Home » The Murky History of Disney’s Jungle Cruise

    The Murky History of Disney’s Jungle Cruise

    In April of 1998, the Walt Disney Company opened an entire park full of animals: Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But it was by no means the original. That honor went to an Adventureland attraction that barely made sense even when it debuted. People loved it anyway.

    You of course know this ride as the Jungle Cruise, which has entertained theme park tourists since its inception. That means it began all the way back on July 17, 1955, the storied day that marked the birth of Disneyland. Over the course of 60 years, the jokes haven’t gotten any better, but the Jungle Cruise maintained lasting appeal anyway. This begs the question of how such a quirky and seemingly non-Disney attraction came into existence and what machinations occurred to sustain it for six decades and counting.

    “True story. I would never lie to you.”

    When Walt Disney and his vaunted team of Imagineers planned their first theme park, Disneyland, they compiled a group of potential attractions. Not all of these ideas ever entered the development phase for various reasons. Some were too ambitious even for the staff at Disney to bring to life. Others carried too hefty a price tag during a time when Walt Disney was investing every dollar he had to fulfill his dream of an amusement park. Conversely, some ideas that he championed didn’t make a great deal of sense to his own employees, a group of people who were devoutly loyal to their leader. Jungle Cruise skews toward this side of the issue.

    In the early days of planning, park planners had the grandiose ambition to build several separate lands. Each of them would seem so realistic that visitors would feel swept away into an entirely different realm. Hubs such as Fantasyland and Tomorrowland had clear goals. One of the other original locations, Adventureland, lacked that sort of definition. Disney himself possessed a specific vision about what it should become, saying  “The spirit of adventure is often linked with exotic, tropical places. Many of us dream of traveling to those mysterious, far off regions of the world.” He wanted guests to experience the sensation of journeying to faraway destinations such as Africa and Asia. The idea was that the instant they reached the sign for what he called the Adventureland portal, they would feel transported.

    Disney formulated his ambitious expectation for Jungle Cruise based on a popular movie series from his company, Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures. These documentary features and shorts earned the company eight different Academy Awards for their quality, and one of them in particular influenced Uncle Walt’s thinking. His studio released The African Lion in 1955, but it had filmed for three years prior to release. It highlighted all the literal dog-eat-dog horrors of nature, demonstrating that only the strong survive. As the king of the jungle, the lion takes what it wants, something the movie aptly demonstrates when a lioness hunts a wildebeest.

    Disney loved his film’s examination of the many different species of creatures uneasily sharing the same savannah. He also admired the sweeping backdrops of Kenya and what is now Tanzania. He wanted to recreate those majestic jungles at Adventureland to make guests undergo a nature journey while at Disneyland. All he had to do was build a series of man-made structures that could provide this sensation.

    “I told these guys this morning, but they didn’t believe me. They’ll get the point. In the end.”

    They were problems with building a part of the park entirely unlike anything seen before. For starters, there were construction issues from day one. Consider the issue from a regular employee’s perspective. You’re a California builder in the 1960s. You understand all the challenges of your daily work life, many of which are exacerbated by the arid weather in the state. Every project is basically the same until you hear about the world-famous storyteller who has bought 160 acres of land in your region. You realize that if you can get a job with that company, you’ll be set for life. That guy and his company will need new buildings for decades to come.

    Understanding how critical getting this job is to your future, you interview and are lucky enough to land a position. Now imagine what it’s like to show up for your first day on the job. Whereas you’ve worked with basic brick and mortar your entire life, this weirdo from Hollywood doesn’t want you to build just any wall. No, you have to craft extremely realistic representations of faraway destinations, and you have to do it on a tight budget.

    Did I mention your new boss is a huge micromanager? If you waste any concrete, this guy who made all those movies immediately gets in your face and complains about how much money you just spent on the part of the construction nobody will notice. All your new co-workers love to grouse about his favorite quote. “By the time you get through burying all our money underground, we won’t have a thing left for the show!” You can’t really blame the guy, either. The initial quote he got for the property was laughably low. They told him it’d cost four million to build his dream park. The construction budget quadrupled years before it’d open for business, eventually costing $17 million.

