Splash Mountain Part One

As I so often do, I must start today’s blog back at Disneyland. And to begin the story of Splash Mountain, I must first discuss the Carousel of Progress. By 1970, this transplant from the New York World’s Fair was experiencing a decline in attendance. General Electric, the attraction’s sponsor, felt that the majority of Disneyland’s visitors had seen the show multiple times and asked Disney if they would be willing to move it to their new park being built in Florida so it could play to new audiences. So on September 9, 1973, Carousel of Progress gave its final California performance.

To celebrate America’s Bicentennial, a new show was designed to fit into the existing Carousel Theater and on June 29, 1974, America Sings officially opened. Like Carousel of Progress, which chronicled the advancements in electricity over the decades, America Sings featured a cast of Audio-Animatronics animals and presented a history of music as you rotated from theater to theater and era to era.

In the early years, this show experienced limited popularity, but it was never as well received as its predecessor. And not long after the Bicentennial festivities died down, attendance began to wane. In addition, the show’s “hip” finale had become dated in very short order as music styles are constantly changing. At just three years old, America Sings was already playing to half empty theaters, yet Disney still needed to recoup the money spent on this attraction. In the end, America Sings played for just shy of 14 years and closed on April 10, 1988.

America Sings

America Sings

America Sings

It’s interesting to note that several months before America Sings closed, two of the Audio-Animatronics geese were removed from the attraction and their feathers and skin stripped from their frames, leaving a robotic skeleton. With new heads attached, these frames were placed in the queue for the soon to open Star Tours attraction at Disneyland as G2 droids. And to add to the irony, one of the geese/droids now sang a modified version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (which he sang in America Sings). The new song being titled “I’ve Been Working on the Same Droid.”

Star Tours and Geese-Droid

During the summer of 1983, Imagineer Tony Baxter was trying to devise a way to draw guests into the often deserted Bear Country. You see, Country Bear Jamboree never achieved the same level of popularity at Disneyland that it enjoyed in the Magic Kingdom and this remote land was often void of guests. What this area needed was an “E” attraction.

Bear Country Sign

At the same time, Dick Nunis, President of Walt Disney Attractions, was pressuring Imagineers to come up with some sort of a water-ride to help guests stay cool during the hot summer months. He argued that “All the other parks have a flume ride.” To which the Imagineers countered, “That’s exactly why Disneyland should not – we need to be unique.”

One day, while making his hour-long drive to work, Tony Baxter was struck with an idea. Why not use the characters from “Song of the South” in some sort of a water ride. Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Rabbit were well known to the general public yet this movie had not yet been developed into an attraction like so many of Disney’s other films. When he arrived at his office Tony got together with coworkers Bruce Gordon and John Stone and started brainstorming. After several days of work, the three men came up with a fairly complete concept for an attraction to be called Zip-A-Dee River Run.

Further development moved swiftly and soon a model of the attraction and more detailed storyboards were complete. Now it was time to pitch the concept to newly installed CEO Michael Eisner and President Frank Wells. Overall, it was an easy sell, but Eisner didn’t like the name Zip-A-Dee River Run. He suggested that the Imagineers add a mermaid to the attraction so they could tie it into the recent Disney hit “Splash” that had starred Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. The Imagineers convinced Eisner that this wasn’t a good idea, but he was still insistent that the attraction’s name be changed. He just didn’t think Zip-A-Dee River Run would appeal to the teenage audience, the target group for this ride. When someone suggested they add the word “Mountain” after “Splash” everyone knew they had hit upon the perfect name as this would add a new peak to the Disney chain that already included the Matterhorn, Space Mountain, and Thunder Mountain.

Splash Mountain Artist Concept Drawing

Splash Mountain marked the first time that an attraction based on an animated film would be built outside of Fantasyland. To that end, it was important that the exterior structure blend in with its surroundings such as the Haunted Mansion and Bear Country. Guests would only see the “cartoon world” inside the attraction’s interior. In addition, the foundation for the ride was sunk deep in the ground so the mountain did not overpower its neighbors.

Disneyland Splash Mountain Under Construction

And with so many new animals taking up residence in Bear Country, this land was renamed Critter Country.

