Splash Mountain, … why couldn’t The Great Movie Ride have that energy, which is more relatable to everybody?” he asked. “That’s probably the best example I can give in terms of an old ride ending that I didn’t think, at the time, should have ended, and it ends up just being a way better attraction.”
He considers its replacement, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the best ride at Disney World and can’t wait for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.
What will Tiana’s Bayou Adventure be like?
As its name suggests, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will take guests on an immersive bayou journey culminating in an epic Mardi Gras party for Tiana’s community, which she’s also help empower through a new co-op called Tiana’s Foods.
Set a year after the events in “The Princess and the Frog,” the attraction will feature new and familiar characters, cutting-edge technology and an all-new story. But a model revealed at last year’s D23 Expo showed at least one Splash Mountain feature remains: its iconic log flume drop.
“I keep trying to tell people it’s going to be the same,” Francique said of the physical experience. “People just don’t want to see a person of color having a starring role in a big attraction like that. That’s what it really comes down to.”
Tiana is Disney’s first Black princess. And while her new attraction is designed to connect with all audiences, Disney has made a point to include Black voices and talent in the creative process from the beginning.
“She’s fantastical, but she came from a very real place,” Charita Carter, one of the project’s leads, said of Tiana late last year. Carter is also an executive creative producer for Walt Disney Imagineering.
“I do wish when I was younger, I had that representation,” Wade said. “Just having a big iconic company like Disney do their research and have like a dark-skinned Black woman as a princess is such a big deal, and there’s going to be children after me that will grow up with this character.”
Francique hopes even die-hard Splash Mountain fans will give Tiana’s Bayou Adventure a try.
“I’m not going to say everyone’s going to forget about the old stuff, but everyone’s going be like, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’ ” he said. “This is what Disney can really do.”