The Natives Are Restless in Disney’s Jungle Cruise

Curator's Note

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.


The racism of the Jungle Cruise ride, which opened in 1955, is not unique to the Walt Disney Co. It stems from a long — and of course, lamentable — history in animation, literature, cartoons, and cinema. The issue is complicated when one considers that the ride is nestled between Frontierland — which featured nasty white “bad guys,” and depictions of both peaceful and threatening Native Americans — and Pirates of the Caribbean (added in ’67) with its raping and pillaging cockneys. What’s curious is that the Jungle Cruise hasn’t yet undergone the kinds of changes the later attraction did. For some excellent essays on racial stereotypes in the Disney oeuvre, see: "Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability," Johnson Cheu ed., particularly those of Kheli Willetts and Sarah Turner. There is also an overview of racial stereotypes in 1930s-40s (non-Disney) animation in Karl F. Cohen’s "Forbidden Animation" (both McFarland).

Hi Dawn, thanks for your input! Yes, the Jungle Cruise imagery is unfortunately not unique to Disney and/or other Western media (as you point out). I hyperlinked to some sources that explore Disney's history (and political agenda) regarding racist stereotypes and its connection to broader "traditions" in popculture in more detail. Just like you, I was really surprised that this part of the Jungle Cruise hasn't been revised yet and that I couldn't find any discussion or complaints about it online. It's interesting that you mention the Pirates of The Caribbean attraction because I did check out a similar YouTube video recently, and it did show pirates chasing after women in the village that they were ostensibly raiding. I wonder if that particular part had been more graphic in the past? Thanks for the reading suggestions!

Thanks for this post, Melanie. With the hackneyed jokes by the narrator and the stereotypical representations of the jungle, it seems the spectators are restless as well. The kids never yell or shout (nothing surprised or scared them). The grown-ups are taking pictures of their kids or, as the couple on the left were, checking their phones for the entire ride, wondering what wonders are up next on their amusement park tour. . .

Hi Elizabeth, thanks for your reply! Yes, I did notice that as well, how most are glued to their phones. I mentioned in a comment above that I was very surprised when I didn't find any discussion or complaints online about the racist elements of the ride. Given that nowadays people are so eager to immediately share their thoughts and sentiments (particularly when they're upset) online, it's especially surprising that seemingly nobody has discussed this on social media yet (or at least not to the point that it would've made the news/reach Disney). I mean, these animatronics are blatantly racist, I would think at least some guests would recognize that. But since they seem generally unengaged, maybe they just don't care (enough)?

Hi Melanie, Thanks for writing such a compelling piece and for bringing to our attention this case study. It’s really interesting to see how throughout this week’s theme questions around ethnic and class representation are constant when discussing Theme Parks. While reading your post I was also thinking about the historical legacies of the Theme Park and its link with other related spaces that in varied degrees combine entertainment with education. More concretely, in the early 20th Century dioramas displayed mostly in World Fairs and Museums. If you haven’t come across it, an interesting read about this topic is Allison Griffith’s Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture (2002) where among other things she discusses the particular way in which popular forms of ethnographic pseudo-science reinforced misconceptions about race. Theme Parks are not explicitly places associated with learning, but as you point out rides as the Jungle Cruise indeed contribute to perpetuate popular racial stereotypes, but what is worst is how the narration reinforces this perception instead of offering a different version of the story!

Hi Beatriz, thank you for your comment! Yes, it does indeed echo World Fairs and the like! It's interesting that you mention that because the Jungle Cruise was partly inspired by an episode of Disney's 1950s documentary series "True Life Adventure", called "The African Lion." That series certainly was meant to be educational, perhaps similar to World Fairs. Also, thank you for your reading suggestions!

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