When I'm visiting Disneyland, which attraction is my favorite usually shifts with my mood. But on a hot summer day, that favorite attraction is frequently Splash Mountain. The fourth "mountain" attraction at Disneyland, which also exists at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland, is a favorite for a lot of people. It's a thrilling log flume ride that is virtually guaranteed to soak you to the bone. For many, Splash Mountain is nothing more than a fun water ride, but there's a lot more behind the popular attraction, considering its connection to one of the most infamous Disney films ever made.
Song of the South hasn't been released by Disney since 1986, and the movie has never seen a home video release in North America. Former Disney CEO Bob Iger made it clear on multiple occasions that he saw no place for the film in a modern Disney company. The movie isn't available on Disney+ now, and it's unlikely that it ever will be. The movie has a very dated view of racial relations, and as such, with that topic being at the forefront of many minds, there are many asking Disney to re-theme Splash Mountain. But how in the world did a movie that nobody wants to talk about get a theme park attraction in 1989, and even later when the ride was added to other parks after Disneyland?
Disneyland in the 1980s
The history of Splash Mountain dates back to the early 1980s. Disneyland was dealing with a host of different issues at the time that Walt Disney Imagineering was trying to solve. While Disneyland was still plenty popular at the time, one particular area of the park, Bear Country, was not. The only attraction in the area, The Country Bear Jamboree, was showing its age, and as Bear Country was a dead end at the back of the park, the real estate given to Bear Country just wasn't pulling its weight.
The other problem was that while Disneyland was a hit with young kids and their parents, the older teen market didn't find Disneyland to be all that cool. One way to try and fix this was to increase the number of thrill rides in the park. A log flume attraction was proposed as a solution, though magineers initially balked at the concept. Log flumes were usually pretty simple attractions designed to give guests one big splash and get them wet, and some felt Disneyland was better than that. The feeling was that a log flume at Disneyland needed something more. In Walt Disney speak, they needed to plus the attraction, and that meant adding story to make it something more.
The story came from Imagineer Tony Baxter, who had the idea of using Song of the South as the inspiration for the story. Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear had been walk-around characters at Disneyland for decades, so the story wasn't entirely out of place, but there was an entire other reason why using Song of the South made sense for Splash Mountain.
In 1974, Disneyland had replaced the Carousel of Progress with a show called America Sings. In the show, a collection of animatronic animals sang a medley of patriotic songs. The show was born to celebrate the nation's coming bicentennial, but by 1983, the bicentennial was long gone, and the show was showing its age. America Sings was already on the chopping block and was getting ready to be replaced.
The timing, at least with this part, couldn't have been more perfect. America Sings was the last attraction designed by Imagineer Marc Davis. He had been with Disney since he was an animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and in the 1940s, before he made the jump from animation to Imagineering, Davis designed another group of animated characters: the animals from Song of the South.
Because Marc Davis had designed the characters from both Song of the South and America Sings, the style of the anthropomorphic animals was incredibly similar. This meant the menagerie of America Sings animatronics could be transported across the park to the new Splash Mountain attraction, and they'd fit the Song of the South theme perfectly. Most of the animals you see on Splash Mountain never appear in Song of the South, but they all look like they belong there.
Design work began on the project, which was originally being called Zip-a-Dee River Run.
In 1984, brand new Disney CEO Michael Eisner was pitched on the project. Eisner was especially concerned about getting teenagers into Disneyland, so much so that he reportedly brought his own teen son along to the meeting with Imagineering. According to those who were there, It was only after the son told his dad that the attraction looked cool that Eisner gave it the green light. The Song of the South connection was apparently okay with everybody at the time.
The only thing Michael Eisner didn't like was the name. He came up with Splash Mountain, to connect the new attraction with other Disneyland mountains, like Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It was also used because, at the time, Disney was working on a live-action movie called Splash, that Eisner wanted to see integrated into the attraction in some way.
Imagineers mostly ignored this idea, which worked out because construction on Splash Mountain didn't actually start for three years. Other projects, like Star Tours and Captain EO, took priority over Splash Mountain.
Additional Splash Mountain attractions would go on to be built at both Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland, and while a few details of the ride structure are different, they are all essentially the same ride, all with Brer Rabbit and friends.
The Future Of Splash Mountain
Song of the South's last trip through theaters would occur just before Splash Mountain construction began. The fact that 1986 was the last time the movie would be publicly screened in theaters had as much to do with the growing home video market as it did any issues with Song of the South, but at the same time, those issues have kept the film from seeing any sort of home video release.
Splash Mountain doesn't include or even make reference to Uncle Remus, instead focusing only on the animated characters from the film. While this keeps the movie's most problematic elements off the attraction, it certainly doesn't erase them. It's for this reason that some have asked Disney to re-theme Splash Mountain, suggesting that something like The Princess and the Frog would be a much better choice than Song of the South.
A retheme of Splash Mountain is certainly a possibility at some point. No attraction is entirely safe from the progress of time and Disneyland will never be completed.