The Jungle Cruise was a popular amusement park ride in the Vietnam Adventure! resort that opened in 1946. It reached the height of its popularity in the late 1960s. It underwent many changes from its inception to its closure. However, throughout the many changes, it stayed true to its original inspiration, the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. A version of the Jungle Cruise ride remains open today in Disneyland. It continues to delight tourists.
In 1946, after the end of occupation by the Japanese government, the Vietnamese government searched for new ways to develop Vietnam’s pre-industrial economy. After much deliberation, Ho Chi Minh converted the entire nation into an amusement park called the Vietnam Adventure! The most popular ride in the park was the Jungle Cruise. Based on 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, this attraction sought to recreate the sights and ambience of King Leopold II’s genocidal reign of terror in the Congo Free State. The ride attracted millions of visitors, especially from France, the United States, and Australia; the popularity rose to such heights, that independent franchise versions of the Jungle Cruise were opened in Korea in 1950 and Disneyland in 1955. Stores and concession stands associated with the ride, such as “The Whore! The Whore!”, also became very popular and continue to be remembered fondly by Vietnam Adventure! afficianados.
First Jungle Cruise
The first version of the ride opened in 1946. It attracted mainly French tourists. The ride was divided in two sections: South Vietnam and North Vietnam. Many disagreed as to which part of the ride was superior. However, by the mid 1950s, popularity of the ride waned, and the Jungle Cruise was closed in 1954 for a refit.
Second Jungle Cruise
The second version opened in 1957. In this new version of the ride, park visitors accompanied a squad of Green Berets as they infiltrated the Vietnamese jungle to kidnap a North Vietnamese Colonel. The ride was fraught with dangers such as realistic explosions, various punji stick traps, Viet Cong skirmishers, an attack on a Green Beret encampment (Dodge City) by waves of suicidal North Vietnamese sappers, and a somewhat melodramatic encounter with a Vietnamese orphan and his puppy. Riders would cheer when the boat’s “skipper” would shoot the orphan to “put him out of his misery.”
Unfortunately, this version of the boat ride had become dated by the 1960s, and the Vietnamese management began thinking of ways to update it. In utmost secrecy and with the assistance of American engineers, the ride was closed; no date for reopening the refurbished ride was announced.
Jungle Cruise Redux: Jungle Cruise Now!
After much thought and hard work, the managers of Vietnam Adventure! were at last ready to reopen the Jungle Cruise ride in 1965. Although the designers kept the genocide theme, and hewed close to the underlying Heart of Darkness story line, they completely updated the ride to reflect the lessons learned earlier from amusement parks such as Philippines Guerilla Land and British Near Eastern Quagmire.
Similarities and Differences
As in the second version of the ride, park goers boarded a Navy PBR (Patrol Boat River). However, the “skipper” now wore the uniform of Captain John Kerry, and the mission was no longer to kidnap a North Vietnamese Colonel, but to terminate the command of one Colonel Walther Kirby, played by an animatronic John Wayne. “Terminate the colonel? Terminate with extreme prejudice.”
As the ride began, the park visitor was treated to some lovely cognitive dissonance in the form of beautiful river scenes punctuated by brief adrenaline-filled moments of terror. Captain John Kerry began a monologue as he read Colonel Kirby’s dossier:
At first, I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn’t believe they wanted this man dead. Third generation West Point, top of his class. Korea, Airborne. About a thousand decorations. Et cetera, et cetera… I’d heard his voice on the tape and it really put a hook in me. But I couldn't connect up that voice with this man. Like they said he had an impressive career. Maybe too impressive... I mean perfect. He was being groomed for one of the top slots at Disney. General, Chief of Staff, anything…. In 1964 he returned from a tour of advisory command in Vietnam and things started to slip. The report to the Joint Chiefs of Imagineering and Mickey was restricted. Seems they didn’t dig what he had to tell them. During the next few months he made three requests for transfer to airborne training at Epcot Center, Florida. And he was finally accepted. Airborne? He was 38 years old. Why the fuck would he do that? 1966 he joined the Special forces, returns to Vietnam…
Viet Cong Village
At this point, park goers now had the unbelievable good fortune to witness an air assault on an authentic Viet Cong held Vietnamese village. To the thrilling strains of Ride of the Valkyries, helicopters swooped low and decimated the enemy forces. But look out! That innocent looking Vietnamese schoolteacher was hiding a grenade in her straw hat! BOOM! Scratch one helicopter!
Next some of the men broke out surfboards, and begin to surf under fire from the treeline. This exciting scene climaxed with the dropping of napalm canisters by two Phantom F4 jets! You could actually feel the heat from the firestorm, and you could smell that gasoline smell. It smells like… Victory!
After many other amazing sights and sounds (including the R&R Depot sponsored by Playboy and Pepsi), you came at last to Colonel Kirby’s Montagnard Army Village. Montagnards in their native dress came to greet you on the river, then made way for the boat when Captain Kerry sounded the boat’s siren. You made landfall amidst the lush jungle scenery and the rustic village decorations of hanging corpses and piles of heads tastefully scattered about. The heads. You’re looking at the heads. I, uh—sometimes he goes too far, you know—he’s the first one to admit it.
You were then invited to a ceremonial feast in which a water buffalo was slaughtered before their very eyes, while simultaneously Captain Kerry slaughtered Colonel Kirby. Then another terrific pyrotechnics display involving napalm, and the ride was over.
The third version of the Jungle Cruise was the most popular, especially with American tourists. However, changing times prompted a reduction in park attendance in the 1970s. By 1975, the park and the attraction were closed. An attempt by Chinese investors to revive the park and the ride in 1979 flopped badly. Today, the Vietnam Adventure!, after a bankruptcy reorganization, is still open, but with far fewer visitors. The Jungle Cruise remains closed.
In Washington DC, fans and buffs of the defunct ride gather. At a special wall, they leave souvenirs and memorabilia from the ride. Still, fans of the old ride should take note. A franchised version of the ride in Disneyland, replicating the much-beloved “Jungle Cruise Redux” edition, continues to operate today. •