Disney has officially announced that Splash Mountain will be re-themed to Princess and the Frog at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. (Tokyo Disneyland will retain its Brer characters from Song of the South, at least for now.) In this post, we’ll cover the news, share concept art, and offer some commentary.
Per Disney Parks Blog, the attraction’s theme is inspired by an all-time favorite animated Disney film, The Princess and the Frog. The new-look ride will pick up this story after the final kiss, and join Princess Tiana and Louis on a musical adventure — featuring some of the powerful music from the film — as they prepare for their first-ever Mardi Gras performance.
Tiana is a modern, courageous, and empowered woman, who pursues her dreams and never loses sight of what’s really important. It’s a great story with a strong lead character, set against the backdrop of New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou. In 1966, Walt himself opened New Orleans Square when it became the first new “land” added to Disneyland park, so it feels natural to link the story and the incredible music of “The Princess and the Frog” to our parks.
While the timing may seem suspect, Disney indicates that this isn’t an impulsive reaction to recent headlines and petitions that have gained traction. Walt Disney Imagineering states that it has actively been working on a Splash Mountain retheme for some time, with a specific focus on The Princess and the Frog for the past year.
Here’s a look at the concept art:
Here’s more on the Splash Mountain overhaul from the Disney Parks Blog, including quotes from Imagineers and the voices of characters from The Princess and the Frog…
The voice of Princess Tiana and Tony Award-winning actress, Anika Noni Rose, shared, “It is really exciting to know that Princess Tiana’s presence in both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom will finally be fully realized! As passionate as I am about what we created, I know the fans are going to be over the moon. The Imagineers are giving us ‘The Princess and the Frog’ Mardi Gras celebration we’ve been waiting for, and I’m here for it!”
Per Disney Parks Blog, the approach to retheming or “plussing” attractions begins with Imagineers asking the question: how can we build upon or elevate the experience and tell a fresh, relevant story? It’s a continuous process that Imagineers are deeply passionate about.
And with this longstanding history of updating attractions and adding new magic, the retheming of Splash Mountain is of particular importance today. 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.
Senior Creative Producer Charita Carter at Walt Disney Imagineering will helm the project, having previously been one of the leads on development of Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Carter shared, “Like Princess Tiana, I believe that courage and love are the key ingredients for wonderful adventures. I am delighted to be a part of bringing this fun-filled experience to our guests.”
Disney Legend and former Imagineer Tony Baxter, who designed the original Splash Mountain, will also be brought out of retirement to serve as a creative designer on the new Princess and the Frog attraction. “Following conversations with Imagineering’s leaders about the new attraction’s scope and resources, I had a great sense of reassurance — the attraction will be one to be proud of, bringing to life places, characters and music from the animated classic The Princess and the Frog…I look forward to being a part of a new adventure in Disney magic and fun!” said Baxter about the overhaul.
Imagineer Scott Trowbridge, lead on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, also tweeted out that he’s “been stealth working on this for quite a while and happy to finally share!” The involvement of this trio of Imagineers definitely reassures us about the overhaul.
For Imagineers, change is rooted in a tradition set by Walt Disney who encouraged new innovations, new ideas, new scenes and current storytelling. And the experiences they create can be enjoyed by guests who visit our parks from all over the world.
As part of the creative development process, conceptual design work is well underway and Imagineers will soon be able to conduct preliminary reviews and develop a timeline for when the transformation can start to take shape. (At present, the current incarnation of Splash Mountain is scheduled to reopen when Walt Disney World and Disneyland reopen.)
As far as commentary goes, this is an understandably delicate topic. We mostly take Disney at its word here that the plans to retheme Splash Mountain were set in motion over a year ago, but we’d imagine those were nonetheless accelerated in light of recent events. (Especially given that Disney is pumping the brakes on other projects while moving forward with this.)
