Disney’s World’s famous Jungle Cruise charts new course for next 50 years

An opening-day attraction at Magic Kingdom has changed with the times

Chimpanzees have taken over the wrecked boat of a safari expedition on the world-famous Jungle Cruise at Disneyland Park. Officially reopening on July 16, 2021, Jungle Cruise will offer new adventures, an expanded storyline and more humor as skippers take guests on a tongue-in-cheek journey along some of the most remote rivers around the world. The new creative concept is original to Walt Disney Imagineering, just like the classic attraction itself. (Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort)
Chimpanzees have taken over the wrecked boat of a safari expedition on the world-famous Jungle Cruise at Disneyland Park. Officially reopening on July 16, 2021, Jungle Cruise will offer new adventures, an expanded storyline and more humor as skippers take guests on a tongue-in-cheek journey along some of the most remote rivers around the world. The new creative concept is original to Walt Disney Imagineering, just like the classic attraction itself. (Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort) (©2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

BAY LAKE, Fla. – If you were to ask me what’s the least-changed attraction in all of Walt Disney World, for the first 49 years you might have expected me to answer the Carrousel, the Mad Tea Party or the Swiss Family Treehouse. But the Carrousel has seen color tweaks, added chariots and a convoluted back story, and the Tea Party gained a roof in 1973. Even the Treehouse has seen some minor plussing and, of course, as the foliage has evolved, the views have changed a bit. My pick would be right next door.

Marquee for Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise as seen in September 2021 (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

The “World-Famous Jungle Cruise” has long seemed stuck in time, and not in a good way.

Despite the valiant efforts of the hard-working skippers who make or break the attraction for many guests (and I’ve had plenty of both over 50 years), the jokey pun-filled ride through an enormous chunk of Adventureland fell flat for me, at best, for many years. The opening of the similar, yet superlative Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom in 1998 only made things worse for me. I’m pleased to say that has all changed in 2021. It had to. And I’ll tell you why.

The Skippers are the stars who make or break The Jungle Cruise at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World (Disney)

The Jungle Cruise was not just an opening day feature of the Magic Kingdom. It was referenced by Walt Disney on his Sunday night TV show, from the very start, as he explained his dream for Disneyland. Walt originally wanted live animals to be along the banks of True-Life Adventureland. Putting aside what a 1955 animal care habitat would have looked like, Imagineers quickly helped Walt realize there would be no guarantee any of the animals would follow the script and most would sleep through the operating day.

Concept art for Disneyland's 1955 version of The Jungle Cruise by Harper Goff next to an early attraction poster (Disney)

They turned to animals made of concrete, fiberglass and steel, with a ride inspired by the look of 1953 film “The African Queen” and with boats designed by Disney Legend Harper Goff (who also created the Nautilus Submarine).

Concept art by Imagineer and Disney Legend Harper Goff for Disneyland's original Jungle Cruise ahead of its 1955 debut (Disney)

During construction, landscape architect Bill Evans, and even Walt Disney himself, cruised around the banks of “the rivers” in sports cars to check out how the foliage and scenes were coming. The ride was probably Disneyland’s first E-ticket, even though it opened before the A-E tickets were created.

Walt Disney and Imagineers drove through "the rivers" of Disneyland's Jungle Cruise routinely to check the progress of the landscaping and scenes during construction in 1954 and 1955. (Disney)

There were some problems though in tone, almost from the start. Unlike the classic Katharine Hepburn-Humphry Bogart film, the original Jungle Cruise had very little humor, outside of “The Backside of Water” gag that remains to this day. Even then, some Jungle Cruise skippers improvised gags about the animals like the all-too stiff python.

Python from Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise has been there since 1971 (Disney)

The often-malfunctioning alligators and crocodiles prompted unofficial gags that over decades have evolved into “classic humor” we know today like, “there is Fred and Ginger. Careful though, Ginger snaps. She’s one tough cookie. I know, I know…it’s a ‘crumby’ joke, but I milk it for all I can.”

"Meet Fred and Ginger. They're friendly, but Watch your hands and your children! Ginger Snaps." -- joke from The Jungle Cruise (Disney)

Still. Officially, humor was frowned upon. That changed around 1960, when Walt -- on one of his regular romps through Disneyland -- heard a woman tell a friend, “Oh, we don’t need to go on that. We’ve seen it before.” Walt acted fast to bring in Disney Legend Marc Davis to add new scenes and a new tone.

Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise attractions originally featured colorful fringes on top of the boats. It was replaced with a "more realistic" canvas look after the Indiana Jones Adventure opened in Disneyland in 1995. (Disney)

Davis took the assignment and Walt immediately implemented his ideas. As Davis once said: “When I started working down there, there was nothing that was funny in any of the attractions that I can recollect. And this was a thing all the way through that I have tried to do is to bring in humor.”

Elephant bathing pool designed for Disneyland by Marc Davis was expanded for Walt Disney World. The original was one of the first scenes adding humour to the attraction. (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Davis added: “I did redo the jungle river ride and I added the elephant pool and the trapped Safari and that sort of thing to that ... It was probably the first laugh that Disneyland had in the attraction.”

While Davis was a brilliant animator and astoundingly good at conveying gags visually, not all of that humor has aged well. His big laugh, the “Trapped Safari,” was poking fun at the idea of white British Colonialists arrogantly tromping through Africa not knowing what they are really doing until they get “the point” from a rhino forcing the explorer and his native guides up a dead tree.

Original version of "the trapped safari" designed by marc Davis for Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise was removed earlierin 2021 (Disney)

We’re supposed to laugh that the “brave” explorer was the first up the pole. For many modern audiences, it was who ended up below the white man that created some discomfort.

Hyenas laugh at the original trapped safari at Disneyland's Jungle Cruise. (Disney)

The images of Colonialism played a large role in shaping both the original Adventureland at Disneyland in 1955 and the Magic Kingdom’s version in 1971. The Jungle Cruise was planned to be in its Florida location from the very start.

Pre-opening colorful maps used to promote the Magic Kingdom prominently featured "The Jungle Cruise" long before construction of the park began. (Disney)

Early Disney construction photos love to show elephants being trucked down the highway and animals being shaped and painted. Even here, though you can start to see some of the problems from a modern perspective, if you look closely.

An elephant was trucked from Imagineering in California and installed in Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise ahead of its 1971 debut (Disney)
Imagineers sculpted, painted and added details like fur and clothing to figures for Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise ahead of its 1971 debut (Disney)

For the Florida park, Davis devised some new scenes that have stood the test of time, most especially a tour through the ruins of a flooded temple, somewhere in Asia. The scene adds atmosphere, cover to protect more elaborate animatronic monkeys, snakes and even scares from the dark and a menacing tiger.

Concept art by Marc Davis for the Asian Temple scene designed for Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise. It has been there since 1971, but received some updates in 2021. (Disney)
"Asian Temple" ruins from Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise as seen in 1971 (Disney)

Other aspects and areas of the classic attraction have not aged as well. A crop of a “fun map” of the Jungle Cruise gets to the point of the problem: “Head Hunter Territory: Beware of Ambushes” through “Native Territory.”

"Fun Map" of the Jungle Cruise from before the alterations made in 2021. (Disney)

Until just a few months ago, that stretch of the “rivers of the world” featured some astonishingly “Old Hollywood” stereotypes of African native tribe members, images that are far removed from real African cultures and traditions.

These "Head-hunting Natives" were removed from Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise earlier in 2021 (Disney)

By 1971, some red flags must have already been going off because Davis re-imagined The Jungle Cruise’s chief “headhunter” from a dressed up copy of the other natives to a more “comical” yet no less tone-deaf figure named Trader Sam.

