By Jeffrey Epstein
Since its debut on opening day of Disneyland in 1955, Jungle Cruise has continued to grow and evolve—much like a few of the attraction’s skippers’ favorite plants they point out on the route (“this one… and this one”). What was once a “serious” adventure through tropical waters soon made way for a more humorous expedition with a signature “spiel” given by said talented skippers and hilarious scenes added by future Disney Legend Marc Davis. Changes and enhancements were continually made throughout the years to keep the attraction (and the spiel) fresh. And today, the Disney Parks Blog announced fantastic updates to the ride, coming to both Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts, that give this expedition its first continuous story, fantastic updated scenes, colorful new characters, and more. We sat down with Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Portfolio Executive Chris Beatty to get all the details on everything coming to the Nile. And if you don’t believe us… well, you know the rest.
The Jungle Cruise has evolved over the years—maybe more than any Disney Parks attraction.
I think the Jungle Cruise everybody remembers now is the Marc Davis version, which has a little, well, a lot more humor when the skippers really get going. That attraction is really all about the skippers, if you think about it. They bring that attraction to life; they are the heart and soul of it. So you couple that with Marc Davis’s renderings and the characters he brought to life along the river’s edge, and it’s really just a win-win. That’s what gives the attraction its DNA. It’s what makes it a classic in so many ways. And you’re right: over the years, it has changed. Think about the piranhas we added at Disneyland into the Amazon or the exploding barrels as you enter Africa. We’ve added some really great moments that bring new magic to that attraction through the years. So we’re excited about this update—bringing new magic to our guests and giving it a fresh take.
Can you talk about why you decided to make these new updates?
We are constantly evaluating ways to enhance attractions and experiences in our parks. We want to make sure everybody has the best time—that guests from all over the world can connect with the stories we share and that how we bring those to life are respectful of the diverse world we live in. And when they get off the attraction, they know that we have done our homework because these are the details that matter. When you look at the Jungle Cruise, as it is today, there are just a couple of scenes that don’t do that and needed a refresh. But I want to make sure people know we are not changing the whole Jungle Cruise. This is not a re-envisioning of the entire attraction. It’s the Jungle Cruise you know and love, with the skippers still leading the way, and at the same time, we’re addressing the negative depictions of “natives.” So that’s one of the scenes we’re going to go in and change.
So let’s talk about some of these changes…
We want to make sure that we take this as an opportunity, right? So as we look to clean up a lot of the challenges that we have in the attraction, we want to make sure we go in and add all the humor that Marc Davis gave it, all those years ago. Anything new we add will be in that tone. And for the first time, we are actually linking scenes together.
So if you think of the famous rhino pole scene, with the team of explorers who have somehow camped that night and then been run up the pole by the rhino and a group of other animals… that will really kick off the storyline. Did you ever wonder who those explorers were or where they came from? What’s their backstory? As part of the enhanced storyline, each one of them will have their own story and cultural heritage. There’s a birdwatcher, an entomologist, a wildlife painter, and a photographer, and each one will have a different reason for being on the expedition. And, of course, they did one of the things you’re never supposed to do, which is leave the boat. And one of the things we’re adding to the attraction is an animatronic skipper, who’s been chased up the pole by the rhino, along with the other explorers. They each have great personality, and I think our guests will connect with these characters in new ways. So we’re not really re-envisioning that scene, we’re just adding a narrative and storytelling to bring things to life and connect that moment with other happenings along the river.
And you may ask yourself, Wait, what happened to their boat? And we find out that the front of the boat has been beached upon these rocks. We wanted to put something here that feels like Marc Davis had a hand in it, that has a bit of humor in it. And we wanted the animals to have the last laugh. So you’ll see that the family of chimpanzees has moved in. And we don’t currently have chimps on this attraction—all of these amazing animals have been brought to life through the years on the Jungle Cruise and yet we’ve never had chimpanzees. The family of chimpanzees jumps on the wreckage of the boat and they are almost making fun of us. One is wearing the skipper’s hat and is on the microphone. The mother chimp has opened up all the maps and it looks like she’s reading them. A little chimp has gotten into the wildlife painter’s supplies and has made a mess with paint everywhere. It’s the animals really getting the last laugh in this cute scene—these silly explorers really came in and invaded their world.
I almost feel like Jingle Cruise is a link between these experiences because with the Jingle Cruise you have the presents that were mistakenly dropped, and throughout the cruise we get to see what happened to them.
I agree. Jingle Cruise is great, and it probably was the first time we went in and from a narrative standpoint threaded a storyline through all the rivers.
I feel like there is sometimes, perhaps, misplaced concern that when an attraction is reimagined that it is somehow not going to be as great as it was before. How do you address that?
First off, we love our fans. You could ask any Imagineer why we do what we do, and it really is to bring a smile to our fans’ faces. And we’re cautious, because we know that any time we go in to make changes, especially to a classic attraction, some may worry it’s going to lose its magic. To make sure it doesn’t, we do our homework. First, we are really leaning into our skippers. Kevin Lively, who is a writer at Imagineering, is actually a former skipper and is the writer for our show. So any changes that we are making are actually being written by a former skipper. The role the skippers play is a significant part of this attraction experience—their performance and how they bring it to life is something we all love. They are deeply passionate about this attraction, too. We want to make sure we get the skippers on board, no pun intended, and that they feel like they have some ownership in this. So that was step one.
Second was to bring together a diverse project team. We wanted to make sure that any changes we made from a relevancy standpoint were done right. So we’ve been working with Carmen Smith [executive for Creative Development and Inclusive Strategies] and her team within Imagineering to make sure that any time we show something culturally significant, that is done in the proper light. It’s done in a way that celebrates diverse backgrounds and interests—that’s part of the rich storytelling, not something you poke fun at it.
When introducing new elements—even animals—we make sure they’re done in a respectful way. We reached out to Dr. Mark Penning and his team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and said, “Look, we have these chimpanzees that are coming into this new world and we want to have fun with them. How do we make sure it’s done in an authentic way for the chimpanzees?” We want to have fun, but we’re not making fun of the animals. His team had great insights and it really elevated that new scene.
And the last part is really looking back to the source material. We went back and looked at original Marc Davis sketches. We pulled out his work and looked at what makes this scene funny, and what are some of the scenes that Marc developed that didn’t make it? It’s really important to go back—especially on a classic attraction—and look at the DNA and what really makes the attraction work. What makes it funny? What makes it fun for our guests? And part of that is going back to Marc’s humor and his storytelling. And Kevin is brilliant at that. Kevin does an amazing job finding that right tone that has that Marc Davis quality to it.
What’s the reaction been from the skippers?
I was nervous the first time we brought some of the skippers in, just to sit with them and say, “Here’s why we’re making the changes and here’s what some of the changes are going to be.” You could see, at first, some concern, because obviously there’s a lot of love around this attraction. But a few minutes into the presentation, the smiles came onto their faces. They loved it. The feedback from them was that it feels like classic Jungle Cruise, like something that has always been there.
Obviously, this means the skippers’ spiels need to change?
We’re keeping a lot of the classic jokes that the fans know and love, like the backside of water. But it will give our skipper some new material to play off of. So that’s exciting for them. They were really excited about having some new source material.
With the Jungle Cruise movie opening this year, will that be incorporated, as well?
I’m excited about the movie, and having Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt be a part of that film. But these adjustments are really focused on enhancing the existing attraction storyline and addressing some areas that needed refreshing along the way. I’m sure the film is fantastic and we’re very excited about it, but integrating the film into our classic Jungle Cruise is not part of this effort. Does that mean that as Imagineers we won’t put Easter eggs in there? We’ll definitely do that. But we are not adding a major storyline or character from that film.
The attractions are somewhat different at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts. Will there be different changes based on location?
We’re telling the same story on both coasts. What you see at Walt Disney World at the Magic Kingdom will be exactly what you see at Disneyland Resort. We really do want to tell a very cohesive story on both coasts. It’s been fun to look at the nuances between the two attractions and what makes them slightly different, but the scenes that we’re adjusting are the same.
Is there a timeline for the enhancements?
We haven’t announced a date yet. We’re working hard to make sure we can get everything in this year.
Thank you so much for your time. Anything else you’d like to say before we go?
Any time we make an adjustment or a change to a classic attraction, I think back to [Disney Legend] Marty Sklar and even back to Walt and the idea that none of these stories were meant to be frozen in time. As new technology came out, as new stories came out, as characters evolved, these attractions could grow and flex. I think we’ve seen that with Pirates of the Caribbean when we updated the role of the redhead. Changes are always taking place. I think it is always important to look at these classic attractions and make sure we don’t disrupt the DNA of what makes that attraction resonate with our guests. It’s important to us. I love these opportunities to make adjustments and bring in new magic. And we will continue to respect the magic that makes it exciting for all of our guests.