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50 Years Of A Magical Kingdom: The Jungle Cruise

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Walt Disney Corporation.

To all who come to this nerdy website, welcome. I’m Molly Piper. On October 1st, 2021, the Walt Disney World Resort celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Fifty years of shows, turkey legs, fireworks, parades, and, most importantly, rides.

So, now that I work for Walt Disney World and can thus freely go to the parks, allowing me to ride and re-ride the attractions the way I’d replay a game or rewatch a movie for an article, I thought it’d be a good idea to mark this momentous milestone by, well, looking at the rides themselves. Because theme parks are art, and few are more artistic than the Disney parks.

Now, because there’s only a certain number of hours in a year, we’re going to be restricting ourselves to the Magic Kingdom for this exploration. It was the only park open and operating when the resort itself opened after all, with the next one (EPCOT Center) not opening for another eleven years. Eventually we’ll take a look at the other parks, but for now, we’re focusing on the eldest.

With that being said, where are we starting? Why, with a ride that was not only an opening day attraction, but that recently had a big blockbuster movie inspired by it of course! So grab your cameras, put on that Weird Al song, and let’s take a trip on the world famous Jungle Cruise!

Overview

I suppose the first thing we should cover here is what, exactly, the Jungle Cruise is.

To put it simply, it’s a boat ride (on a track, but also on five feet of water) through re-creations of rivers in South America, Africa, and South-East Asia. You go past a variety of animatronic animals (and formerly humans, though the majority were removed earlier this year in an effort to stop being racist) and ruins, experiencing the world of the jungle.

That is…more or less it, really. There’s a few points where you may get splashed, but this isn’t really a wet ride, nor is it a thrill one. It’s partly an art tour, looking at the gorgeous tableaus and impressive animal animatronics, and partly a comedy show, as the Skippers regale you with puns and dad jokes.

With that out of the way, let’s continue our tour of the ride!

History

Jungle Cruise was, for a long time, the sole attraction at Adventureland in Disneyland, the reason for the area’s existence, more or less. When Walt first envisioned it, he wanted to import live animals, and have it be a river safari. But the idea was too expensive and unsafe for the Disney company back in 1955, when Disneyland was opening. So instead the decision was made to go with animatronics.

It would take inspiration from the 1955 documentary The African Lion, but also from the 1951 film The African Queen. The latter inspiration is the more immediately obvious, particularly when looking at the structural design of the boats that serve as the ride vehicles.

Jungle Cruise Boats

But even here, in the design of the boats, we have an interesting showing of artistry impacting the rides. You see, once upon a time (by which I mean until the mid-1990’s) the boats actually looked like this.

Jungle Cruise Old Boats

They were changed at Disneyland to reflect the fact that the ride would now be going by the newly constructed Indiana Jones ride, and so Disney felt the boats should look like something that would fit the aesthetic of the Indiana Jones films. Even though there is (tragically) no Indiana Jones ride in the Magic Kingdom, the decision was made to make the change regardless because, in hindsight, it just fit the story better.

Imagineer’s Harper Goff and Bill Evans were behind the Jungle Cruise‘s initial design in California, and that design would, for the most part, carry over to Florida, albeit with a few key differences that we’ll go over shortly. Goff and Evans can be credited with the creation and initial design for the ride, but many of its most iconic scenes can be attributed to the work of legendary animator Marc Davis.

Park fans will know Davis for his work on The Country Bear Jamboree, The Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean, while film fans will know his many, many characters from Disney’s animated films such as Snow White, Bambi, Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Tinker Bell, Aurora, and Maleficent. Needless to say, he was an important and influential figure in the Disney company.

When the ride first opened, it was a very serious affair. The intent was to present this as realistically as possible, to provide the next best thing to an actual jungle cruise. Walt would famously scold his children for hiding in the jungle to scare riders, due to it breaking the immersion he was striving for. However, as the animatronics aged and guest interest waned, puns were added to the script of the Skippers (the Cast Members who operate the boats) and today the ride is almost entirely humorous. If you were wondering about all the puns and dad jokes Dwayne Johnson said in the movie, that’s actually a fairly accurate adaptational choice.

The last bit of history to cover with the ride is the presence of human characters within the ride. For a long time, there were actually quite a number of human animatronics, namely comprising of an indigenous village, some hostile indigenous people with weapons and masks, a man selling shrunken heads named Trader Sam, and a scene of a white hunter and his non-white porters clinging to a tree while a rhino glared up at them.

