A new Disney ride opens June 28, splashing right out of the culture wars

The new ride is based on “The Princess and the Frog,” featuring Tiana, Disney's first Black princess is shown. It's set to open June 28 in Orlando, Fla.

The new ride is based on “The Princess and the Frog,” featuring Tiana, Disney's first Black princess is shown. It's set to open June 28 in Orlando, Fla. (Olga Thompson, Disney via CNN Newsource)


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ORLANDO, Fla. — A ride based on the story of Disney's first Black princess opens to the public on June 28 in Orlando, Florida, replacing the decades-old Splash Mountain attraction that was beloved by many Disney fans yet also widely criticized.

Walt Disney World's new ride, inspired by the movie "The Princess and the Frog" and its heroine Tiana, is currently in preview mode for groups including employees and annual passholders and has already elicited mixed reactions in the midst of the culture wars.

The structure of the log-flume ride has not changed, but the theme has been completely redone four years after Disney first announced the project in 2020, during the same season of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.

The original Splash Mountain ride — which first opened at Disneyland in 1989, and at Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland in 1992 — was based on characters from "Song of the South," a 1946 Disney movie that has long been criticized as racist for its stereotypical portrayals of African Americans and a romanticized view of the antebellum South.

Turning Splash Mountain into Tiana's Bayou Adventure is also happening at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, with an opening date yet to be announced. Tokyo Disneyland is also home to a Splash Mountain ride, but the theme in that location is not changing.

Disney has kept "Song of the South" from being re-released and has even kept the movie off its streaming platform, Disney+.

'It's finally happened'

Victoria Wade, a theme park content creator, got to try Tiana's Bayou Adventure in early June as a guest of an employee.

Wade, who is Black, told CNN it was powerful to finally experience a Disney attraction where the characters look like her.

"I got very emotional immediately towards the finale scene of the ride in particular… it was just nice to be seen," she said.

She added that she would have loved to see that kind of representation when she was a child. For her little cousins and the children she babysits, "They can just go there and see themselves in a positive light — in a positive representation. So it just, it warmed my heart. It was just like, finally, we had to beg for all these years for this to happen. And it's finally happened."

Lukewarm waters

While fans have agreed that the new technology on the ride, including projection mapping and the fluidity of characters' movements, is far superior to the prior version, criticism has centered around lack of plot.

Disney has said that the ride's story takes place chronologically after the movie ends and involves Princess Tiana inviting guests to a big celebration in the bayou.

Jack Kendall, host of the theme park fan podcast DSNY, also experienced the new ride recently as a guest of an employee.

He said that for an attraction based on the suspense of a 50-foot drop, "there's no kind of antagonist within the attraction to have that kind of push and pull of that trepidation building up the lift hill and going down the other side," noting that people are saying "there's no real story to it."

Kendall added, "To be honest, it's a lovely collection of scenes, of show scenes, very beautifully put together, but there's not really much of an impetus for why we're going on this journey now."

Big drop into the culture wars

But online vitriol has sometimes gone far beyond the merits of the ride.

Several petitions on change.org over the years have attempted to "save" Splash Mountain.

One such petition organized by Eric Thibeault stated: "It is absurd to pander to a small group of 'Disney haters' that dont (sic) understand the story, and re-theme such a nostalgic ride. The characters in Splash Mountain do not specifically generalize any race or group of people, they are nothing more than caricatures based on the turn-of-the-century America.

"Modifying Splash Mountain will not change history and will only encourage the 'easily offended' to continue making desperate attempts at finding offense in additional attractions."

Disney has rethemed or modified old rides before, garnering similar attention from fans who resisted change. In recent years, for example, a woman in red featured in a Pirates of the Caribbean ride scene was changed from a wench "for sale" to a pistol-carrying pirate.

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Natasha Chen

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