So, what’s all this about Splash Mountain?

Note: this was written very quickly, and therefore doesn’t have as many links or pictures in it as usual. Usually I have a few days to write something and can get all that together, but today… well, today was special.

I wasn’t planning on writing this yet, I really wasn’t. I was gonna do another “Is it Boring?” list, or a long piece about Josie and the Pussycats (the best movie ever), something to pepper in a bit of variety so that I’m not just a Disney blog. But then the Orlando Sentinel had to up and share this bullshit today:

Let’s get the most obvious point out of the way: this is clickbait. There’s no way that the Orlando Sentinel allowed this piece to be published without knowing that it would be completely, utterly trashed on Twitter within an hour, just in time for them to put the article behind a paywall, which thousands of people will clearly pay 99¢ to read.

The writer, Johnathan VanBoskerck, whines about the presumably “woke” new climate in the Disney parks: specifically, the changes being made to several of the rides within them. Let’s run through them, very briefly:

Disney has updated its policies to allow cast members (park employees) to have more inclusive style. This includes allowing cast members to have visible tattoos, painted nails, a more relaxed clothing policy, and more culturally diverse and gender-affirming hairstyles. This is less than ideal, though, to VanBoskerck, who laments:

The problem is, I’m not traveling across the country and paying thousands of dollars to watch someone I do not know express themselves. I am there for the immersion and the fantasy, not the reality of a stranger’s self-expression. I do not begrudge these people their individuality, and I wish them well in their personal lives, but I do not get to express my individuality at my place of business.

You know, I always thought there was a connection between “the customer is always right” and “gay people should keep it in the bedroom,” I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Now I have, I am tapping my computer screen: here it is! This man, who self-identifies as a “Christian and a conservative Republican,” seems to believe that haircuts and tattoos and nail polish are an affront to an experience that he deserves; that “expressing yourself” through personal cosmetic choices is tantamount to bad customer experience.

Disney is removing racist depictions of indigenous people from one its oldest rides, the Jungle Cruise. The Jungle Cruise was an opening-day attraction at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and has more or less been given a pass for its content as it’s a “classic” attraction, the theme park equivalent of a racist grandpa. But, as of this year, Disney will be removing offensive and hateful imagery and adding a new, cohesive storyline to the attraction. Or, as VanBoskerck would put it,

Disney is in the process of taking the woke scalpel to the Jungle Cruise. Trader Sam [an animatronic on the ride depicting an indigenous person as a mute cannibal] is out because he might offend certain people. Every grown-up in the room realizes that Trader Sam is not a representation of reality and is meant as a funny and silly caricature. It is no more based in racism than every Disney caricature of an out-of-touch white American dad.

“The next time I ride Jungle Cruise,” he seethes, “I will not be thinking about the gloriously entertaining puns of the skippers, I will be thinking about Disney’s political agenda.” I have to admit, I don’t relate to his position — though I can tell you that it’s not pleasant to ride the Jungle Cruise and not be able to focus on the incredible puns of the skippers while floating past outdated and racist animatronics.

This attitude is really what made the article trend on Twitter, the combination of entitlement and ignorance that makes you wonder if — possibly — it’s actually satire. There are so many gems here: saying that something isn’t “based in racism,” it’s just a “silly caricature,” the “reverse racism” dog whistle of “out-of-touch white American dad.” It’s important to note that VanBoskerck doesn’t bother to explain why Trader Sam, et. al might “offend certain people.” It’s possible that he doesn’t know why, but I doubt that; it’s more likely that he knows why the Jungle Cruise is offensive, that he knows that depicting indigenous people as violent, mute, unintelligent cannibals is ignorant and contributes to sustained harm against people of color around the globe. This knowledge is not inaccessible, he simply chooses not to care, to believe that acknowledging this instance of white supremacy — of the impact of white supremacy in general — is an inconvenience. “That’s a mood killer,” he says, implying that keeping things like Trader Sam in the Jungle Cruise would be much better for his mood.

Disney has made changes in the past to Pirates of the Caribbean. In its original form, Pirates of the Caribbean had several scenes that depicted men attempting to assault women. In one, a pirate lamented not being able to capture a woman that was hiding behind him in a barrel, in another pirates were depicted chasing women through buildings, and in the most notorious scene, a “wife auction” was shown, complete with sobbing women shackled together.

In 1997, the former two scenes were changed to showing the pirates chasing after food or drink, and in 2018, the auction was changed to a more general auction, with one of the women originally depicted as a victim becoming one of the pirates.

“Whether Disney caved to political pressure or really thought the alterations were necessary is irrelevant.” Grumbes VanBoskerck. “When my family rides Pirates now, each of the changed scenes takes us out of the illusion because they remind us of reality and the politics that forced the changes.”

One has to wonder what “illusion” he’s referring to, what sort of “childlike immersion” he longs for. Is he arguing that there’s something good and wholesome about a fantasy world where sobbing women are sold at an auction? I don’t know if anyone has told VanBoskerck this, but… sexual assault happens in reality, and depicting it, even in a joking way, is a reminder of the abuse and pain that is perpetuated every day. How is removing that depiction of abuse worse?