Nevertheless, given what Disney has done with Tower of Terror, Great Movie Ride, and other attractions based on non-Disney or “outdated” intellectual property, it’s not a huge leap that Disney would want to retheme Splash Mountain to a modern film for the sake of synergy. It probably was an inevitability that Splash Mountain would change at some point, so perhaps the timing here is totally coincidental.
Nevertheless, this change is undoubtedly going to be controversial and spawn a ton of debate, most of it wholly unproductive. It’s also a topic that, frankly, I’m not sure I’m the best person to address.
In our Pirates of the Caribbean Redhead Auction Scene Debate post from a few years ago, I did opt to put “my entire head into the hornet’s nest” wading into what I felt was an interesting topic that pertains to the intersection of art, history, evolving cultural norms, and more.
It’s a different topic, but the same story here. Much of what was written there can be applied to today’s Splash Mountain news. While theme parks are art, they cannot be re-contextualized the same way other entertainment can. There are some practical realities that must be considered and concessions that must be made given their functional purpose.
There’s more fluidity to theme parks than other art; things must be updated because the primary purpose is simply entertainment and not education or enlightenment. (Refer to that prior post for more commentary along those lines.)
Where Splash Mountain deviates from Pirates of the Caribbean is in what’s directly being depicted in each. The argument in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean was that it glamorized human trafficking and sex slavery, while showcasing the subjugation of women.
Splash Mountain is different in the sense that when it was built, the attraction was consciously removed from its controversial source material (even back in the late-1980s when the ride was in development, Disney realized Song of the South was problematic). What’s depicted in Splash Mountain is subtle, subliminal, and indirect.
That’s where my comfort level in addressing this particular topic ends.
As someone who has never experienced the ill effects of systemic racism and oppression, I feel like it’s not really my place to offer a value judgment on how Splash Mountain does or does not impact other guests. I don’t know what it’s like to experience the world as a person of color.
Moreover, while I value my own nostalgia and iconic aspects of classic and iconic Disney attractions, the right course of action is to err on the side of not reinforcing racism, and instead fostering a more inclusive Disney experience.
From my perspective, this is simply a matter of conceding my personal blind spots and being willing to admit “I don’t really know” how Splash Mountain might negatively effect other guests.
Sadly, that side of the debate is going to overshadow the reality (or at least my subjective but strong opinion) that The Princess and the Frog is one of the Walt Disney Animation Studio’s most underrated films, and it has been criminally underrepresented at Walt Disney World and Disneyland for years. (See our Tiana’s Place Restaurant Review for a look at how excellent a Princess and the Frog experience can be.)
Not only is Princess and the Frog a great film with memorable characters, catchy music, and a compelling story–it’s visually gorgeous. I can’t think of a more beautiful animated film that Disney has made in the last two decades.
This is an odd comparison, but it reminds me somewhat of Avatar in terms of the film’s visuals (except Princess and the Frog is actually good). Pandora ended up being a stunning theme park setting, and we’d except the same to hold true here–except the Princess and the Frog attraction will also have the excellent aforementioned music, characters, etc. and not just pretty visuals.
When I’m envisioning this new Princess and the Frog attraction in my head, it’s a longer version of Na’vi River Journey with a drop at the end, better music, and more varied settings. The same subdued vibe and impressionistic scenery, but hopefully with more dimensional set design, Audio Animatronics, and just more well-rounded overall.
Our main concern at this point is Disney allocating the proper time and budget to let Imagineering deliver a thoughtful, deliberate, and quality re-theming of the attraction. Our fear is that the attraction will be a ham-fisted overlay that doesn’t do its source material justice.
However, we’re willing to wait and see, withholding judgment for now. The concept art looks promising, and if the end result is a lavish and inventive Princess and the Frog attraction, that’s something we can most definitely get behind. Here’s hoping that Imagineering delivers and totally reinvents the iconic attraction!
What do you think of Splash Mountain being rethemed to Princess and the Frog? Excited for Tiana and friends to finally have their own attraction at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, or will you be sad to see the Brer Critters vacate the Briar Patch? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!