Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is meant to be– sans crowds– a place of serenity. As such, its handful of major thrill rides are obscured from immediate view. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is tucked away in a corner of the park, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is hidden by trees and faux rocky cliffs, and Space Mountain is completely housed within its iconic dome. However, there’s one thrill that’s impossible to avoid: Splash Mountain’s harrowing plunge into the Briar Patch.
Most park-goers will come face-to-face with the ride before they’ve even reached its home of Frontierland. As highlighted in the images below, Disney’s Imagineers cleverly situated its famous drop in such a way that it can be seen from Liberty Square across the river.
This effectively turns the drop into an in medias res framing device. While not abnormal for a log flume, it’s the way that Splash Mountain uses this to play with rider expectations that makes it stand out as particularly brilliant. Throughout the ride you’re waiting for the other shoe– or log– to drop as it meanders over multiple smaller dips disguised as potentially being the big one. It’s a loop of reversals that makes every moment of the seven minutes leading up to the ride’s climax tense and exciting. By the time you’re climbing up the final lift hill you’ve been imbued with just the right levels of excitement and terror that the plunge feels deeply satisfying.
And oh boy is it ever satisfying. The effect of plunging into the thorny thicket is the ultimate thrill as it evokes suspension of disbelief; in that brief moment you fear for your life, even if in reality you’re on a finely-tuned ride that has proved safe for a quarter of a century.
Also finely-tuned is the titular splash upon reaching the bottom of the slope. It gets riders wet enough to deliver on the anticipation but not soaked so as to make them feel miserable for the rest of the day. A few minutes in the sun will dry you right up, turning a ride on Splash Mountain into the perfect mid-afternoon refresher.
Equally as fantastic as Splash Mountain’s thrills are its worldbuilding chops. Like any good theme park attraction, the queue eases you into the setting. Splash Mountain’s queue starts by sending riders through a barn equipped with cartoonish bluegrass music (a staple of the ride) and warning signs of the 50-foot plunge to come. You then make your way into the makeshift mountain, the overwhelming smell and freshness of a river taking over your senses. Pictures of the ride’s cast adorn the cavern walls as a preview of the folks you’ll come across on your journey. By the time you board the ride you’ve already been transported into the Briar Patch.
Splash Mountain continues worldbuilding once you’re locked into your log. You’re paraded past the living quarters of the main cast before delving through the different locales of the Briar Patch. In a stroke of brilliance, the ride’s drops signify entering new areas, each sporting a unique setting, soundtrack and cast of animatronic characters. These elements coalesce to sell the Briar Patch as a living place; as you pass by each animatronic animal you can hear their voice track elevated in the track’s mix. Through this proximity mixing the rider is made to feel as if they’re truly sharing a space with these characters instead of them being pretty set dressing. For an example of this, watch the scene at timestamp 3:20 in the video below:
Let’s talk about Splash Mountain’s narrative. The full ride clocks in at around eleven minutes, allowing it the breathing room needed to tell its story. It’s nothing too complex: lovable trickster Br’er Rabbit is being hunted down by ne’er-do-wells Br’er Fox and his cohort Br’er Bear. After evading their schemes, Br’er Rabbit is finally caught before tricking his captors into tossing him into the thicket (simulated by the ride’s climactic drop). The final scene sees Br’er Rabbit safely back home while the other inhabitants of the Briar Patch celebrate to the tune of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
Simple? Sure, but that’s the point: by aiming for simplicity it manages to tell a story that can be understood by riders of all ages and dispositions purely through the use of expressive animatronics. You’re made to understand who the Br’er animals are through their staging in each scene and the tones in their voices. To explain this latter component: each scene’s full loop of dialogue is longer than it takes a rider to float by which means you’ll only catch a disjointed and fractured segment of it in a given ride-through. As such, the delivery of these lines have to convey the content of the script. It’s akin to watching a shounen battle scene without subtitles: if the action is well choreographed then the context speaks for itself; you don’t need to know what the characters are screaming at one another to understand the scene.
If you think this a reductionist way to look at a story then you’re missing the point as to why Splash Mountain bothers with one in the first place: it serves to enhance its worldbuilding and give the ride’s thrill elements a reason to exist as they do. Perhaps you’re starting to see why Splash Mountain stands as a masterpiece of ride design now. Every component of the ride informs the others to the point of indistinguishability. The result is total immersion. You become a part of the story and the world. You live it.
No other narrative medium puts the entirety of your senses to work in the same way that a theme park ride does. They may be limited in the types and depth of stories they can tell but they make up for it in a full-body experience that can’t be provided anywhere else. You become the subject of the story. You experience the thrills. You, quite literally, get taken along for the ride.
The next time you find yourself at a theme park, take in every element of the rides. Investigate the details of their queues, think about how they convey their world or storyline, and most importantly suspend your disbelief. The final piece of the puzzle is you: as with any medium, it’ll give you back what you’re willing to give to it. Be a kid again, play make believe, and you too can be a part of the story.