EDITORIAL: Splash Mountain at The Magic Kingdom Should Be Turned Into “The Western River Expedition”
When I originally started working on this article, it was a plea for Disney to do something thematically consistent and for their most hardcore fans in replacing Splash Mountain. Then it happened… they announced that they would re-theme the beloved log flume ride to the animated film “The Princess and the Frog”. For Disneyland, this makes sense and is essentially an expansion of one of the best themed-lands in any Disney park in the world: New Orleans Square. At Walt Disney World, well, we’ve gotten even more nonsensical than Splash Mountain was in that space. A New Orleans bayou will now be adjacent to a western mini company, steps away from the Pueblo-style architecture of the west-side of Pecos Bill’s Tall Tale Inn and Cafe.
I’ve seen many a fan say “it doesn’t matter” that the land won’t make any thematic sense, to which I am stunned. What I feel makes the Disney Parks so unique is the sense of place and time that is set through intricate details, thoughtful building design, and painstaking artistic efforts. What makes Disney Parks special is not the inclusion of Disney-owned intellectual properties. Any theme park in the world can just haphazardly slap different IPs next to each other in a park, and many have. Universal Studios Florida is a good example of this. The park has been thematically wrecked over time by this method of updating and expanding. Do we want the Magic Kingdom to be next?
“The Princess and the Frog” is a great film. I remember buying special advance tickets to see it at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. I enjoyed the music so much that we purchased autographed sheet music from the film signed by Randy Newman and others who made the film. I was ecstatic to see Tiana’s Showboat Jubilee at the Magic Kingdom, possibly the best new entertainment offering of the last 15 years at Walt Disney World. “The Princess and the Frog” SHOULD have a permanent theme park home at Disneyland and Disney World. It doesn’t need to be in Splash Mountain. I’ve said it a hundred times already, but there are no mountains and almost no hills in New Orleans. You can’t possibly make sense of this.
But you know what you could make sense of… a ride in a log down a western river… a “Western River Expedition”, if you will…
If you’re reading this site, you probably know the story. Walt Disney World wasn’t getting Pirates of the Caribbean since it was too close to the actual Caribbean. Meanwhile, today I ate at a restaurant at Disney World that is themed to Key West. Anyway…
Instead of the guaranteed smash-hit Disneyland attraction, Imagineer Marc Davis wanted to do something bold and ambitious: build a Western-style boat ride of the same quality as Pirates of the Caribbean, but enclose it in a mountain mega-structure containing multiple other attractions such as a runaway mine train rollercoaster, pack mule rides, and more, all while the Walt Disney World Railroad would take a ride through the middle of the man-made marvel. If this sounds cooler to you than the most watered-down, cost-cut and all-around junky version of Pirates of the Caribbean ever made, that’s because it was going to be. Here’s a brief synopsis of the attraction from Wikipedia:
“The attraction was to have been located inside, outside and around an architectural feature in Frontierland known as Thunder Mesa Mountain. Guests would have entered an inside boarding zone, in a twilight atmosphere (similar to the night atmosphere in Pirates of the Caribbean). After boarding a wooden launch, riders would have glided up a waterfall. The ride’s narrator, Hoot Gibson (an audio-animatronic owl) would explain the ride’s safety instructions. Then, guests would have passed by peaceful scenes in the wilderness, featuring buffaloes or prairie dogs. They would then encounter banditos robbing a stagecoach, warning them they would meet again downriver. Many following scenes would then take place in a fictional town known as Dry Gulch, where guests would have witnessed a musical show (a bank robbery, prisoners escaping the Sheriff’s cells via a tunnel, a saloon with a cowboy on horseback on its roof, plus ten other characters including a bartender trying to shoot the intruder off the roof, three saloon girls, and other cowboys hooting and hollering. Then, back into the wilderness, guests would have discovered Indian adobe houses, and even witnessed a rain dance that causes it to rain on the set. The ride would finally come to an end with guests about to be robbed by the aforementioned banditos, but escaping via a waterfall-drop finale. If built, it would have been one of the most complex and expensive Disney attractions of its time, housed in one of the largest show buildings (a large warehouse that stores the interior of the attraction) ever created by the Disney company. Its projected expense is one reason it was never built. The attraction would have also shared the show building with a “runaway” mine train themed roller coaster. Other features of the pavilion-style WRE would have included hiking trails atop the mesa, a Pueblo Indian village, and a pack mule attraction.“
Western River Expedition never happened thanks to a multitude of other (cheaper) projects and the oil crisis in the 1970’s, but it came close on so many occasions. Eventually, some of the space set aside for it became the more budget-conscious (but still fantastic) Big Thunder Mountain in 1980, and the remaining bit of land was used in 1992, becoming Splash Mountain. The Thunder Mesa mega-structure never happened, but two legendary Disney mountains still rose upon portions of the earmarked site.