    The whole situation is untenable. Despite the fact that you’ve got decades of experience in construction, you feel like you’re learning everything all over again. Walls have to look like they’re in Africa or Asia, so you’re trapped between building them to pass California inspection code and pleasing the guy who understands where everything’s gonna go next year when the park opens. Even when you try to do something great, he complains. You pour concrete and steel bars to create this majestic cliff setting overlooking the man-made waters below. You’re convinced that it’s going to become the ride’s showstopper, this thing the blueprints describe as Schweitzer Falls. Rather than praise you, however, the guy gets in your face about whether you really need that much concrete for a place where nobody will ever walk.

    Yes, working on the jobsite for what would eventually become Adventureland was stressful. Sixty years later, Imagineers have trained for years in how to build a wall that doubles as a set piece for a park attraction. When Disneyland was only a dream, however, the on-the-job training was crazy. Construction workers were guinea pigs for a style of building that is accepted as common in the industry now, but it was unprecedented at the time. New employees had to learn not just how to build something but also how to do so in a way that allowed for future renovations. To their credit, these thankless builders raised many man-made structures that still exist today.

    “We have a problem, but we’re all in the same boat.”

    The entire process might have proved impossible if not for Admiral Can-Do. Joseph Fowler knew more about building something from nothing that virtually anyone else in the world, save for Walt Disney himself. Fowler was a savant as well as a renaissance man. He attended the Naval Academy as an undergraduate, finishing second in his class. Four years later, he earned a Master’s Degree in naval architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Suffice to say that the dude was brilliant.

    Fowler loved the sea, and he was widely renowned as a master shipbuilder. Prior to World War II, he built a fleet of vessels in China, but he dutifully returned home to offer his service to his country. The free world owes him a debt of gratitude, because Joseph Fowler personally designed and helped to build the U.S.S. Lexington and U.S.S. Saratoga. His work earned him international respect, and when he joined the fight in World War II, he received a commission worthy of his reputation. Fowler ran the San Francisco Navy Yard and effectively all West Coast operations of the United States Navy. For his work, he was promoted to Rear Admiral, and he’s one of the people who can explicitly demonstrate how his efforts helped defeat Hitler.

    After retiring in 1948, Admiral Fowler sought a new challenge, and fate introduced him to it when he met Walt Disney for the first time. Academy Award-winning writer William Goldman maintains that talent tends to cluster, and so it should come as no surprise that Fowler and Disney became fast friends. Two men of extraordinary accomplishment warmed to the idea of working together. Disney recruited his new buddy to head park construction at Disneyland.

    Fowler had earned his reputation for creating something out of nothing, and his extraordinary self-confidence fit perfectly with the challenges of bringing Disneyland to life. Whenever Disney requested something ridiculous from his war hero park builder, the admiral replied with his reflexive catchphrase, “Can do.” If you love Disney’s theme parks, you owe almost as much to Admiral Can-Do as you do to Walt Disney himself.

    “Could lead to treasure, could lead to certain doom! Keep your eyes wide open. I’m gonna keep mine closed.”

    Image © Disney

    None of the park hubs proved more difficult than Adventureland, though. At its start, it would feature but one attraction, Jungle Cruise. Disney’s plans for the park included a strange combination of specificity and ambiguity. He famously looked at a stage near a waterfall in the area. Disney confidently stated, “I’d like to part the water and let the entertainers come out, and then have the waterfall close behind them.” Right on cue, Fowler replied, “Can do.” Whenever Disney knew what he wanted, his loyal employee did what he could.

    The problem was that Disney didn’t know exactly what he wanted. His original idea for Jungle Cruise involved theme park visitors interacting with live animals. That was what he loved about The African Lion, after all. All of the animals shared the same living quarters. Disney desired that for his Jungle Cruise. He brought the idea to Harper Goff, who, unbeknownst to his boss, modified the plan to mimic one of the most popular movies of the day, 1951’s The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. The American Film Institute consistently names this film one of the top 100 of all-time, but it was only two-and-a-half years old when developers broke ground on Disneyland on July 16, 1954.

