As I write this column, my family and I are in the final days of preparation for our trip to Walt Disney World.

In the interest of full disclosure, we are “those people” – a Disney family. My wife and I celebrated our honeymoon, fifth and 10th anniversaries at the Happiest Place on Earth, and we’re preparing to run a 10K and half marathon during Princess Half Marathon Weekend on this trip. We’re members of the Disney Vacation Club, the House of Mouse’s timeshare program. As a result, my 5-year-old daughter has been to Florida more times in her life than I had been to Maine my entire childhood. She’ll be able to guide my 11-year-old niece who is accompanying us around the resort better than most Disney employees, probably.

So, of course, given the attention it – and Disney as a whole – has received over the past year in the national news, there has been a recurring question: “Aren’t you sad about Splash Mountain?”

For those who are unaware, Splash Mountain, whether the original at Disneyland in California or the Frontierland fixture at Magic Kingdom in Florida had become one of the most recognizable parts of the Disney experience. The log flume ride took you on a series of adventures of Br’er Rabbit, who leaves home, is pursued by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, and eventually learns that, to steal a phrase from another cultural icon, there’s no place like home.

Disney announced in 2020 that it would be shutting the ride down permanently and repurposing it with a new theme: Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, focused on Tiana, Disney’s sole Black princess and star of the 2009 animated film “The Princess and the Frog.” The announcement, to put it lightly, sparked cultural and moral controversy for a company that has been embroiled in plenty. That includes a standoff with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over former CEO Bob Chapek’s Johnny-come-lately public stance on the state’s Parental Rights in Education bill, which has been dubbed by some the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World closed on Jan. 23, and the one at Disneyland will also close this year. Both are slated to reopen as Tiana’s Bayou Adventure in 2024.

At the heart of the issues with Splash Mountain is the inspiration behind its theming. The characters and major plot points in the ride are derived from the 1946 film “Song of the South.” The film is based upon the Uncle Remus tales made popular in print by Joel Chandler Harris in the late 1800s. These fables have roots deep in Black history that can be traced through the time of the American slave trade and all the way back to Africa.

“Song of the South” has been a divisive piece of Americana for a long time. While there are certainly ways to find it, it isn’t in regular circulation anywhere domestically. You won’t find it on the Disney+ streaming service or for reputable purchase on DVD, Blu-ray or even VHS as it never had home video release of any kind in U.S. The most identifiable and enduring part of the movie is the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (sorry that that’s now stuck in your head), which was released in some Disney media and is a major part of the ride.

Set in the Deep South during the time of Reconstruction, the film’s plot revolves around a young white boy who goes to live on his grandmother’s plantation because of concerns arising from his father’s controversial role as an editor of an Atlanta newspaper. He befriends Uncle Remus, an elderly Black sharecropper, who recounts the stories of Br’er Rabbit to impart life lessons.
While I’ll happily defer to Reminder Publishing’s resident film experts, G. Michael Dobbs and Matt Conway, on the finer points of filmmaking, overall, the production itself was considered very well done at the time. It was one of the company’s most successful early forays into blending live action characters and animation. Though he wasn’t able to attend the premiere in Atlanta due to segregation laws, James Baskett’s performance was well received, and he became the first Black man to receive an Oscar with an Academy Honorary Award in 1947 shortly before his untimely death. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” also took home Best Original Song honors at the Academy Awards.

Critics, however, have decried the film as racist since its theatrical release.
I own a bootlegged copy of the film that I bought while covering The Big E several years ago. I have watched it in its entirety. Therefore, I probably have more experience with and exposure to the film than most of the people who have formed a recent opinion on it. The movie has plenty of issues, primarily stemming from outdated and (here’s that dirty word that people love to hate) offensive cliché imagery and portrayals of Black Americans. And while it’s not meant to be a historical record, its sanitization of the role, living conditions and social stature of Black sharecroppers in America is ultimately a problem that helped feed false narratives.

Now, I don’t think any of this was intentional.

The use of stereotypical “southern Black” language is likely keeping in line with the film’s source material, which was written by Harris in such a way as to reflect what he believed to be, for better or worse, the Black dialect of the Deep South. That doesn’t make it correct.

