Believe it or not the Los Angeles freeway, George Lucas, and a children’s book about a squirrel all had a lot to do with the creation of America’s favorite flume ride. It was the summer of 1983, when a variety of projects were circulating through Imagineer Tony Baxter’s mind. “I can’t say I actually thought of Splash Mountain on the freeway,” says Baxter, “but I did ponder it on more than a couple of rides to and from work. I would say that I definitely had time to think about it while sitting in traffic.” Dick Nunis, President of Walt Disney Attractions at this time, was very instrumental in getting a flume type ride in the parks. Nunis wanted something similar to Pirates of the Caribbean, but more exciting. This all lead to one of my favorite Disney attractions, Splash Mountain.
|Mickey and Dick Nunis|
Tony Baxter and his fellow Imagineers were in the Blue Sky stage of development when the idea came to Baxter. “I thought about it a long time, but the idea really came to fruition when we were discussing ideas for Tomorrowland with George Lucas. One of our concepts called for tearing down America Sings, but I kept thinking, ‘What a terrible waste of all those Audio-Animatronics characters. Isn’t there something we can do with them?’” Finally, one morning after going over ideas for days and many traffic jams later, Tony Baxter had the perfect formula. Splash Mountain show producer Bruce Gordon explains, “Tony came in and told us what he wanted to do. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea!’ So I got together with John Stone, the project designer, and a bunch of other guys and we took all the scenes from “Song of the South” and began visualizing how we could turn them into a ride.”
When Baxter was four he owned a book about a squirrel and he vaguely remembered being very impressed by the illustrations. As he got older his parents gave the book to Goodwill and Baxter had no idea if the book existed anymore. This didn’t stop Bruce Gordon, who began searching high and low for this children’s book. Gordon finally found it at the Library of Congress. Fortunately, the pictures in the book did look as good as Tony Baxter remembered and, in fact, the pictures looked so good that Stone used them as inspiration for the interior show scenes for the ride.
While work began to progress on the project, everyone knew it would be a hit. Shortly after Baxter and the others built a 1/20th scale model, several people in the WDI building would stop by and say how great it looked. The project came together flawlessly and within four weeks the Imagineers had the storyboard and model done. It’s a great sign while designing an attraction when everything falls into place. The result of that design was a flume ride based on “Song of the South” that featured not just Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear, but also over 100 characters that once performed in America Sings.
The creation of Splash Mountain caused for several changes to occur inside Disneyland. One such change was to what was known as Bear Country, now called Critter Country; the Imagineers wanting something to draw guests back into Bear Country. It was becoming a much underutilized area and there was a perceived need for a new Disney attraction. During this time the Imagineers created and completed Captain EO and Star Tours, which are great attractions, but it had been awhile since they did a ride based on classic Disney characters from the films and Splash Mountain gave them that chance.
Even though everything fell into place in the development stages of the ride, it still took five years for the attraction to be built. This was due to the fact that Disney had a flood, or traffic jam, of other projects in the works and Splash Mountain had to wait its turn in line. In 1986 the ride was finally given the go-ahead and everyone involved was extremely excited by the idea of building a really thrilling and unique attraction based on classic Disney characters.
Splash Mountain is a 10 minute ride that is half a mile long that features five drops, including a astonishing final drop that plunges over 52 feet at a 45-degree angle. Ride vehicles made to look like logs reach top speeds of 40 mph while going down the final drop, making the ride one of the fastest at Disneyland, WDW and Tokyo Disneyland.
One of the best parts of Pirates of the Caribbean, besides the drops, is the Blue Bayou section in the beginning of the ride because it gives the rider a chance to get in the mood before the ride actually starts. The Imagineers used the same tactics here by allowing riders that round Chick-a-Pin Hill to see other logs hurtling down the final drop. This gets the juices flowing as the rider keeps in mind throughout the ride that they will eventually be going down that huge drop. In theory, the first part of the ride is suppose to be relaxing, then, slowly but surely, starts to build up some anxiety of what’s to come. After the first drop, guest suddenly fined themselves in the fascinating world of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear. One unique thing about the ride is that absolutely no walls are used to divide show scenes. Instead, the ride is separated by set pieces so guests may look all the way to the other end of the bayou without giving away the story. Also, unlike Pirates of the Caribbean, where most of the action is far away from the rider, Splash Mountain is right on top of you. Imagineers wanted the riders to feel as if they are part of the attraction and very much a part of what’s happening.
Close to the end of the ride, when the rider goes down the final drop, all you can see at the bottom is a spiky, thorny Briar Patch coming at you. Once you reach the bottom a series of 12 water cannons spray water. As the log ride vehicle goes by, it seems like it goes under water but there is actually bubblers out in the middle of the lagoon that continues that effect. While building the ride and using characters from America Sings throughout, Baxter and Gordon had a bunch of Audio-Animatronics characters left over. They eventually came up with the idea to place all the left over characters on an old Mississippi Paddle-Wheeler that rocks back and forth for the grand finale. So as guests bank out they head to this extravagant scene with all the characters singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
Splash Mountain has everything a great Disney attraction should; classic Disney characters, a great storyline filled with excitement and thrills, fantastic imagery and a perfect soundtrack. The ride is beautiful inside and out and is just what Critter Country needed. Splash Mountain isn’t the oldest Disney attraction or one that was created during Walt’s time, but it could very well have fit into a ride that Walt would have created.
And now for the Grand Opening of Splash Mountain: