Last week I decided to ask the question, “Should Disney re-Imaging Splash Mountain?” However, in order to make a rational and informed decision, the movie that inspired the attraction, “Song of the South” must be invoked. Its history, Walt’s assessment on how to treat and produce the film, the actors, storyline, everything must be explored. The film has been controversial since its screening, and because of the fervor it causes among so many people, Disney has tried to be “Politically Correct” with its treatment.
Since its premier on November 12th, 1946 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, it has been re-released several times in theaters, In 1956, and in 1972, the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney Productions and in 1973 as a double feature with the Aristocats. On the 100th anniversary of Joel Chandler Harris’ stories, and in 1986 for the film’s 40th anniversary, and to promote the forthcoming attraction at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, Splash Mountain. European and Asian countries have broadcast the uncut version up to 2006.
Disney has not released a complete version of the film on home video in the United States. It has been bandied about for years among Disney executives if it would ever be released. As of now, On March 11th, 2020, Bob Iger at a shareholders meeting stated the film would not be released on Disney+, their new streaming service, even with a “Outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer, stating the film in “not appropriate in today’s world” As far back as March 2010, Iger stated that there are currently no plans at this time to release the movie on DVD yet, calling the film “antiquated” and “fairly offensive”.
So, in this blog, I will go over the history of the attraction itself, its development, people involved and how the Song of the South is portrayed in the ride…
Changing an attraction at Disney, or doing an “overlay” is not easy nor is it cheap! Holiday overlays, i.e. “The Jingle Cruise” or the Haunted Mansion’s “Haunted Mansion Holiday” cost time and money, and Disney started erecting the now defunct “Osborn Family Lights” in August to be ready for the Christmas Holidays. But designing and building a brand-new ride is daunting. So how did “Splash Mountain” come to be? There were some very solid business reasons for Splash Mountain.
Let’s go back to Disneyland’s Bear Country. Toted as “A Honey of a place since ’72”, this small land next to the Haunted Mansion, although sporting the popular Country Bear Jamboree, it was the only “weenie”. An arcade, two merchandise shops, a small restaurant, Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes and the Mike Fink Keel Boats was not enough to spark interest from the guests to leave the other action-packed lands and rides. Bear Country had no exit, guests entered and exited the same walkway. On the best days, only 2% of guests entered the land. It was time for a new, big draw “Weenie”. Bear Country was losing its “luster”
Another problem was that Disneyland was very popular with younger kids and families, but the teen set did not find Disneyland that exciting, there were not enough thrill rides. Disney needed more “E-Ticket” rides.
Second, Dick Nunis, head of Disney Parks and Resorts had long desired a water flume ride. But the Imagineers at first recoiled from the idea. They believed that flume rides were common amusement park attractions, just designed to get people wet, and that Disneyland was beneath that sort of carnival attraction. They thought it needed more; in other words, it needed to “Plus” the attraction, give it a storyline.
Imagineer Tony Baxter got the inspiration for a new log flume attraction, according to Imagineer Bruce Gordon. In 1983 as he impatiently waited in traffic with the Anaheim Hills in the background, had a sudden inspiration to design a mountain log ride, and since the “American Sings” attraction was being shuttered, they could use all the audio-animatronics to aid in the construction of the ride, saving much time and money. Three problems solved. He ran into Imagineering and made his case to his co-workers. That is the legend of the new attraction, another great “Magical Tale”.
While trying to solve the dilemma of bringing people back to Bear Country and building the flume ride, Baxter thought of “Song of the South” Given the go-ahead, Tony and his team came up names like “Zip-a-Dee River Run, utilizing scenes from the movie, “Song of the South”, “Song of the South Log Flume Ride” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”. Show Designer John Stone formed a storyboard of how the attraction should look like, and since animator Marc Davis had animated many of the sequences in the film, and his animal character designs in the defunct “America Sings” were a perfect match, the attraction was on its way.
Soon a 1/20th scale model was built and Bruce Gordon started showing in to all at Imagineering, even the financial arm, all became excited about the project. From Baxters’ idea to the model, was formed in less than a month. In fact, the Imagineers watched the film several times to get the feel of the colors, characters and storyline.
But some of the Imagineers were not all on board with the idea, preferring to illuminate their own ideas. In 1984, then new CEO Michael Eisner took a tour of Imagineering to see what new projects were on tap, they pushed Baxter and his Splash Mountain model in a back corner. But Eisner had his 14-year-old son with him, Breck. While Eisner was looking at the new projects, Breck saw the Model and went over to it. Eisner wandered over to Breck looking at the model and also took a shine to it. He was always looking for more younger oriented projects and liked the idea of how much money would be saved by the use of the characters in America Sings.