Construction Sign

Bear Country Sign

Critter Country Sign

Splash Mountain opened on Disneyland’s 34th birthday, July 17, 1989. It’s estimated that the attraction cost $75M, an extraordinary amount of money for that time. Although a number of new Audio-Animatronics figures were created for the ride, the vast majority came from America Sings.

Disneyland Splash Mountain

The “official” story of the creation of Splash Mountain maintains that the inclusion of the America Sings Audio-Animatronics figures was part of the initial plans. As the story goes, Marc Davis had created characters and designs for Song of the South that were never used in the film. Then, almost 30 years later, they were reborn in the America Sings attraction, a project Marc Davis also worked on. Moving the AA figures to the new Splash Mountain attraction would be a perfect fit as they were already themed appropriately. In addition, closing America Sings would free up the Carousel Theater for a new, more popular attraction in Tomorrowland. However, according to Alice Davis (Marc Davis’ wife), it was the out of control budget, not some grand plan, that necessitated the scavenging of one attraction for another. Reusing the America Sings AA figures was a way to rein in costs. It is interesting to note, the Carousel Theater sat empty for ten years after America Sings closed. It finally reopened in 1998 with a West Coast version of Innoventions.

To give you an idea of how little some of the characters changed when they were moved from America Sings to Splash Mountain, take a look at the next two pictures. The first shot was taken in Act Two of America Sings (Headin’ West segment) and features The Boothill Boys singing The End of Billy the Kid. The next picture was taken on Disneyland’s Splash Mountain as you begin your assent up Chick-A-Pin Hill and shows the same two vultures dressed identically.

Vultures in America Sings

Vultures in Splash Mountain Disneyland

Attendance soared at Disneyland with the addition of Splash Mountain and soon after its opening, Michael Eisner okayed the construction of similar attractions at the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Tokyo Disneyland. However, these would not be carbon copies of the Disneyland version as the parks were too dissimilar.

At Tokyo Disneyland, the Imagineers created a brand new Critter Country for the park. Here it would be a sort of sub-land to Westernland. This would allow the attraction to fit in better with its surroundings. Although the exterior of this Splash Mountain would be similar to the one in California with its towering Chick-A-Pin Hill, the actual track layout would be somewhat different. Also, the loading and unloading of the logs would take place in two different locations (similar to the Haunted Mansion) and these activities would be located inside the mountain. In addition, the logs were reengineered to create less of a splash due to the harsher winters and cultural differences. The Tokyo version also contained a two-story, counter-service restaurant, Grandma Sara’s Kitchen, deep within the mountain.

Tokyo Disneyland Splash Mountain

Grandma Sara's Kitchen

Grandma Sara's Kitchen

Bringing Splash Mountain to Florida would present other challenges as it too had no Bear/Critter Country, but in this case, no area to create a new land either. Here, Splash Mountain would need to be a part of Frontierland and the only available location was next to Thunder Mountain. This would require relocating the Frontierland Train Station. These next two pictures were taken in 1983. As you can see, the approach to Thunder Mountain was vastly different than it is today.

Old Magic Kingdom Frontierland Train Station

Magic Kingdom Thunder Mountain 1983

Another problem the Imagineers faced in Florida was how do you seamlessly blend the American Southwest represented by Thunder Mountain with the Old South of Splash Mountain? These areas are several thousand miles apart in the real world and their topography is vastly different. One way to achieve harmony was through the use of color. Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom would use deeper oranges and reds than its California counterpart in an effort to complement the nearby desert terrain. In addition, the newly moved train station would act as a transition between the two attractions as its architecture blends well with both.

Splash Mountain Under Construction

Splash Mountain Under Construction

New Train Station

Splash Mountain opened to the public three years to the day (July 17, 1992) after its California cousin. This eleven minute ride follows the misadventures of Br’er Rabbit with a thrilling plunge down a 52 1/2-foot waterfall.

Completed Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom)

That’s it for today. Check back tomorrow when I’ll discuss the story of Splash Mountain and Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

36 Replies to “Splash Mountain Part One”

  1. Hey Jack,

    Still catching up, but thanks for another two-part stellar story/blog on Splash Mtn.

    Just read it to my 10yo who said, “Oh my gosh! YOU didn’t know all that?”

    LOL…

  2. Hi Jack –

    Gee, with a little more “Gingerbread,” the original Frontierland Train Station in your picture would look GREAT in the new Fantasyland where the MTF Train “Station” currently is!

