By Andrew Kiste
I have two significant hobbies in my life: history and Walt Disney World. I enjoyed history so much as a teenager, that I decided to devote my life to the study of history by becoming a historian and passing my knowledge and love of the past down to young people. Because my love of Walt Disney World is so strong, I find it interesting to look at various attractions and lands throughout the resort from a historical perspective.
As the result of my background knowledge in history, I am usually able to notice details that others might not pick up on when it comes to their historical significance. Take, for example, Pirates of the Caribbean. I previously wrote an article outlining the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of the beloved Magic Kingdom attraction.
Another of my favorite attractions, which also happens to be in Adventureland, is the Jungle Cruise. The Jungle Cruise, enjoyed by many in four Disney theme parks around the world, is based on a controversial period of world history: the era of imperialism, which took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, some of the strongest nations in the world, including Britain, France and the United States, acquired colonies in foreign lands, exploiting the people as cheap labor and the goods as raw materials to further their respective industries. Many of these colonial landholdings would later spark major conflicts, such as World War One and the Vietnam War.
Walt Disney’s Jungle Cruise is loosely based on two films that were released in the 1950s. The earlier film, The African Queen, based on the novel by C.S. Forester and starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, is about two British missionaries who travel to the African interior to convert the native Africans. The missionaries travel on a steamboat which lends its name to the film’s title, piloted by Bogart’s character. However, as the small boat is traveling through a German colony, World War I breaks out in Europe. The plot of the film finds Bogart and Hepburn trying to escape the Germans who learn of the missionaries’ presence in their colony. The boat encounters jungle dangers along the way, including river rapids, waterfalls, animals and native tribes. The second film that the attraction is based on is Walt Disney’s True Life Adventure documentary,The African Lion, which is similar to the DisneyNature film, African Cats. The 1955 feature followed the feline king of the jungle throughout his daily life on the African savannahs. This film inspired Walt Disney to create a ride-through attraction about the jungles of the world and the animals that inhabited them. Interestingly enough, Disney wanted to use real animals for his classic ride, but the unreliability of live creatures caused him to use audio-animatronics instead. This attraction was on the opening day list for both Disneyland in 1955 and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in 1971.
The Magic Kingdom’s version of the Jungle Cruise is set during the period of African and Asian imperialism of the 1930s. The Imagineers have ensured the guests are completely immersed in the time period and environment of the 1930s colonial posts, as well as the landscape of Africa and Asia. This immersion begins as you approach the Jungle Cruise’s queue building from Adventureland. Hanging from a ship’s mast is a sign made of a wooden ship rudder that reads “Jungle Cruise Expedition.” Beneath the rudder hangs a broken oar that describes the expedition as “exotic.” As guests turn left out of Adventureland and walk down the ramp heading toward the queue building, they leave behind the general feel of Adventureland and step back in time to an imperial trading post. Pasted on the outside of the post’s building (which holds the attraction’s queue) is a sign that informs visitors they have arrived at a British jungle expedition outpost maintained by the “Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd,” which was established in 1911. Imagineers kept with the theme of the attraction by decorating the Fastpass return and stand-by sign as though it were made of pieces of paper pasted to the side of the building in 1930s fashion. The Fastpass distribution machines are even styled as suitcases covered with passport and expedition stickers.
As guests enter the jungle outpost building, they are greeted by period music being played over a radio station hosted by Skipper Albert Awol, known as “the voice of the jungle, broadcasting to all points unknown.” Awol plays various instrumental songs in the 1930s style of music, interspersed with news and jokes relating to the attraction. Those familiar with the attraction would appreciate Awol’s jokes but those who are not would not necessarily understand. For example, Awol announces to skippers that “a blue jeep that has previously been reported missing has turned up at a nearby base camp,” invoking the scene where the gorillas have destroyed a camp. Another humorous piece of advice Awol gives to skippers is that “failure to respect the animals may result in pointed confrontation,” which corresponds to a Marc Davis-inspired scene of explorers climbing up a tree while an angry rhino tries to impale them with his horn. Davis, a legendary Disney artist and Imagineer, was commissioned by Disney to work on the attraction before its opening in Disneyland in 1955.