Encountered shortly before the end of the ride, a typical Skipper would spiel: “Here’s Trader Sam. He’s our head salesman in the jungle. He’s got a pretty good deal for you guys today … two of his heads for just one of yours. Either way you slice it, you’ll always come out ahead. That’s a killer deal.” What could really be killer was the reaction of some modern audience members cringing at what they saw, even if it was all meant to be good fun.

Concept art for Walt Disney World's version of "Trader Sam" by Marc Davis next to his replacement near the ride's finale: Trader Sam's Gift Shop (Disney)

Earlier this year, “Trader Sam” was removed in favor of a more elaborate tableau playing on this being the end of the ride: Sam now runs a “gift shop” that once was the ride’s “lost and found.” Sam himself is nowhere to be seen, replaced by more comical monkeys and a baby elephant. Other scenes were changed to make the ride all about the skippers, such as turning a threatening encounter with “native war canoes” into a light-hearted opportunity to make a quick buck.

Deadly native "war canoes" were rethemed to be more family-friendly at Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise in 2021 (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

All of the “head-hunting natives” have now been taken out of both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, in favor of making the skippers the heart of the show. In the Hippo pool, we see the back half of a Jungle Cruise boat apparently bitten in two by the beasts.

Chimpanzees have taken over the wrecked boat of a safari expedition on the world-famous Jungle Cruise at Disneyland Park. Officially reopening on July 16, 2021, Jungle Cruise will offer new adventures, an expanded storyline and more humor as skippers take guests on a tongue-in-cheek journey along some of the most remote rivers around the world. The new creative concept is original to Walt Disney Imagineering, just like the classic attraction itself. (Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort) (©2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

A little later, we sail past the front half, taken over by monkeys keen on trying to be skippers themselves or at least look at the snarfblatts and thing-a-ma-bobs (and butterflies) left behind by the human explorers.

The world-famous Jungle Cruise at Disneyland Park officially reopens on July 16, 2021, with new adventures, an expanded storyline and more humor as skippers take guests on a tongue-in-cheek journey along some of the most remote rivers around the world. The new creative concept is original to Walt Disney Imagineering, just like the classic attraction itself. (Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort) (©2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

As to the trapped safari, its members are still “getting the point” -- but now it’s a Jungle Cruise skipper at the top of the pole and his nature-loving scientists, researchers and explorers down below.

Concept art and photos of the new version of "the trapped safari" added to Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise earlier in 2021 (Disney)

The real point here: Sensitivities, tastes and humor evolve. Just like “Pirates of the Caribbean” before it, the “Jungle Cruise” had to evolve, too. I’d say up next is “Splash Mountain,” but it may not be. Don’t get me wrong. Disney has definitely announced bold plans to revamp the 1992 flume ride. They will be removing Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and Brer Fox from the only full feature buried in the Disney Vault: 1946′s “Song of the South.”

In this March 21, 2007 file photo, the character Brer Rabbit, from the movie, "Song of the South," is depicted near the entrance to the Splash Mountain ride in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Splash Mountain ride at Disney parks in California and Florida is being recast. Disney officials said the ride would no longer be tied to the 1946 movie, "Song of the South," which many view as racist. Instead, the revamped ride will be inspired by the 2009 Disney film, "The Princess and the Frog," which has an African-American female lead. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Splash Mountain, a Disney ride based on a controversial film, will be 'completely reimagined' (courtesy Disney)

But there are definite signs Imagineers are taking their time to get the revamp just right before moving forward, so other changes to other rides could happen first. We do know the replacement will retheme Splash Mountain, picking up Princess Tiana’s story after her wedding at the end of “The Princess and the Frog.” Let’s all hope it turns out as well as the changes to the Jungle Cruise. For the first time in many years, I can enjoy the cruise again, despite the concrete python and the dad jokes.

New rendering for the all-new Princess and the Frog attraction coming to Disney parks (Disney Parks Blog)
Imagineer Carmen Smith on why "The Jungle Cruise" needed more inclusiveness (Disney)
Disney 50

To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.

We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.

Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!


About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.