    -Jeff

    Jack’s Comment:

    From what I understand, the station in Towntown Fair will be redesigned with a circus theme to match the redesigned Goofy’s Barnstormer and the new location of Dumbo.

  3. Great article as always Jack. As an FYI (since they’re my favorite characters) the vultures in Disneyland don’t have the hats and tuxes—don’t know if they were changed over the years or what.

  4. great stuff splash is my fave ride besides haunted mansion & pirates of the caribbean. my friends & i went on it & got stuck last yr it was fun

  5. Great article! I love Splash Mountain and I love the Brer’s! Some of my favorite characters. The one thing that threw me was that SM opened in 1992! WOW!! I had no idea that it wasn’t open during my very first trip to the world in 1989 when I was 11. Crazy, it’s one of my absolute favs now, if not my fav!

  6. Interestingly enough, Disneyland’s version is the only one to have a 47 degree drop due to a mistake made by the contracting. When constructing the flume at the top of the big drop and the splash down at the bottom of the big drop the contracting built the two closer than what was called out on the blueprints. When they installed the flume for the drop, which was in one piece, they had to tilt the drop 2 degrees more to make it fit.

    All of the other Splash Mountains have a 45 degree drop. Also, the Splash Mountain in Tokyo is the longest flume, with Disneyland 2nd and the Magic Kingdom being the smallest of the three.

    Yet, Disneyland’s version has the most AA figures out of them all by more than 30 figures.

  7. Thanks for another great article!

    In 1992, my family and I were at WDW about three weeks before Splash Mountain opened. The ride was fully functional and test boats were being sent through constantly. As a log flume fan, it was agonizing to see cast members riding around in those logs and having a great time. I had a feeling it would be my favorite attraction. I eventually got to ride it two years later. And I was right — I was my favorite attraction!

  8. Jack; you present some of the most interesting, insightful and flat-out fun stories about Disney/Walt Disney World on the Internet. Keep up the great work. It is thoroughly enjoyed.

  9. I started going to Disneyland as a kid in the 70s, so some of my fondest Disneyland memories are of America Sings and Country Bear Jamboree. I really miss the theater shows when I visit Disneyland now. BTW … we got to ride Splash Mountain at Disneyland while they were testing it a couple of months before it officially opened.

  10. facinating! I, too, never knew that on childhood visits in ’77 and ’87 -Splash Mountain didn’t exist at WDW! I thought it was a long term attraction! Always learn something new from ya, Jack!

  11. It a shame that so many kids don’t really know who Brer rabbit is and where he came from. they have no clue who uncle Remus is. I really wish Song of the South was more widely available.

  12. Splash Mountain is such fun and one of my favorite rides!! Thank you for the in depth articles. I look forward to Part II.

  13. Terrific article, thanks! And as a longtime (but now former) Californian, I always enjoy seeing a little bit of Disneyland on this site. Today’s post was especially memorable, as I attended both the last perfomance of “America Sings” (accidently–I was there that day and some CM friends tipped me off) and the debut of “Splash Mountain (of which I have some pictures of the opening ceremony)! At any rate, my only quibble is that you state that the Br’er family “were well known to the general public.” I’d have to disagree. Unfortunately, due to its perceived controversy, “Song of the South” was only briefly available on VHS, and has never been released on DVD in this country. Sadly, it is one of the neglected Disney masterpieces, that really deserves a new life.

    Jack’s Comment:

    The film was last released in theaters in 1986 (24 years ago). To me, this doesn’t seem like that long ago, but I realize that’s an entire generation. I also grew up watching the animated portions of the movie on the old Mickey Mouse Club show. So to me, the characters are still fresh in my mind. Also, I was fortunate enough to have a Japanese laser disc of the movie which I transferred to DVD.

    Disney CEO Robert Iger stated on March 10, 2006 at a Disney Shareholder Meeting that it had been decided that the company would not re-release Song of the South for the time being. Too bad…

  14. Great blog Jack! I love your histories! The time you spend researching produces great results! I cannot wait for the next installment.

