Jungle Cruise–the World According to Disneyland

dl_jc_tradersamwheezy_640×480_wm.jpgI spent the weekend at Disneyland with my in-laws.  We had a good time. However, I was horrifed by the first ride we went on, “The Jungle Cruise,” because it seemed so backward in its representation of people in so-called “less developed” areas of the world. (The concept of “development” undergirds most modern arguments about the way societies are ordered: all societies are either economically stagnant, progressing towards better development, or developed. This trope, very nearly a universal assumption, has become so commonplace that it is difficult not to refer to it when talking about places like Africa. Even individuals who are anti-globalization still think that what people in in the “Third World” lack is “development.” This essentially humanitarian belief, one held by conservatives and liberals alike, assumes that if we could only “develop” the “under-developed” nations of the world, the problem of poverty would be resolved.)

Anyway, we rode “The Nile Princess” through Burma (now Myanmar), the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and the Amazon (which is actually in Brazil). Now, first of all, I’d like to point out that the Nile is nowhere near Myanmar or the Amazon, and, while it comes close to the DRC, it doesn’t actually ever at any point cross into Congolese borders. But beyond the geographical errors, I was disturbed by the way it painted those regions. For example, take a look at this picture:


I’m not sure exactly what Disney meant to portray with this image, but it reminds me of the rhetoric and images emerging from European colonizers that represented Africans as members of pristine cultures which, though barbaric and at an early stage of social and physical evolution, were nevertheless corrupted when they came under the influence of industrialized civilizations. Thus, the gorilla holding a gun might represent the image of a lesser-evolved human being (symbolized by this animal whose genetic structure is similar to humans) who has been corrupted by its involvement with European weaponry. Though this interpretation might seem outlandish to folks today (“it’s just a gorilla shooting a gun”), these were very common images during the 60-plus years of African colonialism, during which time Africans were frequently portrayed as monkeys, and some of the ideas behind those images persist today. Since this ride was, I discovered, developed during the declining years of colonialism (when some of this rhetoric reached a feverish pitch), my interpretation may very well be valid.


Much was explained when I went to Disney’s website, which describes the ride as a 1955 original:

“Enter a Colonial outpost in a remote section of forest, where cut-rate guides haul cargo and tourists upriver for a cruise you won’t soon forget. The steady hand and sharp wit of your riverboat Skipper guide you through the treacherous perils of the jungle. Travel the rivers of four continents:

  • Take an excursion down the Irrawady River of Burma and happen upon an ancient shrine
  • Brave the hippopotamus-filled waters of the Congo
  • Float among the rain forests of the Amazon
  • The most dangerous part of your journey: “the return to civilization” 

I don’t know what the fourth continent is–I only remember three from the ride and they don’t mention the fourth continent in this promotional blurb.


Although I lack information about what the Jungle Cruise looked like or the kinds of things that were said in 1955, the amazing thing is that they are still using the tropes of colonialism in 2007. The ideas of social Darwinism–that societies are ordered along a continuum evolving from simple to more complex, in which the “survival of the fittest” principle demands that so-called “simple” societies change for the better by becoming like the so-called “civilized” societies of Europe and the U.S.–has pretty much been damned as racist. What’s interesting is that the 19th century ideal of “civilization”–that all societies are progressing or need to progress towards a state of complexity and industralization–may be mirrored to some degree in this more recent concept of “development” that I mentioned earlier in the post.

As I’m only just “developing” my ideas about the problems with this concept of “development,” please comment! 

Comments 6

  1. Tabitha

    I don’t know that I have any thoughts on development yet…I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s _Collapse_ and may have some thoughts after finishing. I hope you enjoyed Disneyland, though! Tab

  2. Jess

    I need to read that. One of the books I just read, The Anti-Politics Machine by James Ferguson, argues that most development schemes fail but ultimately this doesn’t matter because the development racket will continue to do their thing, which is to bring expensive “experts” in to areas (while ignoring local knowledge) to “fix” problems through grand projects which almost never succeed. Then they do the whole thing all over again in another place, their purpose being basically to ensure the careers (sometimes lucrative careers) of those western “experts” whose jobs are in development. It’s a pretty scathing critique. My own findings about NGOs, Christian charities, and U.N. projects in Mozambique during their famines in the 1980s and 1990s is pretty damning too. By and large, they all (with very few exceptions) were more concerned with maintaining their own reputations, raising money for their own organizations, and entrenching themselves in the political system to ensure that the outcome was favorable for continued projects–in other words, they guaranteed their own replication and reproduction and a lot of people starved or went hungry in the meantime.

  3. Tabitha

    Is The Anti-Politics Machine readable? Would I enjoy it? Just curious. I’m always in search of my next reading project (though I have a few in the pipeline and may read Jared Diamond’s other book on the rise of civilizations…

  4. Jess

    His other book (Guns, Germs and Steel) is universally scorned by professional historians, although I liked it a lot. I’ll have to re-read it to see what I think after two years of cooking in historian juices. 🙂

    I think the Anti-Politics Machine is readable if you’re particularly interested in the subject of the problems with development and charitable projects, but it is definitely academic and written for academic audiences. Ferguson is a wonderful scholar and he makes some really interesting points but he does not write like Jared Diamond, if the distinction makes sense.

  5. Erik

    Picking on the geographical aspects of the ride is overly critical, but you may have a point about the rest of it. In spite of Disney’s well-known use of anthropomorphizing animals, I doubt any of the non-gorillas were shown engaging in purely human activities. It would be interesting to know who Disney consulted at the time for the details of the ride.

    I’m curious to know, if you as a historian designed a “Jungle Cruise” today, what four scenes would you put in it? Engineers I know would probably put in some of the crumbling ruins of complex civilations that once existed in those jungles to demonstrate ancient engineering capabilities, but any number of my biologist colleagues wouldn’t show any humans or human activity at all.

  6. Jess

    You’re correct, the only animal engaging in human behaviors was the gorilla.

    As far as designing my own jungle cruise…that bears some thinking. I like architecture, so the Great Zimbabwe would probably be on the list, as would the Inca ruins in Peru. So maybe I’m in agreement with the engineers.

    One of the things the Jungle Cruise at Disney does now is include very realistic-looking mechanical animals, such as elephants, moving around in the water or on the land. (They were real enough looking to fool my 3-year-old niece! 🙂 That might please the biologists. Evidently, Disney originally intended for the animals on the Jungle Cruise to be real animals, but this idea was quickly nixed! The mechanical animals were truly awesome, however….Very realistic looking, I have to say, though smaller than the real thing.

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