    Due to the timeliness of The African Queen, an imitation of the movie’s story of people sharing a riverboat adventure was a no-brainer except for one concern. Would a story vaguely similar to a 1951 movie maintain relevance over time?

    Goff loved the movie and the attraction concept it had incepted so much that he ignored the potential downside. He presented his idea to Walt Disney. Jungle Cruise would provide a riverboat cruise experience to the public featuring all the animal interactions his boss expected. The captain of the ship would perform the roles of protector and narrator during the ride. They would pretend as if every second of the trip involved peril and, potentially, mortal danger. Along the way, they would also draw attention to the various animals strategically placed in plain sight of the Jungle Cruise riders.

    The African Queen was the optimal premise to imitate if the attraction were to offer a true simulation of a journey into the wild. Goff knew that if they based the ride on a journey down the Suwannee River, the original watercourse model for Adventureland, it would bore park guests. If it were based in Africa, Jungle Cruise would cement the idea that a person entering Adventureland was truly entering a new place, an exotic land full of mystery and excitement…and really bad puns. But we’ll get to that.

    There’s something you don’t see every day. Well, I do. Every 15 minutes.

    Image © Disney

    The solution to the last problem generated a new concern. No matter how well trained Disney employees may become, nobody in the 1960s believed that they could provide a respectable jungle cruise experience in surroundings comprised of live animals. Yes, with the benefit of hindsight once again, we know that Disney’s 1990s Imagineers proved their 1950s predecessors wrong when they successfully launched Animal Kingdom in 1998. A lot can change in four decades. That doesn’t alter the fact that the 1950s park planners had cause for concern.

    Live animals don’t keep to a human schedule. Anyone who has visited Kilimanjaro Safaris knows that even today, Disney-coached animals still eat, sleep, and be merry on their own time. The entire landscape has clusters of animals in order to guarantee that a person riding through the attraction will see at least some members of the menagerie. Also, the constant onslaught of humans traveling so nearby could cause cultural disruptions across the various species. Finally, many of the animals Walt Disney preferred were nocturnal by nature, and Disneyland wouldn’t stay open overnight.

    Think about how difficult such challenges looked on paper in early 1954. Park designers couldn’t even guarantee that the animals would remain in their designated living quarters at a given time. Imagine the hysteria the occasional escaped animal would have created. The fear of planning a riverboat journey including a series of encounters with creatures in their (mostly) natural habitat kept Imagineers up at night.

    Walt Disney acknowledged the point, but he came at the problem from a new point of view. From his perspective, a theme park should exist as an especially large film set. Almost all of his ideas for Disneyland were expansions of premises that Imagineers tested on Hollywood soundstages first. Many film productions used live animals to add a cuteness factor. Disney presumed that the concept would translate easily to his theme park. To argue his case, he noted that the giant squid his special effects team had created for the 1954 Disney release, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was extremely life-like. He imagined that creatures such as crocodiles, elephants, and monkeys should prove easy for his team to bring to life.

    Image © Disney

    The Imagineers refused to cede the point to their leader. They countered that lifelike animal caricatures would have one problem or another. They would either look so lifeless that they would negate the Jungle Cruise experience or they would need animatronics to appear living. The latter issue should have been a deal breaker, because there was no known way to hide the circuitry required to power animatronics. Plus, some of the wiring would need to go underwater, which isn’t a great idea when it comes to electricity.

    Disney held his ground. He knew that director John Huston staged The African Queen in a way that the titular tramp steamer was never “totally clear of the water or the underbrush.” This became the blueprint for Jungle Cruise. If they cleverly placed the animals in the right spots, Imagineers could supply power to animatronics without the guests ever seeing the wiring. In this manner, they could protect the illusion of the riverboat adventure while making all the animals seem life-like. Of course, that’s become less important over time, but Disney demanded perfection during the early days of Disneyland.

    Amusingly, the best laid plans still fell apart in the end. As you probably know, the complicated circuitry for the animatronics worked almost flawlessly from day one. Even before the attraction was open to the public, however, Disney’s staff knew they had a huge problem. The artificially colored water provided an accidental side effect. It coated all the animals in a slush that interrupted the spinning of basic cogs and wheels. Yes, all the complex solutions for the state-of-the-art animatronics worked great, but the basic machinery that had worked for centuries broke down.

