It’s not a stretch to say that many Disney guests who rode Splash Mountain in its over 30 years of operation never saw the film it was based on, Song of the South. The movie studio removed it from circulation in 1986, after all. Fewer still have read the stories that the film drew from, Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales. For some, Splash Mountain represented nothing more than a ride with a fun soundtrack and a chance to get wet under the sun in Florida or Southern California. But for those who understood the ride’s deep roots, extending back before Disney even existed as a company, it represented something much more troubling: a racist whitewashing of American history.

Disney’s 2020 announcement that it planned to turn the ride into Tiana’s Bayou Adventure became a flashpoint of controversy not just among die-hard Disney fans but also among the country at large. It embodied a struggle Americans face on a daily basis—the realization that many of us have not only participated in experiences that have racist ties, but that we may even have enjoyed them; that we may be unwittingly participating in perpetuating racism simply by taking part in what on the surface seem like harmless everyday activities.

That’s a lot of baggage to put on a theme park attraction. But that’s exactly what made the ride’s change so controversial, and exactly why what the new attraction shows us about how Disney is interpreting American society today matters.

Splash Mountain
People ride the Splash Mountain attraction at the Disneyland theme park on April 13, 2023, in Anaheim, California Gary Hershorn / Getty Images

A park known as the “Happiest Place on Earth” can understandably struggle to factually represent history; history is filled with many unhappy stories. What the Disney parks can offer, rather, is a version of history that speaks to contemporary identity-making, a version that shows visitors the nation that we want to be and hope that we are. Splash Mountain opened at Disneyland in 1989 and at Walt Disney World in 1992, and the history of how it came to be provides an example of how generations adapt stories to fit their points of view about who they are in relationship to generations they share a history with.

Song of the South, from which Splash Mountain would take its inspiration, was a retelling of stories cataloged by the white writer Joel Chandler Harris in the 1880s. Harris’ writings were themselves retellings of stories he had heard from enslaved African Americans on the Turnwold Plantation in Georgia where he worked as a newspaper apprentice with the plantation’s owner in the 1860s. The oral tradition of the “trickster tale” can be found in cultures worldwide, including West Africa, and many enslaved Africans in the United States used the tales—which often focused on smaller animals (the enslaved) besting larger animals (white enslavers) with their mental acuity—as a disguised form of rebellion. The tales were often humorous and might seem harmless if casually overheard by their enslavers. However, they often contained “serious commentary on the inequities of existence in a country where the promises of democracy were denied to a large portion of the citizenry,” according to American literary scholar Trudier Harris.

When Joel Chandler Harris heard the tales from the enslaved at Turnwold, the stories had already been adapted from their original forms to make them more relevant to that time. Brer Rabbit, the sympathetic hero of the tales, was likely revised by enslaved storytellers from Cunnie Rabbit, a similar character in West African folklore. Harris began passing on the tales himself in 1879 in a column in the Atlanta Constitution, employing the character of Uncle Remus, an enslaved Black man, as the narrator. Uncle Remus recounts the stories of Brer Rabbit and his compatriots to a young white child in Harris’ interpretation of Black middle-Georgian dialect. The stories found immediate popularity and were quickly syndicated in newspapers across the country. Harris soon published Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, the first of several collected works of the tales. Uncle Remus was so popular it sold out three printings in its first several months, and has remained in print ever since.

Harris considered himself a student of dialects (including Gullah and the southeastern Black vernacular he wrote into the Remus tales) and a recorder of folklore. In 1883, he wrote to a friend: “It is a misfortune, perhaps, from an English point of view, that the stories in that volume are rendered in the American negro dialect, but it was my desire to preserve the stories, as far as I might be able, in the form in which I heard them, and to preserve also, if possible, the quaint humor of the negro. It is this humor that gives the collection its popularity in the United States, but I think you will find the stories more important than humorous should you take the trouble to examine them.”

Some literary critics today appreciate his role in documenting stories told by the enslaved but largely decry the use of what Harris understood to be the “dialect” of those on the plantation. In addition, contemporary critics contend that the illustrations of Uncle Remus solicited by the publisher to accompany Harris’ tales contributed to the stereotype of the uneducated, unsophisticated, yet happy, Black man in the post-Civil War South.

