To celebrate the transformation of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom’s water flume ride into a new adventure inspired by Walt Disney Animation Studios fan fave The Princess and the Frog, io9 went to the bayou and beyond with Disney Parks to explore inspirations rooted in New Orleans culture.
Disney Imagineers had press tag along to all the places where their teams work to fully immerse creatives in the environments, history, music, art, and food of the city that inspired the movie and now Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. The ride, which will open in 2024 at the Disney Parks on both coasts, will give audiences a new chapter in Tiana’s story with friends old and new, while she prepares to celebrate Mardi Gras in her city with her Tiana’s Foods collective. Soundtracked by familiar songs and a new theme, the attraction’s construction is underway as Imagineers move full steam ahead.
Here’s a look at the research locations we visited in New Orleans and what we learned about the ride.
Bayou inspiration and ambiance
To emulate the water ride’s new look, we went to the real swampy wetlands that serve as inspiration for the environments we’ll soon we getting on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Surrounded by Spanish moss trees, green-hued water, and lots of critters, we got a sense of how the ambiance of the ride will shift to the river vibe we see in The Princess and the Frog movie, where Tiana and Naveen meet Ray and Louis. This time around Tiana won’t be a frog; she’ll be leading visitors on a journey to find a key missing ingredient for her Mardi Gras celebration.
For those worried that the ride time has changed, fret not! Creative director Ted Robledo revealed that’s one thing that remains. “The ride that you knew—I believe at Disneyland was around nine minutes-ish, and that Magic Kingdom gate was 10 minutes-ish. That stays the same.” He also shared that guests have a longer story to look forward to, starting from the moment they enter the queue.
Meeting new critters and gators
On our Cajun Encounters tour, we saw so many gators along with turtles, raccoons, birds, and more. Here’s a look at us seeing them out in the wild and maybe not under the friendliest of circumstances. Real gators aren’t as nice as the movie’s Louis the Gator, and might consider eating his critter friends. Circle of life, am I right?
Imagineers told us that more wildlife, including an otter, a rabbit, a raccoon, a beaver, an opossum, and frogs will be featured alongside band leader Louis from the film. Executive creative producer Charita Carter shared, “We have 17 new characters and all of those characters will be represented as audio animatronics—and then of course, what we call our hero characters. But then the main characters, like Tiana and Naveen and of course Louis, will all be physical animatronics,” she said. “And of course Mama Odie!” she added, noting that the beloved hoodoo priestess would not be left out; in fact, her magic may have a big part in the experience.
Going back to the critter band, we found out that they will be playing music on handmade instruments like the ones above in the Jazz Museum of New Orleans. Music, of course, will play a huge role in the attraction, and back to perform and score instrumentals is the original trumpeting performer for Louis (and seven-time Grammy winner) Terence Blanchard. Robledo discussed how important it was to have Blanchard back to score the various genres of music that the ride will feature, like jazz and Zydeco, Louisana’s blend of rhythm and blues. “To us, more than a ride, it’s the story and it’s the journey. It starts before we get on the boat and so we’re taking advantage of our queue to start that story, both through the audio and the music you’re hearing. That’s what Terence is going to be helping us with, to get people in that place at that time, in that region.”
More Maldonian royalty
During a talk at the Jazz Museum we were able to see the unveiling of Prince Ralphie’s animatronic, Naveen’s little brother from the film. “Everything that you have seen will be manifested in a physical form,” Carter elaborated. “Naveen’s little brother Ralphie, he will be physically there with a physical drum set that we were inspired by, from stuff that we saw.”
Authenticity is key
Here’s the original 1920s-era drum set Imagineers used for reference.
Carmen Smith, SVP & Executive Creative Development Product/Content & Inclusive Strategies on Tiana’s Bayou, was excited to have her team work in close collaboration with institutions like the Historic New Orleans Collection/Williams Research Center of historical artifacts and the New Orleans Jazz Museum. “When I think about Walt Disney Imagineering, [I think about] how we create ways that the world has an opportunity to experience new backgrounds,” she said, explaining the importance of every department of her team exploring the city so they could bring a piece of that through their medium on the attraction. “We walk the museum, walk the streets [to] better understand [New Orleans]. It breaks down barriers when you think about culture and race, the lifestyle and language. We had a whole team just understanding how dialect changes from ward to ward, how even music changes and art changes.”
Mardi Gras’ presence honored
At the the Historic New Orleans Collection/Williams Research Center we got to take a look at real designs for Mardi Gras floats from the 1920s, the era of Tiana’s own celebration. It was tantamount to the design process of scenes we’ll be getting on the ride. “I can tell you probably upwards of maybe 10 to 12 or more Imagineers have been through this exhibit to learn, to understand,” Smith said. “Yes, the immediate core team has been here, but we’ve had dozens come through, as you would. We really want a team that has an understanding of why we’re here, why the story is important, [from] architecture to graphics to color to style.”
