Cultural inspiration vs. appropriation: A challenge for theme park designers

May 16, 2017, 9:24 PM · Two major new attractions are opening next week in Orlando that have been designed to reflect influences from native cultures around the world. To me, that's a refreshing departure from the science fiction, fantasy, and generic urban superhero themes that dominate so much of modern studio entertainment. But from others, I appreciate potential worries that Pandora - The World of Avatar and Volcano Bay could end up appropriating native cultural themes instead of accurately reflecting and honoring them.

I understand that by raising this issue, I could be triggering a massive flame war among Disney fans, Universal fans, and especially with people who gag whenever they read or hear the phrase "cultural appropriation." So please let me make my point before you rush to the comments to light a match over the gasoline.

Ultimately, all theme park fans — regardless of brand loyalty, cultural background, or political affiliation — want the same thing. We all want fresh theme park attractions with powerful storytelling and engaging theming that keep us longing to come back for the rest of our lives.

No one wants a new theme park ride, show, or land that leaves us cringing a few years down the road, when social attitudes inevitably change. Classic theme park attractions, like other forms of classic entertainment, pass this test of time. That's what parks want, too, when they invest tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in new attractions that they expect to last for decades. (And especially the billion-dollars-plus that I am told that Pandora cost Disney.)

So how do theme park designers create something that future generations will judge to be classic, not cringeworthy? The easiest way to start with themes that have passed that test already. But longevity is relative and provides no guarantee against future social change. Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories, which provided the narrative for Disney's Song of the South, endured as safely popular in the American marketplace for nearly 100 years before the public turned against their motifs, and swiftly, in the late 20th century. Disney ultimately found a way to recycle some of the cartoon characters from its 1946 film by recasting them in Splash Mountain, but trust me, Disney doesn't like having to bury one of its formerly popular films like it has.

I worked summers at Walt Disney World while I went to Northwestern University, where our big football rivalry was with the University of Illinois for a trophy called the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk - a relic from a cigar-store Indian statue. By the turn of the 21st century, no one could stand the cringing that thing elicited, and the two schools (under pressure from the NCAA) decided to retire it in favor of a reproduction of a stovepipe hat which they called the "Land of Lincoln Trophy." (Or, as everyone now calls it, the "LOL Hat.")

When a designer calls back to a cultural reference, you want to ensure that it feels authentic, and not caricature. No "cigar-store Indians." The people whose culture is being represented, or even alluded to, should feel that it reflects and engages them — not that it mocks them. Sorry, Uncle Remus. Your time is up.

Designs stay pretty safe with an Epcot-style recreation of cultural locations, so long as it isn't built on the cheap or placed in a context that defiles or diminishes it. (Let's take a moment here to give Disney Imagineers another round of applause for they way that they created Epcot's World Showcase, with its collection of instantly recognizable facades, placed a respectful distance from one another.)

Things get trickier when you decide you need some flexibility in your cultural representation in order to advance your storytelling. Are you mashing up compatible cultures, or are you putting natural adversaries together in unnatural and disrespectful ways? Are you employing elements from traditional stories, dress, and customs in ways that would feel natural to members of that culture? Or would they see your creation as a work of an outsider who did not understand who they are and what they respect?

The themed entertainment industry has increased its personnel diversity over the past generation, but it's still a long way from being able to assemble entire creative teams from every culture on Earth. Not that we need to, though. I think it's fine for people from multiple backgrounds to work on a project inspired by another's culture. They just need to ensure that they are investing the time to learn enough about that culture — starting with an inherent curiosity and respect for it — so they can begin to understand how its members would view their work. You gotta get out into the field, talk with people, eat the food, learn the language, and not retreat to your Western-style hotel room for the night.

On this point, I must credit Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Creative for being willing to spend the bucks to make that kind of investment. Go look at the photos on the walls in Tiffins at Disney's Animal Kingdom to appreciate the time and effort that Disney's designers make to learn about the cultures that inspire them.

The appropriation issue becomes especially sticky, though, as we move from attractions and into merchandise. If you're selling mass-produced recreations of hand-crafted native works, you'd better prepare for a well-earned backlash — especially if people from that culture are still around, producing those works. Companies like Disney and Universal don't take kindly to others bootlegging their movies and merchandise. So big businesses shouldn't expect a pass if they effectively bootleg native works, too.

The designers behind Pandora and Volcano Bay have created fictional peoples to drive the narratives and themed behind those attractions. That creates some space between those works and their cultural inspiration. But if the cultural reference is clear enough to be understood, or even felt, it's close enough to offend if handled incorrectly.

