One key lesson I learned from longtime Imagineer Kevin Rafferty is to consider how the guest experiences an attraction. Are the events taking place happening to them? Around them? Or are they invisible passerby, moving traverse to the universe they explore? With this question in mind, and piecing together both formal and informal elements of the queue and ride adventure, I argue the Disneyland attraction Splash Mountain is in fact a metafictional take on this structure, and is instead the emotions and intensity of hearing Uncle Remus’s stories, experienced from Johnny’s perspective.
To arrive at this particular conclusion, of course, one must look to the original source material: the Disney classic Song of the South. As some rough context for those of you who have not had the pleasure of seeing it (and it truly is a delight – I consider it among my favorite live-action Disney films), the cartoon stories of Brer Rabbit are fables told by Uncle Remus to the young boy Johnny. With this narrative structure in mind, Splash Mountain already achieves a unique level of metafiction – the experience we are going through is not the story itself, but the telling of the story. (Admittedly, the same could be said for The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure.)
With the source work in mind, though, a metafictional attraction of this nature seems appropriate. Not only is the film largely the story of telling stories, but even the name itself: Song of the South, not The South – it is not the location itself, but some artistic representation of it.
So if the story is not happening to the guest, and not really around the guest (we are not passerby to this critter community)… what is going on? To answer this question, we really need look no further than the attraction itself.
The queue building is through a rustic, human-sized barn, equipped a fireplace and various farming tools. On the walls are messages painted in white, informing us that this story happened a long time ago, “when the folks were closer to the critters and the critters were closer to the folks.” (For those less familiar with the movie, this is an introduction Uncle Remus provides to Johnny as he begins one of his Brer Rabbit tales.) These lines alone provide valuable insight into our pending adventure; we will not experience events as they happen, but take part in some past story. The fireplace is another key element to create a “homey” feeling, and to invoke the warmth of storytelling.
Another element to consider is the choice to have us enter a barn, as opposed to a mill, or house, or any other building. A barn is a place where humans and animals function together, bridging two worlds for a joint purpose. The presence of human tools, including rakes, hoes, and shovels, without a clear sense of ownership plants the seed of fantasy; they could frankly belong to anyone, human or animal. This realistic setting with elements of ambiguity mentally prepares us for the convergence of these worlds, as the two come together (in more fantastical ways) later on in the attraction.
The remainder of the queue mostly returns to the sense of familiar, human order; we ascend a stone-cobbled staircase, continue through the upper deck of the barn, and perhaps wave at the Disneyland Railroad as it toots past.
Prior to entering the load area though, we can see through an open window into Brer Rabbit’s home. There is some dramatic irony (assuming this is a guest’s first experience) in that we don’t know when in the attraction this moment takes place – but given its proximity to the unload area, it is reasonable to piece together that he is placed somewhere near the end of the ride. He has hastily untied himself from rope and is now relaxing, relieved, at his “home sweet home.” This image alone tells us that he was in some sort of trouble, but he’s gotten away and is safe now.
Our load area, an open-air environment with wooden structures built into the rockwork of Chickapin Hill, has elements of fantasy without being overtly cartoonish. As logs roll in to the unload/load zone, they are full of guests – they had taken the plummet down Chickapin Hill and survived. [Though one of my favorite Splash Mountain memories is of guests whose experience was not shaped by this rationality. I was tagging along single-rider with another party, and as we passed the splashdown and witnessed a log plummet down into the briar patch, a girl warned her family: “They’ll all be dead in 30 seconds.”] Furthermore, the natural lighting and the clearly-calculated nature of the structures still fit within the realm of normalcy. From here, we board our logs and begin our journey.
We ascend and drop down a small lift, followed by a wide bend around the base of Chickapin Hill and the briar patch. We then enter a thin wooden building, crucial to the “Uncle Remus theory.” The entrance to this structure bears a striking resemblance to Uncle Remus’s cabin from Song of the South, particularly distinct by the spinning water wheel on its left side. Like the queue area, the geometry and exactness clearly built into this structure are too well calculated to have not been done by human hands. Even as we move up the lift hill, we pass by an owl hooting at us – not talking, not singing, but hooting. The subtle impact of this owl does not quite take effect until later in the attraction.
Our journey continues outside, flowing out into natural lighting once again, as we pass the homes of our three stars: Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear. Each homestead well represents each character, and it is worth taking note of the location of each home: Brer Rabbit on the side of a hill, Brer Fox on top of Chickapin Hill, and Brer Bear in a cave. After passing the last of the three homes (Brer Bear’s), we then slide down Slippin’ Falls into the first truly interior show sequence.
This first major, expansive scene is “How Do You Do,” a greeting from the critters of Chickapin Hill. We float past birds, frogs, and our three main characters. In this sequence, the back walls are all dark, with light illuminating only the characters, their immediate environments, and the plant life around them.
