The Jungle Cruise has been a perennial favorite ever since it opened at Disneyland in 1955. Even though many of us have ridden this attraction so many times that we could probably skipper the boat ourselves, we still laugh at the corny jokes we’ve heard dozens of times. Why? Because sometimes it’s fun to be silly rather than sophisticated — and the Jungle Cruise excels at being silly. But it wasn’t always that way. In the early years at Disneyland, this was a serious attraction with little or no humor. What is to follow is a brief story of how this wonderful ride came into being and evolved into what it is today.
Between the years of 1948 and 1960, the Disney Company produced a series of short subject documentaries called the True-Life Adventures. These films dealt with nature and animals in an educational yet entertaining way. Over the run of the series, Disney won numerous Academy Awards for these films. One show in particular, “The African Lion,” would serve as an inspiration for the Jungle Cruise.
Storyman Harper Goff had been instrumental in the designs used for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). So when production completed, Walt recruited him to design the Jungle Cruise for his new park. Being a big fan of the movie “The African Queen,” Goff expanded on the film’s storyline and had the tramp steamer plying not only a river in Africa, but other continents as well. In fact, the Jungle Cruise boats were patterned after the vessel used in this picture and were made of fiberglass — the first time this material was used for non-military purposes
Walt originally wanted live animals to line the banks of his rivers, but this just wasn’t feasible. First, many of the creatures that he wanted to include were nocturnal and would be sleeping as the boats passed by. In addition, real animals require a tremendous amount of upkeep and space, something that just wasn’t practical for a fledgling theme park. So it was decided that mechanical animals could tell a better story. However, for a short time, Disneyland featured live alligators for guests to view in the waiting area. It wouldn’t be until the Animal Kingdom and Kilimanjaro Safaris opened in 1998 that Walt’s dream would be completely realized.
The Jungle Cruise was to be an opening day attraction at Disneyland, and in fact, the only attraction in Adventureland to begin with. One of the first tasks was to landscape this small patch of arid Southern California to look tropical — and to do this on a tight budget. In the early 1950’s, Bill Evans had landscaped Walt’s Holmby Hills home. Walt was so impressed with his work that he hired him to design the gardens of Disneyland.
The Santa Ana Freeway began construction in 1947 and was completed in 1956. In its path were enormous amounts of foliage that were being bulldozed under. In order to save money, Evans made arrangements to rescue many of these plants and palm trees and they eventually found their way to Disneyland and the Jungle Cruise. This allowed the new park to have some established growth come opening day.
The picture below shows Disneyland and the Santa Ana Freeway under construction.
Another inexpensive trick used to make the jungle look lush on opening day was to take some of the orange and walnut trees that had been removed during Disneyland’s construction and plant them upside down. This allowed their gnarly roots to look like dead jungle branches.
But even with these free plants, Evans still needed a tremendous amount of greenery to populate not only Adventureland, but Frontierland, Main Street, and Fantasyland. Fortunately, Tomorrowland didn’t require as much growth. Hedda Hopper complained in her column, “Walt Disney has depleted our nurseries from Santa Barbara to San Diego.”
Most of the animals for the Jungle Cruise were built at the Studio in Burbank, but some of the larger creatures were constructed onsite to facilitate easy transportation. One 900 pound elephant was delivered to the Jungle Cruise the night before the park opened and was installed in the dark as a night-watchman had unwittingly turned off the work lights.
For much of Disneyland’s first decade, the Jungle Cruise was a serious ride. Guests boarded the attraction from a dock located next to a small trader’s village. Nearby shops sold shrunken heads, rubber snakes, and pith helmets. The trip through Africa, Asia, and South America was reminiscent of watching a “True Life Adventure” with facts and dangers brought to the guest’s attention by the ever-watchful boat captain.
One day, Walt overheard a guest say in reference to the Jungle Cruise, “We don’t need to go on that ride, we’ve already seen it.” Taken aback by this comment, Walt knew he needed to keep Disneyland fresh so the customers would return again and again. To that end, he asked Marc Davis, a longtime animator, to rethink the attraction. After much thought, Marc decided the attraction needed to evolve from a danger-filled adventure to a humorous journey and new scenes needed to be added. So in 1962 the Indian Elephant pool opened and in 1964 the African Veldt and Lost Safari scenes joined the tour. In addition, a bevy of corny jokes and puns replaced the once serious spiel.
