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Making theme park attractions more culturally sensitive

As Disney changes its Jungle Cruise ride, Lance Hart explores why change can be necessary

Opinion
elephants on jungle cruise disneyland

By Lance HartScreamscape

If you just read the current headlines, one might think that Disney took time during the pandemic to take a long hard look at its existing attractions with some fresh eyes. To look closely at what it had been presenting as entertainment to guests, and then to identify areas where perhaps the visual gags in use in some attractions were perhaps in bad taste, culturally insensitive, or could even be deemed racist by today’s standards. 

disneyland jungle cruise ride culturally insensitive attractions
Jungle Cruise

Case in point, Disneyland re-launched the park’s famous Jungle Cruise attraction this week. This included some new script changes and story tweaks. Plus, there were also some more expensive changes to the ride’s scenery.

The park is promoting this as a modernization of the attraction experience, to remove things that could be culturally insensitive. As well as removing negative depictions of native or indigenous cultures. So figures of native warriors with spears and blow-guns, or the famous “Trader Sam” head-shrinker figure at the end of the ride experience have all gone.

You may remember him best by the Skipper joke at the end, claiming that he’s running a special, “two heads for one of yours”.

Changing culturally insensitive attractions

The Florida version of the attraction won’t reopen with the changes until later this year. But this falls in with the staggering announcement Disney made last year that it intends to retheme the two Splash Mountain attractions in California and Florida.

A taste of what’s to come after Splash Mountain’s Princess and the Frog makeover culturally insensitive attractions
A taste of what’s to come after Splash Mountain’s Princess and the Frog makeover

The plan is to entirely drop the existing theme, which is based around Disney’s The Song of the South movie from the 1940s. This is forever locked away in Disney’s film vault due to potentially racist character depictions. The entire attraction will be given a make-over. It will be themed to Disney’s more modern “The Princess and the Frog” animated film at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Moving with the times

However, as I implied earlier, this actually is not the first time that Disney has updated attractions over the decades to bring them more up to date with the times and current sensibilities. The Jungle Cruise itself has already undergone a couple of cultural revisions over the years.

For example, longtime Disney guests may remember that previously, only men were allowed to be Jungle Cruise Skippers. I believe the change to allow female Skippers may have taken place in Florida first. But it made bigger headlines in 1995 when the change finally came to Walt’s original park. This was after 40 years of only allowing men to be Jungle Cruise Skippers. 

The next change to the Jungle Cruise came only a few years later. In 2001, Disneyland management quietly stripped the Skippers of their pistols.

Disney jungle cruise culturally insensitive attractions

When the Jungle Cruise first opened it was common to see the Skippers whip out a pistol and fire a couple of shots (blanks only) at the animatronic Hippos that were surfacing and moving towards the boat. Later, it became more customary for them to just fire shots into the air and not point at the Hippos.

Following the deadly Columbine High School shooting in 1999, the use of guns in Disneyland became an ongoing subject of change. The park opted to remove more violent and gun themed games from the park’s arcades. Soon after, it also opted to stop selling antique-looking Frontierland and Pirates themed cork-popper toy guns.

The gun ban didn’t last very long, however. The Skipper had a gun once again in late 2004 but had the freedom to use it or not.

Pirates of the Caribbean evolves

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean has undergone a couple of major overhauls over the years as well. Following the politically correct movement of the late 1990s, Disney made a change to a scene in the Pirates attraction.

In the original scene, a group of pirates were each depicted as chasing a woman around a room. The change was fairly simple, as the figures of the women were given large trays of food to carry. This made it look like the pirates were after the food and not the women. The original scene had one famous variant, however, as the comedic barb where a larger heavy-set woman was instead seen to be chasing a very short pirate, chasing him away with a rolling pin in hand.

Pirates of the Caribbean Disney dark ride attractions

In the update, this pairing was changed to take away the rolling pin from the woman. Instead, she is now chasing the little pirate who is running away from her while carrying a large ham. So in short, the visual gag of implied rape was removed for the better. It always seemed off that it was replaced with a new fat-shaming visual gag instead. 

