Racism at Disney Parks: addressing & discussing

June 11, 2020



Content warning: Insensitive depictions of Indigenous people


In light of the recent surge of support and justice for Black lives, the Black Lives Matter movement, and protests against police brutality, we think it’s critical to highlight racial inequalities within the Disney parks and community. We want to initiate a conversation, while addressing our own biases and colonized mindsets that are prevalent in the Disney community and society at large.


It’s important to note that The Walt Disney Company has issued a statement of solidarity supporting Black lives and their Black employees. The company acknowledges that they don’t have all the right answers but are committed to having these vital discussions to further promote inclusivity and diversity to bring about real change. However, we want to see change in action, and acknowledging and removing racist depictions and stereotypes in the parks is a great way to start.


Racist Caricatures in Disneyland


I know, I know – the cigar store statues of an Indigenous man have historical significance in the United States and at Disneyland. (Yesterland does a great job of concisely describing its history within the parks.) But if Disney wants to make a real statement about race and inequality, they would do away with the cigar store statues placed on Main Street and in Frontierland. Historically, these statues portray Indigenous folks, often men, wearing traditional headwear while over-exaggerating stereotypical Indigenous facial features. Thousands and thousands of guests walk through the Disney parks each year observing and taking in – whether consciously or not – these representations of Indigenous people. 


These depictions of Indigenous people reduce Indigenous folks to caricatures, reinforcing insidious stereotypes such the “noble savage” or that Indigneous people are from the past and don’t exist today. It’s almost as if they’re storybook characters from another time, but in actuality, they are real people experiencing real injustice to this day. The statues are racist, harmful, and represent antiquated views of Indigenous people, preventing them from being seen as equals.


 Cigar Store Indian Statue on Main Street, U.S.A. | © Yesterland


“But we can’t erase history!”


We’re not erasing it. You can still look it up online and in history books. Besides, historians themselves don’t use statues or monuments when teaching history. Plus, I highly doubt a place that has giant, anthropomorphic mice; ducks; and dogs is a primary source of history for anybody.

Note: This tweet is in reference to US confederate statues, some of which have been removed.


The depictions of Indigenous people at the parks does not end there – no, sir. Riding the Disneyland Railroad, the Mark Twain Riverboat, or exploring Tom Sawyer Island will show you even more harmful depictions of Indigenous people. They are portrayed in the singular narrative of the “noble savages” that existed in the past and exist in Disneyland for guest consumption. Disney reinforces the dangerous idea that Indigenous people are extinct and no longer living in the U.S.


While Disney did work closely with tribes, and even had some Indigenous folks guiding the canoes for guests in the past, the extent of the collaboration is unknown. It’s highly likely that Indigenous folks were unhappy with the war canoes, which furthers the false representation that Indigenous people are savages.


Peter Pan’s Flight also includes a depiction of an Indigenous tribe as audio-animatronics, which echo the same racist sentiments from the movie. The portrayal, albeit a small one, reduces Indigenous folks and sacred practices to mockery and caricatures. The audio-animatronics features a handful of Indigenous people chanting, banging on drums, and with exaggerated facial features. Such features include angry facial expressions and large aquiline noses. 


Imagine your only representation in the famed and beloved Disney parks is reduced to the same, played out stereotypes that have been used to describe your people for centuries. It’s dehumanizing and does nothing to help your people today. In fact, these stereotypes actually do harm and can incite violence because of the dehumanizing factor. Many Indigenous communities today face marginalization and discrimination, in healthcare, food and clean water access, education, and more. There’s countless data and articles that support this, it only takes a quick Google search. Here’s an article by Alaskan Native Heather Davidson of Teen Vogue that describes discrimination in her own words and experience.


Something needs to change, starting with removing these depictions of Indigenous people from Peter Pan’s Flight. 


And again, because I know I’m going to get some comments about this, we’re not erasing history. We’re urging Disney to be more inclusive and aware of the harmful effects of caricatures at their parks. If Disney was meant to be a place to teach history, then why don’t they show the brutality or the genocide of Indigenous people? Or what about the rich diversity and voices of Indigenous tribes today, who still face discrimination, marginalization, and other struggles? Is it that there’s only one side of history Disney is portraying – one that benefits the colonizers and reinforces only one narrative? Much to think about.


Spirit Animals at DCA


 Exterior of Redwood Creek Challenge Trail | © Disney Parks Blog


Have you ever braved the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail at Disney California Adventure Park? It’s a fun outdoor park with lots of activities for kids, photo opportunities, and interactive components. I played there recently (err– sometime last year), exploring all it had to offer for the first time. I walked inside of the caves, which was over-crowded by all of the guests wanting to participate in one of the activities. It was small, dark, and had markings decorated on the walls. Everyone was crowding around a wall that had brightly colored circles and a bear paw print inside each circle. When it was finally my turn, I approached the glowing space and realized what I was looking at: an interactive quiz to see what my spirit animal was.


