Attraction starring Disney's first Black princess replaces ride based on film that many considered racist

ORLANDO, Fla. — A new attraction starring Disney's first black princess is opening at the company's U.S. theme park resorts, and some Disney followers see it as a fitting replacement for a former attraction based on a film that featured racist tropes.

The new theme park attraction is an update of Tiana's storyline from the 2009 animated film, “The Princess and the Frog,” and will open this year in space formerly occupied by Splash Mountain. The theme of the water attraction was 'Song of the South', a 1946 Disney film full of racist clichés about African-Americans and life on the plantations.

Tiana's Bayou Adventure retains Splash Mountain's DNA as a log ride, but is 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 later this year at Disneyland in California.

“Tiana meant a lot to little black girls. If a little child can see someone who looks like him or her, it matters,” said Neal Lester, an English professor at Arizona State University who has written about Tiana.

Disney's announcement that it would transform its long-standing Splash Mountain ride into Tiana's Bayou Adventure was made in June 2020 following the social justice protests sparked by the killing. of George Floyd in Minneapolis police arrest. Disney said at the time that the change was already in the works. But it came as companies in the US reconsidered or changed their names decades old brands amid global protests.

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

Disney has been criticized for racist tropes in films made in previous decades. The crow characters from the 1941 film “Dumbo” and the King Louie character from 1967's “The Jungle Book” were seen as African-American caricatures. The depiction of Native Americans in the 1953 film “Peter Pan” and the Siamese cats – often considered Asian stereotypes – from the 1955 film “Lady and the Tramp” have also been mocked.

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

By converting Splash Mountain into Tiana's Bayou Adventure instead of completely dismantling the attraction, Disney has paired “Song of the South” with “The Princess and the Frog.” Both are fantasies that are largely silent on the racial realities of the segregated eras they depict, says Katie Kapurch, an English professor at Texas State University who has written extensively about Disney.

“We may also see the impulse to replace rather than dismantle or rebuild as a metaphor for structural racism,” Kapurch said. “Again, this is unintentional on Disney's part, but the observation goes to the heart of how Disney reflects America to itself.”

Imagineers who design Disney attractions always try to look at the attractions with fresh eyes and tell new stories “so everyone feels included,” said Carmen Smith, 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 Imagineers to tell a variety of stories for a global audience, says Charita Carter, senior creative producer at Walt Disney Imagineering.

“Society is indeed changing and we are developing different sensitivities,” Carter said. “We focus our stories differently, depending on what our society needs.”

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

In 2021, Disney announced it would be remodeling Jungle Cruise, one of the original Disney parks, which had been criticized in recent years for being racially insensitive due to its depiction of animatronic native peoples as savages or headhunters. Three years earlier, Disney had eliminated a “Bride Auction” scene, which was deemed offensive because it depicted women lining up for an auction, from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction.

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

“Disney is first and foremost about money and getting people to the park, and you can make money and still be represented and be aware of the history of social justice and make everyone feel like they belong there,” said Lester.

___

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 Xformerly Twitter.

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