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Disneyland’s Snow White ride makeover: How critics underestimate the timeless princess

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True love, such a naive thing.

A romantic happily ever after has been depicted in overly idealized ways for generations in animated fairy tales but is no longer the rage among modern Disney heroines.

At the end of “Frozen 2" Elsa is just getting to know herself while her sister, Anna, had to let go of her preconceived notions of love before she could find it. Raya in “Raya and the Last Dragon” is an action hero balancing her if-you-want-something-done-right mantra with her inability to trust. And the star of “Moana” sets off on her own adventure to save her people and discover a love of the world around her.

So when Disney embarked on a quest to give its “Snow White"-inspired ride a makeover at its first and most treasured park, we wondered whether this old-fashioned princess, drawn for cinemas in the mid-1930s, would get a 2021 gloss.

After all, Disney theme parks have been undergoing a host of cultural updates in recent years — from changing the bride auction scene in Pirates of the Caribbean to an upcoming remake of the Jungle Cruise and re-theming Splash Mountain to “Princess and the Frog” instead of “Song of the South.” In addition, Walt Disney World’s version of Snow White in Florida had already been re-imagined as a child-friendly roller coaster that serves as a prologue to the film rather than a reflection of its themes.

Who needs love and princes when there’s a mine that can host mild thrills?

And yet the re-imagined Disneyland attraction — now known as Snow White’s Enchanted Wish instead of Snow White’s Scary Adventures — opts to wrap its arms around feelings of adoration, endearment, friendship and the hope that, via love, we don’t become rescued so much as better versions of ourselves. It also puts more effort into using technology to freshen up 1950s-era craftsmanship rather than going full modern.

A scene inside the Dwarf's cottage in Snow White's Enchanted Wish ride at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim
A scene inside the dwarf’s cottage in Disneyland’s Snow White’s Enchanted Wish ride, featuring dwarfs playing instruments and dancing with Snow White.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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In the film, Snow White remarks that the home of the seven dwarfs looks “just like a dollhouse,” and here the refreshed figures maintain a toy-like quality, with humans and animals — as they are in the original animated work — treated with equal reverence and with the same stylistic motifs.

Charming? Yes. A throwback? Not quite.

In fact, in 2021 amid our cultural rethink of what it means to be a princess, what it means to court an object of affection and who gets to tell what narratives, the changes implemented by Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s arm dedicated to theme park experiences, even feel somewhat radical. Snow White’s Enchanted Wish isn’t even a full five minutes, and yet it conveys the film’s often-overlooked messaging that there are differences between autonomy and being alone, between hopeless romanticism and wanting a savior.

Snow White’s Enchanted Wish shows how the Walt Disney Studios’ most important work — the very film that proved animation wasn’t for children but for imaginations of all ages — is timeless in both how it portrays love as well as its star, a young woman who expresses her desires, doesn’t wallow in them, and continues to embrace life with a sense of discovery and control.

Snow White still makes a wish and bites a poisoned apple, but love isn’t something that happens to these characters; it is something that must be acted upon and the result of Snow White managing to live a relatively full life despite the oppression she faces. There are similarities to 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty,” a film that two decades on was more exquisitely drawn but ultimately viewed its heroine as someone who must be protected from beginning to end, lending the film a less flattering modern reading.

Nods to “Snow White’s” obsession with 1931’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” remain, but scenes in the Evil Queen’s castle are now brighter, lit in mystical blues and purples to replace a foreboding tone with one of mystery. Instead of wanting to run, we want to linger, and Disney slowed the attraction by 21 seconds, now making it closer to a full 2 ½ minutes.

More than a year after closing due to the pandemic, the theme parks at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim reopened April 30. Here’s what to expect.

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True love’s kiss

A magical forest scene shows Prince Florian delivering "True Love's kiss" on Snow White's Enchanted Wish on May 3, 2021.
“True Love’s Kiss”: The magical forest scene in Snow White’s Enchanted Wish ride at the Disneyland shows Prince Florian awakening Snow White from the Evil Queen’s spell with a kiss.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The ending of the film hasn’t been changed, but at Disneyland it has been reframed. No longer is the prince leading Snow White out of the forest to a mystical castle in the sky. Snow White is instead back in the forest, hanging with her animal friends, while her suitor patiently waits in the distance.