The female characters in subsequent volumes, notably the house cook Aunt Tempy and house maid Tildy, contributed to the stereotyping of Black women as “angry” and impudent (even today the New Georgia Encyclopedia describes Tempy as “the uppity and privileged cook in the big house,” while Tildy is the “often impertinent house maid”). While Brer Rabbit may have been a character created by enslaved people to express their own agency, Uncle Remus was created wholly by Harris based on his interpretations of several Black men he met and shaped by his and his publisher’s own biases. Regardless of his intentions, Harris filtered a Black American experience through his own white lens in a way that made harsh realities more palatable for the white public.

By the time Walt Disney read them as a child in the early 1900s, the Uncle Remus tales had become ubiquitous representations of American folklore. They were staples of early 1900s public school education. For years they were included in the McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers used in classrooms across the United States. Intended to teach American literature, the readers focused little if at all on the paternalistic racism with which the Uncle Remus tales were imbued.

Disney told the Atlanta Constitution, the paper in which the Uncle Remus stories first appeared, on September 29, 1946, that he had the tales in mind “from early boyhood” and that he valued their “homely philosophy, their rich humor, their pictorial quality, and sheer entertainment value.” For Disney and others of his generation, Uncle Remus had become “one of the great legendary figures of the world’s literature” whose stories spoke “the wisdom of the ages” to “many generations in many lands,” wholly divorced from American slavery.

There’s been considerable debate over the years about what Walt Disney’s personal attitudes were toward race. Scholars and biographers of Disney such as Neal Gabler and Douglas Brode have generally concluded that while he shared the racial biases of the white majority of his day, he wasn’t necessarily a racist intending to assert white superiority. He didn’t segregate Disneyland, yet he enjoyed and employed in his work racist and sexist gags that drew big laughs from crowds, without concern for the harm they might cause. He also didn’t see the dissonance in being aware enough of possible problems to invite then-NAACP secretary Walter White to personally work with him on script revisions for Song of the South while at the same time engaging only white men (notably Dalton Redmond and Maurice Rapf) to do the actual script writing.

The movie’s live-action scenes follow 7-year-old Johnny (who is white) as he visits his grandmother’s Georgia plantation during an unsettling time in his life. He befriends Black sharecropper Uncle Remus, who tells him Brer Critter tales to help him navigate the challenges he faces, including his parent’s separation. The Brer Critter tales are related via animation, and occasionally the two worlds come together, as in the famous scene where Uncle Remus sings the Academy-Award winning song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” What Disney understood simply as a vehicle for sharing “magical tales” that had “delighted the hearts of children of all ages and in all parts of the world and gave the people outside the South their first knowledge of these beloved animal legends told on the plantations by the old negro storytellers who had been handing them down from generation to generation,” many audiences understood as a display of racism. Uncle Remus and Aunt Tempy, the main Black characters in the film, exist only to better the lives of the white protagonists, whether through their physical labor or by offering their wisdom.

The America of the 1940s was not the same one in which Harris’ tales were first published, and the film and its reception reflected that. By the time Disney and his studio began work on Song of the South, Americans had been living with the policy of “separate but equal” for over 40 years. Gone With the Wind, Victor Fleming’s epic film lionizing the Confederacy and enshrining Lost Cause ideology for a generation, had arrived in theaters several years prior to Song of the South and was a box-office and critical sensation, winning eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

But Song of the South premiered to controversy after its post-World War II release in November 1946. Americans of all races, but particularly Black Americans, were prepared to call out discrimination when they saw it. They saw it in Song of the South.

Diverse groups gathered to picket theaters showing the film in cities like New York and Los Angeles. The NAACP issued a statement that the picture helped “to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery,” while protesters carried signs with slogans such as “We want films on democracy not slavery.” The premiere, held in Atlanta, the city where Harris had worked and lived, was covered in the Atlanta Constitution on November 13 as a “glittering” event “with the gentry of Atlanta courtly with jewels and orchids, mink and top hats” in which they welcomed “Uncle Remus back in [a] golden film of the Old South’s glory.” Yet the actor who played Uncle Remus, James Baskett, and all of the film’s Black cast members, were conspicuously absent: the Fox Theater and most of Atlanta were segregated. Once again, Black people and stories were packaged for largely white consumption but still held as separate, emblematic of the social situation of America as a whole.

