Thursday, June 6, 2024

Tiana's Bayou Adventure Ride Through Released


As Walt Disney World prepares for the official opening of Tiana's Bayou Adventure on June 28, they released a ride through of the full attraction the other day.  This comes right as media previews are happening.  I don't remember Disney ever releasing a ride through for an entire ride before it opened; plenty of media members will do so, but this is an official Disney release.

Perhaps because Disney was aware that others would be putting out their own videos, they wanted to "get ahead of the narrative" in a way.  Or perhaps they recognized that the ride is only partially "new", given that the track remains the same from when it was Splash Mountain.  We'll talk about all of that in this post, take a look at the backlash and criticism Disney is receiving and then attempt to answer the question of whether this is an upgrade from the attraction that had been there.

If you need a brief refresher, Disney announced back in 2020 that Splash Mountain would be rethemed to the Princess and the Frog.  No details were announced at that time, but in late 2022, the attraction was officially given a name (Tiana's Bayou Adventure) and a timeframe.  Progress moved rather quickly at that point, which allowed Disney to actually move UP the timeline from "late 2024" to "summer 2024", which is how we arrived at the June 28th opening date.

It's hard to talk about the refresh of Splash Mountain without wading into dangerous territory, but I'm going to try anyway.  Splash opened in 1989 and was based on the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South.  If you're not familiar with that movie, it's because Disney has done everything they can to scrub it from existence, given its racist depictions of African Americans.  

It's unclear exactly when Song of the South fell out of favor - Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah won best original song at the 1948 Academy Awards, and the general media reception was favorable upon release.  Even as late as the 1986 re-release, an LA Times review was still positive, though it noted the "dated" depictions of African Americans.  When Imagineer Tony Baxter started working on Splash Mountain in 1983, there didn't appear to be a lot of controversy around basing a ride on the movie.

Of course, Splash Mountain is only tangentially related to Song of the South.  The movie featured a mix of live action and animated characters, and the ride is based only on the animated portions.  While some people have criticized these characters for being racial tropes, this was largely the "innocent" section of the movie.  Regardless, I would suspect that about 99% of the guests who rode Splash Mountain, particularly as the years went on, didn't even know it was based on a movie at all, and certainly not one with Song of the South's controversial legacy.  But Disney obviously felt that eliminating even the hint of controversy from one of its tentpole rides would be the correct choice.

I mention all of this not to relitigate the past, but to give some context for how we got where we are.  You likely have a feeling on this subject one way or the other.  There are plenty of bad faith arguments about being too "woke" or catering to a certain demographic.  The difficulty is determining where the line is drawn that divides legitimate criticism (something that Disney gets a lot of in the best of times) ends, and trolling begins.

Because as you probably know (or at least would have guessed), there was a large backlash to the announcement of a Splash Mountain replacement.  This was a beloved attraction, and Disney fans are notorious for hating change (raises hand meekly).  There is a faction of people that were going to be dissatisfied with anything Disney replaced Splash with, and these people were looking for any chance to spread negativity.

Fast forward to this past week when Disney released that ride through video.  People on the internet have been relentless about picking it apart.  I've heard some of these criticisms and while I think some are valid, some are not, in my opinion.  One thing I've heard a lot is that there is too much dead space.  If you watch a video of Tiana's and Splash side by side, you will see plenty of dead space in the former ride as well.  There has also been talk that the new ride relies too heavily on screens.  I can't get too excited about this one; I love animatronics, but not everything has to be done that way, and I don't find the screens here too obtrusive.

There have also been reports that the ride has shut down a lot during previews.  A retired Imagineer, Jim Shull, tweeted that he thinks the animatronics are designed to hit their "marks" here, as opposed to Splash, where they would just be in a loop.  Any backup would result in these breakdowns, and there are always backups on this ride.  I'm actually not too concerned about this either - previews and soft openings are the exact time that things SHOULD be going wrong, giving Disney a chance to fix them before the official opening.  I find it hard to believe that they weren't aware that this might be an issue before designing the ride.

Since the video was released, I thought I would try to look at it with a critical but objective eye, to determine whether this is truly a worthy replacement for Splash Mountain.  I normally wouldn't "review" a ride before I've actually been on it, but I'm breaking that rule here because the ride portion is actually the same - as far as I can tell, the track is exactly the same as it was when it was Splash Mountain.  So we're mostly just looking at characters, scenery, music, etc, to see what has changed and whether these changes are for the better.

Starting on the positive side, the new animatronics look great. These have been teased by Disney a few months ago, so I kind of knew what to expect.  Even still, these are great modern figures - the multiple copies of Tiana are good, Mama Odie looks great and my favorite is probably Louis.  He looks and moves in a very realistic way (if that can be said for a sentient alligator on two legs).  The last scene of the ride in particular is a wonder of movement, and features a great original song created for the attraction called "Special Spice."

On the other hand, I don't know if the story works to propel you along the ride.  I believe there is going to be some stuff in the queue that helps explain the story, but I was a bit confused by the ride itself.  You're searching for ingredients for Tiana's party (this is what I heard the story was) but you're also looking for band members, and are shrunk to the size of a frog for some reason?  

The music doesn't necessarily help here.  While I really like the songs from the movie, I don't think they really fit what's happening in the scenes.  Disney sometimes does "book report" rides, where it's basically a retelling of the movie.  This might have been the better choice in this case, because the songs don't really line up well with a post-movie storyline.

I hate to keep comparing Tiana's to Splash, but that's essentially what we are asked to do here.  Splash had a defined story, which was pushed along by the tremendous soundtrack.  Most notably, Splash built to its big conclusion - the actual splash from the mountain - with a mounting dread and musical crescendo.  In Tiana's, the big drop is just kind of there.  Like, there was no way to eliminate the best part of the ride without encouraging further criticism but there was really no story reason to go over the edge at all.  In Splash, the drop into the briar patch is THE moment.

At the risk of sounding too much like those bad faith commentators I mentioned earlier, Disney would have been better served by simply building a new Princess and the Frog dark ride elsewhere and keeping Splash Mountain as it was.  I doubt there would be a lot of complaints about a new ride for an underrepresented movie, one that had cutting edge animatronics similar to Disney's recent Frozen ride at Tokyo Disneysea.  

But trying to shoehorn this story and ride into the framework of an existing attraction, and a beloved iconic one at that (even the name Splash Mountain put it in the "Magic Kingdom mountain range" series of rides) was always going to be a tough ask.  Much like I said about the Island Tower at the Polynesian, as much as I'm criticizing it, I still want to ride Tiana's.  But in this case it's because I still enjoy the thrill of that drop and this is really the only choice I have. I'm sure the queue and theming throughout will come across better in person - my critique here is based on the progression of the ride up until the big moment, which I feel is lacking compared to how it used to be.

I'm not going to drag it on the internet or boycott the ride or some nonsense.  And what's done is done, so pining for Splash Mountain won't bring it back.  I just think this was an unforced error here, and despite the modern animatronics, on the whole, I think Tiana's Bayou Adventure is a downgrade on what was there before.  Time heals all wounds, and eventually the younger generation will only remember this ride and not the previous one.  For now, though, this was a net negative.

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