Tiana is a beacon to her family
As a fan of the film I was geeking out when we went to Mardi Gras World, a huge warehouse of floats from the annual festivities, and saw the Tiana statue the city dedicated to the film. It’s so exciting to see where her story will go from where we left off in the 2009 film. Robledo gave a sense of what Imagineering wanted to explore: “There’s so much of her story that was touched upon in the film, the relationship with her father, a World War I veteran; her relationship with her mother, [who] we like to say was the entrepreneurial inspiration for her to be the successful businesswoman that Tiana is today in our story.”
Tiana represents New Orleans
In the early days of development for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, Carter reached out to the YAYA (Young Aspirations Young Artists) organization—a group that since 1988 has been on a mission to empower creative young people through visual arts education—to find New Orleans talent that could collaborate in making Tiana true to her roots. “At the beginning of our process, when we were what we call ideating what this adventure, what the story [of] the next chapter will be about, we wanted to see how somebody who was a native to New Orleans—how it resonated with them. And so we had the idea of let’s commission an artist, pitch our story to them, and have them give elements of that story back to us,” she said. Then, Carter introduced the artist whose work would become the heart of the attraction because they represented all the colors of New Orleans. “One particular artist, who had just this amazing sense of movement and rhythm—you know, our attraction is this flume ride and you’re moving and it’s thrilling. We had to go with Sharika Mahdi who’s just really amazing with her movement in her particular art.”
The spirit of New Orleans comes alive through its artists
Mahdi’s involvement with the attraction was previously announced; her first painting is homed at famed restaurant Dooky Chase, which was led by the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” and Tiana inspiration, the late Leah Chase. Combining Chase’s legacy with the artistic sensibilities that Mahdi infuses in her vision of New Orleans, under the guidance of Carter, really speaks to the power of Black women who are behind Tiana’s new story. Mahdi is the living embodiment of New Orleans’ legacy, which is emphasized in her art. “I wanted to include imagery of those things and represent the movie that represents the state of Louisiana, the city of New Orleans but also, in my artistic style,” she shared while presenting her final painting in her Tiana’s Bayou Adventure series. “So this is part of our past connection. I wanted to put a mother and daughter as the centerpiece with the father. The theme of this piece is family and family tradition; I wanted to make sure that was centered, and then surrounding it I wanted to include flourishes of what represents Louisiana.”
You really have to look at every fine detail in Mahdi’s piece above. Even as a first-time visitor to New Orleans, I recognized so much of how the city moves and exudes life is beautifully represented there. “When I think of being from Louisiana, of course I grew up in shotgun houses,” Mahdi recalled, paying homage to her past and the history of her city as she motioned to other figures including Tiana, “...the Mardi Gras Indians, the steamboat, the streetcar, of course you have representation of the bayou swamps with the alligator. You have the famous beignets, a little bit of French Quarter with St. Louis Cathedral, the spoon and pots in the back the whimsical nature of that, and then you have it spliced with music notes from the piano—which is which I think is very iconic of New Orleans. I wanted to tell the story of family tradition because I feel like we’ve talked about how that’s such an important part of herself, having a family support for her, because she was a dreamer like many of us. She represented many of us little girls and women who had a strong mother there and father that encouraged her to pursue her dreams despite obstacles she been through.”
It was really sweet that Mahdi had her mother and current members of the YAYA program in attendance for the unveiling.
Eudora’s Chic Boutique to feature new art from YAYA
One of the first art pieces commissioned from YAYA was a chair, lovingly restored with symbolic art, which would become the organization’s artistic signature. This chair marks the collaboration between the arts organization and Disney Imagineering. It honors Tiana’s mom Eudora with nods to Tiana’s man-catching-beignets and their family gumbo. Carter noted Tiana’s mother’s enduring presence in the chair and Mahdi’s painting. “You have Tiana sitting on the couch with her mother Eudora that is so endearing, and then you have this large picture of James. So even though he’s no longer with us, he’s ever present in this family’s story and then you have all kinds of representation of the community,” she said before unveiling Eudora’s chair, which will be on display at Eudora’s Chic Boutique at Disneyland. “One of the things that is unique about this attraction, and there are so many, but it’s the fact that as we tell our next-chapter story, we have a palette that expands beyond the attraction. At Disneyland, we have New Orleans Square and have an opportunity to highlight not only Tiana, but her mother Eudora. If you remember from the film, her mother was a seamstress. What’s Tiana done for her next chapter has provided opportunities for different members of the community—and her mama, who she got her entrepreneurial spirit from, has taken it to the next level as well.”
