LOS ANGELES — So long, Splash Mountain.
Disney said on Thursday that it would remake one of its most popular theme park rides, Splash Mountain, which depicts characters and songs from “Song of the South,” the racist 1946 musical. The 31-year-old flume ride will instead be modeled on “The Princess and the Frog,” the 2009 musical that introduced Disney’s first black princess, Tiana.
The name Splash Mountain will also be retired. New Adventures With Princess Tiana is the working title of the coming attraction, which will be set in the Louisiana bayou.
“It is important that our guests be able to see themselves in the experiences we create,” Carmen Smith, vice president of creative development and inclusion strategies at Walt Disney Imagineering, said in a blog post. Imagineering is Disney’s research and design division.
The overhaul at both Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California, the theme parks that feature the ride, will easily cost tens of millions of dollars.
Disney is expunging the “Song of the South” imagery — Br’er Rabbit and other animal minstrels — during a national reckoning on racial justice. Protests against police brutality and racism, sparked by the killing of a black man, George Floyd, in police custody in Minneapolis, have prompted a wide spectrum of companies to make long-overdue changes. Quaker Oats, for instance, said it would retire Aunt Jemima, a 131-year-old brand built on racist imagery.
In the case of Splash Mountain, Disney executives had privately discussed abandoning the “Song of the South” theming for at least five years. Last summer, Disney said, a plan was put into motion to give the ride a “Princess and the Frog” story line. Bob Weis, the president of Walt Disney Imagineering, commissioned concept art. Disney said it had sped up the public unveiling of the project because of the current cultural conversation about race.
“It has been a year or more since we started talking about this particular concept,” Mr. Weis said in an interview posted on D23.com, a fan site run by Disney.
In recent weeks, online petitions began to circulate about Splash Mountain. More than 21,300 people signed one asking Disney to remove the ride’s “offensive stereotypical theming.” About 26,300 people have signed a dueling Change.org petition demanding that Disney keep the “iconic classic ride” as it is.
Sparring over a theme park ride may seem silly, especially against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which is surging again. But Disney is a huge part of how many people live their lives — how they make their memories — and even the smallest changes to the company’s theme parks can spark outrage. For the same reason, the addition of a major attraction themed around a black heroine could have a positive impact on young visitors, in particular those of color.
Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella have castles. The Little Mermaid and the “Frozen” sisters have rides. Why not also Tiana?
“The Princess and the Frog” tells the story of a young black woman who is persuaded to kiss a frog who is really a prince. The spell backfires, and she, too, becomes an amphibian. Accompanied by a Cajun firefly and a folksy alligator, she searches for a cure.
Like other modern Disney princesses, Tiana is a strong-willed songbird (courtesy of the Tony-winning Anika Noni Rose). The tale unfolds against a raucous backdrop of voodoo and jazz, with Oprah Winfrey and Jenifer Lewis voicing supporting characters.
The movie received strong reviews and was nominated for three Oscars. But ticket sales were underwhelming, in part because children reared on Pixar’s computer wizardry had a hard time connecting with the film’s hand-drawn animation. “The Princess and the Frog” collected about $257 million worldwide, or $324 million in today’s dollars.
Since its release, “The Princess and the Frog” has become a merchandising star for Disney, with Tiana princess dresses for young girls selling particularly well.
Disney has not made “Song of the South” available in any form for 33 years because of its racist imagery. Splash Mountain does not overtly reference the film, but the ride is built around the Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox stories that form its center. The ride also features the Oscar-winning song from the film, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
Disney has updated other rides over the years to make them more relevant to children and to remove outdated imagery. In 2017, for instance, a bride auction and a scene where scofflaws chase women through a house were removed from Pirates of the Caribbean. Also that year, Disney closed the popular Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a hotel with wildly malfunctioning elevators, and turned it into a new ride based on Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
At least for now, one Splash Mountain will survive: The ride is also at Tokyo Disneyland, which Disney doesn’t own. (The company licenses its characters and products to the Oriental Land Company.) There are no plans to give that one a “Princess and the Frog” makeover, a spokeswoman said.
By Brooks Barnes