“The story is the story,” says Kim Irvine, who has long led the art direction of Disneyland and worked with Dave Caranci, who oversaw the revamp.

Yet over the years many have criticized the Snow White story. And when the ride reopened with Disneyland on April 30, an article went viral for pointing out that the prince awakens the poisoned princess with a kiss — without her consent.

At that moment in the story, however, Snow White is believed to be dead. She isn’t kissed out of lust but out of grief. And it’s not just any kiss that breaks the spell but “true love’s kiss.”

Even so, Imagineering was long aware that introducing a new version of the ride could bring backlash. Which is why the ride makes an effort to show that “true love” didn’t rescue her so much as awaken her to the world she had built, changing the film’s send-off to one of community rather than partnership.

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When asked about the final scene and the kiss, Irvine and Caranci noted that while altering the film that built the company was out of the question, there were subtle ways they tried to change the tone.

Longtime Imagineer Kim Irvine contributed to the remake of the "Snow White"-inspired ride at Disneyland.
Longtime Imagineer Kim Irvine is a creative executive at Disneyland, where maintaining the park’s history is one of her passions. Irvine worked closely on the makeover of the “Snow White"-inspired ride at the park, a project managed by Dave Caranci. Irvine, in her role overseeing the art direction of Disneyland, wanted the ride to feel more enchanted than modernized.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“We didn’t want to change the story,” Irvine says. “The old photograph at the end was her sitting sidesaddle on the horse with the prince leading her to the castle. That’s too much of a ‘he saved her’ story. She has such a charm about her when she sings and talks to the animals. Her animals are her pals. That’s why we moved her with the animals, and she’s looking at you like, ‘It’s all good now.’ He’s over in the distance, waiting on a woman.”

Adds Caranci: “Are there other ways we can empower her? So it doesn’t look like, ‘Oh gosh, now that the prince is here everything is going to be good because it was terrible before he showed up.’”

In fact, for much of the picture — and the attraction — Snow’s life hanging with the seven dwarfs was quite ... nice. She longs for romance, but unlike Disney’s takes on Princess Aurora or Cinderella, there’s never a sense that she needs marriage; the original film is steadfastly focused on Walt Disney’s belief in the power of animation and thus wanting to tell a complex story aimed perhaps even more at adults than children.

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Masked guests are seen exiting Snow White's Enchanted Wish ride at the Disneyland on May 3, 2021.
Masked guests exit Snow White’s Enchanted Wish ride at Disneyland Resort on May 3.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Yet every generation gets its own spin on “Snow White,” and previous versions of the Disneyland attraction focused on its horrors. At Walt Disney World, the company in 2014 opted to avoid the film’s complicated balance of terrors and yearning for happiness to go with a more lighthearted, action-focused spin on the fairy tale that focuses on toiling away in a mine.

Walt Disney World’s Seven Dwarfs Mine Train only hints in its final moments that life can be a joy but also a bit sinister. Films, music, games and even theme park rides aren’t created in a vacuum, so consider it reflective of a generation that sees life’s reward or challenges — marriage, a home, a night dancing with seven dwarfs — often deferred until years later, if ever. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is a ride about working, unintentionally mirroring a generation that’s been forced to wonder if retirement is a possibility.

At Disneyland, the 1983 makeover arguably made the attraction more frightening in an effort to maintain and expand on what was originally built in 1955, an enhancement of effects and skeletons, and a love letter to the more impressionistic, medieval moments of the film that felt somewhat secretly nestled in Fantasyland. Changes to the ride also reflect our evolving understanding of the theme park medium as a work of narrative art; when the ride first opened it famously lacked Snow White. The idea: Audiences would imagine themselves as Snow. But a relatively passive ride doesn’t invite that kind of role-play.