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean made the headlines again in 2018. This was when one of the more well-known scenes, the “Buy a Wench for a Bride” auction was replaced with a new scene. The popular red-headed wench character that was up for auction was turned into an armed pirate herself. This pirate now oversees a new scene where villagers are lined up to surrender their most prized valuables…and chickens.

The attractions at both US resorts were updated and reopened before the end of the year. 

More to come

In general, Disney has always tried to keep up to date with the ever-changing cultural landscape and make changes as needed over the years, ensuring that attractions are not culturally insensitive.

A variety of similar changes regarding the use of guns and depiction of Native Americans also slowly took place at the park’s Tom Sawyer’s Island area, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it tackle how the Native American characters are depicted on the park’s popular Peter Pan attractions in the next wave of changes.

peter pan tokyo disneysea expansion plans
Peter Pan designs, Tokyo Disneysea

The look of how they are shown is fairly similar to the animated film source material. But the updated version of the attraction built at Shanghai Disneyland opted to replace those scenes with new concepts to avoid the issue. 

Culturally insensitive attractions in Europe

While I’m been busy pointing out the various changes made to Disney parks, the problem of culturally insensitive attractions is not exclusive to Disney. Nor is it exclusive to US theme parks

Nigloland in France made the headlines in 2019 over its own Africa Cruise ride. This is a sort of French knock-off of Disney’s own Jungle Cruise ride.

Nigloland
Nigloland

In a scene like one on the Jungle Cruise, two adventures had been chased up a tree by a Rhino. The European man wearing safari gear was just above the Rhino. He was seen yelling at a black man wearing a fez hat above him. This character was also holding a big bunch of bananas and speaking in a very thick faux “African” accent.

A video of the scene went viral in 2019. Although it had been there for years prior, this caused enough outrage online that the park quickly apologized. It also set about to make immediate changes. 

New Pirates in Batavia

Europa-Park’s original Piraten in Batavia dark ride was never accused of racist depictions of other cultures before it burnt down in 2018. Yet, I did notice that the park was very careful in how other cultures were presented when it rebuilt the attraction for a new audience in 2020.

Instead, Europa-Park took great time and effort to create all-new animated character figures. These are life-like and very accurate looking in an effort to show off the various cultures represented along the way.

Pirates of Batavia
Pirates of Batavia

Efteling in The Netherlands has also come under fire over the years for a culturally insensitive attraction known as Mr Cannibal.

Riders are seated into flaming cauldrons that spin around on a giant platform, tea-cup style. This is all while under the watchful gaze of a very large African native figure, complete with a spoon running through his nose while holding a giant ice cream cone. As part of a new Sinbad themed expansion coming later this year, the park will retire the Mr Cannibal attraction. 

Prior to this, Efteling also suffered public backlash for a time. This was when guests cried foul over how certain doll figures on the park’s Carnaval Festival ride looked. The artistic style used for the dolls meant to depict Asian and African races were done in a stereotypical/racist style. Eventually, the park conceded that they would update the scenes and characters that guests were finding offensive. 

Making changes to culturally insensitive attractions is necessary

Some have argued that some of these changes are unnecessary. Or that theme parks are taking an eraser to the history books. But in the end, I can admit that these kinds of changes to culturally insensitive attractions are actually needed.

I say this as someone who’s did not originally agree with many of the Disney changes over the years. There was some disbelief, maybe some outrage that a piece of my childhood was being destroyed. But now?  Not so much. I’ve had time to process, think about the issues, and come to an understanding. 

Splash Mountain Magic Kingdom culturally insensitive attractions
Splash Mountain

Inside a theme park, or out in the real world, certain imagery may not have been offensive or felt racist to me personally because of my own upbringing. However, to those raised in different locations and under different circumstances, these same images can represent some of their worst fears about the world.

We can’t always control what we see in the “real world”. But a theme park is a fictional landscape. And should be a place where no attraction makes a guest feel like less of a human being than others.

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Lance Hart

Lance Hart

Lance has been running Screamscape for nearly 20 years. Married and a father to three roller coaster loving kids, he worked for SeaWorld (San Diego and Orlando) in Operations and Entertainment for 19 years.

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