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Will Disney's Jungle Cruise Embrace Campiness as it Sinks Racism?

Head Hunters in Disney Jungle Cruise

As Disney revamps a classic ride to address troubling depictions of "natives," we hope for more gay skippers.

If Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise has gained a LGBTQ+ fan base in the past decade it has more to do with the ride’s guides than any actual thrills. In fact the ride has offered a respite from the heart-pounding and bone-shaking aspects of rides with sharp drops and sudden turns. That doesn’t mean, that as the boat moseys through the African jungle that riders aren’t reminded of this ride’s (and, as a whole, Disney's) racist past. The Jungle Cruise, which first opened in 1955, has long been criticized as racially insensitive (at best).

The guides, or skippers, are Disney castmembers who act as tour guides while (supposedly) steering the boat and navigating it through the dangerous waters.

Although half-naked African “natives” no longer accost riders, Trader Sam, depicted as a dark-skinned man dressed tribalistic clothing made of straw, still beckons while the river guide jokes that Sam will trade “two of his heads for one of yours.” Other “natives” climb a tree after a white man, at the point of a rhinoceros’s horn.

Just last year, a blog post by LA-based design and production company Thinkwell called The Trader Sam scene “horrifyingly racist.”

The redeeming quality of the ride for many queer tourists was the campy banter of the Jungle Cruise river guides, and now — as the park redesigns the ride — there’s hope that it will lean in to the camp while moving away from troubling depictions of Africans.

On Disney Parks Blog, Michael Ramirez, public relations director at Disneyland Resort spins the redesign simply as an attempt “to enhance classic attractions and elevate the experience for all of our guests.” The newly imagineered ride will “include new adventures that stay true to the experience we know and love — more humor, wildlife, and skipper heart  —  and also reflect and value the diversity of the world around us.”

Here’s hoping that leaning in to the humor and “skipper heart” will mean embracing the camp that has made the attraction such fun.

According to a video embedded in the blog post, one of the storylines portrayed through the ride will be of a previous skippered-cruise that has run aground and is now trying to escape the jungle with amusing results. Monkeys will take over the wrecked boat.

New scene planned for Disneyland's Jungle Cruise

Chris Beatty, the Walt Disney Imagineering creative portfolio executive, told D23, the official Disney fan club, that the revamped ride will be “the Jungle Cruise you know and love, with the skippers still leading the way, and at the same time, we’re addressing the negative depictions of ‘natives.’”

So, for example, it has reimagined the run in with a rhino: 

rhino scene reimagined in Disney Jungle Cruise

And at least one of the Disney team overseeing the new project's development is Black.

Carmen Smith of Disney

Rides have been revamped before to reflect changing values, as when the Pirates of The Caribbean ride was altered to combat the sexism and denigration of women previously portrayed. The effort to confront Disney’s troubling history of racism also didn’t start with the Jungle Cruise. It has been commended for finally updating Splash Mountain, an attraction connected to the controversial 1946 film Song of the South, by tying it to The Princess and the Frog, 2009’s animated film starring Princess Tiana, the first Black Disney princess.

(Still waiting for that first LGBTQ+ princess, Disney!)

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Jacob Anderson-Minshall