Splash Mountain has always been my least favorite attraction at Disney theme parks. Admittedly, this is mostly due to the roughly 50-foot drop at the end, but I’ve been willing to push my fear of falling aside in the name of exceptional theming on thrill rides such as Rise of the Resistance. Splash Mountain’s theming never spoke to me—I’m all for anthropomorphic woodland creatures engaging in comical hijinks, but the ride makes light of Song of the South, a film that many consider to be overtly racist.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who served Harlem in the House of Representatives from 1945 to 1971, declared Song of the South “an insult to American minorities,” due largely to the movie’s insensitive depictions of slavery in the United States. The 1946 film has been problematic since its debut in Atlanta, Georgia; James Baskett, the actor who played the main character, did not attend the premiere because he would have been forced to sit in a Black-only section of the theater.
So when Disney announced on June 25 that imagineers began work last year on a “plussing” (retheming) of the iconic log flume ride, I was all ears. After the redesign—no word yet on a completion date—Splash Mountain in Disneyland and Walt Disney World will pick up at the end of the 2009 animated feature The Princess and the Frog, a fairy tale that takes place in 1926 New Orleans and introduced Disney’s first Black princess, Tiana.
Modeling Splash Mountain after The Princess and the Frog represents a huge, positive change. The animated feature shows Black characters from all walks of life and does not shy away from the stark contrast between Tiana’s modest home and her white BFF’s family mansion. Shifting the ride’s premise to that of characters preparing for Mardi Gras in a Louisiana bayou feels like a natural extension of the film.
When I first saw The Princess and the Frog, I was delighted: Unlike Aurora of Sleeping Beauty or Ariel of The Little Mermaid, Tiana was not born a princess; the entirety of her first song is about how hard she works to achieve the dream of opening her own restaurant. Her diligence and willingness to help people reflected traits of other Disney princesses I cared about: Mulan, the clever warrior who broke all the rules to save her prideful father’s life; Pocahontas, who walked her own path and spoke truthfully about injustices she observed; Nala, who was not afraid to be stronger than her male counterparts and delivered ruthless honesty in The Lion King.
As a child, I felt seen because these characters thought like me, even though most Disney princesses didn’t look like me. I’m Chinese, Hawaiian, Filipino, Spanish, Russian, the list goes on—almost no one looks like me. If I had grown up primarily with people who looked like me and then saw a roster of royal characters who looked a whole lot like each other but nothing like me or my community, I would have felt confused. Hurt, even. The implicit message: “You can’t be a princess.”
There’s obviously more work to be done. The Princess and the Frog hit theaters more than 10 years after Pocahontas and Mulan, so one ride plussing isn’t a wave of magic that will alter the entire landscape of representation in children’s media.
But by following the lead of the 2009 movie, Splash Mountain’s forthcoming The Princess and the Frog theme can take important steps in the right direction. Instead of tokenizing a solitary Black friend, the movie portrays a spectrum of skin tones that had not been previously normalized in children’s films; the same opportunity presents itself for animatronics on the ride. Rather than showing Tiana living happily ever after in an ivory tower, the movie ends with (spoilers) Tiana and her husband Naveen renovating a dilapidated building that becomes the hottest restaurant in town: Tiana’s Place. A celebration of the many types of people who comprise our world and the tireless work we all perform is the new fairy tale ending we need. Here’s hoping that Disney continues to take more steps down the road of equal representation.