Western River’s legacy grew over the years: guests of the 1970’s had souvenir books that showed concept art for the attraction, the Walt Disney Story attraction in The Magic Kingdom featured a preview exhibit with an audio-animatronic owl for a period, and the Thunder Mesa name eventually was used in Frontierland in Disneyland Paris as an homage. The internet Disney fandom has drooled over the concept for decades now, and multiple Disney fan events hosted by the company have even shown off virtual ride-throughs and original models for the Western River Expedition. It is one of, if not, the most famous unbuilt Disney attraction ever. Its lore has been an integral part of the Walt Disney World story for over 5 decades now. Coming up on the 50th anniversary of the park, and with Splash Mountain’s demise imminent, was there not an incredible opportunity present? What if you could have pulled off a magical 50th anniversary surprise and bring to life (in a way) the most fabled never-realized project in the history of Walt Disney Imagineering?
I love Splash Mountain, but honestly, it too doesn’t even fit in where it was placed in Frontierland. A cartoony mountain laid between the Western streets of the main town and the mining facility on the outskirts never really worked. In the age of the internet, I feel like the fans would’ve ripped this idea to shreds. Instead, most of us grew up with this as a staple of The Magic Kingdom and it became a rite of passage into the world of thrill rides for many. I remember the first time I was brave enough to climb into that log, and I imagine everyone reading this article does too. That’s why so many people are upset at the idea of removing Splash Mountain: it holds a lot of very special memories for many guests. Honestly though, if the layout was the same and the vehicles were still logs, I don’t think I’d be opposed to something else. It’s like my feelings on The Great Movie Ride, in that I don’t think it should’ve been removed, but it definitely needed some sort of a massive overhaul. There’s nothing wrong with the spirit of the ride, just some of the material in it.
So, the problems with this “resurrect the Wester River Expedition” idea are numerous, at least they probably are from Disney’s perspective. First-off, Western River had some portions that would definitely have been given the “auction scene” treatment Pirates of the Caribbean recently received. There were some depictions of Native Americans, and of course, there’s the “banditos”, both of which were a product of their time. However, the great thing about building something new and not modifying an existing ride is you can make significant alterations to the original plans. You don’t have to follow the original concept scene by scene and cram it into Splash Mountain. You can pick out the bits that would’ve stood the test of time and fit this existing space.
You can also alter history, the ride doesn’t need to be an accurate representation of the past, it’s not the Hall of Presidents or The American Adventure.
If you want female and/or black cowboys or sheriffs, go for it. You’re replacing a cartoon boat ride, you can rewrite some history to provide some positive role models that make everyone feel included. Just don’t make them stereotypical Irish women trying to peddle rum over chickens…
Secondly, it doesn’t feature some widely-known intellectual property, and we know Disney doesn’t currently develop rides with characters and themes guests don’t already know. That being said, there is a whole mess of money to be made here. Let’s not forget the tale of The Little Orange Bird, a simple mascot for an ice cream window that resurfaced due to fan response and now sells as much merchandise as many of Disney’s best IPs. Certainly, a cute Western owl named Hoot Gibson could reach similar heights, and fans like myself would gobble up all sorts of Western River goods, just as we do for original attractions like The Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and the like. Disney sadly doesn’t put a lot of stock in these “attraction franchises”, but they should. Let’s not forget that ShopDisney has been having a hard time keeping the Country Bear Jamboree Wishables in stock since they debuted.
Having dismantled the foreseeable issues, let me tell why else this makes sense. First off, they’re both boat rides concluding in drops. The opening with Br’er Frog providing some set-up for the ride as you go up the first lift hill is beat-for-beat the opening of Western River Expedition, just with the Hoot Gibson owl character replacing the animated amphibian. Br’er Fox catching Br’er Rabbit and the fall into the Briar Patch could very easily be the climactic encounter with the bandits where you escape down a waterfall. The bandits could meet a hilarious end in a similar fashion to the cartoon fox and bear, perhaps getting stuck in a patch of cacti, or maybe they don’t know how to swim and are all fighting to get into a boat or to hold on to some driftwood. I’m not an Imagineer, but I’m sure such a band of creative people can easily figure out these story points if I’m able to string them together.
Everything in-between seems easy enough to change with the size of the show scenes, and a big musical finale with the sun setting on the painted dessert is sure to please.
Funny enough, almost any and all of the audio-animatronic characters already exist for this attraction. When EPCOT was built, many of the humans and animals in rides like Spaceship Earth, Horizons, and World of Motion were just redressed versions of figures built before. Spaceship Earth is populated with pirates, ghosts, and even the mom and dad from the Carousel of Progress. Western River Expedition was certainly going to use plenty of these same figures redressed for a Western show. Hell, the buffalo, owl, and other animal animatronics meant for Western River were eventually built and used in a multitude of rides and shows. Not much new development is actually necessary, that being said, I’d love to see Imagineers use the latest in technology available and build something modern and impressive. They can either value-engineer this with existing technology or build with the determination to create the next classic Disney boat ride. Western River Expedition could be something special to so many.
Marc Davis’ scenes and gags in so many attractions have proven to be timeless. Guests still experience them every time they ride The Jungle Cruise, The Haunted Mansion, or Pirates of the Caribbean. They are beloved, and if you’re Disney management reading this, the merchandise sales for these vignettes and the characters in them are as strong as ever, if not more now than they were years ago. Go look.
A singing cactus, a bear taking photos with man for an added fee, and the like will still illicit an emotional response from your guests. Meanwhile, cramming The Princess and the Frog into Splash Mountain can’t be seen as wholly beneficial. Either build a New Orleans Square for Walt Disney World or don’t bother with this concept at all. The Princess and the Frog also has strong musical and food motifs that scream “dinner show” to me. I’d love to sit and eat some gumbo while a jazz band performs, perhaps culminating in a meet and greet with the proprietor of the “Tiana’s Place” restaurant at the end of your meal ala Be Our Guest.
People don’t ride Splash Mountain for the characters in most cases, and if they do, I would say it is a incredibly small percentage of guests. They ride Splash Mountain because it is a fun thrill ride made at the expected level of quality for The Walt Disney Company. Why not create some good will with the world by making this attraction inoffensive, while at the same time honoring the wish of the most diehard fans of your product? I honestly wouldn’t even offer Western River Expedition up as an option if there was a viable Western franchise for the company, and please, please, PLEASE do not recycle any prelmimarny work that may have been done on any audio-animatronic marionettes from a made-up Western TV show inside of a PIXAR film.
The rule of theme parks is whatever you replace something with has to be better than what is there now. You don’t remove Splash Mountain without trying to top it. How do you respond to the location, the ride system, and the legacy of Splash Mountain? Not with an IP-overlay, but with something that also has a tremendous legacy and was meant for that space.
Give The Princess and the Frog its own space with whatever rides, shows, dining and shopping make sense for it, without trying to explain tall mountains and giant waterfalls in Louisiana.