It’s my opinion that the goal in the film was to convey Uncle Remus as a wise sage, dispensing valuable knowledge and perspective. The concept feels innocent enough. Honestly, it’s not all that different from the role the titular character takes on in Mary Poppins. But you don’t have to dig very deep or play amateur social historian to come to the realization that the main character in this story, based on the timeline, was likely the property of Johnny’s grandmother not all that long before the film’s events take place.

With that context, Uncle Remus’ place in the story isn’t really one of reverence as I think was intended. Johnny seeks Remus out when he needs him because his father is absent and his mother is seemingly uninterested – until it comes time to serve the role as an authority figure over Remus. Uncle Remus was meant to be a wise, lovable character and his relationship with Johnny is supposed to act as a vehicle between the animated stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox. But, as well intentioned as it may have been, basically, Uncle Remus’ value is directly tied to how he can make Johnny’s life better, nothing more. What ultimately happens to the old Black guy isn’t of much concern as long as the white characters end up OK.

Now, let’s not pretend as if this is the only time Disney has put stereotypical – or in some cases blatantly racist – content in their films. The crows in Dumbo are another antiquated caricature of Black Americans. There’s “gypsy” showman Stromboli in “Pinocchio,” some of the portrayals of people of Arab descent and perceived “culture” in “Aladdin,” the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp. And can we talk for just a minute about “What Makes the Red Man Red” in “Peter Pan?”

Even “The Princess and the Frog” – which was somewhat groundbreaking for Disney for its use of two characters of color in lead roles and the way it addresses racial and socio-economic disparities in 1920s New Orleans – takes some liberties, most notably with Cajun stereotypes. I’m certainly interested to see how that is addressed or not addressed with the new attraction.

At the advent of Disney+, the company added disclaimers to the beginning of some of its films on the streaming service, warning viewers that certain titles were “presented as originally created” and “contain outdated cultural depictions.” Since then, the language has become stronger: “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.” It goes on to refer viewers to a website on “how stories have impacted society.”

In some instances, Disney has also tried to right the wrongs, so to speak, in its more recent adaptations of the films, namely its live action versions of titles such as “Aladdin” and “Dumbo” with mixed success.

These various efforts have their merits when you are trying to address certain negative aspects of a film. But when the central theme of the film is as problematic as “Song of the South’s” is, it’s a much heavier lift to (if you even wanted to) remake the movie. Issuing a warning that says, “Yeah, this is pretty horrible, but here you go anyway” doesn’t feel like it benefits anyone either and the decision to keep the film out of widespread circulation makes sense with that in mind.

Speaking of the movie itself, it’s not all that great. In all honesty, its rarity has swelled its esteem. Visually, it’s appealing with plenty of brilliant colors and character design. Some of the performers, including Baskett, do a good job. But the movie is kind of a drag. It’s only an hour and 35 minutes, but you certainly feel every minute of that runtime. The entire story, as I mentioned, exists to move from one of the three animated shorts to another and those make up just about one quarter of the total film. The rest is really kind of boring.

So in the end, you have a not-so-great movie that has some pretty awful racial context attached to it. Disney’s decision to make a ride out of it in the first place is certainly a curious one, but it’s one that ultimately worked with the public, so let’s look at the ride itself.

Before anything else, let’s clear up a misconception. It wasn’t an original attraction at either domestic Disney park. While it has become one of the more popular attractions, it is not a timeless fixture in the story of Walt’s development of in-person family entertainment. In fact, Walt never came close to seeing it nor was he even alive when its development was first discussed.

The original Splash Mountain was developed at Disneyland in California in 1989, nearly 34 years after the park opened and 23 years after Walt’s death. Many of the characters that appear throughout the ride are repurposed animatronics from a previous failing attraction. Walt Disney World opened in 1971 and Splash Mountain was added to that park in 1992.

