On Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride, visitors sail past “Trader Sam,” an animatronic salesman who offers to exchange two of his shrunken heads “for one of yours.” Nearby, spear-wielding African “headhunters” plan an ambush—a threat underscored by the piles of human skulls dotting the landscape.
Sixty-six years after the riverboat attraction first debuted, Disney has announced plans to overhaul what critics describe as the ride’s racist depictions of Indigenous peoples.
As Brady MacDonald reports for the Orange County Register, the company’s “Imagineers” will update scenes featuring the shrunken head dealer and a rhinoceros chasing a safari group up a tree. The company will also add a new scene featuring chimpanzees on a wrecked ship.
“As Imagineers, it is our responsibility to ensure experiences we create and stories we share reflect the voices and perspectives of the world around us,” says Disney executive Carmen Smith in a statement.
Per the Los Angeles Times’ Todd Martens, the first Jungle Cruise appeared at Disneyland when the park opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955. A second iteration served as one of Disney World’s original attractions, welcoming visitors to the Orlando, Florida, theme park in 1971, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Disney describes the ride as “a scenic and comedic boat tour of exotic rivers across Asia, Africa, and South America.”
The Jungle Cruise’s designers incorporated influences including Disney nature documentaries and The African Queen, an Academy Award–winning 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. As the Los Angeles Times notes, Disneyland only added the spear-waving Africans and Trader Sam in 1957.
Disneyland’s current rhinoceros scene shows the animal chasing a tour group up a tree. A white traveler clings to the top of the trunk, while local guides clamber to safety below. The new version will depict all of the group members as guests of a previous Jungle Cruise tour.
Criticism of the ride ramped up in June after Disney announced major changes to another popular attraction, Splash Mountain. As Nora McGreevy wrote for Smithsonian magazine at the time, the ride was originally based on the 1946 movie Song of the South, which features romanticized, stereotypical depictions of black servants on a plantation in post-Civil War Georgia. The revamped version of the ride eliminates references to the movie, instead drawing on The Princess and the Frog (2009), Disney’s first film featuring a black princess.
Following news of Splash Mountain’s overhaul, many social media users called attention to the continued use of racist stereotypes in other Disney attractions, including the Jungle Cruise, as Jim Vejvoda reported for IGN.
“The Jungle Cruise is legit jaw-dropping in its offensiveness,” wrote comedian and actor Bryan Safi on Twitter in June.
Ryan Minor, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, traces the colonial influences of the Jungle Cruise in an essay for the Enchanted Archives. He notes that the ride mirrors sections of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness. One of Conrad’s descriptions of Africans reads, “They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity… the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.”
Minor writes that this view of Africans as “primitive” stemmed from the European scramble to colonize Africa in the 19th century. Colonizers across the continent and elsewhere used the view of non-white people as “savages” to justify their actions. Since then, books like Tarzan of the Apes and movies like The African Queen have normalized these stereotypes for European and American audiences.
“While we might not even realize it, these stereotypes are deeply [i]ngrained in our cultural imaginations and continue to influence our collective understandings of Africa and the people who live there,” Minor adds.
Disney says the new version of the ride will focus more on the wise-cracking “skipper” character played by human tour guides, who will now have an animated counterpart.
“When we consider making changes to a classic attraction, we focus on ways to ‘plus’ the experience,” says creative executive Chris Beatty in the statement. “The skippers of the Jungle Cruise bring humor to guests of all ages, and we’re excited to be adding to that legacy.”
The changes arrive as Disney prepares for the release of a new movie based on the ride. Starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, Jungle Cruise was originally set to open in 2020 but was postponed to summer 2021 due to the pandemic.