But Eisner did not like any of the names for the attraction, and suggested the name “Splash”, the successful Disney movie with the same moniker (Eisner’ favorite), he even wanted a mermaid in the attraction. The Imagineers convinced Eisner that a Mermaid would not fit the “Song of the South” film. At this time, Eisner looked at the model and said…”It’s a mountain… you have a big splash at the end… it’s Splash Mountain.”
Even with Eisner’s approval, construction did not begin until 1986 because of a backlog of other projects, and another two years lapsed until the ride was complete. All told, it was 6 years from conception to reality, and because of a vender responsible for the flume design could not realize all of its guarantees, this added delays to the opening in January. However, Disney began to promote its newest “Thrill” ride in the 1988 December Hollywood Lane Parade with a Splash Mountain float, and Chip n’ Dale were riding in a log donning red ski caps and scarves as part of Disneyland’s Christmas parade in 1988.
When construction finally began in April 1987, the budget soared to an astonishing $75 million dollars, becoming the costliest projects in Disneyland history. To put in perspective, Disneyland cost only $17 million to build in 1955. In 1987, that morphs into $80 million. In an interview with Alice Davis, wife of Marc Davis, it was the use of all the animatronic characters from America Sings that helped recover from the inflated budget. It took over 80 hours to set up and orchestrate each figure. All had to be re-wired and the programmers had to change all the settings from America Sings to ensure the characters forgot those settings, and relearn their new Splash Mountain format. Finally, all the characters would perform a 45 second routine, and reset to begin again.
Everything seemed ready but there were still some glitches to contend with. Early testing consisted of Disney executives, and during final drop into the briar patch, all were getting drenched instead of just sprayed with water. Tony Baxter was so drenched he had to leave and change clothes. The log filled with water, and despite changing the configuration of the flume, nothing helped. A re-design of the log boats was the only solution. The 45 original boats were replaced by ones 500 pounds lighter and the seating was reduced from eight to seven. The bottoms and bows were also redesigned, making them more “splash proof”.
During the testing with weighed dummy sacks, Eisner came up and asked to ride. The Imagineers balked at first, but the boss got his way. Even though the water levels were still being tested and items adjusted, they insisted that Eisner wear a trash bag with holes for eyes for some protection. Accompanied by six Imagineers, they dropped successfully into the brier patch. Eisner’s only comment was…” Can we go again?”
Splash Mountain debuted at Disneyland on July 17th, 1989, and in Walt Disney World in Frontierland (Walt Disney World had no “Critter Country”) on October 2nd, 1992 and in Tokyo Disneyland on October 1st, 1992, in their Critter Country. There are subtle differences in the number of drops, the length of the flume, ride duration between all three, but all feature the same scenes in an identical format. Splash Mountain was planned for Disneyland Paris, but the colder weather and budget concerns ended the idea. All three attractions are based on the stories and songs and characters from the animated arrangements in the Song of the South. The only change is the “Tar Baby” scene, replaced with a hive of bees.
Disney made the announcement on June 25th, 2020 that Splash Mountain in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World would be re-imagined and themed to the 2009 animated film, “The Princess and the Frog”. They stated this was in development before the George Floyd protests. At this time, Tokyo Disneyland, which is operated by the Oriental Land Company is not planning to change their version, but are involved in discussions if that will occur.
To be honest, few if any guests know anything about the correlation Splash Mountain has with the movie. Most likely because so few have viewed the film. None of the disputed sequences in the movie are even portrayed in the attraction. And is not Disney shifting from one controversy to another? First, unlike Frozen that replaced Maelstrom attraction at the Norway Pavilion, The Princess and the Frog was not as profitable or popular. And the movie itself. The era depicted is in 1920’s New Orleans. Remember, the nation was just as racially divided then as in the reconstruction period.
The film seems to go on a tangent about the racial divisions. But as I stated last week, 100 people can see this or any film and make countless observations, opinions and conclusions, like was done in Song of the South. Would people think the La Bouff’s are the picture of white privilege, and Voodoo is important to the storyline. Would that be considered stereotypical of many African religious beliefs and Mama Odie and Dr. Facilier be included? Even Prince Naveen, his race is never mentioned, but he does appear African American. Was this intentional. And Tiana has no racial issues inherent during the period. Her Mother creates clothing for a white rich man and his daughter. The interactions of Tiana and the white population show no signs of racial divide as it really was in 1920’s New Orleans. It appears that the film lionizes New Orleans sans any racial prejudice and, another expensive afterthought, all the animatronic characters in the attraction do not fit in with the New Orleans of the 1920.
With all that said, knowing Disney as I know Disney by their track record, the re-imagined Splash Mountain will be a huge and magical hit. I only hope that the critics and naysayers just keep quiet and let the guests make their final decision…What do you think?…