OK, moving on. The ride itself essentially takes the Uncle Remus/Johnny aspect out of it. It is essentially a river ride retelling the Br’er Rabbit tales that make up the animated portion of the movie. You meander through various animatronic scenes that loosely tell the story of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear’s pursuit of the mischievous rabbit who has decided to run away from home, all while climbing your way to the ride’s climax – a drop of about 50 feet, plunging into water below, as Br’er Rabbit fools his adversaries into a briar patch. Now presumably soaked, you find Br’er Rabbit back home where he belongs with the animals celebrating his return with a chorus of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” While there are still cultural misconceptions and stereotypes associated with the characters on the ride, by focusing on the animation, Disney tap danced around some of the most uncomfortable parts of “Song of the South” as best it could.

I liked Splash Mountain. Let me back up. I came to like Splash Mountain. As a kid who was terrified of heights (I’m still not crazy about them as an adult), this was most decidedly not a favorite of mine. Most of the time, I was too focused on the upcoming drop to appreciate the show. And it is a show – a well developed one at that. As an adult, I came to appreciate that, in many ways, the ride is what you’d expect Disney to be – mostly silly fun with a little bit of thrill. I was honestly disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to ride it one more time on our upcoming trip. Of course, I also never really had to think much about racial stereotypes and how my history is reflected in pop culture.

The fact of the matter is Disney is taking one of its commodities and making it not only more culturally acceptable and inclusive but also much more relevant and that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone.

Think about it. The ride is based as loosely as it can be on a movie that can’t be publicly viewed or legally purchased in this country due to the racial controversy surrounding it, and as a result is not nearly as relevant to new generations of parkgoers. Changing the story and theme of the ride to include a more modern movie that features a character who is not only representative of a portion of the company’s client base, but also already part of its extensive Disney Princess branding and visible elsewhere in the parks both through parades and meet-and-greets makes a great deal of sense.

Disney has regularly decommissioned or re-themed rides, even ones considered iconic. At Magic Kingdom, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was re-themed into The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios was recently revamped into Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage – an actual Disney World original – was one of my favorites when I was a kid, having just read the book; it’s long gone. At Epcot, the Viking boat ride Maelstrom at the World Showcase’s Norway Pavilion was transformed into Frozen Ever After. The Seas at Epcot didn’t originally have a character overlay but now is The Seas with Nemo and Friends. Pirates of the Caribbean is still about pirates, but while at first the ride was the inspiration for the movie franchise, the script has been flipped, and the ride was changed to reflect the movie.

Nothing at Disney parks should be considered immovable or untouchable. Whenever any change is proposed at a Disney park, there is much wailing about “What would Walt think?” When confronted with this, I always recall Walt Disney’s famous words: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”
He didn’t want things to be static – even Mickey Mouse has evolved over the years (there’s a good documentary on Disney+ about that too). Of course, I’m not naïve enough to think that the corporation’s decisions are completely altruistic. Walt’s outlook, I think, extended to his understanding that the world and outlooks evolve and the entertainment that companies like Disney provide have to change with it in order to continue to resonate with their audiences, which is necessary to remain profitable on top of everything else.

As the New York Times reported, Disney had been talking about a re-theme for Splash Mountain for as long as five years before making its official announcement. There had been rumors of it for longer than that. Disney made its Splash Mountain announcement when the country was again embroiled in racial tension following the murder of George Floyd. I don’t doubt that there were internal strategy sessions at which Disney executives agreed to leverage the controversy into an opportunity to announce the change. I don’t fool myself into thinking that a potential positive financial impact isn’t part of what’s really driving this.

Whether attempting to be more culturally inclusive by removing some of its negative elements is a socially or financially driven decision, Disney is making a change that ultimately results in a positive cultural impact.

While I don’t think “Song of the South” necessarily needs to fade completely into oblivion, having a ride that promotes some of the company’s more racist content also feels inappropriate. While I do wonder if there is any sort of middle ground in which the film could have some educational value when it comes to race in America, specifically how it’s reflected in entertainment, pulling it off the display shelf and putting it in the closet so to speak is something I don’t see as a negative.

And in the meantime, if Disney does it right, the new experience will be just as entertaining.

If that is true, I think, over time, this controversy will be water under the bridge – or over the 50-foot drop in this case.