While discussion of the film faded after its run, concerns about racial justice did not. Americans plunged into the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Black Americans and their allies fought for structural change and federal protections against discrimination that had been in place since the end of the Civil War.

The era between the civil rights movement and the opening of Splash Mountain in 1989 was marked by new understandings of racial ideologies that help explain Disney’s decision to theme an amusement park ride around a racist movie. Just as many white Americans in the 1940s believed that segregation had “solved” racism, so too did the next generations believe that post-civil rights reforms had actually solved racism. The fact that Song of the South existed in the form it did was dismissed as evidence of historical ignorance; the fact that it did even better in theaters on its multiple re-releases than it did at its premiere, however, didn’t seem to concern many as evidence of continued prejudices.

This was the culture in which Song of the South circulated in the late 1970s and 1980s. Its re-releases ensured that the characters were introduced to new Disney fans. The film and the Uncle Remus stories remained in the American consciousness, occasionally being called out, but often shown without comment, or, if any was given, imbued with nostalgia for “a long time ago” when, according to Uncle Remus, “everything was mighty satisfactual.” After the 1986 release, Disney never aired the film again, locking it in what fans know as the “Disney vault.” In 2007, CEO Bob Iger said he wasn’t certain Disney would ever bring it back, saying the company was afraid it “could be either misinterpreted or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context.” Snippets of the film remained available on Disney’s home-video series “Sing-Along Songs,” allowing the company to continue to profit off the characters and music without re-releasing the full film.

When the Walt Disney Company worked on adding a new thrill ride to Disneyland in the 1980s, Imagineer Tony Baxter recalled going through the Disney archives and finding inspiration in Song of the South because it “had theme park qualities, because it went to incredible places, it had great characters, and it had great music…. It was a film that, for a lot of reasons, isn’t shown, so you’d have no ability to reflect on a modern audience with it. So it had to stand on: Is it fun to go in on it? Is the music fun to listen to? Are the characters engaging?” And if one does not bring to the film and its characters an understanding of the history they represent, the answer to all those questions can be yes.

And so, Disney created Splash Mountain, a log flume ride populated with only the Brer Critters and no reference to Uncle Remus, nor any indication of the exact time period in which the stories take place. The dialect used by Harris in his original tales was softened but still present, and with rare exception, the press at the time declined to mention that the stories themselves had descended from enslaved people.

For over 20 years, parkgoers rode Splash Mountain; generations of Americans enjoyed the experience and whistled Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. For the most part, it became “just a ride.”

In 2020, the problems of U.S. racism that went unacknowledged exploded once again into public consciousness with the killings of George FloydBreonna Taylor and many others before them. This brought a public reckoning with issues of racial justice that ranged from the physical violence perpetuated against Black Americans to the ways in which phrases and names still in popular use were derived from racist ideas. This was most evident in the sweeping re-evaluation of some brand mascots that were rooted in racist tropes, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, and the toppling of statues glorifying the Confederacy, the “Old South” and enslavers.

For those whose only exposure to Song of the South is through a ride with funny animals and catchy songs, the racism behind the dialect used by the critters and the concept that the critters represent a time when Black Americans were held in slavery goes unnoticed. The song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” while admittedly catchy, becomes decidedly less so when one learns that it derives from the blackface minstrel character of “Zip Coon.” In 2020 came public calls to retheme Splash Mountain to a ride honoring Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess, and her 2009 film The Princess and the Frog, to change the lens through which the ride viewed Black stories.

Except that project was in fact already underway.

Tiana's Bayou Adventure water tower
Tiana’s Bayou Adventure features a tiara-topped water tower. Walt Disney World

While the public announcement that Splash Mountain would be closing and rethemed around Tiana came in 2020, it had been in the works since at least 2018. Since the 2010s, Disney park changes with an eye toward greater representation and editing of troubled attractions have been many, with some causing fan consternation. The timing of Disney’s announcement of the Splash Mountain closing, however, coming after the murder of George Floyd, forever tied the ride to the cultural moment.

