“Disney” and “controversial” don’t typically go together. Even so, 58 million people visited Walt Disney World last year; it’s impossible to please them all. And occasionally, there will be an outcry, uproar, outrage, or brouhaha that’s large enough to make the news.
A lot of the controversies on this list are rooted in older people’s nostalgia for old attractions. The kids don’t give a damn about the newest additions to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, because they’re experiencing it for the first time anyway. It’s the older Guests who want to relive the formative memories from their childhoods, and therefore notice even the slightest changes to an attraction. Disney adults take these alterations personally; any change to a cherished memory is ill-advised.
The other type of controversy is over a new attraction, that for whatever reason does not meet Disney’s lofty standards, or runs contrary to the company’s stated values or aims. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often, and in most cases (like the ones on this list), the attraction is torn down or reimagined — sometimes within a year — to rectify the problem.
Here are the 8 most controversial rides in Disney theme park history.
Opening Date: 1955
The Jungle Cruise is one of the few remaining rides from Disneyland’s opening day. You board a boat with a live skipper, who takes you on a river cruise through areas themed after Asia, Africa, and South America. All the natural foliage is real; it’s become a self-sustaining ecosystem over the past 60 years. All of the animals and humans, however, are Audio-Animatronics.
There’s been two major changes in the ride since its inception. First, the skippers used to shoot cap guns at the animals (like the hippos) who threatened to tip the boat. For several years, Disney removed the guns entirely. Nowadays, the guns are back. But the skippers fire warning shots in the air instead of shooting directly at the animals.
And in 2021, Disney refurbished the ride and removed harmful and racist depictions of the jungle natives. In the original, prior version, they danced, waved, and fired their weapons at you from the river banks. There was a prominent native nicknamed “Trader Sam,” the head salesman who held up shrunken heads to barter ( Get it?). Trader Sam is gone from the refurbished ride, and in his place is Trader Sam’s trading outpost, which deals in lost items that prior Guests left behind.
Opening Date: 1989
There are three Splash Mountain rides. There’s the original one in Florida’s Walt Disney World, there’s one in California’s Disneyland, and there’s another in Tokyo Disneyland. As of March 2023, the WDW version is permanently closed, and will be rethemed and reopened as Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. The Disneyland version is still open, although it is scheduled to be closed and rethemed in the near future. Tokyo Disneyland’s Splash Mountain is still open, and the park has not yet indicated whether it will also close and retheme.
The decision to retheme Splash Mountain came amidst a long-running controversy due to its inspiration: the 1946 live-action/animated film Song of the South. The movie, which has never been given a home video release in the United States, depicts a Reconstruction Era South. It portrays its black characters as carefree and subservient to white plantation families in post-slavery America. In doing so, it reinforced a idealised depiction of the social and racial castes at the time.
None of this is explicit in the Splash Mountain attraction; the Disney Imagineers removed the Uncle Remus character from the equation and replaced him with Br’er Frog as the attraction’s narrator. But in the end, the well was too poisoned for the attraction to stand on its own. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is scheduled to open in 2024.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Opening Date: 1967
I wrote an entire Kotaku feature on why adding Captain Jack Sparrow to Pirates of the Caribbean attraction was a bad idea. Essentially, the designers took a ride that was a sprawling visual feast — more about atmosphere and ambience than The Story — and turned it into The Search for Captain Jack, by shoehorning his character into every scene. In Walt Disney World, the designers eliminated the entire end scene — where drunken pirates shoot their guns in the air — and replaced it with a single Jack Sparrow figure in a treasure room.
Since then, there have been additional changes to the ride. The most notable one came in 2018, when Disney redesigned the infamous auction scene. In its original incarnation, the pirates were auctioning off the town’s women to the highest bidders, and the pirates encouraged a redheaded woman to lift her skirt . Now, the pirates are auctioning off the town’s valuables, and the redheaded woman is a pirate herself, holding a gun in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other.
This, combined with decades-old changes to the pirates chasing women in the following scene, led to widely mocked complaints that Disney was now “woke.” Critics criticised these alterations as the product of a top-down liberal agenda, rather than a reasonable response to a society-wide shift in social norms and cultural awareness.
Opening Date: 2001
In 2001, Disneyland opened Disney’s California Adventure, a second theme park to accompany the first. It was, from the outset, a disaster. It was a theme park in California about California, which was both myopic and redundant. Too many of its rides and attractions were ‘off-the-rack’ — uninspired carnival rides with minimal theming. And worst of all, it was all done on the cheap. When Disney decided to revamp and rededicate the park in 2007, they estimated it would cost $US1.1 ($2) billion — nearly twice of what they spent to build the park in the first place.
But in terms of cheap, thoughtless rides, there was none more cheap and thoughtless than Superstar Limo. As originally conceived, the dark ride would have been a high speed chase from the pursuing paparazzi. But then, Princess Diana died in a car accident following a high-speed paparazzi chase, and the Imagineers significantly changed the ride, slowing it down to a crawl and including creepy, caricatured Audio-Animatronics of celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Jackie Chan, Drew Carey, Tim Allen, and Regis Philbin. It was dated from its opening day.
