Expanding The Happiest Place On Earth by Rosie Willoughby

You’re sailing through the bayou, hearing the lilting tune of a banjo player, smelling the iconic Pirates seawater, when you round a corner and are confronted with a slave auction.

You’re taking an expedition down the rivers of the world, watching elephants splash in the water, chuckling at the corny jokes made by your skipper, when the boat passes a cannibal head salesman.

You’re aboard a log flume in the Deep South, watching rabbits, frogs and geese sing beside the river, and you realise the song they’re singing is based on a racist folk song.

Disneyland is meant to be the Happiest Place On Earth, and Walt Disney World the most magical place of all. The parks have brought joy and community to people around the world. So how do you reconcile the underlying racism of several attractions with its position in the hearts of the world? In the past, misguided concepts such as Disney’s America sought to educate guests on the Civil War and slavery but fell flat after criticisms that their inclusion in a theme park might trivialise these darker subjects. So, the question that has been prominent in the minds of Imagineers (the creators of the Disney park attractions) is how can they adapt and improve the representations that haven’t aged well?

After many years with few opportunities for minority inclusion in the parks, we’re beginning to see a shift: everyone knows there has to be a significant change in the representation of these groups, and thankfully, the Imagineers are on board: cutting offensive scenes and designing innovative new animatronics and stories that push rides towards a more timeless appeal.

"We're beginning to see a shift..."

Beginning with Pirates of the Caribbean in 2017, the Imagineers have been amending segments of rides that haven’t held up to current standards. The scene of women being auctioned off by pirates has been replaced by an auction of stolen goods, losing the misogynistic and light-hearted representation of human trafficking, while gaining a lifelike new animatronic in the pirate character Red.

In June 2020, it was announced that Splash Mountain, a popular water ride at Disney parks in California, Toyko and Orlando's Magic Kingdom, was to be imminently closed and rethemed to The Princess and the Frog. And chaos ensued. Within the community of both fans and casual guests, there were a multitude of opinions. Splash Mountain is a classic attraction for many, having been open since 1989, so there was sadness from fans who had grown up with the ride and didn’t realise its history, and anger from fans who were frustrated at Disney’s ‘woke’ decision. This all played out among many celebrations that it would be closing at long last. See, it’s based on the 1946 film, Song of the South, which has been universally panned for its racist story and music. There was always tension and discomfort among guests who were aware of this, that this narrative would be included in a Disney attraction, and finally it has become apparent that it was unacceptable to have this type of story in a theme park.

With the news that Princess Tiana is to take over the attraction, there are fans who now feel that they are able to enter Magic Kingdom and feel comfortable that they won’t be confronted with racist folk tales. Isn’t that a good thing?

Still, a significant minority are denouncing the idea of Splash Mountain’s retheming, calling it an example of ‘woke culture’ and in the process showing plainly how they have never had to deal with hardship - whether overt hatred or microaggression - based on racial identity. This isn’t an indictment of those who are sad to see a childhood favourite attraction go: anyone can sympathise with someone sad to say goodbye to a sentimental experience, but those who feel the need to threaten Imagineers and fans who are excited to see the new direction the attraction is going in are ruining what should be a joyful moment.

"Anyone can sympathise with someone sad to say goodbye to a sentimental experience..."

Walt Disney himself said that the parks will never be completed, that they “will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world". The removal of a ride that has caused such discomfort, and the addition of a new one, is evidence that Walt’s vision is being carried through to the present.

The Parks have long been guided on the principles of the four ‘Keys’ of Safety, Courtesy, Show and Efficiency that direct guest service and management. In April 2021, Disney announced the new Inclusion Key, as a public statement of its commitment to diversity and inclusivity within their resorts.

This has culminated in the overhaul of the famously regressive "Disney look", in which the individuality of cast members is able to be more freely expressed. This includes the ability to have visible tattoos, earrings and freedom of hairstyling. It’s long overdue, with roles historically being allocated based on appearance, but its implementation will be a significant step forward for inclusivity for Cast Members who may soon be able to feel more welcome without having to alter themselves for their work.

The Jungle Cruise is the latest attraction to undergo changes. Imagineer and former skipper, Kevin Lively, is part of the team reimagining the story and announced the changes in January 2021, with a rolling refurbishment taking place over several months. We have seen specific scenes be removed or replaced, including the infamous animatronic of Trader Sam - a cannibal head salesman, who also happens to be one of the only representations of a native character in the parks. It’s clear that Disney are aiming to remove the more troubling colonial undertones of the attraction, with the inclusion of more light-hearted animal-based scenes, which pays homage to the ride’s original charm. A humorous tour of the rivers of the world, passing a scene of monkeys overrunning a lost boat, retains the heart of the ride while turning the tide of inclusivity in the right direction. No one wants to see racist stereotypes in their theme park attractions, and the Imagineers have made a commitment to being more mindful in the future.

"No one wants to see racist stereotypes in their theme park attractions, and the Imagineers have made a commitment to being more mindful in the future..."

The news of the past year - classic attraction changes and the addition of a fifth Key - has been received both with joy and disapproval. There is a group of people who don’t support these changes interfering with their enjoyment of the parks. An April column in the Orlando Sentinel featured a Republican district attorney complaining that ‘wokeness’ is ruining the fun. The fact that someone in such a position of power in the outside world has this opinion is concerning enough, but it also drew universal backlash within the theme park community.

Who cares if the Pirate loading you onto the ride has an earring? Who cares if the Jungle Cruise skipper has a tattoo on their wrist? Aren’t there bigger things to worry about? With 28,000 jobs cut across the parks during COVID, we must keep the bigger picture in mind. There will always be complaints by people who don’t want their childhood to change, and it’s Disney’s job to stand firm and keep moving forward. The parks aren’t a museum. They must constantly be changing, and if there is any scope for improving the inclusivity and diversity of the parks, they have a responsibility to do so. Only then, can the Happiest Place On Earth truly be a happy place for everyone.

Donations to help Cast Members affected by the pandemic can be directed to: Cast Member Pantry (venmo.com) and their Facebook: Cast Member Pantry - Home | Facebook


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