The Princess and the Frog tells the story of a young African American woman named Tiana who Disney hailed as its first original animated Black princess. The animated film ends with Tiana realizing her lifelong dream of opening a restaurant—as well as marrying a prince, of course. The new ride, named Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, is the story of what happens after her happily ever after, as Tiana expands her business with a company called Tiana’s Foods in the late 1920s and ’30s. Disney did not demolish the original Splash Mountain mechanics. The layout of the ride, the ride vehicles and the basic structure all remain the same. What has changed is the story of the ride and the perspective from which it is told. In this case, that makes all the difference.

The stories woven into Tiana’s Bayou Adventure highlight both true histories and potential futures in ways that are largely refutations of the worldview that the Uncle Remus stories came from, reaching even beyond overt racism to touch on the legacies of sexism and worker exploitation that they also represent.

Tiana’s Foods is described as an employee-owned cooperative that has revitalized an old New Orleans salt mine into a farm, working and teaching kitchens, and a community space that showcases local art. The ride itself takes place in and around Tiana’s Foods as Tiana prepares for a Mardi Gras celebration, to which everyone is explicitly welcomed. There is much for riders to take in about Tiana’s story and U.S. history, but the presentation also sends messages about contemporary themes of American identity (including issues of race and class), inclusion and community.

One of the first elements guests will notice is a tiara-topped water tower introducing them to “Employee-Owned Tiana’s Foods.” Throughout the queue where riders wait to board are nods to the co-op community caring for its workers, with signs pointing to the “break room” (which, given that there are currently no federal laws requiring employers to give their workers breaks, is relevant today). A certificate on a wall in the queue tells us that Tiana’s Foods has been commended by the New Orleans Business Journal for its “commitment to preserving the beauty of the bayou while promoting the well-being of every employee.” The Imagineers are explicitly referencing U.S. history here: Collectives and cooperatives represented one of the few ways in which marginalized communities, particularly in the agrarian South during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, could gain economic footholds. Often this went hand in hand with trying new theories of land stewardship, a fact reflected in the way in which Tiana’s Foods is in community not just with its employees but also with its environment, revitalizing an old salt mine into usable land, preserving the bayou and integrating animal friends into its Mardi Gras celebrations.

Cultural and historic references abound, from the presence of multiple styles of unique cultural music such as ZydecoRara and Afro-Cuban jazz to the culinary influences of Leah Chase to the historical diversity of Mardi Gras.

Tiana owning her own restaurant, while not historically impossible, would have been unusual. In the 1920s, women made up only 20 percent of the American work force; fewer still owned their own businesses. Today almost 40 percent of American businesses are women-owned. The recessions of the early 21st century, desires to find new ways of working outside of the constraints of a corporate office environment, and groups hoping to restore traditions to communities stripped of them by racist practices have all led to a sharp increase in cooperative and collective business models. Future riders will learn just as much about 2024 as they will about the 1920s from Tiana’s Bayou Adventure if they are willing to look hard enough.

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure may use the same physical ride structure as Splash Mountain, but it represents a completely new way of viewing America and what stories and traditions are important to pass down to future generations. If the stories that formed the basis for Splash Mountain have their roots in histories of racism and worker exploitation, and specifically Black pain, the stories that inform Tiana’s Bayou Adventure have their roots in diverse communities and Black joy. The team that worked on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, including creative executive Carmen Smith and executive producer Charita Carter, aims to ensure that multiple viewpoints to the stories are represented.

In 1955, Walt Disney opened Disneyland by declaring, “To all who come to this happy place, welcome.” While Disneyland was never segregated, the visual culture of the park remained largely white. The Starks, an African American family who began visiting Disney in the 1970s, told the National Museum of American History, “We have loved Disney for many generations and have enjoyed being a part of the magic for years! While there were times when we would look around and see that we were the only family like our family we always heard Mr. Disney whisper, ‘to all who come to this happy place, welcome.’”

Stark family
The Stark family at Disneyland Courtesy of the Starks

Almost 70 years after Walt Disney’s declaration, this ride will be a place where families like the Starks can not only cling to promises of welcome but see themselves reflected as well. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is an example of how to tell historically influenced stories inspired by the best parts of America’s past, instead of the worst, done by the people being represented themselves, and not by onlookers. It can showcase for new generations the ideals of what being American means today, in all of their diverse, hard-working, community-oriented and environmentally conscious glory.