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A new Disney ride opens soon, splashing right out of the culture wars

Originally Published: 10 JUN 24 08:30 ET
Updated: 10 JUN 24 16:50 ET

(CNN) — A ride based on the story of Disney’s first Black princess opens to the public on June 28 in Orlando, Florida, replacing the decades-old Splash Mountain attraction that was beloved by many Disney fans yet also widely criticized.

Walt Disney World’s new ride, inspired by the movie “The Princess and the Frog” and its heroine Tiana, is currently in preview mode for groups including employees and annual passholders and has already elicited mixed reactions in the midst of the culture wars.

The structure of the log-flume ride has not changed, but the theme has been completely redone four years after Disney first announced the project in 2020, during the same season of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.

The original Splash Mountain ride — which first opened at Disneyland in 1989, and at Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland in 1992 — was based on characters from “Song of the South,” a 1946 Disney movie that has long been criticized as racist for its stereotypical portrayals of African Americans and a romanticized view of the antebellum South.

Turning Splash Mountain into Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is also happening at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, with an opening date yet to be announced. Tokyo Disneyland is also home to a Splash Mountain ride, but the theme in that location is not changing.

Disney has kept “Song of the South” from being re-released and has even kept the movie off its streaming platform, Disney+.

‘It’s finally happened’

Victoria Wade, a theme park content creator, got to try Tiana’s Bayou Adventure in early June as a guest of an employee.

Wade, who is Black, told CNN it was powerful to finally experience a Disney attraction where the characters look like her.

“I got very emotional immediately towards the finale scene of the ride in particular… it was just nice to be seen,” she said.

She added that she would have loved to see that kind of representation when she was a child. For her little cousins and the children she babysits, “They can just go there and see themselves in a positive light — in a positive representation. So it just, it warmed my heart. It was just like, finally, we had to beg for all these years for this to happen. And it’s finally happened.”

Wade said she found the scenes colorful and vibrant, and she could tell how much the Disney team had researched Louisiana culture to create the new theme.

“You can even see bits and pieces of that within the queue,” Wade said, referring to the area where riders wait in line and see fictional letters written during World War I, when Princess Tiana’s father, James, served in the military.

In a blog post, Disney has said “the photos that served as reference for the expanded backstory of James were those of soldiers who served in 369th Regiment, one of the first African American regiments to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. This unit was renowned for its bravery and many members were awarded the prestigious Croix de Guerre medal by the French government for their valiant service in action.”

That reference had special significance for Disney’s project lead Charita Carter, whose father served in the US Air Force.

She and a team of Disney staff had visited New Orleans to create an authentic visual style for the ride. They met with Stella Reese Chase, whose mother Leah Chase was a renowned New Orleans chef and TV personality.

Chase visited Walt Disney Imagineering in April alongside CNN and other media to see this ride’s advanced animatronics, the likes of which had yet to debut in a US Disney park.

As Chase watched Princess Tiana wave and talk for the first time in 3D, she said, “I’m just amazed, you know. What can I say? I’ve never seen anything like it. This is really a wild experience.”

Lukewarm waters

While fans have agreed that the new technology on the ride, including projection mapping and the fluidity of characters’ movements, is far superior to the prior version, criticism has centered around lack of plot.

Disney has said that the ride’s story takes place chronologically after the movie ends and involves Princess Tiana inviting guests to a big celebration in the bayou.

Jack Kendall, host of the theme park fan podcast DSNY, also experienced the new ride recently as a guest of an employee.

He said that for an attraction based on the suspense of a 50-foot drop, “there’s no kind of antagonist within the attraction to have that kind of push and pull of that trepidation building up the lift hill and going down the other side,” noting that people are saying “there’s no real story to it.”

Kendall added, “To be honest, it’s a lovely collection of scenes, of show scenes, very beautifully put together, but there’s not really much of an impetus for why we’re going on this journey now.”

Big drop into the culture wars

But online vitriol has sometimes gone far beyond the merits of the ride.

Several petitions on change.org over the years have attempted to “save” Splash Mountain.

One such petition organized by Eric Thibeault stated: “It is absurd to pander to a small group of ‘Disney haters’ that dont [sic] understand the story, and re-theme such a nostalgic ride. The characters in Splash Mountain do not specifically generalize any race or group of people, they are nothing more than caricatures based on the turn-of-the-century America.

“Modifying Splash Mountain will not change history and will only encourage the ‘easily offended’ to continue making desperate attempts at finding offence in additional attractions.”

Disney has rethemed or modified old rides before, garnering similar attention from fans who resisted change. In recent years, for example, a woman in red featured in a Pirates of the Caribbean ride scene was changed from a wench “for sale” to a pistol-carrying pirate.

Kendall said that the opening of the rethemed ride is a culmination of the culture wars in which the Disney company has been entangled over the last several years, including a battle with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over a controversial bill that restricts certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom.

He said he thinks that those who were upset at losing the Splash Mountain theme had largely already decided they would dislike the new theme.

“If you took the attraction of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, all the theming, all the scenes, all the technology behind it, and put it in its own new attraction building, people wouldn’t be speaking about this attraction like they are,” Kendall said.

“They’d be saying it’s fantastic. One of the best things that Disney’s done … But it’s because it’s being somewhat unfairly compared to what was there before. So I think that’s where a lot of this online discourse is coming from.”

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