The Back Side of the 1960s

Preemptively heading off comments about the upcoming Jungle Cruise refurb

Today, Disney announced their plan to make changes to the Jungle Cruise rides at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, removing culturally insensitive (and imperialist) references to native tribes, guides, and head hunters, and replacing them with a new storyline about the hapless crew of a previous journey.

I wanted to ask all the Disney parks fans to join together and head off any attempts from the internet to turn this into some kind of controversy. To be fair, I haven’t actually seen any complaints about it yet, because I’m largely out of touch with the usual gang of obsessives on Twitter and in forums. So this might not even be necessary. Maybe everybody’s excited about it!

But: when Disneyland painted its theme park fairy tale castle a brighter color, people responded as if the company had gone back in time and physically assaulted their younger selves. Anything involving “cultural sensitivity” — like, hypothetically speaking, changing a key scene in an attraction that showed the lighter, family-friendly side of both fat-shaming and human trafficking — tends to have people grousing about it for years.

And actually, I get it. Song of the South is undeniably a movie infused with racism to its core, but I still felt more than a little melancholy when I heard that Splash Mountain was being re-themed to The Princess and the Frog. The movie, its songs, and the ride conjure up very specific, wonderful memories of my childhood and my mother, and it’ll never not be sad seeing those erased.

I understand intellectually why it’s necessary to change, and I’m in favor of the changes, but there’s still that emotional gut response aversion to it. That temptation to ask, “can’t we just acknowledge that it’s dated, and keep it with asterisks attached?” Or, “Isn’t it ultimately harmless?”

So here’s a very recent — and pretty embarrassing, honestly — example to demonstrate why having dated, inaccurate, or insensitive images repeated constantly, even if they seem “harmless” or “just a gag,” can be harmful. If you’re like me, a middle-class American or Western European who’s never traveled to east Africa, what is the image that come into your head when I mention “Kenya?”

Is it this?

Image of Nairobi from the Enchanting Travels website

I’m embarrassed to admit that I always pictured what I’d always thought was a positive image: a broad, beautiful, savanna with zebras and wildebeests grazing peacefully. I know that much of the country is actually like that. And I know that my only other frame of reference for “Africa” — the fictional city of “Harambe” in Animal Kingdom — is supposed to be a relatively accurate depiction of the smaller towns that are probably more widespread (at least, as of the late 1990s). But my entire idea of the country, if not the entire continent, was so full of these images of safaris and small towns that they’d completely crowded out even the possibility of a cosmopolitan city center with millions of people.

To compare it to something I understand better: it would be as if I thought the entire state of Georgia was like the small towns in the rural southern part of the state, and Atlanta didn’t even exist. I’m not putting any value judgment on small towns vs city centers; the older I get, the more I think cities are overrated. I’m just talking about preconceived notions of an entire place that don’t account for its variety, and don’t update over the years along with the real world.

Just last week, somebody on Twitter posted a picture of the Nairobi skyline — I can’t remember the exact context, but it was in response to some dipshit trying to say that Kenya was backwards — and I think it might’ve been the first I’d ever even seen the city. I wasn’t even aware that I’d been carrying around those over-simplistic ideas of what the country, and really, the rest of the world is like.

So essentially what I’m saying is that I could understand the complaints about the Jungle Cruise changes: the ride is supposed to be silly and light-hearted and never claims to be an accurate representation. Plus, it’s set during some not-quite-specified time period in the early 20th century, so it’s supposed to be dated. (Similar to the “They’re pirates! They’re supposed to be bad guys!” complaint, as if that were the point).

But my response is simply that images are more powerful than we think, especially when they’re presented as if they were harmless, and especially when they’re repeated so often. We can — and in the case of the Jungle Cruise, absolutely should — keep the old aesthetic, but we’re not obliged to keep the old attitudes. From the gags I’ve seen in their “first look” video, it seems like they’ve got the right idea: it’s still silly and fun, but the humor is more inclusive instead of just making fun of people that don’t deserve it.

Men in Black: Alien Attack

Recommending a friend’s podcast appearance talking about a now-classic ride

Belated YouTube and podcast recommendation: I’ve been a fan of the Theme Park Stop channel for a while, where Alicia Stella does videos about theme park news and rumors, mostly focused on Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. She somehow manages to make even speculation about patent applications interesting, and she also does a killer impression of Mickey Mouse from the Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride.

I haven’t had much time for podcasts since I stopped having to commute, so I missed out on a recent episode of their podcast featuring my real-life pal Dave Cobb. He was talking about the Men In Black: Alien Attack attraction at Universal Studios Orlando, a project on which he was the creative director. It’s a great conversation about the planning and development of the ride, with hosts who not only know the ride inside and out, but are big fans of it not only as theme park guests, but people who try to closely follow the business.

Dave is super-generous with his time, enthusiasm, knowledge, credit, and friendship, and he and his husband have been my hosts in LA and for Disneyland gay days more times than I’ll ever be able to pay back. It’s fun hearing him talk about a project he’s proud of, sharing his personal contributions and emphasizing the work of so many different people that went into making it.

It’s also a reminder of how the ride is the highlight of Universal Studios Orlando, and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. I’ve got to admit that I’ve always been kind of an a-hole about Universal Orlando, because I immediately forget that I’m an adult and instead revert back to being an insufferably hyper-critical guest (and rabid Disney Parks fan) in my late teens and early 20s.1And in the summer in Orlando, no less, which just added to the feeling of irritation. I only got to ride Men in Black for the first time a few years ago, and it was immediately clear how there’s a level of thoughtfulness that went into that attraction, from start to finish, that you rarely see even now, in the post-Wizarding World of Harry Potter era. As they say at the beginning of the podcast, there’s a reason it’s lasted 20 years in a park that is constantly changing!