The Jungle Cruise is a Disney Park attraction that simulates a riverboat cruise through major rivers in Africa, South America, and Asia. Visitors board a replica tramp steamer that takes them through a tropical jungle setting with animatronic animals and humans. A Disney cast member provides humorous narration as the skipper.
However, the Jungle Cruise perpetuates the racist stereotype of “the savage,” which paints people of color (POC) as “uncivilized” and “animalistic.” The ride features animatronic figures that are dressed in tribal garb and wear ceremonial masks. While some are performing a dance, others are menacingly approaching the riverboat. These supposed cannibals are “threatening” the guests. Just like the cobras, tigers and gorillas, the natives are simply part of the scary scenery. Western culture has a long story of depicting Africans in popular culture as savages that run through the jungle, threaten white people and may even devour them. Up to this day, such othering imagery is used to justify colonial politics, from disastrous interventions in war-torn regions to seizing farmland in impoverished countries. Western morals, brainpower and technology are needed to save these “savages” – and to protect the “civilized.”
This racist stereotype may be further enforced by the skipper’s accompanying narration. For example, in this particular YouTube video (5:00), the skipper exclaims about one of the animatronic figures, who appears to be holding shrunken heads, “He’s handing out free samples of Malaria!” Portraying African, Asian and South American countries as diseased places that threaten the West is commonly employed to stir up irrational fears of the other while simultaneously absolving Western countries of any accountability. For instance, during last year’s devastating Ebola outbreak, American media focused extensively on “savage” practices like eating bushmeat, locals’ refusal to corporate with Western physicians, ineffective security measures like fever screening at airports, and the handful of individual cases affecting American healthcare workers.
Disney has been using racist stereotypes since its inception. POC (or animal stand-ins) have typically been drawn as crude caricatures that pose a threat to the “white” protagonists. It is thus no surprise that this imagery has spilled over to Disney’s theme parks. This is particularly troublesome since the parks’ marketing campaigns largely omit POC and presumably mainly target white audiences. Given that Disney plans to release a live-action movie adaptation of the Jungle Cruise, it remains to be seen if it will also include the attraction’s racist elements.