Disney is finally rethinking its racist theme park rides

The most magical place on Earth gets a much-needed update.
The most magical place on Earth gets a much-needed update.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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With Disney’s US theme parks either closed or operating at severely limited capacity, the Mouse House is taking the opportunity to make a change that’s long overdue: It’s removing the racist elements from one of its most famous rides, Jungle Cruise.

Built at Disneyland in 1955 under the supervision of Walt Disney himself, and inspired by the 1951 film The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, Jungle Cruise takes park visitors on a simulated riverboat ride through the jungle, guided by one of Disney’s witty “skippers.” Along the way, they encounter various animals, as well as a group of indigenous people known as the “Headhunter Tribe,” who are depicted as cannibalistic savages and ambush the boat with spears. Another version of the ride was constructed at Disney World in Florida in 1971.

The imperialist lens through which passengers were meant to see these indigenous peoples may have been commonplace when the ride was introduced, but today it’s retrograde and tasteless. And so Disney announced yesterday that it will reimagine the Jungle Cruise experience in order to “reflect and value the diversity of the world around us,” the company said in a statement.

“We’re addressing the negative depictions of ‘natives,'” Chris Beatty, a Disney Imagineering executive, told the Disney blog D23, adding that the ride will stay true to its original vision while updating its more unsavory elements. The Imagineers (the Disney group responsible for designing the company’s theme park rides) will work with a diversity and inclusion team to ensure Jungle Cruise “celebrates diverse backgrounds and interests.”

The updates are expected to be completed at both Disneyland and Disney World this year. A film adaptation of the ride, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is due out in July, after being postponed from 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Disney says the decision to update the ride now has nothing to do with the film’s release.

The Jungle Cruise update comes several months after Disney said it would reimagine its iconic Splash Mountain ride, which is based on scenes from Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South. The film, which takes place in the American South following the Civil War and pushes racist stereotypes of Black Americans, was so controversial that Disney has never made it available to watch on home video. Bob Iger, Disney’s former CEO and current executive chairman, confirmed in 2019 that the movie would not be put on the company’s streaming service, Disney+, either.

Fans and observers have called on Disney to update Jungle Cruise and Splash Mountain for years. That they are doing so now is likely no coincidence. While Disney says its Splash Mountain reimagining was in the works in 2019, the protests against racial injustice in the US last year may have forced the company to speed up its schedule. And the Covid-19 pandemic has afforded Disney the ideal moment to get to work on both projects. Disneyland in California has been closed since last year, while Disney World is only open to 35% capacity.

The changes may not stop with Jungle Cruise. Several other rides at Disney’s various parks have been criticized for being outdated. That comes with the territory for parks that have been in operation for more than a half-century. But if Disney wants operate them successfully for another 50 years, it will have to make sure they continue to evolve to meet modern sensibilities.