Earlier this year (2021) however, these scenes were largely removed. There are no more indigenous people animatronics in the ride, and the people treed by a rhino are all white, European explorers. And given that the ride is set in the 1930s they…probably deserve it and we don’t have to feel bad for them. So, overall, some long overdue changes that make the ride more palatable on balance.

With this in mind, let’s finally take a look at the ride itself!

The Story

We begin by leaving the docks and entering the Amazon Rainforest. In other versions of the Jungle Cruise you’ll encounter a few creatures, including piranhas, here but in the Magic Kingdom we’ll just see some giant butterflies before moving on to the Congo River.

In the Congo, we’ll see The Jungle Book, some abandoned canoes, a large python in a tree, and a trashed camp, one of the first scenes created specifically for the Magic Kingdom version of the ride (though it was later added to the Disneyland version) and a good way to show the key difference between the Florida and California versions of the ride.

Jungle Cruise WDW Gorillas
Florida’s trashed camp
Jungle Cruise California Gorillas
California’s trashed camp

Namely, that most animatronics not in the water at WDW are under shelter, due to the rather frequent and heavy rainstorms in Florida. In some places this results in a more interesting view, but in others, like here…not so much I’m afraid.

After the trashed camp we move into the Nile River, and are immediately faced with a pair of African Elephants, who’ll trumpet loudly as you sail by. From the elephants we go to the African Veldt, where you’ll see giraffes, gnus, gazelles, zebras, and a pride of lions. The last of these are in a cave, clustered around a dead zebra which tends to prompt some of the darker bits of humor from the Skippers.

We move on from the lions to the aforementioned scene of treed explorers and their adorable hyena hecklers to some crocodiles and one of the more famous parts of the Jungle Cruise, Schweitzer Falls (named for explorer Albert Falls).

Jungle Cruise falls
The abundance of water in central Florida allows for a rather more impressive display than it’s Californian counterpart.

After the falls we encounter part of an airplane on the river bank (actually part of the plane that was in the Casablanca scene of the late, lamented, Great Movie Ride) and then some hippos, clustered around a sunken Jungle Cruise boat.

Then, after seeing another boat, this one hijacked by various monkeys, we arrive at the 8th wonder of the world:

King Kong Joke

No, no, not that one, the other, more impressive, 8th wonder of the world.

Jungle Cruise Back Side of Water
TA-DA!

Yes, the Back Side of Water! Take it in folks, take it in.

After that breathtaking view that you’ll surely treasure for the rest of your life, the final portion of the cruise comes up. Now, in California the South-East Asian portion of the Jungle Cruise is entirely outdoors, and the first part of the ride you experience. However, in Florida a large swath of it is actually indoors, giving you a dark ride type experience through what’s meant to be the ruins of a Cambodian temple. It’s a dark, atmospheric, gorgeous part of the ride…that underwent a refurb and more changes so recently that I don’t have pictures for you. And since the old stuff was removed to avoid potentially offensive implications, I’m going to err on the side of caution and just ask you to take my word for it.

Once you’ve cleared the temple you pass through the Indian Elephant Bathing Pool, one of the more famous scenes that Marc Davis had a direct hand in.

Jungle Cruise Bathing Elephants

It’s a delightfully designed scene, with the elephants showing off their roots, seamlessly blending caricature and realism. After the menacing tiger and cobras of the temple, it’s a nice, light hearted end to our Jungle Cruise.

Should You Ride?

So, having discussed the history and present of the Jungle Cruise, the final question is if it’s worth riding or not. And that’s…actually a more complicated question than it will be for some of the other rides we’ll eventually discuss.

First things first. This ride is not necessarily for you if you’re only here because you liked the movie. It’s not a thrill ride, and no elements from the movies were brought over into the ride in the recent refurb. There are puns aplenty though, so it ultimately depends on what exactly you enjoyed about the movie.

Now, unlike most rides in the resort, this one deeply depends on a human element. It’s a comedy ride that allows for improvising. So, if you have a Skipper who’s rather funny, then you’ll have a good time. If you don’t…well, the animatronics and foliage are nice at least.

Ultimately, getting in line for the Jungle Cruise is a bit of a gamble. But at the same time, it’s a gamble I’ve never regretted making, and I don’t think you will either. So whether you get a hilarious trip through the rivers of the world, or just a pretty place to rest your feet, come on down to the Jungle Cruise, and see what it has to offer.

Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios and Yesterland

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Author

  • Molly

    Gay, she/her. An unabashed Disney fangirl, who may or may not have an excessive love of shipping, comics, and RPGs. She's not saying. And anything you've heard about attempts to start a cult centered around Sofia Boutella is...probably true.

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