Welcome aboard the world-famous Jungle Cruise, everyone! My name is skipper TAP-G and I’m gonna be your skipper, captain, cruise director, snake charmer, alligator wrestler, life coach, sous chef, and if you don’t laugh at any of my jokes, your swimming instructor…maybe. Please keep your hands, arms, feet and legs inside the boat at all times, permanecer sentados por favor, and please keep an eye of those kids of yours, or as the crocodiles like to call them, the tater tots!
Ah, the khakis. The puns. The jazz queue music interspersed with the “Voice of the Jungle”. The alliterative boat names. The backside of water. The Jungle Cruise has been a guest favorite since Disneyland’s opening day and is the latest attraction to get a makeover in these changing times.
So…let’s talk about it!
The Backstory of Water!
The Jungle Cruise as we know it dates, as I said, all the way back to a certain sweltering day in 1955. Walt’s studio had been making nature documentaries called True-Life Adventures since 1948, and he’d always been obsessed with nature. One of the earliest plans of his Disneyland theme park included a land dedicated to the exotic corners of the globe, dubbed – what else? – True-Life Adventureland. Walt was eager in one particular aspect: he wanted a ride for guests to see real, live animals.
Now, if you’ve ever been to a zoo, you know animals tend to sleep, hide, lay around, and sometimes engage in activities kids don’t really need to see. On top of that, animals do not perform on cue multiple times a day, all day. Walt was eventually dissuaded from this idea, and resigned to doing robot animals, which are essentially predecessors to the audio-animatronics they developed less than a decade later. This allowed lions to roar, rhinos to charge, crocodiles to snap, and hippos to surface at exactly the right time. To boot, since the purpose of the True-Life Adventure series was meant to be educational, the original script was similarly straightforward. Not a punchline anywhere to be seen. The boats themselves were inspired by the 1951 Humphrey Bogart film, The African Queen.
The urban legend goes that Walt overheard a child asking his mother to ride the Jungle Cruise, but she said no, rationalizing they’d already done it once before. Well, of course he couldn’t have that. Thus, in 1962, Walt turned to his old friend Marc Davis and requested he add some humorous tableaus featuring the animals getting into all kinds of comical engagements, like the indian elephant bathing pool and the the treed safari. On top of these, Walt overheard a young skipper doing an off-script spiel involving jokes instead of the usual educational narration, so he implemented the famous comedic take of the attraction we know and love today. The ride has continued to evolve, adding some show scenes, dropping others, but largely staying pretty much the same.
The ride’s theme is the Jungle Navigation Co., a cargo transport business that has come upon hard times during the Great Depression, and is trying to recoup their losses by doing guided tours through the Amazon, Congo, Nile, and Mekong rivers. Hence why the skippers are so haphazard in their approach to show off what they know as your boat careens further and further from civilization.
Hey…Why’s it in the News?
On January 26th, 2021, Disney made a new announcement: the Jungle Cruise is getting an update, which will feature a story involving the beloved treed safari, who had foolishly left their boat. This means adding a show scene involving a community of chimps have taken over the beached wreckage. The general story is to find said wreckage. The script will of course be updated to reflect this story, and presumably, will inject some fresh jokes into the skipper’s spiel.
Okay, That Sounds-
Oh, and they’re doing away with the racist stuff, too.
OH MY GOD. They’re Really Doing This Again.
Doing what? Oh! You mean that thing where they renovate and update vintage Disney theme park attractions for a world more progressively and culturally aware than the generation before it for the sake of compassion, decency, and cultural sensitivity? Why yes, yes they are!
And are YOU, dear reader, denizen of the world wide web, “doing this again” where you throw a temper tantrum because something you treasure is ebbing away, becoming a relic of a bygone generation, and being replaced by a more progressive ideal that you deem unwelcome? Decrying phrases like “PC culture!” or “Cancel culture!”, as if these were inherently bad things?
Heck if I know. I can’t see you through this blog.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
As many have pointed out, this is isn’t Disney’s first time overhauling a classic ride in the name of “wokeness”.
In 1997, just thirty years after opening, Pirates of the Caribbean had its first major renovation. Where once lusty buccaneers chased after frightened damsels, now were chasing them for trays of food. Where once the portly “Pooped Pirate” snickered with perverse glee, tightly gripping the slip once belonging to a clearly naked woman in a barrel nearby, now the same pirate stuffed his face full of food. The changes outraged in particular one of the attraction’s original Imagineers, X. Atencio, who famously stated, “This is Pirates of the Caribbean, not Boy Scouts of the Caribbean!”
Just twenty years after that, a second major transition took place when the famous auction scene was renovated. Before, as the auctioneer peddled an overweight woman, a firtatious redhead seductively teased the leering crowd. As of 2017, the redhead was promoted to a pirate captain herself, peddling rum to a crowd of drunken reprobates. Traditionalists online were quick to lash out and complain, sparking often bad-faith arguments about gender balancing versus historical accuracy.
Just last summer, Disney proudly announced the long-controversial theming of Splash Mountain was set to be renovated entirely from Song of the South to The Princess and the Frog. Once again, arguments broke out between the necessity of change against the desire to maintain tradition. And once again, the internet frothed with giddy vitriol as discussions on race reached a fever pitch.
Ah, feminism and racism. Two topics that ALWAYS inspire calm, rational discourse online!
So What’s Wrong with the Jungle Cruise?
If you hadn’t ridden the Jungle Cruise in forever, you’d be forgiven if you forgot all but a few animals and the fact the skippers told a lot of corny jokes. Since I’m much more familiar with the Walt Disney World version, I’m using that one as a spring board here.
At the first major bend in the river, the boat skirts by a beach with a few traditional native boats, with the skipper referring to the pygmies who own them. However, they are not present due to being scared away by the giant python in the tree across the river.
Aside from the treed safari, there aren’t any more human sights along the river until after the hippo pool, where a tribal African village, complete with a skiff full of human skulls, comes into view. The natives are hopping around in their grass skirts and headdresses, shaking their spears and shields, obviously some mock-up of a white man’s perception of a war dance. As the boat veers around the corner, a war party jumps out of the bushes and attacks the boat, shouting and crying out at the tourists. One in particular mentioning his love of disco amid the ruckus because seventies.
Finally, the final tableau of the attraction is a beaming native man, the legendary Trader Sam. What’s his deal? Well, he’s a sort of a witch doctor/shaman and all the jokes the skippers tell about him are about head-shrinking and cannibalism.
Because as we all know, Africa is just chock-full of cowardly, superstitious brown people that kill out of sport, gruesomely eat fellow humans (Particularly the white meat variety, if you catch my drift), and are generally savage, bloodthirsty heathens who can’t civilize good.
Look, even if you grant the diegetic (The 30’s) and non-diegetic (The 50’s) contexts in trying to justify that these kind of depictions were okay, the point is they haven’t been okay for a while. We thought it was because most African tribespeople don’t go to Disneyland often and voice their outrage, and the assumption is made that they wouldn’t understand, so it’s okay. You know, like how we make jokes in Garfield about how cats are lazy, entitled, and selfish, but it’s okay because cats don’t read newspaper comic strips. But therein lies the issue: when you equate a fellow human’s intelligence to that of an animal, THAT IS RACISM. There is just no two ways about it.
So, What, Are We Gonna Stop Making Fun of Animals Because They’re Probably Offended, Too?! When will it Stop?!
This kind of bad faith argument is often spurred by people who are already inherently resistant to change and paint a picture of a world where humor can’t exist because someone somewhere has the potential of being upset. It’s a red herring and a slippery slope narrative that misses the point entirely: in the year 2021, Disney has declared that jokes in regards to a marginalized group troubling and is making an effort to fix the issue. Same thing that happened to Pirates and Splash Mountain.
Comedy without putting others down is possible: you just have to be clever enough to find it and execute it. To pretend it didn’t offend people or its intentions were all in good fun is, at best, disingenuous.
But it’s a Classic! You Can’t Just –
So? Disneyland is built on attractions that evolved or were discarded as time went along. The whole darn point of the place was letting it grow and evolve and adapt. It’s like being mad the Jungle Cruise doesn’t still have the original educational, joke-free script.
Disney’s Just Trying to be Woke! They’re Pandering to the PC Crowd!
That’s…probably also true. While I’m sure the Imagineers who are working on these developments have their hearts in the right place, the people who greenlit it are the ones who benefit financially from this. And someone somewhere probably said, “You know, if we remove and update the archaic depictions of backwards natives on the Jungle Cruise, we’ll see a decrease in complaints at guest relations, which means happier guests, which means greater likelihood for repeat visits, which means they’ll spend more money!”. Plus, these kinds of announcements get their company trending, however brief a time, so publicity factored in, too.
The way capitalism works these days is by hedging their bets and trying to figure out who has the money to spend. Over the past several decades, as marginalized groups were taken with greater credibility, companies saw these as untapped, viable markets, and began jockeying for their money. It’s like before when companies were terrified to depict gay people in ads because they worried about alienating the mainstream audience. Now, as homosexuality has become mainstream, companies are much less afraid to do so. Sure, there were trailblazers who started the trend, but that’s exactly the point. You have to start somewhere.
Disney has never been truly progressive in its ideals, and often waited for others before jumping in, which says a lot. Is it better late than never? Of course, but let’s not forget when it comes to being woke, sometimes they can be awful tone deaf and miss the mark entirely. Characters like Jasmine from Aladdin and Nala from The Lion King are great, well-rounded characters, and I daresay most feminists don’t have a problem with them. But in their 2019 remakes, both of them were made super mega ultimate Girl Power Icons, with Nala given more screen time and agency and Jasmine wanting to be the first ever female sultan (Which, historically speaking, was already a thing.) 2019’s Dumbo sidestepped the issues the original had by eliminating the crows, actively not getting Dumbo drunk, the circus made animal-free, and Dumbo and his mother released to the wild.
So yeah, I won’t deny there are some people at the company doing this with their hearts in their wallets, but it’s ultimately better than not making the effort at all.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
Smoo if I know. Short term, we may see renovations at the Enchanted Tiki Room next. I’m not sure what they can do to improve World Showcase at Epcot, but there might be some small efforts here or there. Who the heck knows if anything even could change on It’s a Small World.
Long term, that’s a great question. Facetious as I was earlier, maybe we WILL find ourselves having to change jokes about animals. I don’t know. But right now, we have to find ways to adapt. Sure, transgressive comedy is good, but is the time and place for it at Disneyland? Especially since there’s alternative comedy, deadpan comedy, observational comedy, spoof comedy, physical comedy, prop comedy, and surreal comedy, just to name a few. We’re not wanting for quality humor if we ditch the gags at others’ expense.
I will not cry foul at these changes. They were going to happen anyway, whether it was 2021 or 3021. And it’s entirely possible the new version could be even funnier. So let’s stop pretending the only way to make a good joke is at the expense of a marginalized group. Because if you think so, then…well, the joke is literally, decidedly on you.
Well folks, you’ve been outstanding. But now I need you out standing on the dock. If you enjoyed that, I’m Skipper TAP-G and this was the Jungle Cruise. If you didn’t, my name is Dan and this was was the Haunted Mansion.