So... are they? I don't know. I haven't seen either of these attractions in person and won't until I visit next week. But more important, I haven't heard from enough visitors who know Pacific Islander and North American native cultures intimately enough to be able to judge these attractions.

Here's why I say that's so important: My cultural background is, shall we say... not diverse. I've traced most branches of my family free as far back as the early 17th century, and without exception, every recorded ancestor of mine that I've found was born in the United States, back until the point when these weren't the United States yet. Before that, all my ancestors were born in Great Britain. (In fact, my family in the early 1600s appears to have lived on or near the land that is now Alton Towers. I was destined for this gig.)

In other words, my ancestry is that of the appropriators, not the appropriatees. So I tread lightly into this topic as the descendent of some of the most active colonizers in world history. When I look at the lead creative designers for Pandora and Volcano Bay, I see more white males like me. Okay, they're way more talented and accomplished men than me, but they still are starting from a place that requires an enormous investment in thoughtful research to craft work inspired by native cultures that will stand the audience's test of time.

From what I can see, they've made that effort. I never have seen a theme park designer express more curiosity, passion, and respect for native cultures than Joe Rohde has. But in the end, a project must be judged by what's in the park, and not their by designers' intentions.

When it comes to the question of cultural appropriation, I recognize that I am not and cannot be the person who makes that judgment. But I also recognize that no single person will be. This will be the judgment of a generation of theme park fans, hailing from communities all over the world. As a theme park fan, I hope that both of these new attractions pass these tests of time. We need more places that inspire people to discover, respect, and embrace the wonderful diversity of cultures in (and maybe even out of) our world.

Replies (27)

May 16, 2017 at 10:37 PM · The problem nowadays is that people are so eager to complain that EVERYTHING is deemed racist or sexist.

Sadly, storytelling nowadays is impossible because if you make another "white" story then you get called racist for not being diverse. And if you try to use a non-white story you get accused of exploitation. So there's no way to talk about "culture" when people now treat any form of culture as taboo.

(Note. I say this as an Asian Female that doesn't believe in forced diversity or cultural appropriation. Just tell a good story and I'm happy.)

May 16, 2017 at 11:17 PM · Interesting piece, but most theme park fans will just judge these new attractions on their entertainment value.

Wouldn't the Tiki Room be an example of what Robert is talking about? It's stood the test of time.

May 17, 2017 at 4:55 AM · I think you are looking a bit too deep into this problem. I am not sure on the plot for Volcano Bay, but Pandora is both an alien and imaginary. I hope this not is the reason why we don't have the Navi walking around.

Appropriation? If we really want to slam Disney on appropriation, we can take a bulldozer to Adventureland. Part of the reason why Pirates of the Caribbean's gags work is because they are so not PC.

As for the LOL Hat, I have never heard any Illini call it that. However, that is not a bad idea for a nickname. Especially since it usually is the most pointless game in the B1G TEN.

May 17, 2017 at 5:22 AM · Thank Gawd this cultural appropriation stuff wasn't around in shakespheres day... can you imagine someone moaning "Mr Shakesphere, this is disgusting. You are not now nor have you ever been a teenage Italian girl. On what basis do you pretend to know how she feels?"
May 17, 2017 at 8:06 AM · Cultural appropriation is exactly why we can't have nice things. Soon the Hall of Presidents will show how tolerant Disney is of current events as it cancelled The Last Man Standing when it still had high ratings.

Avatar is an example of a totally fictional alien story that Disney decided to add stuff to it. This could be considered cultural appropriation if the Leftists are inclined to seek them out. Disney Parks Blog showed how they took native string art and made it a feature in Pandora. Of course, its coming from their side so they are ultimately responsible for the offense. They call this blowback "eating their own".

Moana did have some controversy so they have to be careful. Nonetheless, Disney sometimes tried too hard to take cultural elements to create a fictional backstories that reeks of desperation. Aulani is a really nice resort, but Hawaii had plenty of culture. Disney didn't have to pile on more and create a fictional backstory to sell its waterpark. I didn't bother to retain the lame storyline. I'm happy enough to take a picture with Mickey Mouse and Stitch.

As a further note, American and British culture should not be downgraded. It's culture has been appropriated into Disney themes like Mary Poppins. Disney did a whole movie about how it's author felt Disney ignored it's message and plotting. So take it for what it is.

May 17, 2017 at 9:37 AM · This is the precise reason why I feel the way I do about the use of Disney animated characters in the World Showcase. The neutralization of each country's culture viewed through the lens of a Disney character or backstory would be a huge disservice to the guest and is contrary to what the World Showcase stands for. Frozen Ever After may be a popular attraction, and Ratatouille could be a perfect fit for France, but that's not how people should be introduced to or experience foreign cultures. It's fine to use characters as an accessibility tool, but to make the foundation of guests' interaction with that country/region based on some mythical/imaginary animated character is just wrong.
May 17, 2017 at 10:15 AM · Life has become the Geico commercial where the cavemen are upset that people forgot they were still around.

