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RIDE REVIEW : Splash Mountain Has Zip but Where’s the Doo Dah?

Times Staff Writer

Sojourners on Disneyland’s latest multimillion-dollar attraction, Splash Mountain, will find no mysteriously elusive Mr. Kurtz awaiting at the end of the watery twists and turns, forcing them to peel back the thin skin that is civilization.

Nevertheless, the ride--based on Disney’s 1946 film “Song of the South,” which itself was drawn from the folk parables of Uncle Remus--also contains just a hint of Joseph Conrad.

It’s a journey into the heart of dampness.

Splash Mountain, for which cost estimates run as high as $70 million, won’t open officially until Tuesday, although it has been operating on and off for testing since last week. (If you want to avoid the potential frustration of a shutdown after you’ve been standing in line for an hour or more, you would be well advised to hold off trying Splash Mountain until next week, when the kinks reportedly will be ironed out.)

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Most of the pre-opening attention has been focused on the climactic flume-chute drop that comes about two-thirds of the way into the nine-minute trip through various “Song of the South” scenarios, all populated with singing or wisecracking “Audio-Animatronics” critters.

And a breathtaking drop it is--52 1/2 feet down a 47-degree slope at a top speed of more than 40 m.p.h. (the fastest ride in the Disney universe). The logs dive through the fabled brier patch (about which Br’er Rabbit protested so famously) into a pond below. The gut-wrenching excitement isn’t likely to lose impact upon repeated exposure, one key test of a great ride.

But Splash Mountain is by no means a nonstop thrill ride. In fact, the first minute or so is a comparatively bland cruise past all manner of antique work tools and artifacts. Other than two additional, lower-intensity roller-coaster-like drops and lurches, the rest of the time is spent casually floating through assorted “Song of the South” scenes that make up the nearly half-mile-long ride.

More impressive than the individual uses of Audio-Animatronics creatures, which are more top-notch than barrier-breaking, is the greater extent and dimension of the scenarios.

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One of Splash Mountain’s best effects, by the way, can only be experienced outside the ride. On the approach in from the New Orleans Square area, watch the logs and passengers take the great plunge into the mist-shrouded brier patch with apparent depth-charge force. As it turns out, this is only an illusion: The log continues farther and hits the pond out of the sight of onlookers.

In terms of its H2O count, Splash Mountain rates wetter than the old Log Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm or the Roaring Rapids at Magic Mountain, but considerably more arid than the Bigfoot Rapids that Knott’s opened last year. (You might get a soaking more like Bigfoot Rapids’ wardrobe-drenching waterfall if your log includes, as mine did, frisky teen-agers who decide to ignore admonitions to keep their hands inside and start a manual splashing contest.)

Where Splash Mountain comes up well short of Disney’s best rides is its IQ: Imagination Quotient. There’s a greater sense of episodic adventure on Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion or, for that matter, such low-tech attractions as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or Peter Pan.

We look to Disney for great stories, and with Splash Mountain you have to work to find one. These days, the park’s George Lucas-affiliated attractions serve the imagination better than those created by Disney’s own “Imagineering” staff.

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In Splash Mountain’s willow-thin plot, Br’er Rabbit and his male friends (this is significant) spend their days searching out one diversion after another. Their destination is the Laughing Place, where life is just a guffaw. But as the laughs grow louder, the tone turns darker. As Pinocchio discovered with the truant schoolboys who were transformed into jackasses, Br’er Rabbit finds that the path of pure hedonism turns into a sticky wicket.

Just before the big flume drop off Chickapin Hill, riders encounter a lonely looking mother possum and mother rabbit, both forlornly waiting for their men to return and take their rightful places at home. The value that Disney projects have traditionally put on family seep through here. And, expectedly, the characteristic Disney happy ending is in place after the great fall into darkness (and wetness), with a final cruise to the tune of “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” through a milieu that incorporates many of the old characters from the defunct “America Sings” attraction, transplanted to the large “Zip-A-Dee Lady” paddle-wheel riverboat.

Fittingly, the lesson that Splash Mountain reinforces is not from Conrad after all, but straight out of Uncle Remus himself: Looking at the hordes of park patrons as they stand in line, you can almost hear them protesting in delight, “Don’t throw me into that brier patch.”


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