Disney is rethinking another one of its most popular rides that has long faced criticism for featuring racist depictions of people of color.
This year, Disney (NYS:DIS) will renovate the “Jungle Cruise” attraction located at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida to incorporate a new storyline and updated animatronics.
On the ride, guests board boats captained by skippers who humorously narrate their journey through famous rivers from around the world. Along the way, guests pass by animatronic depictions of animals and native people from Africa, Asia and South America.
For years, critics have argued that the depictions of these native people were racist and based on harmful, outdated stereotypes. On the ride currently, the native people are depicted as being violent, with one being a literal “headhunter.”
The company plans to make the changes this year. Notably, the new Jungle Cruise will not feature any characters or major storylines from an upcoming feature film based on the ride that’s set to be released this year starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But the ride’s overhaul will address how native people and their culture are represented, a spokeswoman for Disney said.
“The Jungle Cruise has always had more than a whiff of ‘Great White Hunter’ in its depictions of the local natives,” said Len Testa, president of travel website Touring Plans and co-author of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World”. “The audio that plays for guests standing in line might as well be called ‘British Colonialism’s Greatest Hits.’”
Criticism about the ride’s problematic elements has intensified in the wake of last year’s announcement that Disney would redo another popular attraction , Splash Mountain, for similar reasons. Splash Mountain, a log flume ride, is set to be “re-themed” with characters from the film “The Princess and the Frog,” the first Disney film to star a Black princess. Currently, Splash Mountain features characters and a storyline from the 1946 film “Song of the South,” which has long been panned for its racist depictions of Black people.
Over the years, Disney has retooled other rides and attractions as cultural norms have shifted. A scene on the popular ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” where the attraction’s famed pirates were auctioning off women was axed in recent years. And in the 1990s, the “Hall of Presidents” attraction was reworked to include discussion of the history of slavery in the U.S.
“Outdated depictions shouldn’t be upheld simply in the name of nostalgia,” said Carlye Wisel , a theme park journalist. “Disney continuing the updates they’ve done to Pirates of the Caribbean and recently announced for Splash Mountain with changes to Jungle Cruise is a fantastic decision”
Other travel experts noted that decision to redo the Jungle Cruise was a proactive one on Disney’s part. “These days, Disney — rather than being behind the curve and waiting to react when the public suddenly starts to complain about a specific character or attraction — is trying to get out ahead of things,” said Jim Hill, a theme park historian and blogger .
But the coming changes to Jungle Cruise are also a reflection of how visitors’ interest in the ride has changed. The first iteration of Jungle Cruise was an opening-day attraction at Disneyland in 1955, and it was inspired by the film “The African Queen,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, and a series of nature documentaries that Disney produced at that time.
“Animatronic hippos may have been the ride’s big draw when it first opened with Disneyland in 1955,” Testa said. “But when Disney opened the Animal Kingdom park in Orlando in 1998, people could go on a more realistic ‘safari’ and see actual wildlife.”
These days, visitors are probably more entertained by the jokes the skippers steering the boats make than by the animatronics, Testa argued. Disney even opened a Jungle Cruise-themed restaurant at Walt Disney World, where the servers keep up the shtick that the skippers create on the ride, given the popularity of these spiels.
The changes Disney plans for the Jungle Cruise will make the skippers a key part of the attraction’s storyline. An animatronic version of a skipper will be added as part of the overhaul throughout the ride. In one scene, the skipper will be shown being chased up a pole by a rhinoceros, for instance.