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Disney Revamps Jungle Cruise Ride To Remove Racist Depictions Of Indigenous People

Visitors take photos at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., in March 2020. Jungle Cruise, one of the original Disney parks' rides, is getting a 21st century remodel by "imagineers" at the Disneyland park in California and the Magic Kingdom park in Florida with a new storyline and characters that "reflect and value the diversity of the world around us," Disney said in a blog post last week.
Visitors take photos at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., in March 2020. Jungle Cruise, one of the original Disney parks' rides, is getting a 21st century remodel by "imagineers" at the Disneyland park in California and the Magic Kingdom park in Florida with a new storyline and characters that "reflect and value the diversity of the world around us," Disney said in a blog post last week.

It's 5 p.m. at the Disney Springs shopping complex near Orlando, Fla., and guests are streaming in after a busy day at the theme parks. Among them are Corey Schleining from Indiana, and his 4-year-old grandson Tristan.

Over a steaming bowl of poutine from The Daily Poutine, Schleining runs down the list of rides he took Tristan on.

"We did Peter Pan and we did some of the important ones like that. Barnstormer and some of the stuff that he could ride for his first time," Schleining said.

They had to skip the Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom because it was too crowded even with extra health and safety protocols put in place during the pandemic.

On Jan. 25, Disney announced it planned to change the Jungle Cruise ride to address negative depictions of Indigenous people. Schleining has heard about changes to the ride to make it more inclusive for guests, and said it's something he welcomes.

"As a culture. We have to change. I mean we have to change. These are things that really probably should have never existed in the first place," Schleining said.

The 10-minute ride described as a "scenic and comedic boat tour of exotic rivers" on Disney's website, takes guests on a winding 10,000-mile cruise across Asia, Africa and South America. At the very end is one controversial part: an indigenous man named Trader Sam holding up several shrunken heads. Guides quip about how Sam is the "the head salesman" whose "sales have been shrinking lately."

"Either way you slice it or dice it you won't come out ahead," one guide said jokingly.

Rollins College English professor Anne Zimmermann says that's not the only part of the ride that's problematic. She studies the stories Disney tells its guests on rides like the Jungle Cruise. The first time the boat encounters Indigenous people guests are told they're entering headhunter territory and that sometimes the natives attack crews.

"They had the union Jack flying in the boat and you have these colonizers getting attacked by a tribe of indigenous people in part of the original narrative," Zimmermann said.

Updating rides based on evolving cultural norms isn't new and it isn't new for Disney.

Ady Milman teaches theme park and attraction management at the University of Central Florida.

Milman said Disney updated its Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World and Disneyland in 2018 by taking out a scene of a bride auction.

"Several years ago a show in the Pirates of the Caribbean or a scene removed a scene depicting a woman being sold as a slave," Milman said.

Now, the "Take a Wench for a Bride" sign is gone and it's only chickens that are for sale.

The character named Redd who was being sold off is a pirate.

Milman said if anything technology and a nationwide reckoning around race are speeding these changes.

In June Disney announced changes to Splash Mountain after 20,000 people signed an online petition.

The ride will get a new "The Princess and the Frog" theme based on the 2009 movie. Visitors will follow Princess Tiana and Louis on a musical journey through New Orleans as they perform in their first Mardi Gras. Music for the ride will come from the film's award-winning score. The original ride is based on the movie, Song of the South which draws on caricatures of enslaved Black people.

"And they want to stay contemporary, they want to stay current. And not to offend anybody as you probably know social media is a very quick way to criticize any type of experience," Milman explained.

A theme park is not a time capsule, said Rick Munarriz, economic analyst with the Motley Fool. Walt Disney himself embraced progress and built it into his company's business model, Munarriz said, and the new rides and attractions inspire renewed interest in the parks which translates to turnstile clicks and merchandising opportunities. Even if some fans are upset by these changes, he said, they won't be for long.

"They succumb to it. They can be angry about the change at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride a couple of years ago, but they're on the ride again they're having fun," Munarriz said.

Munarriz said new rides that Disney's planning like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Cosmic Rewind roller coaster at Epcot in Orlando are already built with inclusion in mind.

A crew consisting of all varieties of species and all types of people working together on a shared mission is the right kind of message to be sending, he said.

Back at Disney Springs, Corey Schleining is excited to take his grandson on the Jungle Cruise when they return even if it is different from how he remembers it as a kid.

"We should all be evolving and doing those things. Those are things that should be left in the past so it won't bother me at all," Schleining said.

Disney hasn't released a timeline yet for when changes to the Jungle Cruise at Disney World or Disneyland will be complete.

The company did not respond to a request for a comment on this story.

But in a statement on the Disney Parks blog, Walt Disney Imagineering Executive Carmen Smith said, "it is our responsibility to ensure experiences we create and stories we share reflect the voices and perspectives of the world around us. With Jungle Cruise, we're bringing to life more of what people love — the humor and wit of our incredible skippers, while making needed updates."

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