    “Since we are in an area filled with rare tropical foliage, I’d like to point out some of the plants to you. There’s one. There’s one…”

    Image © Disney

    One of the worst struggles in creating Jungle Cruise involved the vegetation. There were precarious problems in bringing a jungle to southern California. The primary one involved the timeline. Disneyland broke ground on July 21, 1954, and it opened on July 17th of the following year. That’s 361 days of construction. If you built your own house today, you wouldn’t finish it much quicker than that. Somehow, Walt Disney’s well-organized team populated dozens of previously empty acres of land, ones he’d only owned since 1953, so quickly that they were entertaining the public after 12 months.

    What’s the problem? A lot of people bowed to the impressive will of Walt Disney. Mother Nature wasn’t one of them. Growing plants and trees takes time, the one commodity park planners lacked. Uncle Walt drafted another outsider to address the issue. For generations now, Hollywood has offered its fair share of professionals who added “to the stars” at the end of their business card to sound more impressive. In the case of horticulturalist Bill Evans, it was true.

    Evans literally traveled the world as a member of the elite Merchant Marine staff. As the son of another plant lover, he accentuated his civic duty by collecting rare seeds to populate his father’s gardens. Evans actually had greater career ambitions, but the Great Depression altered the course of his life, and for the better. He dropped out of Stanford to master the family trade. He convinced his family to offer their exotic plants as picturesque backdrops for the nurseries of the richest people in Los Angeles. His uncanny green thumb serviced many of the movie industry’s elite celebrities and power players.

    One of the people he impressed with his deft touch was Walt Disney. Evans populated the landscape for Disney’s Holmby Hills estate, the one that listed for $90 million in 2013. Some planters might have felt intimidated by such a project, but Evans dazzled Disney with his natural ability and vision. When Uncle Walt planned to convert 80 acres of his new property into a theme park, he knew exactly who he wanted to handle all the fauna and flora.

    Rise like bread, folks. No loafing around!

    Image © Disney

    Bill Evans, gardener to the stars, suddenly found himself responsible for one of the largest orange groves on the West Coast, only they were supposed to look like exotic continents like Asia and Africa. He had 12 months to fundamentally alter an entire landscape, and while he performed his job marvelously, he still largely failed. When opening day arrived at Disneyland, the forests were notoriously thin.

    Due to the lack of the expected tall trees encompassing the line of sight, Jungle Cruise riders in 1965 could see beyond the anticipated forced perspective range. This created multiple issues including one amusing story where future Disney Legend Marty Sklar illegally parked his car near the watery cliffs of the attraction, which was visible to guests just beyond the underdeveloped trees. 

    As talented as Evans was, he wasn’t a miracle worker. Trees don’t grow tall overnight, which agitated his boss, Walt Disney. One of the unstated bylaws of his company was that no living vegetation would die on his watch. Uncle Walt also produced some of his own. During a visit to investigate a potential ski resort in Colorado, he stumbled upon a set of petrified trees for sale. They fit perfectly for his vision of his new park, which he expected to claim “the best darn jungle this side of Costa Rica.” He kept one of the petrified trees for personal use and transferred the other to Disneyland.

    Image © Disney

    There were other forest discoveries along the way. Once, while extremely frustrated over the state of faux jungle, Disney wondered aloud if they couldn’t just increase the size of the tree by adding artificial wood, the equivalent of tree stilts. While people presumed he was joking, the idea had merit. In fact, the addition of enhancements to a living tree proved easier than anyone anticipated. They were able to add artificial size whenever needed in this capacity. Evans became a master of repurposing and resizing thanks to the trials and tribulations of Adventureland in combination with Walt Disney’s whimsies.

    One of his most famous tricks was re-integrating the plentiful orange trees in the area. It’s not accidental that Disney was in possession of so many of them, either. You’ve heard the song about tying a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree. Disney employees did almost exactly this. They identified every orange tree that they could save and tied a ribbon around to it to notify the people in the bulldozers that the tree was going to become a part of Disneyland. With such a large supply of orange trees on hand, Evans had the epiphany that if he simply turned them upside down, they would resemble jungle branches with tangled roots.