 Spirit Animal Paw Print Quiz | © Marian Ladiona via Flikr


To be succinct, unless you are Indigenous, no, you do not have a spirit animal. This is quite simply because the term and practice belongs to specific Indigenous traditions. They don’t belong to non-Native folks, and further use of Indigenous terms and practices further trivializes an already disenfranchised cultural group. Their primary form in the parks is as entertainment and does little to truly educate visitors on its history and significance in Indigenous culture. 


If you want to learn more about why you shouldn’t coin everything as your spirit animal, read here. To learn more about how to be a better ally, Vice lists a multitude of ways to support Indigenous folks in everyday life.


Jungle Cruise


One of my favorite rides growing up was Jungle Cruise. The proximity to water and totally-real wildlife, the endless supply of puns, and of course, the backside of water are all favorites of mine. Towards the end of the ride, however, I cringe and wince in disgust. Why? You probably guessed it: dehumanizing depictions of Indigenous African tribes and peoples. 


As guests approach the scene, the skipper tells guests to duck down and watch out for spears. Audio-animatronics of African Indigenous people are seen “throwing” the spears, wearing brightly colored masks and face and body makeup. The skipper will often make a joke that they’re dancing the hokey pokey, which is infantilizing. This portrayal overall reduces Indigenous African people to stereotypes, as savages or weird others that are very much unlike us


 African Tribe Performing a “ceremony” | © OC Register


We also see a “traditional” ceremony being performed while riding in the boat. The animatronics are chanting, dancing, and banging on drums while dressed in bright attire. There are also lots of leaves, feathers, and jewelry incorporated into the costumes. This representation seems to lump a handful of traits that might belong to Indigenous African groups (or maybe did in the past) and reduces traditional ceremonies and traditions to mockery and cultural homogeneity. It’s not informative or educational; it only reinforces these harmful messages about Indigenous African groups to thousands of guests each year. Come on, Disney, we know you can do better than that.


We discussed the racism in Jungle Cruise’s neighboring attraction, Indiana Jones Adventure, in a previous article. We talk more about racism, othering, and sexism found in the films and attraction. Have a read and share your thoughts with us!


Splash Mountain

 Exterior of Splash Mountain | © Disney Parks Blog


Okay, let’s face it. Splash Mountain is so much fun, especially on a hot day with your best friends or family. Walking around the parks with wet socks and shoes right afterwards is almost a rite of passage for any hot Disney day. However, we must acknowledge the racist context from which it is derived from. Song of the South (1946) is well-known as one of -- if not the most -- racist film Disney has ever produced. Its racism does not reflect Disney’s views today and was definitely a product of its time, yet nearly 43 years later, Disney created a ride based on the film’s characters and songs. 

That is something we cannot ignore, as the ride as a whole reinforces the “happy slave” narrative even though human characters from the film are not in the attraction. ScreenCrush talks in more detail about Song of the South, its racism, and how it is perceived today.


In the film, Br’er Rabbit is voiced by a Black man, James Baskett, while in the attraction, a white man, Jess Harnell voices him. A white man imitating African-American Vernacular English is quite problematic, especially since the tone and pattern are overly-exaggerated. Big yikes.


Also, the characters themselves, such as Br’er Rabbit and Uncle Remus belong to Joel Chandler Harris, a white writer who created a collection of Black American folktales he heard and decided to frame in a plantation context. He wrote the character of Uncle Remus (a freed slave in the film who sings the infectious “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”) with his own interpretation of what Southern Black speech patterns might sound like. These same speech patterns are exaggerated and on full display in the ride itself. Uhh, okay. 


While there is a lot more to unpack and plenty of controversy surrounding the subject, we don’t want Disney to uphold the author’s racist legacy. A commitment to change and discussion requires we examine racist undertones and contexts from which classic Disney attractions originate from.


Recent discourse has brought up the idea of re-theming Splash Mountain to Disney’s Princess and the Frog (2009). The ride would operate on entirely the same track; however, we’d hear the catchy tunes from the movie, see our favorite Disney Princess Tiana, and even get a visit by some friends from the other side. Fans of this proposal have even created and signed a petition to send to Disney.





Princess Tiana, Prince Naveen, and Mama Odie? We’re so down.


Keep Moving Forward


On a positive note, the Disneyland Railroad spiel does educate listeners on the specific tribes, roles, and terms used by Indigenous folks. This spiel can be heard when crossing the northern part of the railroad tracks. Moving forward, Disney should positively incorporate Indigenous folks through educational and dignified portrayals.


We’ve only scratched the surface of racism at Disneyland. There are countless more examples, all too numerous to fit into one article (Tom Sawyer Island, it’s a small world, Laod Bhang’s Pin Traders…). We hope to have at least sparked a need to create a discussion on this topic.


If Disney is to remain committed to fighting social injustice and racism as they claim in their statement, we urge them to remove racist depictions of Indigenous and Black people in the parks. In addition, we encourage readers to do their research on the matter and to continue holding companies to a higher standard. Again, we know Disney can do better. We just need to nudge them in the right direction.


Lastly, I leave you with this: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” -Walt Disney


If we’re following along with Walt Disney’s ideals, he advocated for a Disneyland that changed and grew over time. Shouldn’t we do away with racist iconography, symbols, and undertones, and move forward with an inclusive, welcoming place for all?

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