Last summer at the ESSENCE Festival of Culture, we partnered with Disney to announce the name of a new attraction evolving from the reimagining of Splash Mountain, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, which will make its debut at Magic Kingdom park in Florida and Disneyland park in California in 2024. Through speaking with Disney executives, animators, and Imagineers, we learned of the extensive research conducted in and around New Orleans to preserve and pay tribute to the city that inspired Princess Tiana’s story.
Now, a year later, with the Princess and the Frog film inching closer to its 15th anniversary in 2024, Walt Disney Imagineering leadership, including Carmen Smith, senior vice president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering, Ted Robledo, executive creative director and Charita Carter, executive producer for Walt Disney Imagineering, invited us to walk in their shoes as Imagineers to understand how specific locations in New Orleans and Louisiana informed the film and Tiana’s Bayou Adventure attraction.
We received private tours at several places like the French Quarter, Bayou in Slidell, Louisiana, New Orleans Jazz Museum, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Young Aspirations Young Artists, Inc. (YAYA) center, Dooky Chase Restaurant, and Preservation Hall, which all celebrate the following themes (bayou, music, food, history, and culture) that inspired the originality of the attraction.
Walt Disney Imagineers have been frequent travelers to Louisiana while conducting extensive research to ensure Tiana’s Bayou Adventure preserves the heart and soul of the city that inspired Princess Tiana’s story and to create a love letter to New Orleans, as Carmen Smith puts it. Smith also wants viewers and the Disney audience to get a sense of place, space, and authenticity when experiencing the new attraction, as she notes that Princess Tiana is a real character, as her story is designed to be believable.
Of course, we couldn’t grasp the gravitas of this new attraction’s cultural significance and history without speaking to the daughter of the woman who inspired The Princess and the Frog movie and lead character, Princess Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess, Ms. Stella Chase-Reese, daughter of the well-respected Leah Chase, of the notable restaurant Dooky Chase. Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” left an undeniable impactful culinary legacy imprinted into New Orleans food DNA. Not only was Chase the catalyst for change in her city, as she was the poster child of economic empowerment and development, but she also served as the blueprint for dreamers worldwide, especially those who looked like her. Along with the movie, her daughter has made it her life’s work to continue her legacy. Still, she doesn’t take for granted how it feels for her to see Chase’s likeness, story, and dreams be enterally memorialized on screen and within the Disney parks.
“I always say that it’s such a blessing. And it’s like a magical thing. Can you imagine my mother being born in 1923 and everything she experienced? And yet, our life was worthy enough for Disney to use as inspiration. She was helping minorities to know that they can achieve, and although there will be barriers and stepping stones, they can do it because our ancestors did it. They’re strong people, and we have that strong willpower as well. You never know what tomorrow will bring. And that’s what I want to tell everybody. Because sometimes our hopes get down. And that’s how it was for my mother. And when she found out she was the inspiration for The Princess and the Frog, can you imagine what it meant to her? Her work in life was always to make someone feel good and to make everybody feel important. The movie and attraction are like a love letter to everyone, saying to be determined, don’t give up. Your dream can and will come through,” she said exclusively to ESSENCE at her family restaurant, Dooky Chase.
Chase-Reese continued, “My mother was a lifelong learner. My mother took what she learned. And she loves to cook and study. She read sci-fi, cooked with Julia Child, and tried different recipes. And this is what made her what she was. She once said, ‘ I’m a cook, and this is what I do. Cooking is my way of making everybody happy.’ And she felt like you could understand people better if you ate her gumbo and felt good. So she thought her cooking was a way to bring people together.”
Princess Tiana’s New Beginning And Attraction:
Fans of Princess Tiana, The Princess and the Frog film, and all its beloved characters, can expect a new beginning and chapter for the main character and her family for the new 9-minute attraction. Think of it as the princess furthering her entrepreneurship ventures, helping her community, and settling into love. Picking up the story where the film left off, guests will join Princess Tiana, Naveen, and jazz-loving alligator Louis on an adventure through the bayou as they prepare to host a one-of-a-kind celebration during Mardi Gras season. Along the way, guests will encounter familiar faces, make new friends and travel through the bayou to original music inspired by songs from the film as they are brought into the next chapter of Princess Tiana’s story. The story is set in an old salt mine Princess Tiana purchased and transformed into a thriving business, Tiana’s Foods.
While a brand-new cast of original Disney characters with distinct names and personalities, familiar faces from the film will make an appearance, including Princess Tiana, Prince Naveen, Mama Odie, Louis, Eudora, Charlotte, “Big Daddy,” the King and Queen of Maldonia and Prince Ralphie. Voice talent will also return, including Jenifer Lewis as Mama Odie, Bruno Campos as Prince Naveen, Michael Leon Wooley as Louis, and Anika Noni Rose as Princess Tiana.
Music will also be a prominent theme for the activation, as Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will incorporate original songs from The Princess and the Frog and new original music. On May 26th, we witnessed PJ Morton, a New Orleans native, soul singer, and Grammy award-winning musician, express his gratitude for allowing him to score the new attraction at the famed Preservation Hall. Along with PJ Morton, fellow New Orleans musician, Grammy Award-winner, and Oscar nominee Terence Blanchard will also contribute musically. Both artists will be composting original Zydeco and traditional New Orleans jazz music.