    Evans constantly fought to build the best jungle imaginable. During his world travels, he saw his fair share of forests, and he found most of them boring. Rather than plant a monotonous batch of trees, he decided park visitors would prefer a Hollywood jungle instead. He discarded Amazon realism in favor of what people’s perception of such tropical region should be. Since movies and, recently, television informed these ideas, Evans mined the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, a boomtown at the time, for lots of palm trees that otherwise might have fallen victim to haphazard bulldozing. In this way, Evans saved a bunch of vegetation while providing the idyllic setting for Adventureland and, especially, Jungle Cruise.

    I will need a volunteer to help me steer the boat, someone between the ages of 4 and 7.

    While designers had long planned for Jungle Cruise to operate as an actual boat cruise, issues cropped up with this decision. For starters, the timing of the cruise had to remain constant. Any captain can tell you that no matter how calm the waters are on a given day, scheduling arrival and departure times is dicey at best. While California didn’t have the rainy concern that the next theme park location, Walt Disney World, would, it still was susceptible to the elements on occasion. In other words, actual untethered boat rides downstream could cause traffic issues.

    In order to stave off such concerns, Disney Imagineers correctly determined that they needed to control the speed of the tramp steamer through the watery course. That meant putting each Jungle Cruise boat on rails. Because of this choice, boat captains would never control the path of their travels. They could, however, influence the speed of their vessels during the journey. This concession also frustrated Disney, who you’re probably beginning to appreciate was quite the control freak, with this behavior validated by his historic life achievements.

    Once, while riding the Jungle Cruise attraction, Disney was horrified to realize that the entire trip was going too quickly. His intended ten-minute jungle experience only lasted four minutes. The guilty captain and the entire Jungle Cruise staff received re-training on how they should time their ride movements. This wasn’t a matter of Disney being too particular, either. Designers planned a lot of the animatronics for the jungle recreation based on when guests would ride by the various animals. If the timing wasn’t precise, the visual stories told during the journey wouldn’t make sense. This sort of attention to detail explains why Disneyland has stood the test of time.

    Because of the tracks, there was one other necessary stipulation. The waters beneath the boats required coloring. Otherwise, Disneyland tourists would notice the underlying tracks and be taken out of their exotic jungle experience. If you’ve ever heard someone complain that the Jungle Cruise water is so nasty that it’s discolored, you can explain to them that the murky depths are intentional rather than a byproduct of haphazard cleaning practices. The latter explanation doesn’t sound like Disney anyway, does it? This choice to color the waters is what caused the mechanical issues with the animatronics mentioned above, which underscores the burdens of opening Disneyland. Every time park planners solved one issue, another presented itself.

    That bamboo can grow to be six stories tall. People say it can grow to seven stories, but that’s a whole other story. 


    Image: Disney

    When Jungle Cruise launched in 1955, it was a serious story in tone. All the narration highlighted the perils of the trip, pointing out danger at literally every turn. Harper Goff’s backdrops on the ride were the Congo, the Nile, the Mekong, and the Amazon rivers. There was no hackneyed joking either visually or narratively. Since the original version of the attraction offered a tribute to the True Life Adventures documentaries, the dialogue was serious at first. It changed for a reason, and that reason impacted the entire theme park industry forever.

    Walt Disney took tremendous pride in his creations, as demonstrated above. He was a tireless worker who was detail-oriented and obsessed with redefining his legacy. He operated under the assumption that he had cursed himself by peaking too soon. Since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, every later project Disney created was compared to his first movie, the one that seemed impossible to match in terms of quality and storytelling. Through the art of animation, Disney proved in that film that they could show anything onscreen in a way that moved the viewer.

    Critics of the day obsessed over the evolutionary rather than revolutionary Disney films in the wake of Snow White. Audio-animatronics, no matter how good they were, would again suffer against the lingering memory of Snow White. It’s the problem with creating something almost perfect. It raises expectations too high for all future works. By the 1950s, Disney felt constant frustration that after decades of historic innovations, he was spending his later years “playing with his toys,” scale models of Disneyland concepts. He oftentimes worried that his life was regressing rather than advancing.

