If you’re a fan of Disney’s theme parks, you have surely ridden Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain is a popular log flume ride, opening between 1998 and 1992 in three Disney park locations: Disneyland in California, Magic Kingdom in Florida and Tokyo Disneyland. While the ride has been popular throughout its runtime, it’s history and origins tied to the 1946 film Song of the South, remind us of Disney’s problematic past. In June 2020, Disney announced they would be reworking the design of the ride, to be based on the 2009 animated film The Princess and the Frog instead.
In short, the plot of Song of South is centred around a young boy from Atlanta named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) who with his mother, moves to his grandmother’s plantation. There, Johnny learns a series of life lessons from Uncle Remus (James Baskett), a black man working on the plantation. The lessons are told through stories about the animated character Br’er Rabbit “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,”(voiced by Johnny Lee) and his journey to evade Br-’er Fox (Baskett) and Br-er Bear (Nick Stewart). The film includes the song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah which won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1947.
Song of the South has been deemed too racist for public release. Not once has the movie ever been released to home video in the United States, and in the United Kingdom, it was released in small amounts of VHS in the late 80s early 90s. The movie has not been included on Disney +, with Disney executive chairman and former CEO Bob Iger stating, even with an “outdated cultural depictions” the film is “not appropriate in today’s world”.
Splash Mountain log flumes take the riders through many tunnels, turns and drops stylised round a mountain top exterior. It contains audio-animatronic animals of the characters in the film, including Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, Mr.Bluebird and many others. During its last drop, plunging its riders through a wave of water, the animatronics can be heard singing the chorus of the movie’s most famous song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”.
Sounds innocent enough, but that is not the case. The main problem with Song of the South is what the movie chooses to ignore. From the way the movie is presented, it looks to be set before the Civil War, and Uncle Remus and character Aunty Tempy (Harriet McDaniel) are slaves to Johnny’s family – and appear totally ok with it. However, the stories of Uncle Remus are based on a collection of stories by Joel Chandler Harris, and he sets his stories after the Civil War, however, the movie seems to keep it very vague when the movie is set, with Johnny and his family dressed in late-victorian clothing, and no dates being mentioned.
Most of Disney’s movies like to play loose and fast with history. Modernising the clothes of the characters, creating fake locations vaguely loosely based on real places, and giving blurry indications of time periods. This works fine with a story about a courageous princess living in a magic kingdom, but with a story about 1800s Georgia, it becomes an issue. As if Disney is removing all the reality of the situation to make the movie family-friendly.
The words “slave” or “slavery” are never uttered within the film, and the relationship between Johnny’s family and Remus and Tempy is not discussed. By taking away any context of the time and the specific relationship between the black and white characters, the movie creates this strange idyllic region where black and white people live in harmony. Though the black characters are shown to be inferior, working on the fields of the plantation and wearing less fortunate clothing, yet appear to be content and happy with the situation.
It’s clear Disney recognises the racial offensives with this movie, even in 1986 on its 40th anniversary, Disney locked the film away in its vault. Iger was asked in 2010 if the movie would be released on DVD, to which he called the movie “antiquated” and “fairly offensive”. He said there were no plans to make Song of the South into a DVD or Blu-ray, ten years later, Disney still hasn’t.
In light of the George Floyd protests and the BLM movement, a petition was created on Change.org to re-theme Splash Mountain to Princess and the Frog. Creator of the petition Alex-O expressed:
“This change could kill two birds with one stone, remove the offensive stereotypical theming the ride currently has and bring much-needed diversity to the parks. As well as a much bigger merchandising opportunity for Princess and the Frog.”
With over 21,378 signatures, the petition was a success. Though Disney does state that plans of this redesign have been afoot since 2019, prior to the online petitions that have been circulated during the George Floyd protests. While designs of the new ride have been put in motion for Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, there are no plans to redesign the attraction in Tokyo Disney, though discussions for the change are still abiding.
For Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, Splash Mountain will be reinterpreted as celebrations of 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. The animated musical is set in New Orleans and stars Anika Noni Rose as Tiana, Disney’s first black princess. Though concept designs have been drawn up of what the ride may look like in the future, we can imagine the ride to include plenty of characters and sets from the movie, along with its amazing musicals, including “Almost There” and “Down in New Orleans”.
Disney does say their decision was confirmed before the protests began. The Black Lives Matter movement has opened the eyes of many individuals across the world to racial inequality. Disney is recognising it’s part to play and has now appeared to be making the decisions to address and fix their controversial history, rather than to cover it up and ignore it.