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Sensitivity still gets lost in Disneyland jungle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- A chubby Aunt Jemima slave woman no longer greets pancake house patrons.

A cabin fire long blamed on marauding American Indians is now attributed to "carelessness."

And, as of this week, automated pirates at one Disneyland ride no longer pursue terrified maidens.

Finally, it seems, the forces of political correctness have caught up to the aging Anaheim theme park.

Or have they?

Last week, Disneyland officials announced they would close Pirates of the Caribbean for two months for refurbishment, including replacing a scene of amorous pirates chasing frightened wenches.

The new scene will depict a lesser pirate vice: gluttony.

Yet a recent tour of the park suggests that Disneyland -- its stabs at cultural sensitivity aside -- remains vulnerable to citations from the P.C. police.

From the elephant tusks adorning the entrance to Adventureland to the peddling of ultra-realistic toy guns, the self-proclaimed Happiest Place on Earth still has the power to offend.

Depictions of aboriginal peoples and animals seem to be of particular concern to special interest groups.

On the Jungle Cruise, for example, a fake hippopotamus rears out of the water and is promptly blown away by a pistol-wielding riverboat pilot.

That sort of treatment for wild animals would never fly if it were built today.

Jenny Woods, spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says the exhibit is sadly outdated -- especially for a corporation that has done much to engender a love of animals.

She suggests altering the scene to: "Hippos freed from zoo by animal liberationists."

Woods also takes issue with the presence of stuffed and mounted wildlife, including a mountain lion, an eagle and baby bighorn sheep -- all visible from the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad.

The Jungle Cruise also draws criticism from African-American activists, who say the ride fits a pattern at Disneyland of perpetuation of racial and ethnic stereotypes.

The animatronic black figures at the Happiest Place on Earth are the butt of jokes: rolling their eyes while avoiding the jab of a rhinoceros horn, or playing stereotypical African headhunters or villagers.

A group of masked Africans dancing in front of their huts was described by a boat pilot during a recent ride as: " natives celebrating the killing of the lion with our special ceremonial 'I gotta go pee' dance.' "

James Tippins, president of the Orange County chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, laments phrasing that reflects Disney's "overall lack of sensitivity" and authenticity at many ethnic-oriented displays.

"They assume everyone in Africa is jumping around with masks and there's no intellectual level."

Disneyland spokesman Tom Brocato, while not addressing the Jungle Cruise specifically, says the park offers many accurate depictions of African culture, including the Lion King parade. He concedes some displays -- such as juxtaposing an actor dressed like Pocahontas -- an American Indian figure rooted in history -- next to Goofy could be a concern.

"We can't please all of the people all of the time," he said.

But that doesn't mean Disney doesn't try. Executives there have always been focused on protecting their wholesome, family image, part of which involves updating attractions to fit changing cultural standards.

A classic example is the ever-evolving story of the flaming cabin on Tom Sawyer Island.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, the cabin was said to have been burned by rampaging American Indians. Sprawled in front was the victim of an arrow.

By the 1970s, as disparaging portrayals of American Indians came under fire, the deceased man's arrow was removed; he became the victim of "an ambush by nasty river pirates."

In 1984, the dead settler was replaced with a drunken moonshiner "who lay, passed out with his jug, in front of the cabin," according to "Disneyland: The Nickel Tour," a book about the park.

But then amid rising concern about the dangers of alcohol and alcoholism, the moonshiner was removed in 1991 and replaced by a nest of eagles whose home is threatened by the blaze.

The narrator aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat now lectures like Smokey Bear when he intones: "It looks like that fire was caused by plain carelessness. My sympathy is with the eagles."

Nonetheless, pockets of decidedly non-P.C. values persist.

Wooden toy rifles sold at several souvenir stores look so real they come with an attached warning: "If traveling by air, check as baggage."

Pub Date: 1/11/97

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