  15. Hi Jack, another wonderful article as usual. I have to say Splash Mountain has always been my least favorite ride in the Disney parks coz I dread getting wet. Thus I always tend to avoid it. But I was glad I took the courage to ride it in my last trip to Tokyo Disneyland. I love the ride and it was really beautiful. I would definitely ride it whenever I go to a Disney park now. And as you have mentioned in the blog, the logs in Tokyo Disneyland does indeed keep the guests dry 🙂

  16. I wanted to add another Star Wars nod to the original America Sings attraction. A few years back, an official Star Wars book — Star Wars: The New Essential Guide to Droids — included a profile on the model of droid seen in Star Tours. The book states the while the robots’ model is officially “G2 repair droid”, the also are known by the nickname “Goose droid”.

    I saw an interview on a website acknowledging that the author, Daniel Wallace, was a big Star Tours fan and used that nickname as an homage to the droids’ origins in America Sings.

  17. I had no idea that Frontierland looked so different! The current themeing and landscaping seems more authentic to me. It’s shocking to see Frontierland covered in vibrant green grass! Thanks for sharing these vintage photos.

    Well done blog as always. I’m very much looking forward to part 2.

  18. Excellent post, Jack. Splash Mountain is my favorite ride at Walt Disney World. I also really enjoyed seeing the pictures of the old Frontierland train station and that whole area. It does like a lot less hectic than the current set-up, which can be tight for crowds. I visited that area as a kid, but am too young to remember exactly how it looked. Thanks!

  19. Wonderful article Jack. Spash mountain was once a favorite ride but health problems now prevent me from enjoying it as I once did with my family. Wouldn’t be great if there were two versions of the ride !! One that went around the beautiful inside and NOT down the waterfall and one that does for those without health issues. Just a thought.

  20. Jack,
    Thanks for another great article about one of my favorite rides. Are you going to someday compile all of your articles and pictures in a book to publish? I sure hope so. I would definitely buy it! I’m looking forward to Part 2.

  21. Dear Jack,

    Your articles are always such a treat. As a diehard disney fan, I really enjoy learning new tasty tidbits like the one about the geese/droids. Keep up the great work, I look forward to your next installment!

  22. In all of the histories of Splash Mountain I don’t believe any have mentioned another clear influence on the development of the attraction: the Timber Mountain Log Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm. While the themes may be different (a timber mill operation as opposed to a Song of the South adventure), both attractions feature a frontier setting and a main drop on each emerges from a faux mountain after a series of interior scenes.

    Tony Baxter is a known Knott’s enthusiast, having written the introduction to the book Knott’s Preserved recently. I believe there’s even a picture of him attending the grand opening of Timber Mountain back in 1969. So it does seem reasonable that his familiarity with the Knott’s attraction, along with his fabled rush-hour inspiration for reusing the America Sings figures, brought about the attraction we now know as Splash Mountain.

  23. Hi Jack,

    Can’t wait for part II. Thanks for taking the time to write all of these articles. You must spend a ton of time researching to be able to present the level of detail that you do. It’s definitely appreciated especially by those of us who don’t get to visit as often as you do.

    Thanks,
    Wendy

  24. hey jack
    once again you never cease to impress me. I love learning about the history of attractions so this is a big plus for me. can’t wait for your next blog and as always keep up the great work.

  25. I honestly thought you’d already done a Splash Mountain expose. I am so happy to see this here, and mentions of America Sings!, as well. I got the Disney bug too late to have seen that classic attraction, and I’m fascinated by it!

    I’m blown away by how different the Frontierland skyline looked in 1983. It looks empty, somehow!

    Terrific stuff again, Jack.

  26. I hadn’t realized that Splash Mountain wasn’t there in Florida during our first trip as a kid in 1985! It seemed like it has always been there. I didn’t return to DisneyWorld until 1992 and that visit must have always been before Splash Mountain. It’s amazing how quickly attractions at DisneyWorld become a seamless part of the parks.

  27. Wow again Jack Spence!! Incredible article!! Loved every word and can’t wait for the rest. I really enjoy reading all the details that go into the rides. It makes me see who is behind all the magic! THX!

  28. I love the story of how Splash Mountain was named. It is for precisely that reason that we started calling Expedition Everest “Yeti Mountain” a couple of years ago. I think it has a better ring to it.

  29. The details contained in your blogs always amaze me. Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge and Disney history with us!