News broke this week that Disney Plus had changed the availability of “Peter Pan,” making it inaccessible on the profiles of children under seven years old. The actual change came months ago as part of a larger decision to keep movies that require a content warning off young children’s profiles, some who may not be able to read those warnings, or understand them without their parents’ help.
The movies, which also include “The Aristocats” and “Dumbo,” are still fully watchable on Disney Plus on adult profiles. They also feature messages from Disney as a preface, pointing out the “harmful impact” of those problematic depictions and encouraging viewers to “learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.” But the change, as these things tend to do in the era of internet outrage, has caused an uproar, with some calling it “censorship” or “cancel culture.”
Though this happened in October 2020, the news was only recently picked up in conservative media outlets like the New York Post and Fox News. “Following the reports, ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Peter Pan’ began trending on social media as commenters decried what was portrayed inaccurately as a new example of ‘cancel culture,’” Variety said. “The stories gained traction amid the backdrop of a broader campaign waged by conservatives who feel threatened by the fact that classic movies, TV shows and books once considered acceptable are being reconsidered for their harmful depictions and in some cases blacklisted.”
“More like Disney minus,” the New York Post wrote on March 9. “Months after flagging classic flicks over stereotypical portrayals, Disney+ has now decided to go whole hog and drop several of the once-loved, now-controversial titles from their kids’ menus.”
The A.V. Club’s reaction, “Search for the Next Great Conservative Outrage lands on 5-month-old Disney Plus update,” pointed out that this development hadn’t been an issue noticed by mainstream media for nearly half a year, and that kids are smart enough to use their parents’ profiles if they want to watch these movies. “The ‘Post’ had presumably been sitting on that ‘Disney Minus’ burn for like a year now,” the article said, “so good for them for finally working it out of their systems.”
But underneath all of the noise about whether limiting exposure to “Peter Pan” is cancel culture — it’s not — something else occurred to me. If Disney has noticed the problematic depictions in the movie enough to add a content warning and make it a little harder for young kids to watch it, the company has definitely also noticed that the ride at Disneyland has the exact same problems. Could changes to that be coming next? Let’s hope so.
Peter Pan’s Flight is one of the original rides from Disneyland’s 1955 opening, and 65 years later, it’s still one of the park’s most beloved and in-demand rides. In the Fantasyland section of Disneyland Park, just steps from Sleeping Beauty Castle, Peter Pan’s Flight puts riders on their own miniature pirate ships, suspended from the ceiling as they “fly” through scenes in the 1953 Disney movie, based on the works of J.M. Barrie that first appeared in 1902.
First, you’re in Wendy, John and Michael’s nursery, seeing the kids get a sprinkle of pixie dust. Then, in your flying pirate ship, you soar through the night sky over London’s rooftops, and find yourself transported to another world, where the glowing island of Neverland rises up from the water, while all around you are twinkling stars that feel close enough to reach out and touch.
If I had to pinpoint a single most magical moment for me in all of Disneyland, the moment of arriving at Neverland in Peter Pan’s Flight would be it.
Then you arrive at Skull Rock.
There, “Indian princess” Tiger Lily is tied up in the water. You see Pan and Captain Hook fighting on the Jolly Roger, and as you make your way around that ship, a scene emerges on the other side: one filled with “Indians” from the “Indian Camp” on the island.
It reflects the scene in the movie that is the biggest reason for Disney’s content warning, one that shows a ring of tipis around a totem pole, with smoke rising and the sound of beating drums. In the scene, Tiger Lily’s father, the “Indian Chief,” a red-faced man wearing war paint and a feathered headdress, praises Peter’s rescue of his daughter through a series of ridiculous hand gestures that are supposed to be sign language. Even John’s narration of what the chief signals is in broken English. And then there’s the deeply problematic song the Native Americans sing, called “What Makes the Red Man Red?” I won’t quote the lyrics, but they are truly awful.
“If you’ve watched the old ‘Peter Pan,’ you know … the depiction of Native people in that, from their speech to their looks and even the terms they use to refer to them in the movie, is questionable at best,” Paul Gowder of PowWows.com said in a Feb. 18 Facebook livestream presentation on “Native Americans and the Walt Disney Company.”
Gowder talked about how Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife, lived on a Nez Perce reservation for a time and had strong ties to that culture. “I think about, what kind of conversations did Walt and his wife have when they were talking about Natives, and when ‘Peter Pan’ came out, what was the conversation like?” Gowder said. “Did they talk about that? Was that a conscious decision? I don’t know.”
He goes on to discuss the rides at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, which both feature Tiger Lily and have “Indian Village” scenes. Gowder added, “They’ve said that part of Peter Pan will get switched out with another scene, and they will be removing that.”
That confirmation doesn’t seem to have come from the Walt Disney Company, though.
DLP Report, a third-party Disneyland Paris news Twitter account, said Feb. 21 the park has not announced any changes to its Peter Pan ride, and Disney blog Inside the Magic wrote Feb. 26 that, “At this time, Disney has not stated that Peter Pan’s Flight will get reimagined at any of the current Disney Parks, including at Walt Disney World, Disneyland Park, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland, or Shanghai Disneyland.”
Last year, Disney announced it would be reimagining both Splash Mountain and Jungle Cruise to remove their problematic scenes. Splash Mountain’s “Song of the South” theming will be scrapped entirely in favor of “The Princess and the Frog.” On Jungle Cruise, “Natives” will be worked out of the storyline and those scenes replaced.
Disneyland is moving the needle on its deeply embedded, outdated cultural depictions. Despite objections over preserving history — and, inexplicably, claims from some who believe those portrayals aren’t racist — this is work that needs to be done.
In the same way that Imagineers are updating Jungle Cruise, there’s a way for the park to keep the history embedded in Peter Pan’s Flight while still removing hurtful imagery. It’s not “canceling” it, as opponents say, but instead, it’s an opportunity — an opportunity to use those moments to do better for viewers and guests.
Sid Philips is a father of two and a loving husband. He currently resides in Pennsylvania and has been a fan of Disney since his parents took him there in 1980! Sid has visited multiple Disney parks around the world and loves each one!
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