The vast majority of people in the world who are struggling to survive couldn't care less about something as utterly silly as "cultural appropriation." They just want decent food and water and shelter and safety for their loved ones.

For that matter, does anybody own their culture? Should I be offended that people all over the world want to wear baseball caps and blue jeans? Should white people be allowed to play blues music? Should sushi be served to people of non-Japanese ancestry? Where does the stupidity stop?

Cultural Appropriation - another totally ridiculous, artificial, snowflake construct used by life skill-challenged pinheads to try to control the rest of us!

May 17, 2017 at 11:26 AM · Cultural appropriation? I just like the pretty stuff.
May 17, 2017 at 1:03 PM · I think cultural appropriation is more about being senstitive towards religious imagery/etc. (things that are highly respected within their own cultures) than things like baseball or blue jeans. For instance, people get highly offended when passages of the bible are shown disrespect (not without reason), it's the same thing when anything else that people show the same level of respect towards are exploited/appropriated by people outside that culture.
May 17, 2017 at 1:09 PM · I am a liberal on most issues. But the entire idea of cultural appropriation is just nonsense. All it amounts to is "White people are bad". Thats it!

All cultures borrow, steal, adapt, and modify other cultures on a continuous basis. Does anyone cry foul when a black person excels at a sport dominated by whites? No sane people do, that's for sure.

Miley Cyrus (not a fan) was accused of this for rapping. Is Darius Rucker (a big fan) accused of it for country music. Nope.

May 17, 2017 at 1:35 PM · Wow...
May 17, 2017 at 1:59 PM · I think Robert is just realizing the can of worms he opened with this topic....
May 17, 2017 at 2:03 PM · Hey all. Long time listener, first time caller. Sorry I swear this started as a one sentence response: As a filmmaker and a fellow white male (bad band name idea?), I'm so happy to see a thought piece like this pertaining to the theme park industry. As much as people visit these parks to escape reality, there's no denying that these "lands" and rides are as big a form of mass media as film/tv/video games and that the message they send is important. I think it's vital for anyone presenting a story steeped in a culture they're not a part of to be keenly aware and respectful of values and traditions of that culture and then acknowledge if and when they fall short.

It's a weird medium too because on the one hand it's incredibly focused on the details of a place and time in order to create a believable immersive tangible environment, so subtlety is important, but on the other hand, the narrative itself is often vague, if not absent, and delivered in a sometimes piecemeal and simple way, which easily lends itself to reinforcing the stereotypes that people already walk in the door with just as a way to expedite the process.

I think Disney in the modern era, does a really good job of this for the most part. If you look at the African characters on The Jungle Cruise and compare that to the way African culture is explored at Animal Kingdom, there's a very obvious choice in each case as to how they decided to represent that culture.

Disney is kind of an amazing mirror to hold up to pop culture. People forget that Disneyland had awful representations of Native Americans when it first opened, and Mickey - dudes basically in black face, but as our society grows up and becomes more inclusive and frankly, less white - these relics of simplistic, convenient representation thankfully fall by the wayside. I would bet anything that as these attractions get refurbished and replaced, you’re going to see more of these relics - possibly even yes, all of Adventureland - be removed or updated to reflect our current more multicultural society. Just because something already exists doesn’t mean there isn’t problems with it.

It’s kind of a scary time to be a media company/conglomerate I imagine, but Disney has been pretty savvy and even a bit courageous in the way they’ve started to explore alternatives to the white male perspective. This isn’t to say they don’t have a ways to go - cough Moana costume, lack of female Marvel super hero products etc… but the zeitgeist moves at a snail’s pace and these things shouldn’t discount the good work they do. As our country becomes more diverse, Disney will go where the money is.

The slippery slope argument is ridiculous and not even relevant. Of course non Japanese people can make, serve, eat, enjoy, look longingly at sushi, but they probably shouldn't put on a traditional Japanese outfit if they don't know what the writing on it means and they shouldn't play the music from their favorite Anime and present the whole thing to people as an authentic experience and then question why anyone got offended.

As for PC culture and this idea of “snowflakes” - political correctness can be damaging as far as it hinders discussion of contentious topics and therefore limits growth and understanding - but from my experience, when people deride “PC Culture” what they’re really saying is they don’t want to be held accountable for the way they express their beliefs and sometimes - though definitely not always- for those beliefs themselves.

