Disney’s Splash Mountain Set to Reopen With Princess Tiana Theme

In the summer of 2020, as a reckoning on racial justice swept the country, Disney said it would rip out Splash Mountain, a wildly popular flume ride with a racist back story.

Some people cheered, saying the move was long overdue: After 31 years at Disneyland in California and 28 at Walt Disney World in Florida, the attraction — with its animal minstrels from “Song of the South,” the radioactive 1946 movie — had to go.

But Disney also faced blowback. Last year, when Splash Mountain finally closed, someone started a makeshift memorial near its entrance — the kind that pops up at scenes of horrific crimes. Distraught fans spirited away jars of the water. More than 100,000 fans signed a petition calling on Disney to reverse its “absurd” decision.

Now, Disney is rolling out Splash Mountain’s replacement, which is based on “The Princess and the Frog,” the 2009 animated musical that introduced Disney’s first Black princess. The lighthearted new ride, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, will open to the public on June 28 at Disney World, with a similar version expected to arrive at Disneyland by the end of the year.

It’s a historic moment for Disney: After 69 years in the theme park business, the company will have a marquee attraction based on a Black character. Disney has spent at least $150 million on the bicoastal project, analysts estimate. (A Disney spokesman declined to comment on the cost.)

“For young Black children, it is, of course, a wonderful and amazing way to show representation,” Anika Noni Rose, who voices Tiana in the film and recorded new lines for the ride, said when the project was announced. “For children who don’t look like Tiana, it is a way to open their eyes.”

Disney has remade rides before, often to howls from devotees, but this particular overhaul is especially delicate. In recent years, Disney has found itself enmeshed in nationwide debates over diversity and inclusion initiatives, with prominent Republican politicians and conservative media pundits pointing to Disney as an example of corporate political correctness run amok.

The pressure has started to die down, in part because Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is no longer running for president and attacking “Woke Disney” at campaign stops. Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, has also repeatedly said he has moved Disney away from “agenda-driven” content.

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure could drag Disney back onto the cultural battlefield. Or it could provide more evidence that the debate has moved on.

“Our parks are treasured, and our fans care deeply about how they evolve and change — just as we do,” Josh D’Amaro, Disney’s theme park chairman, said in an interview. “One thing fans always tell me is ‘If you change it, promise to make it even better.’ And I think we’ve delivered on that promise with Tiana.”

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure uses the same ride tracks as Splash Mountain, and riders still travel in vehicles made to look like hollowed-out logs. But everything else has been redesigned. Instead of a suspenseful story involving Br’er Rabbit’s getting tossed into a briar patch, the new attraction focuses on a Mardi Gras party: Tiana and her pal Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator, are searching for critters to form a band.

Halfway through, the jolly Mama Odie, a voodoo queen in “The Princess and the Frog” and now a “bayou fairy godmother,” casts a spell, supposedly shrinking riders to the size of fireflies.

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure also has a pointed new catchphrase: “Everybody’s welcome.”

As he rode Tiana’s Bayou Adventure with a reporter during a test-opening phase, Ted Robledo, the attraction’s executive creative director, pointed out numerous inclusive touches — decorative items in Spanish and French, reflecting the multicultural history of New Orleans; a diversity of music (jazz, zydeco, blues) playing on the sound system.

“That’s a nod to the Indigenous people in the region,” Mr. Robledo said, referring to a Choctaw stickball racket in a diorama near the ride’s entrance.

“We’re always looking at ways to cast a wider net,” Mr. Robledo said. “With the old property, for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t that relevant anymore. It had kind of run its course.”

“The Princess and the Frog,” about a working-class woman who becomes royalty, was a box office disappointment. Tiana, however, has become crucial to Disney. In consumer polls conducted by the company, she ranks No. 2 in popularity — out of Disney’s entire character roster — among Black women. (Characters from “The Lion King” are No. 1.)

Disney has high hopes for merchandise tied to the new attraction, which expands the movie’s story. (There are two gift shops near its exit.) An animated Tiana series is coming to Disney+ and will continue part of the story set up by the ride.

“Tiana is a modern princess who resonates with everyone,” Mr. D’Amaro said. “She wasn’t born into royalty, but her story of perseverance and pride is timeless. This enduring quality is crucial for our parks’ attractions, as they need to entertain across generations.”

Mr. D’Amaro likened complaints about Splash Mountain’s removal to a prior situation at the Disneyland Resort. In 2017, Disney closed the popular Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a hotel with malfunctioning elevators, and remade it around Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Fans booed — until they had a chance to ride the replacement.

“It was a controversial decision at the time, but by introducing a modern story with different emotions, we created an entirely new experience,” Mr. D’Amaro said, noting that visitor ratings of the remade Tower of Terror soared.

This month, Disney posted a nine-minute video tour of the new Tiana attraction on the internet. As of Monday, it had been viewed 625,000 times, with 10,000 people giving it a thumbs up and 38,000 a thumbs down. The ride “seems to lack dramatical tension and stakes,” Jim Shull, a retired Disney parks designer, wrote on X, based on the video. A smattering of Splash Mountain die-hards nicknamed the new ride Tiana’s Bayou Blunder.

The reaction has been much more positive from those who have ridden the attraction, which is in a soft-opening period.

“I loved it,” Victoria Wade, a social media influencer from Baltimore, said on X on Thursday. “I love how this whole attraction adds more to the continuation of Tiana’s story.” She called the ride’s 48 animatronic figures “absolutely incredible.”

Drew Smith, 21, a self-described Disney “super fan” from Windermere, Fla., talked his way onto the ride during a testing phase. “Splash Mountain was my absolute favorite attraction since I was a little kid, and I’m extremely happy to say that the new ride is just as great,” he said in an interview. “Don’t believe the haters!”

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