Disney is completely retheming Splash Mountain to no longer depict characters from Song of the South. Here’s VanBoskerck again:

Disney proclaims that Splash Mountain must change because of its association with “Song of the South.” Disney owns Splash Mountain so it can do what it wants. But if Disney screams at the top of its corporate voice, which is pretty loud, that it is changing it to appease a certain political point of view, now every time I look at the ride I am thinking about politics.

Again, VanBoskerck doesn’t explain what a certain political point of view is. He makes no attempt to say that the ride itself is actually perfectly fine and inoffensive, an argument I’ve heard before. Instead he hides behind the bogeyman idea of “political,” an undefined idea that, for all I can tell, simply refers to anything that makes VanBoskerck think for too long. There’s a rumble of anti-intellectualism here, the idea that delving into the history or nature of something like a theme park attraction will inherently ruin it. Interestingly, at no point in the essay does VanBoskerck really explain what a good attraction is; outside of “immersion,” which he defines as being able to “set the real world aside” (interestingly, he cites Galaxy’s Edge as one of the best examples of this, though I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be a fan of the newer Star Wars films, with their SJW agenda of having women and people of color as protagonists). Does he even like these attractions? The quote that I cited above is everything that he said about Splash Mountain. He says nothing about the quality of the ride, of its meaning to him and his family.

Well, it’s okay if he doesn’t, because I have a lot to say about Splash Mountain.

So yeah, about Splash Mountain

Splash Mountain was conceived in the 1980s by legendary imagineer Tony Baxter, as a solution to three problems: The area of Disneyland called Bear Country was in desperate need of a new attraction, the chairman of Walt Disney Attractions was insisting that a log flume ride be added to the park, and a new home was needed for the many animal animatronics from the soon-to-close America Sings show in Tomorrowland. Thus, Splash Mountain is a log flume ride in Bear Country (now called Critter Country) that features many of the old America Sings animatronics. Somewhere along the way, Baxter got the idea that the storyline of Splash Mountain should be based on Song of the South. And somehow nobody stopped him.

If you’ve heard of Song of the South, you’ve probably heard it described as “problematic” or “insensitive” or, as VanBoskerck might call it, “politically incorrect.” The film has, famously, never been released on home video in the United States, the only Disney animated feature to remain permanently in the vault. That might be the entirety of what you know about the film — it’s got some racist bullshit to it, let’s not have it be a theme park attraction.

The problem that I have with these generalized statements about Song of the South or Splash Mountain is that they are relatively toothless against the Johnathan VanBoskercks of the world: they live in the same vague universe as “appeasing a certain political point of view.” Neither side is specific enough to prove its point, therefore they seem to be equally weighed arguments: this offends some people, it doesn’t offend others, tomayto, tomahto. So long as nobody is willing to speak to the details of the situation, the conservative side of the argument will always win, and nobody will understand why the progressive side is so important, or why its position is the right one. Let’s get specific.

Song of the South is a 1947 film released by the Walt Disney Company, retelling three of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, which were in turn interpretations of African-American folklore that Harris learned from slaves while living on a plantation in Georgia. Also referred to as Br’er Rabbit stories, these fables have their origin in African trickster folklore. Uncle Remus himself is a fictional character created by Harris to tell these stories, which were written in his interpretation of a stereotypical African American English dialect. Although Harris could be said to have had good intentions — he was an advocate for Black suffrage after the Civil War — his appropriation of African American culture and language has been rightly criticized and decried, and no doubt contributed to ongoing, harmful stereotypes about Black people in the United States.

Disney had been wanting to adapt the Uncle Remus stories for a decade before Song of the South was released. The final film is a combination of animation and live action: the animated segments retell the Br’er Rabbit stories, while the live action scenes serve as the main plot: we don’t need to get into exactly what happens in the film, but it’s important to bring up the context in which it takes place. Song of the South is set on a Georgia plantation during reconstruction in the 1870s. Former slaves, including Uncle Remus, live and work on the plantation, and are shown being happy to do so. The movie contains many of the tropes of the Lost Cause narrative: that slaves and slave owners lived in harmony, that slaves were happy, that they were cared for by their owners.

It’s not just that this narrative is a completely false depiction of what history tells us about the African American experience during and shortly after slavery. It’s that it also suggest that, if the slaves were happy and slavery wasn’t that bad, then how difficult could the rest of Black history have been? If slavery wasn’t that bad, doesn’t that mean that any hardships experienced by Black Americans today are exaggerated, that civil rights have been achieved, that people all really get along just fine? To buy into the narrative of Song of the South, or any version of the Lost Cause fallacy positing that the South was a great society until it was destroyed by the politically correct government that wanted to take away “state’s rights,” is to refuse to believe that the need to dismantle white supremacy is anything other than a political construction.

