Posted on July 22, 2021

Why Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise Cultural Changes Aren’t Just ‘Woke’ — They’re Necessary

Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2021

Days before Disneyland’s July 17, 1955, opening celebration, TV viewers glimpsed the park and its attractions via a special episode of the weekly “Disneyland” show on ABC. “The Pre-Opening Report From Disneyland,” a fascinating historical record that today lives on the company’s Disney+ streaming service, included a look at the mechanical hippos and crocodiles of the park’s Jungle Cruise ride, as well as the plaster molding of a Black male model, whose “imposing physique” was used “to people our Jungle Cruise with lifelike natives” as white men in formal attire looked on.

Today we cringe at this scene for a ride that went on to develop a reputation for racist depictions of Indigenous people as tourist attractions, attackers or cannibals — tribal caricatures crafted through a colonialist lens.

It’s a distinction Disney could no longer afford. Ahead of the July 30 release of a “Jungle Cruise” movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, the ride reopened Friday — a day shy of the park’s 66th anniversary — with updates that remove, in Disney’s words, “negative depictions of native people.” In their place are slapstick-inspired scenes largely involving chimpanzees and monkeys getting the best of a prior Jungle Cruise expedition.

If we can agree that Disneyland is, unlike a film or a television series, a living environment — a place born of one era but striving to be welcoming to subsequent generations — then the Jungle Cruise ride may be key to understanding theme parks as works of developing art. No other attraction that has stood as long has been under the sort of evolutions that directly speak to the park’s past, its present and future.

Or its cultural missteps. The tension modern Disney reckons with is a desire to create a clean, wholesome and inviting Americana while not sanitizing our world to the point of creating false, good-ol’-days nostalgia. Or erasing someone’s own.

“We’re sitting at 66-plus years of history, right? That’s really humbling,” says Jeanette Lomboy, the vice president who oversees the Disneyland Resort and Aulani, a resort in Hawaii, for Imagineering, the company’s arm devoted to theme park experiences.

“Disneyland, in particular, is one of those places that belongs to everybody,” Lomboy says. “It’s in their memories. You can’t move a bench without touching someone’s memory. Maybe that bench was where a kid took their first steps or where someone proposed.”

Disneyland has been hustling to do more than just move benches.

The long-overdue course correction for the Jungle Cruise shifts the show to nature, the elements and the peril that awaits man when he tries to tame it — with puns aplenty. Gone are racist scenes of a spear-waving war party or a tribesman who will trade “two of his heads for one of yours.”

These changes are part of a broader attempt by Disney and Imagineering to ensure Disneyland remains a vital part of the cultural conversation rather than a cultural artifact.

As the park edges toward 70, it must take measures to reflect the diversity and the values of its younger audience to maintain pop-culture relevancy. Simply adding superheroes and lightsabers isn’t enough.

{snip}Amid the protests and cultural reckoning of 2020 that followed the murder of George Floyd, Disney announced it would strike “Song of the South” references from its Splash Mountain ride and instead feature “The Princess and the Frog,” starring the company’s first Black princess, Tiana.


“We are very mindful of the events that are happening around the world that impact people,” says Carmen Smith, the executive who heads inclusion strategies for Imagineering. “The murder of George Floyd — the world responded to that in unique ways. From neighborhoods to communities to cities, states, governments and the corporate world, there was an international response. How can we be part of the healing journey of America? How can we be at our best?

“We want to make sure that everyone who comes to our parks is seen,” Smith says, “and that they’re heard.”

That goes for Disney employees as well. Earlier this year, Disney announced that its staff — cast members, in park parlance — would have more freedom in how they appear for work, including the ability to choose gender-inclusive costumes and hairstyles. They also no longer have to hide their body art. Such moves received some pushback from the cultural right, arguing that Disney is getting “woke.” Yet Disney’s theme parks are simply awakening to their cultural reach.


Disney’s more modern approach might be traced to the creation of parks and resorts outside Anaheim — namely the opening in 1998 of Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida, the 2011 launch of Aulani and the arrival in 2016 of Shanghai Disneyland. All in varying ways respond to the world outside their gates in more overt ways than the traditional “castle parks,” a recognition that pure American fantasy and idealization, while not necessarily unimportant, can clash with our increasingly global and chaotic world.

Animal Kingdom and Aulani, in particular, pivot from romanticized pastiches — say, New Orleans Square — to more honestly reflect the art, history and heritage of the places they represent or are situated in. Aulani, turning 10 this year, is as notable for its dedication to local culture as it is to its high-priced hotel rooms. {snip}

That approach has gradually influenced other Disney parks. Disney California Adventure has since 2013 doubled down on live entertainment framed through a broad cultural lens. Change began with a mini street parade called ¡Viva Navidad!, which started with the expected Donald Duck-centered Three Caballeros but added mariachi and samba musicians, folklórico and carnaval dancers, and 12-foot-tall mojiganga puppets.

The event was the brainchild of Susana Tubert’s live entertainment team, and its success has led to the creation of Lunar New Year celebrations, a broader cultural representation of Christmas performances, and a “Lion King” storytelling show that heightened the African influences of the animated feature with newly arranged music, ancestral costumes and more than a dozen performers and dancers. This summer, at the new Avengers Campus, a short “Black Panther”-inspired show also plays up the real African influences of the fictional Marvel-created world of Wakanda.


{snip} With the parks largely limited to intellectual property that the Walt Disney Co. owns or creates, the company’s increasingly diverse movies and TV shows have made it easier to more naturally add cultural representation. “Coco,” for instance, inspired a Día de los Muertos event in Anaheim, which includes a memory wall for guests to write letters to lost loved ones.

“We wouldn’t have the ability to celebrate Día de los Muertos if Pixar hadn’t created ‘Coco’ for us,” Tubert says. “So in some ways what’s happening, especially at Disney California Adventure Park, is we have been given this library — ‘Black Panther’ — that are deliberately and intentionally bringing to life different narratives.”


Next up for Smith is the high-profile revamp of Splash Mountain, which will bring a “Princess and the Frog” attraction to Disneyland and Walt Disney World. But over the years many of Disney’s heritage rides have come under the spotlight. Peter Pan’s Flight, for instance, was updated for Disneyland’s 60th anniversary, yet the attraction kept its Native American caricatures.

Also questionable are the exaggerated accents in the bird’s voices inside the Enchanted Tiki Room. And even the Haunted Mansion has received calls for removal of a hanging scene, noting the association with suicide and lynchings.