We live in an era finally, where under represented parts of our community are starting to be able to use their collective voice. Are the “snowflakes” these folks asking for awareness and respect, or are they the folks whining that they don't want to have to think before they talk, or question the message they've been receiving their whole lives . I get it. I think anyone, like myself, that grew up mostly before the internet, were able to live in a beautiful bubble where it didn't matter how we expressed ourselves. For better or worse, the culture of the country and the world changed when everyone started gaining access to media like we have today.

I haven’t checked but I’m 150% sure I have no Native American blood in my family, and I have little to no knowledge of the traditions or symbols of any of the gazillion (see?) tribes that the term encompasses, but the world is about to walk into Pandora and the message matters. Also I hope they have blue churros just to confuse us and cause blueberry churros!

May 17, 2017 at 2:30 PM · Avatar ain't no documentary - Pandora and it's people are fictional...
May 17, 2017 at 3:17 PM · ryceritops - WELCOME to the conversation! That was beautifully put. Thanks. The next to the last paragraph especially sums up so much that I wanted to say after reading all the previous comments, but just couldn't wrap my head or voice around. I really hope this won't be the last time you lend your voice to the subjects at hand here on TPI.
May 17, 2017 at 3:33 PM · You want to represent a culture accurately? Why doesn't Volcano Bay depict rampant acts of Cannibalism? Do you think we'll see Na'Vi skinning rival tribes, raping Terran women, and murdering Terran men and children? Does the Morocco Pavilion at Epcot have a history of the moors and their crimes against the Portugese/Spanish? Anytime I hear anyone call "cultural appropriation" it's almost always to stifle what I would generally consider to be a positive portrayal of a culture or it's people. Even the Uncle Remus stories, with it's now generally viewed wildly racist depiction of Antebellum Afro-American culture, display Remus as a source of wisdom, knowledge and valuable lessons for children of all ages. Was it right to depict Remus as an uneducated Black Man? Probably not, but the fact is that this was a stark reality in the antebellum South, and their culture's means of cultural transference of knowledge was through the Oral tradition. Remus is still, at the end of the day, wise. He may not be intelligent, but wisdom is far more precious than intelligence I'd wager. William Faulkner depicted poor blacks in much the same way, and he's probably America's most important novelist. Was he wrong to do so? The same can be said of Mark Twain and his now infamous Negro Jim character.

Can there be instances of "cultural appropriation"? Yes, and sometimes the offense is so egregious that it should be called out. Yet we are now entering a new age in which we now have to question even something as non-controversial as Theme Park design to ensure we aren't offending anyone. In most cases where "cultural appropriation"--and it's reaction to it--have taken place within the Theme Park industry, it has resulted in reduced impact and vision. The most prominent example is the dumbing down of the original vision of PotC, where you had Pirates chasing after women and even the famous "Fat Drunkard" stalking a certain woman who was hiding in a barrel right behind him. All of this has since been re-worked or removed and the effect is now cheapened because of it. Pirates really did do some dastardly things. Depicting those things in a themed design setting isn't something to simply get rid of based on the current socio-political trend. Let's have a thought experiment: Suppose in 50 years or so the idea of depicting ghosts as disembodied spirits is now considered offensive, as it generalizes ghosts into one stereotypical way, without respect to true ghost culture or each ghosts unique identity. Should we then gut the Haunted Mansion? The proposition seems laughable. But substitute the word 'ghost' for 'indian', or 'polynesian', or 'african american' and now you see how ridiculous the argument for cultural appropriation is.

Also, Robert, don't be ashamed of coming from a non-diverse background. There's nothing wrong with having ancestors hail from Magna Britannia. Also, they weren't appropriators as much as they were imperialists.

May 17, 2017 at 3:47 PM · If you don't think being aware of cultures and taking that into account is important, just ask Seaworld right now and the massive failure that they currently are trying to dig out of! The world is changing and people are more aware of certain things. This article is spot on and I hope bob of "lands" mentioned are judged on their merit and recognized as being great in the long run.
May 17, 2017 at 9:22 PM · Well, at least Robert knows how to write an article that everybody read ;)

Well done on that part!

