Recently, Disney fans from all over the world travelled to Walt Disney World in Central Florida to say “goodbye” to a beloved Magic Kingdom icon: Splash Mountain. The popular log flume ride will be renovated and reopened next year as Tiana’s Bijou Adventure, drawing inspiration from the popular 2009 Disney animated film, The Princess and the Frog.
From an Imagineer’s perspective, this decision is creatively inspired — the story of The Princess and the Frog is set in the swamps of New Orleans, which fits with the theme of the original Splash Mountain ride. This change from Splash Mountain to Tiana’s Bijour Adventure also allows Disney World to reach newer generations of fans, including those who grew up with characters like Tiana or, as parents, have introduced their children to 21st-century Disney films. The change takes heart from Walt Disney’s original theme park vision that the Park would “always be in a state of becoming” as much as it would remain a monument to nostalgia, both individual and collective.
Many Disney fans, however, are not pleased. The creative decision was in part about addressing again that upon which Splash Mountain is loosely based – Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson’s Song of the South, a 1946 hybrid-animation film that perpetuated racist stereotypes of Black Americans and glorified the “Moonlight and Magnolias Myth” of the Old South, which perpetuated white supremacy over the enslaved. Today, those on the right of the cultural-political spectrum see Disney’s decision to remake the ride as the most recent example of their much-derided “wokeness” run amok in contemporary popular culture. Meanwhile, some on the left are quick to focus only on the enduring, problematic legacy of “Song of the South” and are therefore happy to see Splash Mountain’s demise.
Both perspectives elide how Disney has always balanced the popularity of a few iconic rides with the need to find space for new attractions that will reflect the cultural trends of the time. They also miss how, when it was initially conceived, Splash Mountain was Disney’s awkward attempt to address the company’s original sin.
Song of the South was Disney’s first try at a box office hit after WWII. The company suffered financially in the 1940s due to costly experiments in animation and surround sound, as seen in David Hand’s 1942 film Bambi and Joe Grand and Dick Huemer’s Fantasia (1940). Disney studios were also contending with strikes emerging from unfair labor conditions. Disney entered the War years relying heavily on government contracts to produce military training reels, educational films, and other propaganda to avoid bankruptcy. After the War, still reeling from expensive endeavors and seeking to cut production costs considerably, Disney turned to live-action films, including Song of the South.
Song of the South was loosely adapted from the stories of 19th-century folklorist Joel Chandler Harris, who reworded the oral narratives of enslaved people. The film transformed Harris’ adventures of B’rer Rabbit into a live-action adventure about a white child struggling to cope with his father’s absence with the help of Uncle Remus (played by James Baskett). Disney crafted the Remus character to fit the “magic negro” stereotype – a caricatured Black figure whose sense of self-worth is defined by pleasing white folks.
Set on a mid-19th century Georgia plantation, Song of the South mimicked Hollywood’s biggest hits, including David O. Selznick’s controversial Gone with the Wind (1939), also set in the Old South, and Shirley Temple comedies such as David Butler’s The Little Colonel (1935). Like those films, Disney’s Song of the South attempted to cash in on white nostalgia for the mythologized “Old South” of magnolia trees and mint tea.
By the mid-’40s, however, the US government and allies within Hollywood sought to promote more inclusive, less harmful representations of African Americans (read: not as slaves) so that they might support the war effort, both on the front lines and at home. As Black characters on screen became deeper and often more heroic, some white American attitudes about race became modestly more progressive.
In this context, Song of the South was controversial from its inception—inside and outside the studio. During production, Walt Disney acknowledged the problems with the film, hiring Maurice Rapf, a liberal screenwriter, to soften the first draft. The story’s historical setting was left intentionally vague, which ultimately caused more problems than solutions. Walt also reached out to Black leaders for feedback – and likely an endorsement to mitigate criticism from Black audiences. His efforts didn’t work. Protests, led by groups such as the NAACP and the American Federation of Teachers, greeted the film’s debut in cities across the nation.
Indeed, Song of the South was not the smash hit the studio had hoped for—because of the aforementioned controversies, and audiences were underwhelmed by Disney’s many clunky postwar efforts in live-action storytelling. Song of the South barely recouped its expenses and failed to save Disney from its wartime economic troubles. Instead, Disneyland, the company’s original theme park in Anaheim, California, introduced a decade later in 1955, finally brought Disney Studioes success and helped it become the cultural institution many think of today when invoking the name.
Despite its poor box office performance, Song of the South received an honorary Oscar for James Baskett in his role as Uncle Remus, resulting from Walt Disney’s aggressive campaigning in which he touted the actor’s incredible work and his failing health. (Baskett died less than four months after receiving the honor.) African American audiences took pride in Baskett’s accomplishment – the first Black actor to receive an Oscar – while also recognizing that he earned it by playing to racist stereotypes. Like many talented Black performers of the era with few roles available to them, Baskett managed to appeal to white and Black audiences at the same time.
Song of the South also earned an Oscar for Ray Gilbert’s song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”. The tune was inspired by 19th Century minstrel shows, a popular musical tradition that featured white actors in blackface, promoting racist stereotypes. One minstrel song in particular, “Ole Zip Coon“, featured the unmistakable chorus line – “O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day”— set to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw”, which would later be the focus of Disney’s first sound film the 1928 animated short, Steamboat Willie.
Over time, perhaps because its history was less visible to the dominant culture, the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” fared better than the film Song of the South. In an expanding Disney media universe of the ’60s and ’70s, when theme parks, television shows, and musical records became arguably as important, if not more so, than their struggling film fortunes, the song, to many, became separated from the film that spawned it. The enduring popularity and legacy of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” – derived from the conventions of blackface minstrelsy – would become synonymous with the Disney brand of happy escapism.
Song of the South had its resilience, however, as it saw increased success in theatrical re-issues in the ’70s and ’80s, partly due to a “white backlash” against the Civil Rights Movement. This resurrection of the film, plus the iconic song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, was the key inspiration behind Disney Land’s Splash Mountain ride in the 1980s.
“Zip-a-Dee River Run” was one of the ride’s working titles, based on the perception then that the song was more popular and also less problematic than the film. The ride’s name change to “Splash Mountain”, inspired by Disney parks’ branding of “mountain” thrill rides (Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), severed that connection further. Imagineers and Disney executives were mindful of the Song of the South‘s racist problems—that’s why Splash Mountain focused on Brer Rabbit and his friends; that’s why there was never an audio-animatronic Uncle Remus on the ride or other direct references to the film’s live-action segments, and that’s why Song of the South‘s infamous “tar baby” was replaced with a honey pot. That’s why, despite two theatrical reissues of the film just a few years earlier (1980, 1986), Disney never again released Song of the South to US audiences after the ride opened.
From its opening day onwards, Splash Mountain was always an admission that Song of the South was insensitive at best and downright offensive at worst. Ironically, some defenders of the film today decry the end of a theme park ride that knowingly tried to ignore critical aspects of the film. It is all too easy to forget history, perhaps most of all for those who evoke it so loosely. It’s also difficult to keep history alive, which with Splash Mountain’s history, Disney did its best to eradicate.
That Splash Mountain had to close is indeed a sad day for the millions who enjoyed such a genuinely ambitious and thrilling ride and who—once upon a time—knew nothing of its racist legacy. We should celebrate those memories and treasure the ride’s technological genius. However, we should also appreciate the ugly cinematic and musical legacies that Splash Mountain awkwardly tried to both capitalize on and (unsuccessfully, fortunately) erase. Now, with a hopefully enlightened populace, we have Tiana’s Bijour adventure to look forward to.