The queue is interspersed with various exotic expedition artifacts brought back by tour groups to be put on display in the jungle outpost, as well as numerous signs advertising destinations to the tourists of the Jungle Navigation Company and news for the skippers leading the tours. Near the boarding zone of the dock, a small cage sits atop a crate holding a large animatronic tarantula that jumps every few seconds, startling unsuspecting guests (myself included). Wooden crates throughout the queue are addressed to skippers and characters of the now-retired Adventurers Club at Downtown Disney’s Pleasure Island, such as Otis T. Wren and Pamelia Perkins. Near the entrance of the queue is a small empty cage explaining it was supposed to be containing a wild orangutan, warning visitors to “keep away.” However, the creature pried the bars apart and escaped; this was remediated by skippers using a piece of rope to close off the opening. A larger cage elsewhere in the queue warns visitors to “kindly keep your hands to yourself (if you want to keep them, that is!)” The sign has large claw marks scratched across it, leading guests to believe that some large animal has escaped. This may or may not be the same leopard reported by Albert Awol over the radio to have been seen in the area. Information boards posted for skippers include a “missing persons” list, complete with names like B.N. Eaton, Emma Boylen, Ilene Dover and Ann Fellen. Other artifacts hanging about the queue include oars, pith helmets, machetes, and native masks and spears.
Midway through the queue is the office of Albert Awol, where clients of the Jungle Navigation Company can book tours down the tropical jungle rivers of the world. Awol himself is not in the office, but the office looks as though he just stepped out for a moment. A chain-link gate separates the office from the guests, with a small opening for guests and the booking officer to interact. A mug of coffee sits beside a typewriter. Books have titles discussing period events, such as the popularization of the automobile. A pipe rests in an ashtray. The office is dimly lit, allowing only the astute observer to note the framed images of colonial jungles and encased specimens of exotic insects hanging on the walls.
As guests approach the loading dock, a small shack is spotted across the river, situated along the bank. The shack has a wrap-around porch with a roof supported by bamboo poles. The roof is made of thatched straw and is angled at a steep grade, representative of the imperial architecture of the 1930s European jungle colonies. Netting hangs from the railings of the porch, and a gun rack holding numerous rifles is mounted to the wall of the hut. Other props lie about the porch, including a cane chair, a pith helmet and a long red crutch, leading the observer to assume that the owner of the hut may have contracted some sort of exotic disease that left a crippling effect. A curtain hangs in the doorway of the cabin, behind which can be seen the foot of a bed. A sign with red letters spelling “Keep Out!” hangs from the porch, warning passengers of the “dangers” that lurk ahead on their jungle voyage.
The ride vehicles of the Jungle Cruise take the form of 31-passenger river boats. The boats are covered by a striped canopy, which is loaded with various “supplies” to insinuate that the ships are used to deliver supplies to colonial posts along the banks of the rivers. Passengers sit on a bench that lines the diameter of the boat, as well as a short bench that stretches the length of the middle of the boat. Near the back end of the boat is a large steam engine (which is non-functional) with a smokestack emerging through the canopy. This steam engine is period authentic; invented by Robert Fulton in 1809, Robert Fulton was the first to put a steam engine on a boat, The Clermont. At the time, the steam engine powered a water wheel that propelled the ship forward (this invention is the namesake of the restaurant at Downtown Disney’s Marketplace, Fulton’s Crab House, which is located inside a large steamboat complete with water wheel). By the 1920s and 1930s, boats were equipped with a smaller steam engine, fueled by coal, and propelled the ship forward via a small engine beneath the water. The ships were steered by the captain of the boat through a wooden wheel, which moved a rudder at the back of the boat. The Jungle Cruise ride vehicles have the engine and wooden wheel, as well, except these are both for show. The vehicle is guided along a metal track beneath the water. The 16 boats of the Jungle Cruise fleet have names such as “Amazon Annie,” “Congo Connie,” “Ganges Gertie,” Nile Nellie” and “Orinoco Ida,” all of which are the names of rivers paired with female names.