Let’s take a moment here to reflect on what’s happened so far. First, regarding the owl – he is so important because he is, in a way, so unimportant; he does not talk or sing or really do anything to command our attention. His ordinary owl-ness is consistent with the sense of normalcy that takes place in that first strip of the attraction.
Second, the fateful drop down Slippin’ Falls can be seen essentially as Johnny’s literal dive into the stories of Uncle Remus. Again, familiarity with Song of the South helps with this one, but all the Brer Rabbit stories from that film have just three elements in common: those three characters. Once we are informed of their existence, and their relative placement to one another, we (like Johnny) are equipped with the tools to understand and partake in a Brer Rabbit adventure.
Third, the shift from realism to fantasy and negative space. Aided by the natural light of the great outdoors, everything we had experienced prior to the interior show scene is feasible, even if fantastical. We do not approach the truly unbelievable, magical, until we first see a fully dressed bird greet us with “How Do You Do.” The characters living inside the hill are not even granted (though do they need?) a real backdrop or setting around them; all Uncle Remus, or any storyteller would share, is who the characters are and their actions. The formal mechanisms of immersive entertainment and a fully fledged environment do not apply in a sensation-based retelling, of the initial telling of a story.
To continue along our journey, we delve farther and farther from reality as we plunge down another waterfall within a mountain into a colorful, blacklight-infused “Laughing Place.” This surreal space is worlds away from the naturally lit, folky wilderness we floated past just minutes earlier.
As we transition from bright neons to paler yellows and greens, paired with a fade to a somber, minor-key melody, we (as Johnny) can tell trouble is looming. In the “Burrow’s Lament,” two mothers warn their children of the poor choices Brer Rabbit has made and the consequences he now has to face. This scene rings with even more familiarity to a guest familiar with Song of the South, as Johnny is often disobedient with his mother, and is even scolded by her to stay away from Uncle Remus and his Brer Rabbit stories.
From here, we begin our slow ascent up Chickapin Hill and the sense of anticipation and terror starts to build up – despite our rationality, and having seen “survivors” return back to the loading area. Towards the top, we pass a trapped Brer Rabbit plead to Brer Fox to “please don’t fling [him] in that Briar Patch!” We summit the peak of Splash Mountain (briefly glimpsing Brer Fox’s recurring view from Song of the South, though in the movie there were fewer castles and mountains on the vista) before plummeting down into the briar patch.
Given what we have experienced thus far – what was the experience of going down Chickapin Hill for the splashdown? It was not us, as human guests; nor did we temporarily become Brer Rabbit and take on his experiences. With our displacement and easing transition into the fantastical critter world, I again argue this was the experience felt by Johnny as Uncle Remus recounts Brer Rabbit’s story. The suspense and terror Johnny feels, upon hearing this tale for the first time, is what we as guests go through. Our rational minds, from seeing other guests unload from the same spot our log flume ride began, inform us that everything is going to be alright in the end, but we get so swept up in the story weaved by Uncle Remus that we still fall for it.
Both during and following splashdown, we see and experience natural settings, through sunlight and landmarks we recognize from the Disneyland skyline. The tension we feel during the ascent is fully realized, and released, in those few fateful moments of the splashdown. We snap back into reality and out of the cartoon story we had been so enveloped in before.
Even our brief return to Uncle Remus’s story, with the iconic “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” showboat finale, feels different from the show scenes we’d seen before. The wide open spacing, well-lit atmosphere is a strong contrast from the more enclosed, often blacklit scenes that precede the finale. Additionally, the seemingly casual placement of critters on a riverboat, a technically complex, likely human-made structure, provides an interesting subtext beyond a simple nod to America Sings. The blending of animal with human world can offer two meanings: the critters saying goodbye as they travel down the river (a possibility, as they are all assembled on such a massive vehicle), or to represent the place the animals’, and Uncle Remus’s, stories can hold in our everyday lives. Even something as fantastical as talking, singing animals of a Brer Rabbit tale can have place and meaning within the human world. These fables are not purely literal, but serve as lessons that translate to our own, human experiences.
The open spacing of the final scenes is a smooth transition back into the load/unload area, an open air hole in the Mountain implied (as stated earlier) to be human-constructed. With this man-made (literally) framework around our experience, the undertones of storytelling from the queue area, and the varying degrees of realism vs. fantasy we experience in the ride itself, the pattern of metafiction and experiencing someone else experience a story becomes a clearer picture. Splash Mountain is no mere log flume, but a testament to the art and power of storytelling.
A special thanks to Brice Croskey, who profoundly affected the way I see themed entertainment; Kevin Rafferty for teaching me the essentials of storytelling through themed space; and Tony Baxter & Marc Davis, without whom my favorite attraction could not be possible.
These opinions are my own and do not represent The Walt Disney Company.