Someone like VanBoskerck, of course, wouldn’t mention that. They would say something like “the woke police have come for ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’, why do you have to make everything so political?” and yes, if you could divorce it from its context, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” really could just be a fun, silly song about having a nice day, about being happy. And if you could divorce the animatronics in Splash Mountain from Joel Chandler Harris or Song of the South, they could just be cute animals frolicking around a log flume ride.

To be “woke,” in this context, is to realize that such a separation is impossible, that you cannot remove the context from something that is troubling or problematic. That part of consuming media — which includes theme park attractions — is understanding this context, examining it, and deciding what place it should have in the culture we create. To not do this, to know the context and do nothing, to say “this is offensive to some people” and not explain why, or not empathize with those who feel harmed, isn’t ignorance for the sake of having fun. It’s choosing not to care.

And, yeah, I get why that’s appealing for a privileged person, because part of privilege is being able to make that choice in the first place. It feels easy not to care, to say “it’s just a theme park ride, don’t make it political.” And I admit: it is a great theme park ride. I’ve ridden Splash Mountain dozens of times in my life. I enjoy the slow, relaxing boat ride, the exhilaration of a big drop and a splash, the view of the park from the side of the mountain. And yes, I’ve chosen to ignore its pernicious aspects in order to enjoy the ride, telling myself that it’s not that bad. But me choosing not to care about how harmful Splash Mountain is doesn’t make Splash Mountain less harmful, it just makes me feel less willing to be responsible.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot of bullshit for everyone involved? Wouldn’t it be better to scrap the harmful stuff and replace it with something less harmful — maybe even positive? If you were to find out that every 3rd boat that goes over the drop on Splash Mountain was splashed with acid instead of water, and then Disney announced that they would be removing the acid bath, wouldn’t you be excited for that, even if you, personally, had never been splashed with acid? Or would you say that Disney was capitulating to the political pressures of the anti-acid woke brigade?

I’m being hyperbolic, I know, and the complexities around Song of the South (or any of the problematic things that VanBoskerck defends) are much deeper than anything I could write here. But I also have to point out how utterly ridiculous it is to see VanBoskerck and like-minded critics cry foul over changes to attractions that do not make them worse, that might, in fact, make them better.

The illusion that VanBoskerck is begging for, the “childlike immersion” he wishes to be placed inside, is one where white supremacy, colonialism, and misogyny exist as the means to a cute punchline, and no matter how hurtful the joke is to others, if it’s just a joke then it can’t hurt him, or people like him. And, clearly, he is very fragile.

The conclusion that VanBoskerck comes to is that, should Disney continue to make these “political” choices, they will lose his business, which is written as a threat. In the midst of the screed, he writes “[C]orporations have always made politically motivated decisions. Usually, it is due to the desire to make a profit, but sometimes it is due to the values of the people in the corporation.” The truth is something a little more complicated in the realm of 21st century capitalism; in many ways, Disney doesn’t make decisions based on “woke” values. Last year the company laid off tens of thousands of employees in the midst of a pandemic, then made thousands of them go back to work in theme parks at the height of said pandemic while corporate employees got to stay safe and at home, all while still remaining one of the richest, most profitable corporations in the world, and that’s saying nothing about any of their harmful business practices before 2020. If they were really going to be embracing the social justice warrior culture that VanBoskerck fears, they would be paying their employees more and their executives less, they would make their products more accessible and less exploitive. Choosing to remove depictions of sexual assault or racism isn’t some niche rebellion against the status quo, it is in line with the status quo, because — despite all the ways in which our society is not just or good — there are a lot more people these days that choose to care, even a little bit, about it. It is no longer as profitable to depict stereotypes of Black people or indigenous folks, and so Disney has chosen accordingly. Yes, these are good choices, but they are also good for business. It’s ironic that a man who claims to admire Walt Disney’s sense of capitalism can’t recognize this.

Disney’s legacy and relationship to social justice is a long and fraught one, and there’s more that I could go into here — today also stirred up old rumors about Walt Disney himself, about the company and its ethos, and the age-old argument over whether or not adults should even be liking Disney in the first place. I might go into those topics at a later time.

For now, if there’s a tl;dr to this very long essay (hi! Thank you for reading this far, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing a lot, I simply appreciate your time), it’s this: I wish that Disney (and the various news agencies/bloggers/etc who cover them) would be more explicit when these choices are made. Explaining why a change is happening, why an existing piece of media is a mistake, not only shows an understanding of the situation, but it disarms critique. It stands strong against “Disney just caved to political pressure,” it’s honest and educational and, yes, uncomfortable. But dismantling harm requires some discomfort, and if they’re brave enough to get through it, will make people kinder, more empathetic, willing to work together to make things better. It’d really be something to use their pretty loud corporate voice to do that — and so, so much more.

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Meg Brennan

I write thinkpieces about theme parks and lists of things that aren’t related to theme parks. You can find my older posts on my Substack here: https://parksandc