The guides for the jungle expeditions, known as “skippers,” follow a script, but are able to personalize the spiel by injecting “Disney-approved” jokes and put their own flavor on the speech. The skippers do not steer the boat, but are able to control the boat using a lever that drives the boat either forward or backward, as well as how fast or slow the boat goes down the river. Skippers are decked out in costumes that are somewhat period authentic for imperial colonizers: the cast members wear khaki shirts and pants, as well as a khaki fedora-like hat wrapped in a leopard-spotted band. Colonial officials would sometimes wear khaki clothing, as it was usually lighter in weight, and did not absorb heat in the way darker colored clothing would in hot, tropical climates of the African and Asian colonies.
The path of the Jungle Cruise takes guests down numerous rivers and across three continents, which of course, is not possible within a 10 minute attraction. The first river that guests float down is the Amazon River, which is located in South America. A dense canopy of foliage hangs overhead as the boats travel down the river. Large, colorful butterflies are perched on logs and rocks, with 12-inch wingspans. A small waterfall to the left of the boats, named “Inspiration Falls,” trickles into the Amazon, which, as the skipper explains to guests, “inspires us to travel deeper into the jungle.”
Guests find themselves transitioning from the Amazon to the Congo River as they float past a beach holding three pygmy war canoes beached on the bank of the river in front of a small thatched hut. This scene is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, which explains the journey of a riverboat captain down the Congo River, searching for an imperial mercantilist during the height of African colonization in the 1890s. The bows of the canoes have carved heads of animals, which served a few different purposes. One reason for the carved heads was to scare off animals or enemies along the banks of the rivers. Also, animals were a very important part of life for the natives along the Congo River, as they were the sustainable force of food for the natives. As a result, the natives worshipped different animal gods; the carved bows of the boats may signify a form of worship to the spirits of these gods. Across the river from the beached war canoes are a small group of pygmies, yelling and grunting, wearing carved masks and wielding spears and shields. It was not uncommon for pygmies to lie in waiting in the foliage for an unsuspecting riverboat to come along before attacking. Keep in mind that Europeans colonizing Africa and Asia did so for selfish, economic means, exploiting the land, resources, and natives for goods and labor. In retaliation, small groups of natives would attack, throwing spears and shooting arrows at passengers of riverboats, a scene graphically depicted in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
At this point in the ride, the skipper of the boat explains he needs to stop at his camp to pick up supplies. Upon rounding the corner, however, guests find that the skipper’s camp has been ransacked by a family of gorillas. The blue jeep Albert Awol explained had “turned up at a nearby base camp” in the queue news reports is upside down to the left of the camp, the tires still spinning. This jeep, however, is not representative of a 1930s jeep, but rather looks like one from the 1960s. Supplies lay scattered about the basecamp, including fuel tanks, crates, and other supplies. Inside the large canvas tent, a gorilla fiddles with a gun, while another stands before a mirror, trying on a pith helmet. Pith helmets were cloth-covered, cork helmets, usually white or khaki colored. These helmets are distinctly shaped, and had broad brims to keep the sun out of the wearer’s face. Because they were made of cork, they absorbed water from the humidity of tropical atmospheres, which helped keep the wearer cool in warm weather. These helmets were generally worn by European explorers and colonizers in African and Asian colonies.
After leaving the base camp scene, the Jungle Cruise boats float into the Nile River, where they are greeted by African bull elephants. While there is not much detail that designates this part of the attraction as the Nile River in the jungle, the foliage gives way to what is known as the African Veldt. The dense trees and vines give way to an open savannah complete with scrub brushes, boulders, and a cave interspersed with African mammals, such as lions, zebras, and giraffes. Inside the cave, a family of lions clusters around the corpse of a zebra, while the other animals look on, bringing reality to the “circle of life.” The seriousness of the veldt scene doesn’t last long, however, as a set of laughing hyenas provide a link from the kill scene to that of a small group of men climbing up the trunk of a tree, trapped by an angry rhinoceros. The rhinoceros has a piece of cloth wrapped around the tip of his horn, which, after careful observation, guests realize is a piece of the shorts of the lowest member of the safari group on the tree. The five men, terrified, try to scurry up the tree each time the rhino jerks his head upwards, trying to impale them on his horn. The hyenas stand around, laughing hysterically. After leaving the lost safari behind, guests find a pair of Nile crocodiles along the riverbank, which the skippers explain are named Old Smiley and Ginger, who snaps. Flanking the crocodiles are a pair of ivory totems, made from the same material as the tusks of elephants.