May 17, 2017 at 11:14 PM · Many foreign countries rob western culture blind, with boatloads of bootleg DVDs, CDs, knockoffs of merch with characters and IPs, etc., etc. And how about all those overseas theme parks which are a blatant copy of Disney's parks, mostly Disneyland and its derivatives? Never mind appropriation -- it's outright copyright violation and thievery.
May 19, 2017 at 8:58 AM · This is a splendid and timely piece – I'm sorry few people seem to agree! It surely come down to politeness: if we are talking about someone else, it's kind to do so respectfully.
_ Crispin
May 19, 2017 at 8:59 AM · This is a splendid and timely piece – I'm sorry few people seem to agree! It surely come down to politeness: if we are talking about someone else, it's kind to do so respectfully.
May 20, 2017 at 4:18 PM · I feel it bizarre and offense, that you would feel intiminated, to feel guilty, about your american and british cultural background. Think about how scary that is. Fact is, native american cultures, committed just as many atrocities against each other, as the white man did. No culture is perfect. We need to call a truce, of this culture shaming, of white people.
May 20, 2017 at 4:58 PM · Ryceritops---you spend several paragraphs, talking about how bad intolerance is. I agreed, with you. Until, the next paragraph, where you start telling people, how to act and what they are NOT allowed to do.

Pretty dictatorial and intolerant of you. The opposite of inclusive and anti freedom, to tell people they are not allowed to play certain music at a party, or wear a certain garment.

Nevertheless, I do wish more people, would write long, thought narratives, as you did. I would rather disagree with you, than have you feel your beliefs, are not valid. It's unfortuanate, the tone of your posts, has the effect of making other's feel bad, about their beliefs.

I am deeply offended, by your opinion. But. I respect, you have the right to post it.

NOW, can we have a truce on all of this culture war, white person shaming. Most white people, I know are very inclusive, of people of other cultures. It's the ethnic interest groups, that are demanding segregated "safe spaces" on college campuses, where white or heterosexual people are felt unwelcome to enter.

May 20, 2017 at 6:10 PM · ryceritops--it is serious that a hispanic political interest group would (If you were a public figure), condemn you for suggesting Disney serve churros in a way, that most hispanic cultures have not done.

Several colleges, (in the past two years), were protested by such groups for having "hispanic food night" in the cafeteria. accusing, the colleges, of not properly representing every single different hispanic country and in the exact same way, the foods are prepared in the native countries.

May 20, 2017 at 6:40 PM · Who said I felt "ashamed" or "intiminated" or "guilty" because of my background? Not me. What I said (or tried to!) was that my background isn't broad enough for me to understand how people from other backgrounds might interpret something that flies right over my head.

I don't expect people from Brazil or Vietnam to understand what a Victoria Sandwich is, so there's stuff about their cultures I probably miss, too. It's great when we get together and share stuff, but it's not so hot when we inadvertently offend people when we're trying to talk about their culture 'cause we're too clueless to get it right.

May 20, 2017 at 9:36 PM · Robert. Almost all people. And, I would take an educated speculation, that almost everyone who read this site on a reg basis, are in favor of treating all cultures with respect. Including, the president of the United States. The problem, is the activist political culture on the left, does not respect anyone else's views. Not allowing speakers to speak in public meetings, destroying other people's property to protest a speaker. Even, petitioning (like 100,000 people on the left. Not a small numer) to not have Pres. Trump have a speaking part, (contrary to prior preceedent) in the Hall of Presidents. ETC.

You did not directly or endorse, these things in your article. But, the first AVATAR movie, was overtly insulting to many of us. It was simplistic and contained intentional misinformation. I am NOT speaking of respecting the environment. That is fine. It is quite obvious, to any thinking person, that Director Cameron, was drawing a direct analogy between the mining company and the united states and Britan. I don't even recall, the mining company members being multi racial and cultural. Which would still work with the exploitation analogy, because hispanic and african countries engaged in the same bad behavoir.

The second AVATAR movie, will no doubt, also be overtly activist political. That is who Mr. Cameron is. A political activist.

That is a huge problem and mistake, for Disney to spend a billion dollars on a franchise that is overtly polically divisive, in societies which an organized, modern economy is mean dept. Thank you. As, I said before, I am very pro everyone's free speech. No matter their views.

But, theme park attractions, should not be based, on a politically controversial narrative, that aims to make the country guilty of how much money we have in our bank accounts. As, a country, compared to other countries.

May 21, 2017 at 8:17 AM · I will say that this was a well written article and you do bring up a very interesting point.

My thought on cultural appropriation is "when does it go too far". You are absolutely right that everybody should try to be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others, but I have found this is a very gray area.

The one thing to remember is that Disneyland (and Disney World by extension) was created by people of the 1950s. The world seemed larger and not as open. Using Adventureland as an example, these were places that were considered exotic and far away for 50s kids. I would hope that the Tiki Room would spark interest in the Hawaiian Islands or the Jungle Cruise would peak curiosity of the natural world outside of our insular country. Now with the internet and travel being (relatively) cheap, we can actually visit these places and have a first hand knowledge of these places via the internet.

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