Home » Behind the Ride: 3 Mind-Bending Tricks Employed by Splash Mountain

    Behind the Ride: 3 Mind-Bending Tricks Employed by Splash Mountain

    Song of the South is arguably the most controversial animated film ever produced by Walt Disney. It’s also one of the few that Uncle Walt chose not to release under his own umbrella, instead choosing RKO Radio Pictures as the distributor for his first movie to include live actors. You almost certainly know of the contentions about Song of the South’s shortcomings. That’s why the everlasting popularity of the Disney park attraction based on the film is so remarkable. It’s able to overcome a negative stigma, warming the hearts of generations of theme park tourists. How does this ride accomplish such an impressive feat? Let’s go behind the ride to learn many of the best tricks employed at Splash Mountain.

    The Experience: Delayed gratification as an art form

    The Trick: Heightened anticipation

    Image: Disney

    A lot of Disney visitors are under the impression that Splash Mountain is one of the oldest attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. In truth, it only dates back to 1989 at Anaheim and 1992 at Orlando. When conceptualizing the idea of a ride with a watery landing, Disney’s Imagineering team understood that log flume rides with aquatic finishes weren’t unusual, even for the late ‘80s. In order to craft an attraction worthy of the Disney brand, they’d have to differentiate their experience. Even if they achieved that, however, they’d still need to put the splash in Splash Mountain. Otherwise, they’d disappoint and frustrate their guests.

    Disney’s brilliant park planners deduced that they could enhance the ride simply through a strong visual display. You know the one I mean. The man-made structure of Splash Mountain chases away all the cowards who fear the thought of getting doused with water. Whereas most log flume attractions are fast and to-the-point, Disney went a different way with Splash Mountain. It uses several false finishes to confuse and delight park visitors. They see the giant drop at the end of the ride as they approach the attraction. Then, the line queue provides several more up-close perspectives of giddy guests suffering the wrath of a tsunami.

    The idea is to keep the idea of the final splashdown in the rider’s head the entire time they wait in line. Then, theme park tourists used to a straight up then straight down log flume experience will fall for the twist at the first turn. They’ll think they’re about to receive a face full of water, only to recognize that they’ve been tricked. It’s devious at first, and then Splash Mountain stretches out the gag by doing it several more times. By the time the rider gets to the actual precipitous drop, they’re no longer sure what to believe, thereby feeling a different type of surprise when the water bombards them. It’s a masterful type of psychological manipulation that Disney employs to euphoric effect. Few first-time riders exit Splash Mountain without a smile on their faces.

    The Experience: Celebrating a largely disavowed movie

    The Trick: Emphasizing the joy via subtle manipulation

    Image: Disney

    If you look for a video release of Song of the South, you won’t find it. Disney has wisely chosen never to distribute the film due to some…unfortunate aspects. What Disney’s programmers learned during the first 20 years of Disneyland surprised them. Some of the characters from Song of the South were among the most popular roaming mascots at the park. Whenever Brer Bear, Brer Fox, and Brer Rabbit walked around Disneyland, a crowd of kids mobbed them. Disney saw an opportunity to redeem them if not the film itself.

    Let’s ignore the movie’s divisiveness for a moment, instead focusing on the Disneyland experience from a child’s perspective. They’re at the Happiest Place on Earth, the dream destination of anyone who still describes their age with the modifier, “X Years…and a half.” When they see a furry bear, fox, or rabbit, what’s their natural instinct? Children live in a hugger culture, and fuzzy animals are the cuddliest. You could start an animated series tomorrow with a bear, fox, and rabbit, and you’d immediately have the attention of merchandisers across the land. In other words, Disney boldly chose not to throw the baby out with the bath water when it came to the characters of Song of the South.

    How could they emphasize the good while glossing over the bad? I would imagine that was the subject of many tense staff meetings during the 1980s. As always, Disney found the answer through anthropomorphic animals. They chose to re-tell the exciting adventures of Brer Rabbit using standard Disney staples: splashy colors and child-friendly set designs. The emphasis of the entire attraction is silliness for the sake of joy.

    Image: Disney

    After the initial swerve of a fake splashdown, the first set piece introduces the rider to Brer Frog. His primary purpose is to warn of the conflict between Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.This tactic proved to be a brilliant way to place the focus on the attraction and its goofy characters rather than an unfortunate cinematic blemish on Walt Disney’s resume. Still, when the time came to recreate the climactic events of the Brer Rabbit story, Disney chose a beehive full of honey rather than…the other thing.

    The Experience: Having Guests Exit with a Smile

    The Trick: The best musical earworms at Magic Kingdom

    Image: Disney

    For all its flaws, Song of the South has a tremendous strength. Did you know that it’s an Academy Award-winning film? It’s true. Song of the South won in the category of Best Song for Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, a true Disney classic. That’s not the only masterpiece from the soundtrack, though. Disney’s Imagineers culled the nine tracks played in the movie, eventually picking the ones they felt would embody the theme of the ride: happiness.

    In addition to Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, the obvious inclusion, Disney added Ev’rybody’s Got a Laughin’ Place, Burrow’s Lament (known as Sooner or Later in Song of the South), and How Do You Do to the attraction. Disney sagely chose to end the ride with the signature song, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. I would argue that it’s How Do You Do that provides the most lasting impact from Splash Mountain, though. You can listen to it here to understand how potent an earworm this is.

    Imagineers again trigger your emotions through subtle manipulation. The goal here is to keep you smiling throughout the ride. That’s why the attraction emphasizes the goofy banjo music in the scene following How Do You Do. Your flume is about to take you to The Laughing Place…which isn’t as funny a place as you might expect. The surreal aspects of it are palatable since you’re still smiling from the prior scene. Then, once it’s over, you finally reach the mountain’s titular splash. Even that’s a false finish, though. The ride isn’t quite over. After getting soaked, you’ve earned your reward: a rambunctious performace of Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. Disney artfully uses music to control your emotions from the start to finish of the ride.


    Image: Disney

    Have you ever wondered why the attraction bears the name of Splash Mountain? After all, the movie includes no mention of such a place. The explanation is a shamelessly commercial one. An Imagineer named Tony Baxter coaxed two of his peers, Bruce Gordon and John Stone, into helping him storyboard an attraction he envisioned as Zip-a-Dee River Run. This occurred in 1983, and Disney’s executives loved the idea since the new ride would reinvigorate Bear Country, a largely ignored part of Disneyland.

    Unfortunately, the project lacked the momentum to begin immediately. Then-CEO Michael Eisner tossed in his support for the ride, albeit with a caveat. He had a new movie to promote, a 1984 release you should know, Splash. The Tom Hanks/Daryl Hannah film told the story of a man following in love with a mermaid. Eisner suggested (well, demanded) a name change to Splash Mountain to add synergy to the film. He also requested the inclusion of a mermaid in the attraction. You’ve never noticed this since attraction wouldn’t debut for another five years after the film’s release. By that time, a Splash tie-in didn’t seem relevant, not that it ever was. Still, the name of Splash Mountain stuck.

    Also, if you’ve ever wondered about the presence of the log flume itself, Disney’s storytellers have an answer for you. Helpful beavers with especially long teeth carved the boats so that you can enjoy your trip through the bayou. How they glued the wood together is less settled.

    Finally, Splash Mountain was one of the most expensive attractions Disney had built up until that point. The detailed set pieces combined with the accompanying man-made mountain caused construction costs to soar. The eventual price tag was $75 million, which is the equivalent of almost $145 million today.