Disney's Splash Mountain getting 'Princess and the Frog' makeover

Suzy Byrne
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

Disney’s Splash Mountain theme park attraction will be getting a much-needed makeover after criticism of its racist roots.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests, one of Disney’s best-known attractions at three of its theme parks is being reimagined.

The existing theme, inspired by the controversial 1946 film Song of the South, which the company has permanently banned from Disney+ due to its racial depictions, will be redone around the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog, which tells the story of Disney’s first Black princess.

The concept of the new attraction picks up after Princess Tiana's final kiss in the film. She and Louis then bring friends together for their first-ever Mardi Gras performance. (Image: D23.com)

“The new concept is inclusive — one that all of our guests can connect with and be inspired by, and it speaks to the diversity of the millions of people who visit our parks each year,” Michael Ramirez, Public Relations Director for Disneyland Resort, said in the announcement.

While there was a petition calling for this change, with more than 21,000 signatures — one the company stayed mum about when reached for comment earlier this month — Disney now says it had already planned to make the change to Princess Tiana and friends. The reconceived attraction will tell the story of what happened after the movie’s famous final kiss and follows Tiana and Louis as they prepare for their first Mardi Gras performance, according to Disney.

Read more: Disneyland Paris reopening 15 July

“It has been a year or more since we started talking about this particular concept,” Walt Disney Imagineering’s Bob Weis told Disney’s in-house fan site D23.com. “While we’ve explored many new themes in the past, that’s when we really began to hone in on Princess Tiana’s story. That said, Splash Mountain has been the subject of many conversations through the years.”

As for why this is happening now, the word “petition” wasn’t mentioned. Instead Weis said, “There’s no expiration date on great storytelling.” He called Tiana “a modern, courageous and empowered woman, who pursues her dreams while never losing sight of what’s really important. So it’s a great story with a strong lead character, set against the backdrop of New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou.”

Tiana is Disney's first Black princess. (Image: D23.com)

Speaking about why Disney would reimagine the attraction rather than eliminate it and do something totally new, Weis spoke of the company’s “longstanding history of enhancing attractions with ‘new magic,’ like Pirates of the Caribbean, and completely retheming others. ... We completely understand that these decisions aren’t always popular, but I think our biggest fans know that we care as much as they do.”

The new concept of the attraction will be “expanding on what guests know and love from the film today. From a timing perspective, guests will see Princess Tiana throughout the experience (hint — after ‘the kiss’). She and Louis are bringing friends together for their first-ever Mardi Gras performance, alongside many of our other favorite characters from this instant classic.”

As for when this will happen, Disney is “still evaluating project timelines” due to COVID-19. For now, the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland “will re-open with the existing Splash Mountain attraction,” with the date for the makeover to be announced soon.

The project will be spearheaded by Carmen Smith (creative development and inclusive strategies executive at Walt Disney Imagineering) and led by Charita Carter (senior creative producer at Walt Disney Imagineering).

(Image: D23.com)

“We continually evaluate opportunities to enhance and elevate experiences for our guests,” Smith said. “It’s important that our guests be able to see themselves in the experiences we create. Because we consider ourselves constant learners, we go to great lengths to research and engage cultural advisors and other experts to help guide us along the way. I am incredibly proud to see this work continue to move forward with great support from leadership across Disney."

Carter, who has worked at Disney for more than 20 years, is delighted to bring the new attraction to park-goers.

(Image: D23.com)

Some of the stars of the film have also spoken out, including Anika Noni Rose, who voiced Tiana and is “here for it!”

(Image: D23.com)

The reopening dates for the US parks have been shifting due to the coronavirus. Right now, Walt Disney World in Florida will open 11 July (15 July for Epcot and Hollywood Studios), and Disneyland (California) has been postponed past 17 July (but no further details were given on a date).

The log flume ride is a popular one at those two parks as well as at Tokyo Disneyland (set to reopen 1 July). While it varies a little from park to park, each one shows scenes taken from the animated segments of Song of the South, with characters including Br’er Rabbit. The ride is set to the Oscar-winning Best Song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

Out with the old: Splash Mountain is getting a makeover at Disney parks. (Photo: AP Photo/John Raoux)

The issue has been that Song of the South has remained unreleased for decades due to its racially insensitive portrayal of Black Americans in the Reconstruction era. When Disney+ launched last year, the company announced it was making changes to some historical content — like the Jim Crow character from the original Dumbo being edited out. But Song of the South remained locked away in the vault, with former Disney CEO Bob Iger saying in March that it would remain that way due to its “outdated cultural depictions.”

The ride first opened at Disneyland in 1989 and then at Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland in 1992. It has had famous riders, including Princess Diana, together with Prince Harry, at Disney World in 1993.

But as demands for racial equality have grown, change was called for in the petition — and it received a lot of support, including from park employees and Disney superfans. One fan, Frederick Chambers, had even shared a thorough plan for executing the redo in a Princess and the Frog theme. Now he’s celebrating the news.