Dick Nunis, the president of Walt Disney Attractions at the time, had been pressuring Imagineering to create a flume ride, arguing that every theme park has one, and the Imagineers used that argument against it. Also during this time, Bear Country, featuring the Country Bear Jamboree, had a falling attendance and Imagineering wanted something to bring people back into the land. At the time America Sings, a signature Marc Davis attraction, was having falling attendance levels as well, and Imagineering wanted something to do with the Animatronics.
On a drive to work, Tony Baxter started juggling the three ideas: re-using America Sings figures, drawing people into Bear Country and Nunis’ request for a flume attraction. Tony turned to an under-utilized film, Song of the South. The movie had three elements that the Imagineers look at to create attractions: a great cast of characters, detailed settings, and a memorable song, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. Once in the office Tony took the idea to his fellow Imagineers, and they quickly began thinking of ways that Song of the South scenes could be transformed into an E-Ticket attraction. Tony Baxter and John Stone, a project designer, prepared a plethora of storyboards from start to finish for their attraction titled, ‘Zip-A-Dee River Run. The exterior of the attraction would be composed of the rolling green hills and red clay riverbanks of the Deep South, all overlooked by Chick-A-Pin Hill topped by a gnarled tree stump, Brer Fox’s hideaway. This attraction would become the center of the newly named, Critter Country.
Rather than attempt a straight retelling of one of Brer Rabbit’s tales from the film, Tony and Bruce Gordon, show producer, chose to create a composite of all the stories, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The story would be told through music, using classic songs from the movie like, “How Do You Do?” and “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”. Bruce Gordon had to write a few extra lines in the songs to fit the story of the attraction, which enabled the individual characters to sing to Brer Rabbit’s story.
Michael Eisner liked the attraction idea, but wasn’t sold on the name of the attraction, he thought that teenagers wouldn’t flock to the attraction. So he thought that they could incorporate a Mermaid Figure of Daryl Hannah into the attraction, and name the attraction after the (at the time) recently released hit, Splash. Imagineers convinced him so they wouldn’t have to add a Mermaid figure, as thematically it wouldn’t fit with the surrounding area. The name ‘Splash’ stuck, as it gave a feeling of what to expect in the attraction, and they thought of adding ‘mountain’ at the end of the title, as he felt a series of Disney Mountains were signature attractions. So, Splash Mountain was finally green lit by 1986 for Disneyland’s, newly named, Critter Country.
After the design process, all the Imagineers had to do was get a green light from the newly appointed CEO, Michael Eisner, and president, Frank Wells. When Tony pitched Zip-A-Dee River Run, he emphasized the fact that it would include the world’s longest water-flume drop, and Eisner was on board immediately.
The characters from America Sings were used in many scenes, though all of the main characters were specifically designed for Splash Mountain. When the ride was first put together, nearly all the animatronics were wired and put in place. Dave Feiten was then brought in to animate and fix story and staging problems. Feiten then moved nearly all of the animatronics to new locations and then took out 10 animatronic figures and removed them from the ride completely to improve the show.
The attraction opened in Disneyland on July 17, 1989, and was an instant success. The attraction can be found around the world in Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland, as well. A version of the popular attraction was planned for Disneyland Paris but scrapped due to budget reasons and the cold weather in Europe.