    Of all the groups I’ve taken on this ride, you’re the most…recent.

    Image: Disney

    Facing constant self-actualization pressure, Uncle Walt took all criticisms of his nascent theme park, real and perceived, as attacks on his credibility. During a random day at the park, he bristled when he overhead a conversation between mother and son. The little boy indicated that he wanted to ride on Jungle Cruise. His mother dismissed the idea out of hand, stated that they’d ridden it before. There was no point in going again. She might as well have slapped Uncle Walt in the face.

    What Disney learned from this conversation was that his park patrons were fickle. If something wasn’t new and exciting, they would quickly lose interest in it. In this moment, he crystallized an idea for the future of all Disney theme parks. His philosophy became mythic. “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

    Walt Disney started his bold new vision with Jungle Cruise. By 1961, it had become something of a problem child for the park. Guests loved it, as demonstrated by its continued drawing power. The waterlogged animatronics broke down so much that he once joked to a reporter that he knew they worked only because he’d seen it on television. Rather than allow a struggling ride to operate indefinitely, Uncle Walt addressed the issue directly. He tasked one of his favored Imagineers with improving the ride experience.

    Image: Disney

    Marc Davis, one of the revered Disney’s Nine Old Men, earned the crucial gig. To fundamentally alter Jungle Cruise as a concept, Davis illustrated comedic ideas for the various animal scenes. Guests riding the tramp steamers would drive past these images such as four men cowering on a totem pole above a giant-horned rhinoceros. If you didn’t understand the “They’ll get the point. In the end.” joke above, that’s the visual explanation. The rhino has the point, and the proverbial low man on the totem pole is about to get it in the end. Davis meticulously researched the amount of time guests would spend at each sight gag. Then, he drew a scene that he believed they could enjoy in the given timeframe.  Many of the original sketches Davis created still exist in some form today, including the pygmy canoes and the infamous Sleeping Zebra.

    To accentuate the change in tone toward satirical humor, the verbiage in the narration also changed from formal documentary to playfully macabre. This seemingly innocent modification proved wildly divisive at the time. A vocal group of naysayers complained that the switch from serious boat adventure a la The African Queen to a silly romp reduced their enjoyment of the ride. Fifty years later, those complaints seem crazy to those of us indoctrinated into the sillier side of Disney attractions, but it was a major issue for Disney in the early 1960s.

    For (arguably) the first time, Disney overhauled one of their most popular ticket sellers. Some guests revolted against the idea.  Nowadays, the outrage goes the other way. People loudly complain if a ride grows outdated in tone. That’s because Walt Disney refused to rest on his laurels with Disneyland, even when it was just five years old. His dedication to keeping everything fresh redefined all of our expectations for what we should expect from theme parks.

    We’ve laughed and we’ve cried. We’ve almost died! I love you all like family. Now get out! I’m sorry, that was rude. Please get out.

    Image: Disney

    The legacy of the Jungle Cruise is unmistakable. The unlikely combination of comically extreme jungle scenes and pun-intensive onboard narration has entertained millions of theme park guests over the past 60 years. Walt Disney himself created the ride and demanded its overhaul from seriously sinister to slyly slaphappy. Due to its popularity at Disneyland, Jungle Cruise was an automatic inclusion for Walt Disney World’s debut. It’s since received implementations at the Tokyo and Hong Kong resorts as well.

    For years, Disney attempted to adapt a movie from the story concept. There was even a plan in place a few years ago for Woody and Buzz, Tim Allen and Tom Hanks, to star in a buddy movie version of Jungle Cruise. Recently, their plans changed when the company’s studio division confirmed that Dwayne Johnson, the top-grossing actor in the world, will star in an upcoming film version of Jungle Cruise. Presumably, it will offer all the over-the-top hijinks of the ride itself along with some of the daring adventure of the original inspiration for the Jungle Cruise, The African Queen. When it debuts, the movie will provide additional backstory to one of the tallest tales in the history of Disneyland.

    What’s your favorite Jungle Cruise joke? Let us know in the comments below…