“Disney is an institution that’s always connected to the music. It was Mary Poppins for me; hearing those songs connected to me. Or me and my sister and harmonizing to The Little Mermaid. It’s just full circle,” said Morton.
The Walt Disney Imagineering team revamped the design elements to reflect the 1920s era, with Princess Tiana sporting a new adventure outfit featuring knickers, boots, and a jacket inspired by the period. Local archives and artists, including Lousiana native and New Orleans resident artist Sharika Mahdi, inspire many stage and prop designs. Mahdi, a native of New Orleans, was commissioned by Disney to paint four pieces highlighting Princess Tiana, her family, and life in New Orleans. The final piece showcases the importance of family to Princess Tiana. In the painting, Princess Tiana and her mother, Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey in the film), sit together on a couch next to her late father and husband, James. Surrounding the family are distinctive elements, only found in New Orleans, like shotgun houses, the bayou, the French Quarter, street cars, and Princess Tiana’s famous beignets. When imagining the art for the attraction and film, Mahdi reflected on her Louisiana roots and the rich elements of her beloved city.
“I wanted to include the imagery of those things that represent the movie that represent the state of Louisiana, the city of New Orleans, and my artistic style. So this is kind of an abstraction of the movie elements. I also wanted to make the mother and daughter the centerpiece with the father. Because the theme of this piece is about family and family tradition, I wanted to make sure that was the center’s focal point,” said Mahdi.
She continued, “I wanted to tell the story of family tradition because I felt like we thought that such an important part of the movie is having that family support for her because she was a dreamer. Like many of us, she represented little girls and women with a strong mother there and a father who encouraged her to pursue her dreams despite whatever obstacles.”
Check out the locations we visited and their connection to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure:
Bayou Tour in Slidell, Louisiana:
A few miles from the French Quarter are a massive expanse of wetland ecosystems, which locals call the bayou. The bayou is as lively as any city and home to a host of critters and plant life. This airboat tour offers a glimpse into this one-of-a-kind ecosystem.
Connection to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure: Guests of the attraction will be transported to an enchanted evening in the bayou, animated by the sights and sounds of the region’s wildlife. Imagineers closely reviewed the different flora and fauna occupying this unique destination to stage this scene properly.
YAYA Arts Center:
Since 1988, Young Aspirations Young Artists, Inc. (YAYA) has been executing their mission to empower creative young people through visual arts education combined with entrepreneurial and life skills training, equipping them with the skills they need to thrive.
Connection to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure: When Imagineers sought inspiration for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, they found a perfect partner in Sharika Mahdi. This New Orleans artist and YAYA alum have offered a local’s perspective to Imagineers – inspiring their work through a four-part series the team commissioned to Sharika.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant:
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant is the premier restaurant for authentic Creole Cuisine. The restaurant opened its doors for business in 1941, soon becoming a meeting place for music and entertainment, civil rights, and culture in New Orleans. The Chase Family runs the restaurant and enjoys serving its regular customers, tourists, and locals. The establishment remains a stopping place for politicians, musicians, visual artists, and literary giants.
Connection to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure:
Few people can say they helped inspire a Disney princess, but Leah Chase is not just anyone. Known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” the late Leah Chase was the genius behind New Orleans staple Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. It was later a source of inspiration for Princess Tiana in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ The Princess and the Frog. Now run by the Chase family, the restaurant’s community-steeped traditions live on in her legacy. Today the Walt Disney Imagineering team remains close with the Chase family as they continue to work on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.
The Historic New Orleans Collection / Williams Research Center:
The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to the stewardship of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South.
Several articles were observed during this tour, reinforcing the creative decisions for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Though fantastical, Princess Tiana’s story is rooted in real-time and place. Therefore, Imagineers must consult with cultural institutions like The Historic New Orleans Collection to ensure the experience pays tribute to the region’s history. From typography to topography, no detail is overlooked.
New Orleans Jazz Museum:
The New Orleans Jazz Museum celebrates the history of jazz, in all its forms, through dynamic interactive exhibits, multigenerational educational programming, research facilities, and engaging musical performances.
Connection to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure: Much like the film, the music and sounds in the attraction borrow from the musical instrumentation, genres, and styles that either originated or found a permanent home in New Orleans. Some of the articles observed during this tour either correlate to several scenes in the attraction or helped inform the Imagineers’ creative decisions.
Situated in the heart of the French Quarter on St. Peter Street, the Preservation Hall venue presents intimate, acoustic New Orleans Jazz concerts over 360 nights a year. As a family business, Preservation Hall supported the unique culture of traditional jazz in New Orleans, which developed in the local melting pot of African, Caribbean, and European musical traditions at the turn of the 20th Century.
Connection to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure: Grammy-award-winning artist PJ Morton was appointed to help create an original theme song and produce and perform new arrangements of songs from “The Princess and the Frog” film within the attraction. The music selection and local artists contributing to the music reflect the distinct musical styles that took root in New Orleans.
Check out the above locations while you’re in New Orleans for the ESSENCE Festival of Culture and before you visit Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Remember, the attraction opens in Magic Kingdom park in Florida and Disneyland park in California in 2024.