Why Walt Disney World And Disneyland Should Celebrate Both Immersion And Inclusion

Happily Ever After Fireworks over Cinderella's Castle at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World

Nobody likes it when their favorite parts of any theme park get changed or removed. If you've been to Disneyland or Walt Disney World even a single time in your life -- and you enjoyed it -- then you probably had a favorite ride or show. Subsequently, if you went back and found that ride or show gone, it would be at least a little bit frustrating. It's standard operating procedure when a park like Disneyland or Walt Disney World announces that a new ride will replace an old ride that people come out of the wood work to talk about how great the previous ride was and what a mistake it is to replace it. That's true even when nobody seemed to love the ride that much until it was being removed.

We're in a somewhat unique place now because, while certainly people are frustrated by the complete retheme of Splash Mountain and the significant changes to Jungle Cruise, the issue seems to be not simply that things are changing, but why they're changing. Some people are upset that these changes are being announced in the name of inclusion, seemingly feeling that the motive alone will somehow damage the end result, and ruin the magical and immersive atmosphere that so many appreciate in theme parks. I'd argue thought that real immersion only comes with inclusion.

Splash Mountain redesign concept art

Changes To Splash Mountain And The Jungle Cruise Are Necessary

This all seemed to start a little less than a year ago when a small grassroots fan campaign suggested that Splash Mountain, a popular ride found at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, should maybe retheme itself away from the racially problematic Song of the South. One idea that gained traction early was that re-themeing the ride after The Princess and the Frog would be good, and then, somewhat shockingly, Disney announced it would do exactly that.

This was followed earlier this year by news that the Jungle Cruise, a Day 1 attraction at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, would get a significant update that included the removal of racially insensitive characters like "headhunter" Trader Sam. A writer went viral this week for calling out this change, among others, arguing that, in the future when riding the Jungle Cruise, the writer would lose the magic of riding thanks to missing the longtime character.

On a surface level I can maybe understand this. I had a first trip to Disneyland once upon a time that I still remember and much of what I loved most about that trip still exists. I can still ride Space Mountain and the Haunted Mansion. If Disney announced tomorrow those rides were being removed, yes, I would be frustrated by that. But if you go even a little bit deeper than that, this argument doesn't work. Making these attractions more inclusive doesn't harm immersion, it enhances it. The difference is only that perhaps it enhances it more for other people.

Jungle Cruise redesign concept art

The Theme Parks Are There For Everybody

It's an easy trap to fall into. Disney Cast Members do so much to try and make you feel special when you're in the parks, that you might forget that their job is to do that for everybody. There are tens of thousands of other people, most of whom you've never met, and never will, who are also trying to have a magical Disney experience right next to you. And those people want to have an amazing, immersive, Jungle Cruise experience too. And some of them have had a much bigger barrier to entry to that experience than others.

When you float down the Jungle Cruise you might, until the day you die, see the replacement for Trader Sam and only think about what used to be there. But every time you do that, there's a kid on that ride with you who has never ridden the Jungle Cruise before, perhaps never will again, and that kid is not going to be subjected to a racially insensitive experience that could destroy his immersion in the experience. Yes, it's true, these elements of the Jungle Cruise that are being replaced have been around for decades. For some, that makes them nostalgic, but for others that just means this attraction has been trafficking in harmful stereotypes for their entire lives.

I love Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and as much as Disneyland might feel like a second home for me, it's not. At the very least, it's no more my home than it is, or can be, for anybody else, and we have to be able to share that love. We have to remember that the point of these theme parks is to be special to everybody. The purpose of these new steps towards inclusion, the changes to attractions, the additional allowances regarding the "Disney Look," is that the Walt Disney Company recognizes that it has been overlooking a lot of people for a long time, and it's finally taking steps, however small, to begin to fix all this.

Disney live shows

Disney Fun For One Is Disney Fun For All

One of my favorite things to do as an adult at the Disneyland Resort was a silly little nighttime show called the the Mad T Party at Disney California Adventure. It was an evening party that combined DJ'd dance music with a live band, made up of members that looked like characters from Tim Burton's live-action Alice in Wonderland. The band played a combination of classic rock and popular modern pop tunes, and those of us watching the show would do what you did at any great concert, sing along, dance, maybe have a drink or two, or several.

The Mad T Party was always a lot of fun, but the thing that made it so much fun for me was that everybody there was always having a good time, and in that case "everybody" covered a lot of ground, a lot more than at your average dance club. The primary crowd was young people, teenagers and twenty-somethings, to be sure, but this was Disneyland and that meant that the crowd also contained little kids, some who could barely walk, and also, their grandparents. Countless times I'd watch a circle open up in the middle of the crowd so that people could dance and in that circle you'd be as likely to see a six-year-old kid, or possibly his grandfather, as anybody else. And the cheers were always equally loud no matter who was willing to jump into the circle. Everybody was having fun, and everybody enjoyed everybody else having fun.

I used to love to watch this show and watch people enjoy themselves because the crowd was so diverse. Any age, any gender, any color, any sexual orientation, they were all there sharing the same fun experience together and you just can't see that anyplace else. For Disneyland and Walt Disney World to truly be special places full of magic that has to work for everybody, and that means making the parks places where every single attraction is welcoming to everybody equally. Will I ever ride the new Jungle Cruise without at least thinking about the old Jungle Cruise? Perhaps not, but all it will take is a look at at the kid on the boat, who has no knowledge of the way things used to be, with a smile on his face, for me to truly understand why these changes were made.

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.