Sources of inspiration for the attraction include a 1955 True-Life Adventure about a pride of lions, and the movie “The African Queen”. Imagineer Harper Goff referenced the African Queen frequently in his ideas; even his designs of the ride vehicles were modeled after the steamer used in the film. The project was placed on the schedule to open with the July 17, 1955 debut of Disneyland.
When plans began to develop, Bill Evans, the Imagineer responsible for landscaping Disneyland and most of Walt Disney World, faced the daunting task of foresting an entire jungle on a limited budget. Aside from importing many actual tropical plants, he made wide use of “character plants” which while not necessarily exotic could give the appearance of exoticism in context. In a particularly well-known trick, he uprooted local orange trees and "replanted" them upside-down, growing vines on the exposed roots. The clean water was dyed brown to prevent visitors from seeing the bottom of the “river”, which varies between three and eight feet deep.
Although Goff and Evans can be credited with the creation and initial design of the ride, Marc Davis added his own style to the ride in later versions and DL-version updates. The "Indian Elephant Bathing Pool" and "Rhinoceros Chasing Explorers up a Pole" were among his contributions.
The attraction was in the opening day roster of the park, and has remained open and largely unchanged in theme and story since then. Aside from alterations and maintenance changes, four completely new show scenes have been added to date. In 1995 the river channel was rerouted to make way for the queue buildings and entrance courtyard of the Indiana Jones Adventure.
While the current version and all later instances have made use of a comedic spiel, filled with bad puns, the original intent of the ride was to provide a realistic, believable voyage through the world's jungles. The original spiel had no jokes and sounded much like the narration of a nature documentary. Since its removal, it has become legendary among Disney fans.
The queue and station are themed as the headquarters and boathouse of a River Expedition Company, located in a (presumably British) Colony of the 1930s. The queuing area is cluttered with appropriate props, such as pinned insects under glass, an old radio on top of the bookshelf, and a chessboard with miniature animals and decorated shotgun shells replacing the pieces. The extended queue winds upstairs, underneath an animatronic hornbill, and then downstairs again. Big band music from the 1930s plays overhead, punctuated by jungle-related news bulletins by the legendary fictional character Albert Awol, helping to reinforce the setting and threading together the show scenes and boat.
Once aboard the boats, the guests are introduced to their skipper and they head into the jungle. The first river simulated is the Irrawaddy River of Burma, reflecting South-east Asia and parts of the Mekong Delta. The boats sail through a dense rainforest, and an ancient Cambodian shrine where they see a Bengal Tiger, giant spiders, king cobras and crocodiles. Passing Hindu statues, the boats enter the Sacred Indian Elephant Bathing Pool where dozens of Indian elephants frolic in the water and squirt water at the passing vessels.
The theme transitions to the rivers of Africa, and riders see a family of baboons, and safari camp that has been overrun by gorillas. The boats careen past the dramatic waterfall Schweitzer Falls, between two African Elephants, and large termite mounds. A tableau of the African Veldt follows, showing zebras, wildebeest, and giraffes watch a pride of lions feasting on a zebra beneath a rocky outcropping. Beyond the lion's den, an angry rhinoceros has chased a safari party up a tree. Antelope and hyenas watch from nearby. The skipper then pilots the boat into a large pool, disturbing a pod of hippos that signal their intent to attack the boat. Armed with a gun (filled with blanks), the skipper fires into the air to frighten them away.
Drums and chanting are heard as the boats come to headhunter country. The vehicles pass a native village before sailing into an ambush by natives wielding spears, (the sound effects for which are usually provided by the skipper).
The boats pass behind Schweitzer Falls (known as "the Backside of Water") to enter the Amazon River. Skeletal animal remains and warning signs featuring pictures of dagger-toothed fish forewarn the next show scene, where the boats encounter a swarm of leaping piranha. The guests then pass a pool of water buffalo, and meet shrunken head dealer Trader Sam before returning to the dock.
Finally, we have some miscellaneous Disneyland Jungle Cruise pins. The most the pins show about the history of the attraction is with the Jungle Cruise boats, originally as a formal way of transportation in the 1950s when the attraction opened, but they were soon changed to reflect more about the 1930s theme of Jungle Adventure.