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Disneyland Is Now Safe for Hippos

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They took away the wench-chasing pirates. Now, they’ve stopped shooting the hippos.

Disneyland officials, who say they’re only keeping up with today’s sensibilities, have quietly disarmed the skippers of the Jungle Cruise, raising eyebrows among fans of one of the park’s oldest, most cherished attractions.

No more do the wisecracking skippers reach for their Smith & Wessons and fire a few blanks at hippopotamuses emerging from the river bottom. These days, they don’t even try to scare the mechanical creatures with a few haphazard gunshots skyward.

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The guns were yanked at the Anaheim park this spring and now the hippos are just another passing attraction during an African-themed cruise.

“It’s sad to see the tradition go,” said former skipper Mike DeForest, who once spent his summer breaks from college guiding visitors through the jungle. ‘What’s next, disarming the Pirates of the Caribbean?”

The hippos may have a second lease on life, but the cruise still is filled with plenty of politically incorrect characters: a gun-wielding gorilla, savages toting shrunken heads and “natives” with painted faces preparing to attack the tourists.

Disneyland has always struggled to strike a balance between fantasy and political reality. Guns, the treatment of animals, racial and gender stereotypes all have prompted the amusement park powerhouse to tweak attractions.

Indeed, after the fatal shootings of 14 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, park officials removed violent video games from their arcades. This year, they stopped peddling muskets and antique-style guns, once a Frontierland store staple. They also removed the rifles from Tom Sawyer Island. And, in a much-publicized rehabilitation of Pirates of the Caribbean in 1997, the ride’s famous “chase” scenes now depict swashbucklers pursuing trays of food rather than frightened maidens.

Perhaps the most altered attraction is the cabin on Tom Sawyer’s Island.

For nearly 20 years, the victim of an Indian arrow lay sprawled in front of a burning settler’s cabin. In the 1970s, in the middle of the gas crisis, Disneyland turned off the flames for roughly a decade, Disneyland spokesman Ray Gomez said.

In 1984, the park began using a simulated flame and the settler was replaced with a moonshiner passed out on the porch. Then apparently even drunkenness became taboo for Disney.

“Now there’s nothing out there but wildlife,” Gomez said. “It just looks like an old abandoned cabin. The theme became how an animal habitat was endangered by a fire caused by a careless settler.”

While some parents and activists have cheered the changes, many Disney fans fear political correctness is erasing parts of the park’s history and charm.

"[It’s] kind of silly,” said Steve Premo, 47, of Santa Cruz, who complained that Disneyland often is held to an impossibly high standard.

“Ridiculous,” scoffed John Vallejo, 39, of Anaheim. “It does nothing. It’s caving in to pressure.”

But for Disneyland officials, it’s all part of the attractions’ evolving story lines. Though animal-rights and gun activists didn’t picket outside the park, Disney still wanted to be progressive.

“The fact of the matter is, we have to be responsive to what our guests tell us,” Gomez said. “At the end of the day, they come here to experience what they want to experience, not stuff they might find out of place or out of date. . . . Anecdotes, jokes and actions that were funny or exciting then may not resonate now.”

When the Jungle Cruise opened in 1955 as one of the park’s original attractions, it was intended as a true-to-life journey down famous jungle rivers of the world. Over the years, it evolved into a mix of realism and corny jokes. But it remained a popular attraction staffed by “cast members” who fancied themselves stand-up comedians.

Many of those scripted jokes now are memorialized on Web sites paying homage to the eight-minute ride. Guests can often be heard reciting the hokey lines alongside the skippers garbed in khakis and a safari hat.

There are no death-defying thrills here--even the animal effects are incredibly low-tech. A hissing python (“You wouldn’t want to be his main squeeze”). Fleeing adventurers being chased up a totem pole (“That rhino seems to be getting his point across, and I’m sure that guy on the bottom will get it in the end!). And frolicking elephants (“Go ahead and take pictures, they’re wearing their trunks.”).

So when the boat slowed amid a river full of submerged bubble-blowing and ear-wiggling hippos, the skippers would lower their voice to a whisper and pause for effect, before warning: ‘We’ve just entered a pool of dangerous hippopotami. Everybody be very quiet. Quiet.”

Then, with perfect timing, a hippo would rise from the water, open-mouthed, teeth bared. The skipper would grab his gun, fire and everybody in the boat would jump.

DeForest still remembers his lines: “Scared ‘em. Scared you guys. But like they say, the only real way to stop a hippo from charging is to take away his credit cards.”

The jokes remain, but the hippos came and went without fanfare.

At Walt Disney World in Florida, the guns disappeared about the same time its newest park--Animal Kingdom, part zoo, part amusement park--opened in 1998. Officials decided it didn’t seem right to have one park promoting wildlife and at the same time have employees at another shooting a wild animal.

“That’s better,” said Karla Jervis, 35, of Ohio, who recently rode the Jungle Cruise for the first time. " I wouldn’t have taken the kids on the ride if it had guns. I don’t even buy toy guns.”

Debbie Leahy, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also applauded Disney’s actions as a step in the right direction. To those who think PETA and Disney need to lighten up, she said: “If it was a fantasy baby or fantasy toddler, I don’t think somebody would find it funny. Clearly we should not be accepting it for a hippo. It’s not humorous. It’s really a form of animal cruelty.”

Jamie O’Boyle, a Philadelphia-based cultural analyst who has studied Disneyland, said the changes are more about mainstreaming than political correctness. Few people would find stereotypical Indian raids or hippo poaching socially acceptable nowadays.

“As society’s views change, the social message changes,” O’Boyle said. “New generations grow up with new ideas. This is the way society evolves its norms and Disney has to reflect that.”

In six months, only 10 people have lodged formal complaints with Disneyland over the change, although skipper Scott Nelson said people are constantly asking what happened to the firearms.

“We just tell them it was time for the guns to go,” he said.

And not only from the attraction. This year, the park stopped selling all but space-age-style guns in Tomorrowland after a new state law went into effect requiring that toy weapons be brightly colored so as not to be mistaken for the real thing. Muskets, western guns and old flintlock-type weapons once popular in Frontierland and Adventureland were all removed from the shelves, Gomez said.

Mock frontier rifles in Fort Wilderness at Tom Sawyer Island also were removed in January, shortly after a 6-year-old girl lost part of her left index finger when she slipped and caught her finger on the rifle. Disney officials said they were in the process of taking out the guns when that accident occurred.

Disneyland has stopped short of removing all weaponry from the park. Marauding pirates are still armed, and just around the corner from the Jungle Cruise, the coin-operated shooting gallery in Frontierland still sees a steady stream of gunslingers.

Mixed messages? Maybe, but Gomez said: “Based on guest feedback, it is one of the most popular places in Frontierland. We have to strike a balance.”


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