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Attraction starring Disney's first Black princess replaces ride based on film many viewed as racist

MIKE SCHNEIDER
June 11, 2024

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- A new attraction starring the first Black Disney princess is opening at the company's U.S. theme park resorts, and some Disney followers see it as a fitting replacement to a former ride based on a movie that contained racist tropes.

The new theme park attraction updates Tiana's storyline from the 2009 animated film, "The Princess and the Frog" and is opening this year in the space previously occupied by Splash Mountain. The water ride had been themed to "Song of the South," a 1946 Disney movie filled with racist cliches about African Americans and plantation life.

Tiana's Bayou Adventure keeps Splash Mountain's DNA as a log-flume ride, but it's infused with music, scenery and animatronic characters inspired by the film set in 1920s New Orleans. It opens to the public later this month at Walt Disney World in Florida and at Disneyland in California later this year.

"For little Black girls, Tiana has meant a lot. When a little child can see somebody who looks like them, that matters," said Neal Lester, an English professor at Arizona State University, who has written about Tiana.

Disney's announcement that it would transform its longstanding Splash Mountain ride into Tiana's Bayou Adventure was made in June 2020 following the social justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. At the time, Disney said the change had already been in the works. But it came as companies across the U.S. were reconsidering or renaming decades-old brands amid worldwide protests.

The "Song of the South" film is a mix of live action, cartoons and music featuring an older Black man who works at a plantation and tells fables about talking animals to a white city boy. The film has been criticized for its racist stereotypes, and hasn't been released in theaters in decades and isn't available on the company's streaming service Disney+.

Disney has been criticized for racist tropes in films made in earlier decades. The crow characters from the 1941 film, "Dumbo" and the King Louie character from 1967's "The Jungle Book" were viewed as African American caricatures. The depiction of Native Americans in the 1953 movie, "Peter Pan," and the Siamese cats -- often deemed as Asian stereotypes -- from the 1955 film, "Lady and the Tramp," also have been derided.

Not everyone is sold on the belief that opening a ride based on Tiana's story solves Disney's past problematic racial depictions.

By refurbishing Splash Mountain into Tiana's Bayou Adventure instead of dismantling the attraction completely, Disney has linked "Song of the South" with "The Princess and the Frog." Both are fantasies that are silent, for the most part, on the racial realities of the segregated eras they depict, said Katie Kapurch, an English professor at Texas State University who has written widely about Disney.

"We might see the impulse to replace rather than dismantle or build anew as a metaphor for structural racism, too," Kapurch said. "Again, this is unintentional on Disney's part, but the observation gets to the heart of how Disney reflects America back to itself."

Imagineers who design the Disney rides are always attempting to look at the attractions with fresh eyes and ways to tell new stories "so that everybody feels included," said Carmen Smith, a senior vice president for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products.

"We never want to perpetuate stereotypes or misconceptions," Smith said Monday. "Our intention is to tell great stories."

It's also important for the Imagineers to tell a variety of stories for its global audience, said Charita Carter, a senior creative producer at Walt Disney Imagineering.

"Society does change, and we develop different sensibilities," Carter said. "We focus our stories differently depending what our society needs."

The transformation from Splash Mountain to Tiana's Bayou Adventure is one of several recalibrations at the entertainment giant's theme parks for rides whose storylines are considered antiquated or offensive.

In 2021, Disney announced it would remodel Jungle Cruise, one of the original Disney parks' rides, which had been been criticized in years past for being racially insensitive because of its depiction of animatronic Indigenous people as savages or headhunters. Three years before that, Disney eliminated a "Bride Auction" scene, deemed offensive since it depicted women lining up for auction, from its "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride.

It's a positive step for Disney to have a ride based on a character from a background not seen in previous versions of Disney princesses replacing an attraction from a film steeped in racist tropes since "representation matters," Lester said.

"Disney is first and foremost about money and getting people into the park, and you can make money, still have representation and be aware of social justice history and make everyone feel like they belong there," Lester said.

___

Mike Schneider's book, "Mickey and the Teamsters: A Fight for Fair Unions at Disney," was published in October by the University Press of Florida. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter.

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