As is always the case, change never comes easy and there were those who complained loudly that the ride had been compromised. But in the end, the Jungle Cruise continued to be a crowd pleaser and is still one of the most beloved attractions at Disneyland.
Some of you might remember that the attacking hippopotamus was once shot at by the boat captain. But as times and sensibilities changed, this practice was retired. Now the skippers use less extreme, and more humorous methods of discouraging the beast.
The popularity of Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise prompted the Imagineers to slate this attraction to be an opening day ride at Walt Disney World. And from day one, the Florida version has been just as popular as it’s California counterpart.
Like so many attractions that were to be recreated in the Magic Kingdom, the Jungle Cruise would be improved upon. Although many of the scenes are direct copies of Disneyland’s, the addition of the indoor Cambodian Temple gives the Magic Kingdom’s version an edge.
Building the Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise presented some unique challenges. Much of Adventureland sits upon an extensive clay landfill. In order for the plants and trees to receive proper nutrients and drainage, large holes needed to be bored into unforgiving soil and filled with sand and potting mix. It took more than a year to landscape this attraction with more than 500 varieties of tropical foliage. The river(s) of the Jungle Cruise contains over 1,750,000 gallons of water, which has been died brown to hide the tracks and other mechanisms.
Like Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise required an “E” ticket up until the time these coupons were retired.
Here is a list of names for the sixteen boats that ply the waters at the Jungle Cruise. Notice the alliteration.
Located on the loading platform is one of my all time favorite Disney Worlds signs.
The airplane fuselage you pass by on the Jungle Cruise is actually the back half of the Lockheed Electra 12A airplane seen in the Casablanca sequence of the Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
When exiting the Jungle Cruise, pay attention to some of the details. For instance, you better keep a watchful eye out for the escaped orangutan.
Check out the names of some of the Missing Persons and Missing Boats on a nearby chalkboard.
And I pity the poor animal that was shipped in this crate, now a drinking fountain. If you look closely, the small prints says “FEEDING HOLE.”
Near the drinking fountain are several crated trees. If you look at the stenciled writing on the boxes you’ll see “EVANS EXOTIC PLANT EXPORTERS LTD.” This pays homage to Bill Evans who landscaped the original Jungle Cruise and went on to landscape the Magic Kingdom.
Tokyo Disneyland also was given a Jungle Cruise on its opening day (April 15, 1983). This attraction borrows elements from both U.S. parks, however, the entire attraction runs backwards to its stateside cousins.
It was decided to omit the Jungle Cruise from Disneyland Paris. Other European parks, having seen the success of the ride at Disneyland, had already built similar attractions. Disney felt that their version of the ride really wouldn’t offer anything new to entice visitors to their park.
At Hong Kong Disneyland, the Imagineers completely reinvented the ride. Picture Tom Sawyer Island in the Magic Kingdom. Now picture the Jungle Cruise boats circling this island, except with a tropical theme. There you have it – a new Jungle Cruise ride.
Language also plays a part in the Hong Kong attraction. There are three lines for boarding, one for speakers of Mandarin, one for Cantonese, and one for English. A sign states that one line may look longer than another, but they all move at the same speed. For the most part, this is true. If the queue for a particular language (say English) starts to get longer than the others, they simply assign an English speaking skipper to the next couple of boats until the lines even out.
The Hong Kong Jungle River Cruise has many of the same props and scenes as its American counterparts. The notable exception are the missing Switzer Falls and the indoor temple. But this attraction does have a finale that the other Jungle Cruises do not.
The boat navigates down a narrow passageway, when all of a sudden the route is blocked by an erupting geyser. Just in the nick of time, the vessel makes a sudden turn to the right and is confronted with another geyser blocking its path and an evil-looking, monster-like rock formation. Smoke and steam start to spew from the crevices and then flames explode from the rock’s mouth. Just when it seems all is lost, the boat escapes in the nick of time. Whew.
Another difference with this Jungle Cruise is that you get wet. Those elephants that just miss you in the American versions are a little more devilish here and seem to hit their mark. Don’t worry, it’s only a sprinkle.
In closing, I give you a video of the Jungle Cruise and a few of the corny jokes.