On Friday, July 1, in the midst of the ESSENCE Festival of Culture‘s in-person return to New Orleans, I had the pleasure of taking part in a Disney event that celebrated Black girl magic — specifically an upcoming attraction inspired by Princess Tiana and The Princess and the Frog.
At the famous live music venue Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, I moderated a conversation that showcased the best of Walt Disney Imagineering talent. They were all present to share exclusive updates and news about the attraction. Some of the biggest news shared was the name of the ride, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, and when it will make its debut at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California, which will be in 2024. Sharing that information was Carmen Smith, senior vice president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering, Ted Robledo, executive creative director for Walt Disney Imagineering, and Charita Carter, executive producer of relevancy activations for Walt Disney Imagineering.
And the honorary imagineer on the panel was New Orleans native Stella Chase Reese, daughter of the legendary Leah Chase, known for her iconic restaurant Dooky Chase. The late Queen of Creole Cuisine was an inspiration for the character of Princess Tiana.
“They are giving us the opportunity to keep our mother’s spirit alive,” Stella said of her family’s involvement in the development of the attraction. “It’s a blessing. My mother loved the city of New Orleans. She was a great ambassador. This is her way of still doing for our city, her community, by giving back as the inspiration for Tiana.”
She added, “It continues my mother’s legacy in a bigger way than she could have done here in New Orleans. It brings it to everyone in the world.”
And it’s important for the Imagineering team to bring an experience to the world that is true to the city of New Orleans. So the team has worked with the Chase family, artists in the city like Sharika Mahdi, and done many trips to NOLA for research, to get the story they want to tell just right.
“There’s such a deep history of music, of rhythms and sounds coming together to make this musical gumbo in New Orleans,” Roblado said during the discussion. “All of those things inform our team so we bring to you a fun, thrilling and authentic story that really does Tiana justice.”
It’s a major responsibility for the team, but one they don’t take for granted, as they bring the first attraction dedicated to the first Black Disney princess to life. They’re aware of the representation it will provide as well as the knowledge.
“For us, we are the world’s storyteller in a way. So we have a responsibility to make sure that when you walk inside our parks, you see yourself or you see someone else,” Smith said.
For Carter, who is leading the creation of the attraction, she not only wanted to incorporate the city, but also make sure the characters so many people grew to love from The Princess and the Frog would be a part of the ride too.
“This is an opportunity for us to bring Tiana to the guest,” Carter said. “And in our next chapter story, Tiana is going to take us on a joyful, musical ride. We’re going to have original music influenced by the music in the film. And we’re going to draw upon the tremendous talent in the film and the voice artists, including the character Mama Odie.”
And the woman behind the voice of Mama Odie, actress Jenifer Lewis, was on hand to perform “Dig a Little Deeper,” flawlessly delivering the song — and a signature high kick at the end. For Lewis, who is already the voice of Flo for the Cars attraction at Disneyland, having her voice enshrined as Mama Odie at another attraction in two parks, one as important as this historic offering, is just “grand” to the star.
“My mother’s great great grandchildren will hear my voice,” she shared with ESSENCE after the event. “It’s legacy. Even if the Internet ain’t here, Disney will be. Disney ain’t going nowhere.”
“All I can tell you is to know where we came from to be where we are now…I live to make my ancestor’s proud,” she added.
But no one is more excited right now about the possibilities of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure than Carter, who plans to exceed expectations and bring both Princess Tiana and New Orleans culture to the masses.
“We have the opportunity to reacquaint people with Tiana who already love her from the film. We have the opportunity to bring her to a new generation as we’re creating a dimensional space for her. And it’s very important for us as a team, because this city has been so gracious and open to us, that we’re giving our guests an experience that’s a love letter to New Orleans,” she said.