Inspired by his series of True Life Adventures films, Walt Disney wanted his new park to have a place where guests could come to experience wild animals in their natural environment. He settled on creating a boat ride along the rivers of the world, and asked his Imagineers to draw their inspiration for the boat from a popular adventure film of the time -- The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Guests who visit the Jungle Cruise today will have essentially the same experience that guests had when the park first opened in 1955, since the ride has changed almost not at all since that time (aside from the addition of the elephant bathing pool in 1962, the African veldt and safari scenes in 1964, the "gorillas invade a camp" scene -- nodded to in the movie Tarzan in 1999 -- in 1976, and the various updates to the queue, in-ride areas, and boats, and slight adjustment to the course of the river corresponding to the opening of the Indiana Jones attraction in 1995, not to mention the variations in official spiel and spiel ad-libbing policies over the year).
The ride is unique, because it is narrated not by a lifeless recording spouting tired jokes, but by an actual, live Jungle Cruise guide spouting tired jokes. When hired, the guide is given an approved "spiel" to memorize and parrot during the ride. Once the guide is proficient at the stale, corporate-approved spiel, s/he may submit new jokes for approval. If the jokes are found to be on theme, suitable, and mildly funny, they may be incorporated into the ride experience.
A tour guide can make or break the Jungle Cruise experience. For example, at one point the cruise passes Schweitzer Falls. A good tour guide, following the approved script, will say, And now, we're approaching beautiful Schweitzer Falls, named after the famous African explorer, Dr. Albert Falls." A good tour guide, not following the approved script, might say, "And now, we're approaching Schweitzer Falls, so named because my mother-in-law, Gladys Schweitzer, always falls asleep at this point in the ride." A bad tour guide who doesn't quite understand his job might say, "There's Schweitzer Falls, named after famous explorer Albert Schweitzer." And a really bad, disgruntled, guide will just start picking up kids and hurling them into the water.
Visit the Jungle Cruise Spiel page (see link below) for more on this subject.
When the Jungle Cruise was first being tested, Disney ordered that real animals be used so that the ride could be a kind of true life adventure. Unfortunately, this experiment failed with tragic results when Imagineers, working with a confused set of last-minute memos, fed the real animals animatronic food. After the animals choked and/or starved to death, they were skinned and their tanned hides decorate the much more efficient robotic creatures seen on the ride to this day.
Update: May 2005
A significant update to the Jungle Cruise was made as part of Disneyland's 50th anniversary celebration. The update includes the following:
Trivia: One of the Jungle Cruise Giraffe's is the highest point in Disneyland that isn't a building, mountain, or tree.
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