Disneyland’s smallest area is also the one with the most complex history.
The wilderness-themed Critter Country started out as an extension of Frontierland called Indian Village, featuring Native American-themed shows and attractions such as the Indian War Canoes, a ride that allowed park guests to sail a canoe across the Rivers of America with help from a guide, the only guest-powered ride in Disneyland.
Indian Village was open from 1956 to 1971, after which the Indian War Canoes were renamed the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes, and in 1972 the entire area was reopened as a new land called Bear Country, Disneyland’s first major expansion since The Haunted Mansion opened in New Orleans Square in 1969. Three weeks after Bear Country opened came the arrival of the Country Bear Jamboree.
The Country Bear Jamboree is a musical audio-animatronic stage show featuring a loveable pack of ursine rednecks performing country music for visitors. Audiences loved the show when it first opened and it had become one of Disneyland’s most beloved attractions.
Walt Disney had wanted an animatronic bear band at Disneyland since the sixties, with his original intention for it being the entertainment portion of a ski resort he was trying to get built in the mid-1960s. Marc Davis and Al Bertino drew the concepts for the bear characters and they got Walt’s laughing seal of approval just three days before he died.
The ski resort idea didn’t pan out but the Imagineers knew they had something with the Country Bears so they decided to debut the attraction in Florida when Walt Disney World opened in 1971. The attraction’s popularity at the Magic Kingdom inspired the Imagineers to bring the Jamboree to California and rename Indian Village “Bear Country” in direct reference to the Country Bears.
Cast of characters included:
The emcee Henry
Liver Lips McGrowl
Beginning in 1984, a Christmas-themed version of the show called the Country Bears Christmas Special opened (making Country Bear Jamboree the first interchangeable attraction at a Disney park) and another variation of the show called Vacation Hoedown opened in 1986. The Disneyland show however declined in popularity after the seventies and it closed down permanently in 2001, but it can still be seen in Walt Disney World.
In 1988 when the Country Bears were losing their popularity, Bear Country was renamed Critter Country in anticipation of the 1989 opening of Splash Mountain.
The log flume was conceived by Imagineer Tony Baxter as early as 1983. While the suggestion of a log flume from Disney chairman Dick Nunis was received by the Imagineers as too boring a concept for Disneyland, Baxter came up with the idea to theme it around the 1946 Disney film Song of the South which made the idea more interesting.
The combination dark ride-water slide attraction was the most expensive in the theme park’s history up to that point and a lot of the characters from the America Sings attraction (an attraction featuring singing patriotic animals that replaced the Carousel of Progress in Tomorrowland and ran from 1974 to 1988) were incorporated into Splash Mountain along with the Song of the South cast to alleviate the high budget.
Featuring characters, music and story elements from the animated Br’er Rabbit segments of the Disney film, Splash Mountain has been one of the most popular, most thrilling and most wet rides at Disneyland for years. Don’t forget to collect the photo Barnaby Owl snaps of you as you go down the 52-foot drop at the ride’s finale.
Side note: in 2020, it was announced that Splash Mountain would be reimagined around the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog, with Tony Baxter hired as a creative adviser on the new project. So maybe the ride will look different by the time you visit the theme park again.
Finally in Critter Country we have The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Imagineers had been trying to incorporate Winnie the Pooh into a theme park attraction as early as the 1970s and 1980s but nothing came to fruition until the 1990s when a proposal for a Pooh-themed dark ride was finally greenlit.
Since Fantasyland offered little room for expansion, it was decided that the attraction would go to Critter Country and replace the Country Bear Jamboree. Many Disney fans lamented the end of that classic attraction but Disney execs saw fit to capitalize on the popularity of Pooh over the popularity of a show that has slowly been waning in popularity.
Those who sat in the beehive vehicles at the beginning of the ride were taken on a trek through the Hundred Acre Wood and if you’ve ever watched the 1968 Disney film Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, you will recognize many of the scenes that unfold from there, Heffalumps, Woozles and all. Make sure all your honey is accounted for by the time the ride is over.