The Evil Queen transforms into an old lady who will give Snow White a poisoned apple on Snow White's Enchanted Wish ride
The Evil Queen transforms into an old lady who will give Snow White a poisoned apple on Snow White’s Enchanted Wish ride at Disneyland.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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“One thing we intended was that everybody on the ride would understand that they were Snow White,” said Ken Anderson, an animator-turned-Imagineer who worked on the film and the ride. Speaking to defunct Disney fan magazine the E-Ticket, Anderson said, “As you rode the attraction, you were taking Snow White’s place. ... You were the girl who was being threatened.”

When Disneyland reopens the Haunted Mansion on April 30, some upgrades and additions will be familiar to students of Disney history. An one-eyed cat, anyone?

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Re-centering Snow White

Disney’s decision makers throughout its formative decades were, of course, men, and in an effort to instill a bit of fear into guests the original attraction in turn viewed Snow White as helpless — a character who, like us on a ride vehicle, was being whisked through life and not in control of her fate. It’s a shift from the film, which coming near the end of the Great Depression was created when more women entered the workforce, and Snow White effortlessly brings a sense of order to the lives of the dwarfs. The postwar America of 1955 took a different view, when women’s empowerment was encouraged as long as men were at war.

Thus, Disneyland’s 2021 summary of Snow White’s Enchanted Wish becomes one of the more honest readings of just who this princess is — a character who turns to optimism to survive trauma and embraces what life throws at her.

“It’s a legacy attraction and it’s been around a long time,” says Caranci, adding that for much of its life it didn’t “tell the story of Snow White.” For as important as the Disney princesses are to the company, there are relatively few theme park rides celebrating them; beyond Snow White’s Enchanted Wish, the original Disneyland has a walk-through installation celebrating “Sleeping Beauty.”

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“One of the things that I’d like to say is that Snow White is the only princess attraction that we have at Disneyland Park. Now, we’ve got the princess meet and greets, but this is the only attraction, and yet she [was] only featured in it once. And it’s really scary, and about the Queen and the Witch. So this is an opportunity to take that attraction and really plus it up and make it about Snow White.”

Snow White with her forest animal friends after Prince Florian's kiss on Snow White's Enchanted Wish ride at Disneyland
Snow White is seen with her forest animal friends, following Prince Florian’s kiss on Snow White’s Enchanted Wish ride at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to the shift in color hues there are various spell-like projections added, and when Snow bites the poison apple in a scene of animation it reflects her persevering belief in magic. Despite the wishes of the Evil Queen, the apple becomes the very item that reunites her with the prince, itself a statement of good triumphing over evil, albeit acknowledging that sometimes it takes a lifetime of patience.

A passion of Irvine’s is telling physical stories through color. The ride isn’t free of fear — the Evil Queen can still be seen in the window surveying Fantasyland, although the carved skulls of the facade are now covered — but the shifts should now extend a hand to the guest. While Irvine cringes when she says the word “bedazzled,” the tempo tweaks allow us to see the world the way Snow White does.

“The colors added a lot of black to really gray them down,” says Irvine of the pre-refurbished ride. “They were a mauve blue and a blue-gray, and kind of a salmon color. It felt, compared to Pinocchio next door, it was cooler colors and a bit ominous.

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“So rethinking that for a happier show, I took the same colors — it’s still mauve blue and rosy — but I just took the black out.”

The facade of Snow White's Enchanted Wish ride at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim
The facade of Snow White’s Enchanted Wish ride at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Thus, Enchanted Wish becomes a welcome addition to the theme park for its steadfast belief in love and is able to present such emotions without the dainty pinks and pastels that once marked Disney’s successful but cheesy princess collection line (today the products focus more on themes such as courage and adventure).

Instead, this ride doesn’t shy from all the horrors that often come before the exhale.

Enchanted Wish explores mystery, a bit of mysticism and in just a couple of minutes continues to argue that the “Snow White” of 1937 was ahead of its time beyond its groundbreaking view of animation.

A scene from the newly renovated Snow White's Enchanted Wish ride at Disneyland
A scene from the newly renovated Snow White’s Enchanted Wish ride.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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One of the remaining opening-day attractions Walt Disney oversaw himself, the Jungle Cruise will return with less racially insensitive depictions of other cultures.

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