Disney Animation guides Tiana’s next chapter
Along for our New Orleans adventure was Walt Disney Animation Studios VFX artist Marlon West, who worked on The Princess and the Frog. In a presentation at YAYA, he discussed how the studio is still playing a huge role in the attraction to continue the film’s legacy. Imagineers shared that in addition to the animatronics, there would be animation in the ride itself to bring to life the fireflies from the film. West knew quite a bit about those light-up bugs and shared what it took to bring them onto the big screen, “I’m from St. Louis so I kinda grew up with fireflies,” he said. “We had this edict about The Princess and the Frog—[it] was a hand-drawn movie, they didn’t want any CG stuff, [but] there’s a lot of fireflies in Princess and the Frog and we weren’t going to draw all those rascals. All the fireflies you see with faces are hand-drawn fireflies, but not the ones that are just dots, the ones that don’t have have bodies.”
Anika Noni Rose had a favorite dress moment
Anika Noni Rose, who played Tiana in The Princess in the Frog, knew the blue dress was the best dress. This fashion tidbit came from West, who animated the shimmer in the reveal of its ballgown moment. “When she puts that blue gown on, when she’s all sad, but it’s got sparkles on the tulle—I did those in all the shots,” he said, sharing what he said was his favorite anecdote from working on the film. “Anika Noni Rose was really smitten by it, so she’d be like ‘Marlon did the sparkle.’ ‘This is Marlon, he did the sparkles.’ So yeah, it was a comparatively easy thing to do, it looks really cool and it meant a lot to her.”
Food is community
“We get to tell that story of what makes Tiana who she is. All of the research that we’ve done in understanding how folks like the Chase family run their business, it inspired us to hear the stories about [Leah Chase] doing all this great charity work for the community,” Robledo said, giving Chase her flowers. Without Chase, we wouldn’t have a huge part of Tiana’s identity as the first African American Disney Princess. Chase was a pillar of the New Orleans community and played a pivotal role during the Civil Rights movement by bringing folks together through food,” Robledo continued, describing how that’s a big part of the Tiana that park-goers will be reuniting with on the new ride. “It inspires us to say ‘You know, if Tiana really is modeled after Leah, she probably would have done those things, too.’ And that movie, in fact, starts with her making gumbo with her dad. And when they’re all done, what’s the next thing they’re sharing with the community, right? Why would she stop doing that as a little girl? She would continue to do that. [The new] attraction brings more of Tiana’s story and more of New Orleans to our guests.”
The ride may tie into the Tiana show
We did get to find out a little more about Disney’s in-the-works Tiana animated series; after all, the studio is all about synergy, so why wouldn’t Imagineers be in the know? While the series’ plot is being kept firmly under wraps, Robledo did share this: “I don’t want to speak for our partners at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, but I know it’s been announced that Tiana’s story is going to be furthered in a new series that was announced,” he said, noting that the world Tiana and her prince live in was part of the early conversations had about the show. “Her relationship with her husband, who is from another country of likely of mixed race. You know, it’s a time of indigenous people and colonization. I think that team, from what little we heard, is going to explore that route. But I will say this about Naveen. We knew early on, and even if Naveen plays a small role or big role in this story, he has a role—they’re a married couple, they care about each other. So to honor that, we want to make sure he’s included somewhere in a real way. And actually, it’s quite humorous, as this little performance of our story.”
Imagineering is always being a kid at heart
From left to right: Tiana’s Bayou Adventure Imagineers Ted Robledo, Charita Carter and Carmen Smith
After the whirlwind from bayou gator encounters, authentic Cajun Creole cuisine, sweet beignets, museums, and live jazz, things wound down with a closing presentation at Preservation Hall with the Imagineers. After a performance of “Dig a Little Deeper”—Mama Odie’s call to perform transformative magic—we felt transformed too. Imagineering really took us on a journey of wonder that they experience as part of their jobs, a fact not lost on Carter and her team. “We are so fortunate because we get to be kids at heart as a part of our daily routine. And I think one of the things that’s really helpful for me is just like Tiana, I consider myself a visionary. And I see things I’ve worked with—our organization is a part of our innovation. We’ve done a lot of inventing of the ways that we execute and tell our stories, and that’s something that I have had the privilege of being a part of. So this amazing opportunity that I have at Imagineering to have a vision of something, to see it, and then to be able to cast the team around it, to manifest that. I can’t explain to you how amazing that is, and I feel very fortunate. Being able to do that continues just to feed me, and to never stop dreaming; before I finish one project, I’m already dreaming about the next project, so I really consider myself very fortunate.”
Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is set to open next year at both Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Disneyland.
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