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