I went to Disneyland in 2001, the summer that California Adventure opened. And I remember that unlike all the other rides, the queue for Superstar Limo was nearly empty. Disney took the hint; the company closed the ride less than a year after it opened. Four years later, it reopened as Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!, a dark ride that used the exact same track as Superstar Limo and repurposed most of the Audio-Animatronics.
Snow White’s Scary Adventures
Opening Date: 1971
Three generations of children have been traumatized by this ride in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida. From 1971-2012, the scariest ride in the park was neither the Haunted Mansion nor Space Mountain. It was this ride, with multiple jump scares and morbid overtones, that took the top prize.
The original Snow White dark ride, which opened in California’s Disneyland in 1955, was also a scary experience, meant to place the rider in Snow White’s shoes. The Audio-Animatronic witch appeared several times, cackling her head off and offering a poison apple. You raced through a forest with menacing trees and bats. That was bad enough.
But the Magic Kingdom version of the ride took things way too far. First off, there were now seven different, moving witch Audio-Animatronic — the original Disneyland version had six. Like the original ride, this one also had no Snow White figure in the ride, since you, the rider, were supposed to be Snow White. The witches were positioned and revealed in such a way that they caught guests by surprise, creating jump scares. There was no soundtrack — only the witch cackling continuously in the background. And best (worst?) of all, the witch concluded the ride by pushing a boulder onto you, thus “killing” you. Happily ever after, my foot.
The current version of the Snow White ride in Disneyland is greatly altered from its original — it hews much closer to the movie’s plot and includes scenes of the dwarves dancing and mining. As for the Magic Kingdom version, it closed in 2012, and was replaced with the Princess Fairytale Hall, an elaborate meet-and-greet area.
ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter
Opening Date: 1995
ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter lasted less than a decade before Disney shut it down. And during that time, the designers kept altering the ride to make it more palatable. But the problem was not that it needed to be fixed. The problem was that it existed in the first place.
The attraction was a massive theatre-in-the-round, and guests were strapped into their seats with shoulder restraints. The satirical storyline was about a futuristic, alien-run company called X-S Tech (Excess tech? Get it?) — an odd choice, given that the ride was in Tomorrowland, a utopian vision of humanity’s future. And it featured a massive, monstrous alien, which broke loose and terrorised guests in the pitch-black dark. The speakers in your seat made it sound like the alien was about to bite your head off. And you could feel its hot breath and drool when it passed by.
The result was lots of screaming, crying children. Disney had to put age and content warnings on the entrance. And in 2003, the ride closed down for good. It reopened in 2004 as Stitch’s Great Escape, which used a lot of the same sensory effects, but for more comedic purposes.
The Enchanted Tiki Room (Under New Management)
Opening Date: 1998
The Enchanted Tiki Room was a classic show that featured over 150 Audio-Animatronic performers, including birds, flowers, and tiki totem poles. Today, it’s known as much for its Dole Whip pineapple desserts as the show itself; the juice and yogurt stands outside the attraction are some of the most popular concession stands in the entire park.
But in 1998, the brain trust at Florida’s Walt Disney World decided to revamp the attraction as The Enchanted Tiki Room (Under New Management), which now featured oversized figures of Iago (Aladdin) and Zazu (Lion King) as the new owners of the Tiki Room. Iago loudly and obnoxiously branded the current show as out-of-date and old-fashioned, which angered the Tiki God Uh-Oa. This also confused younger guests, who had never experienced the original attraction, and thus had no basis of comparison to know what had changed or what was being parodied.
The show brimmed with mid-90s How-Do-You-Do-Fellow-Kids energy. And when an accidental fire wrecked the attraction in 2011, it felt like an act of mercy. Walt Disney World reverted back to an abbreviated version of the original Tiki Room show, and it’s stayed that way ever since.
Opening Date: 2003
I’ve been on every Disney attraction on this list, with the exception of Mission: SPACE. And that’s by choice, because centrifugal force and I don’t mix.
Mission: SPACE is a simulator of a space shuttle liftoff and orbit, via the use of a massive centrifuge contraption that exposes its riders to 2.5 Gs — more than twice the Earth’s gravity. The ride opened in 2003, and within its first three years, 12 people were hospitalized and two people died, although both had pre-existing health conditions. A more in-depth study of the ride, conducted from June 2005 to June 2006, uncovered some additional, alarming statistics: Paramedics treated 194 people for sickness resulting from the ride. Of those people, 25 passed out, 26 had breathing difficulties, and 16 reported chest pains or irregular heartbeats.
Shortly after it opened, Disney began including barf bags on the ride, to account for how many people were getting sick. And in June 2006, it began running two versions of the ride: the original “orange” version and a modified, tamer “green” version that did not spin. The ride continues to operate today with these additional safeguards in place.
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