Around the bend is a large waterfall that cascades down into the river, called Schweitzer Falls, which, according to Jungle Cruise lore, is named after Sir Albert Falls. This is a joke, playing on the real namesake of the waterfall, Sir Albert Schweitzer, a German missionary that established a hospital in 1913 about 200 miles, or 14 days, up the Ogooué River, in modern-day Gabon, Africa, then a French colony. Guests actually pass the waterfall twice, the second time passing behind the falls, to which the skipper points out “the backside of water.”
After passing through a pool of hippos and the back half of a small propeller plane (the other half of which is used in the Casablanca scene of The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios), the small boats float into a Zulu headhunter’s village. The beach is strewn with bones, and spears impale totems of human skulls as a small pack of tribesmen with painted bodies, dance and chant in preparation for a hunt for human heads. The thatched-roof hut, made of bamboo and palm fronds, both of which grow native along rivers in tropical central Africa, shelters the natives. The boat makes its quick escape and quickly finds itself on another river, the Mekong, located in Laos, Cambodia, and China.
The centerpiece of the Mekong River portion of the attraction is the ruins of an ancient Cambodian temple, remnants of holy buildings from the Khmer empire of Cambodia, similar to those of Angkor Wat. Jungle Cruise legend has it that an earthquake toppled the temple into the river, which is not surprising; Southeast Asia has frequent earthquakes. To the right of the temple’s ruined entrance is the stone face of the Hindu god, Vishnu, wrapped in vines. The temple is complete with wavy patterns on spires and columns that emerge from the temple, as well as a step-like pattern on the side of the temple, which is very similar to the architecture found at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Upon entering the pitch dark ruins of the temple, the skipper turns on his lantern, which illuminates snakes, monkeys, and a Bengal tiger throughout the cave. Tree roots seep down through the walls and ceiling, hanging into the river, which is similar to the ancient Hindu temples of Southeast Asia; it is reported that the jungles have literally taken over the ancient Cambodian ruins. The walls of the ruins are painted with faded depictions of various scenes of Hindu religion, including that of the three major gods of Hinduism: Vishnu, Krishna, and Brahma. There is also a golden statue of the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, who sits among various artifacts in the darkened ruins.
Upon exiting the Cambodian ruins, guests’ trip down the rivers of the world comes to a close. However, while waiting for ships ahead to unload passengers, the Jungle Cruise boats come alongside a lone figure standing on the left bank of the river. This man, known as Trader Sam the Head Salesman, offers guests “two of his heads for one of yours.” The head salesman holds two shrunken heads in his right hand, with another attached to a necklace hanging from his neck. Atop his head sits a top hat, reminiscent of European aristocracy of the 1890s through the 1930s. He holds in his hand a black umbrella, something that would have been wielded by the upper class of European society, but used more for shielding the sun rather than to ward off rain. However, it is evident that Trader Sam has had the umbrella and hat for a while, as they are quite beat up and the umbrella has tears in the fabric. The gentleman is probably a native of a Southeast Asian tribe due to the markings on his face, and stands among a grove of bamboo. The animatronic figure, who is more of a stationary mannequin with limited movement as opposed to a figure like Jack Sparrow on Pirates of the Caribbean, is bare-chested, wears a red and white striped cloth around his waist. Could it be that Trader Sam has ambushed a jungle cruise boats, used the passengers and skipper to restock his head collection, and used the canopy of the boat to create a covering for himself? Or could it be that he came across an exploration or colonial party in the forest in the middle of the night?
Since no guests take advantage of Trader Sam’s deal, the boats move forward into the docking zone, where skippers help guests out of the boats. If they were lucky, all guests arrived back to the dock, having braved multiple rivers across three continents of the world. After passing through the exit turnstiles of the queue, guests head back up the ramp into Adventureland, and continue their day at the Magic Kingdom, not realizing that they just experienced the “golden age” of one of the less known periods of world history.
Take a virtual ride on the Jungle Cruise, noticing these new details:
• Andrew Kiste is a life-long Disney fan and contributer to “Orlando Attractions Magazine”. He is currently residing in Guilford County, N.C. with his wife, where he teaches world history and European history at a local high school.