Legends of the Magic Series:
The year was 1983. The Disney Parks seemed to be changing every day, and the designers of these shifting magical environments were faced with some rather daunting tasks at about the same rate. In fact, up-and-coming Imagineer Tony Baxter had a major problem on his hands. Tony had been launched into a career that he could have never imagined; thrust into the spotlight with the massive success of designing Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in 1979. Now others were looking at him to lead them into this new era of Disney Parks. If you would have told Tony Baxter that he would become one of the most successful Disney artists of all time when he was first hired as an ice cream scooper in 1965, he would have thought you were crazy.
But nevertheless, here he was, with dozens of people looking at him to fix all the park’s problems. Unfortunately, during 1983, there happened to be a very specific large problem at Disneyland. Actually, Disneyland had a few issues that eventually played into each other. The first was that The Disney Company was about to have a change in leadership, and that change seemed to be going in a very specific direction. The Disney Company was looking to widen its audience beyond just children and animation. As a result, Disneyland executives were getting more and more interested in thrill rides, something that Disneyland was sorely lacking, compared to other theme parks. It was a tall order, and after the success of Big Thunder (which just so happened to be the type of thrill ride they were looking for) they had immediately turned to Tony Baxter for another similar experience.
The second problem facing Disneyland was that all the original Imagineers (Disneyland designers/builders/engineers etc.) were retiring, and a second generation was in the process of discovering their place in the parks. These new Imagineers were attempting to honor tradition, while simultaneously trying to forge a new path. A very fine line to walk, especially when the leadership of the company was set on the goal of thrill. As a result, some of the attractions that were seen by the new management as more outdated, (all of which were rides that were overseen by the original Imagineers, the new artist’s mentors and idols) would have to close, or at least be refurbished, which caused distress from those new Imagineers that wanted to honor the work of their predecessors.
The third problem, while comparatively trivial to the aforementioned issues, would prove absolutely crucial in the future. The problem was a section of Disneyland known as Bear Country…Rather it was the attendance of this section. Unfortunately, there was no Galaxy’s Edge at the time, and the land was cut off from the rest of the park. The land’s location at the far corner of the park, tucked away behind New Orleans Square, with no other path leading in or out, caused dwindling interest and low attendance. Few guests wandered past the haunted mansion into Bear Country’s single entrance. The area was often virtually deserted. Disneyland was desperately looking for a way to boost the area’s draw to guests.
These problems mulled around in Tony Baxter’s mind for a quite some time, but he couldn’t think of any way to solve them effectively. There were just too many variables and he was being drained creatively by all of the projects management seemed to throw at him. He was at a loss for what to do. That was, until one fateful day when Tony happened to be daydreaming in California’s rush hour traffic. Tony suddenly received an unexpected and brilliant epiphany; he could solve all three problems at the same time! His brain bursting with imagination, Tony Baxter rushed straight to his boss, unable to keep the idea to himself. In a legendary pitch, Tony Baxter explained his idea to Disney executives in almost exact detail what he had conjured up.
His idea, called Zip-A-Dee River Run (later changed to Splash Mountain when the ride’s production was green-lit in 1984), would be an old-school log flume type thrill ride, fulfilling the desire of Disney executives to draw in older audiences. But this log flume wouldn’t be just any thrill ride! It would be a highly-themed and immersive ride that would take the amusement park staple of a log flume to the next level. But How would they do that, you ask?
To understand that, we must first go back in time to 1946 and the release of a live-action/animated hybrid film called Song of the South. Disney may have had the best intentions in mind when they made Song of the South, and had never meant to offend anyone, but due to several crucial mistakes and sheer ignorance, they created what soon became a very controversial film. Ashamed of their mistake, Disney would never release the film to a home audience (for more information on the troubled history of Song of the South, we recommend reading the excellent book “Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South” by Jim Korkis.) However, when he was younger, Tony Baxter happened see Song of the South in theaters, and he chose this obscure film as the property to base the ride on.
Tony Baxter was convinced that most of the animated sequences featured memorable and cute characters that could be extrapolated from the more controversial aspects of the feature and planted into a new story. If they removed the controversial aspects of Song of the South, and focused on the cute animated characters, building a new story grown out of the cartoon “cat and mouse” chase segments of the film, that it would be a perfect theme for a ride to fit into Bear Country (later changed to Critter Country for Splash Mountain’s debut). At the time, executives were convinced that a majority of Disneyland guests would not be familiar with Song of the South or would not have seen the movie. They reasoned that guests would assume that it was an original property and that they could retool the characters as Disneyland mascots instead of references to Song of the South. Still the characters continued to gain controversy over the years, and the connection to the film, however small, would eventually effect the future of the ride in a big way… more on that later.
Back in the design phase: the Imagineers were back in their element solving difficult problems. By pure luck, Song of the South’s animated critters happened to be designed by legendary first-generation Imagineer Marc Davis who also just so happened to have been the designer for the soon to be extinct attraction America Sings, an outdated stage show featuring a huge cast of Audio-Animatronic animals. Because of this amazing twist of fate, the imagineers could simply reuse most of America Sing’s cast as characters in Splash Mountain because they looked like they belonged in the same world! So, besides a reskinning of two Animatronics into Brer Fox and Brer Bear, the rest of the America Sings animals were simply reprogrammed to synchronize with the new show and moved over to Splash Mountain!
But even after all these creative solutions, there were still some rather large obstacles that the Imagineering team needed to overcome. After all, building a Disney attraction is no easy task. After 4 years in production, Splash Mountain had risen well over its budget at a cost of over $75 Million and would continue to rise in cost to an estimated $85 million by the time it finally opened; which is more than the entire Disneyland park cost in 1955, even adjusted for inflation!
As a result, during the year of 1988, Imagineers were looking for a way to save some money on the tail end of this construction behemoth. Tony Baxter suddenly realized that his earlier decision to recycle many of the audio-animatronics from America Sings had saved the company millions. If it wasn’t for that foresight, it would have never been green-lit, or would have been cancelled halfway through construction.
Finally, after five years in development, including 80 hours of reprogramming for every single Animatronic, and an additional three months to rewire them, Splash Mountain opened to the Imagineer’s great relief on July 17th, 1989; the 34th anniversary of Disneyland! The ride was an instant success and soon spawned beautifully redesigned versions at Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland.
And although it’s a fan favorite around the world, it’s controversial film roots have finally caught up with it. After careful consideration, the Imagineers were faced with a brand new problem: retooling Splash Mountain with a brand new theme not connected to Song of the South. And with Disneyland’s Splash Mountain situated right on the edge of both New Orleans Square and Critter Country, it would make sense that the new property that it’s based on would have some footing in both worlds. Hence the decision to utilize the Princess and the Frog…a film that has deep roots in New Orleans, and a wonderful connection to the lovable animals found in Critter Country! It just goes to show that any problem, no matter how big, can be solved if we’re willing to put our imagination to work! Who knows, maybe your next big idea will come during rush-hour traffic!
Which version of Splash Mountain is your favorite?