“The only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work.” – Tiana
Walt Disney Imagineering has created iconic theme parks and attractions around the globe. Walt Disney described Imagineering as “the blending of creative imagination with technical know-how.” What isn’t included in that quote is the dedication to research. Disney fans should be familiar with WDI’s blue sky ideas and concepts, but those are only the first steps before making an attraction, restaurant, gift shop, land, or park a reality. Research plays a big role in the process whether Imagineers are developing the newest and greatest tech or heading out in the field to explore the world.
Walt Disney Imagineering is actively bringing Tiana’s Bayou Adventure to life at Disneyland park in California and Magic Kingdom park in Florida in 2024. The new attraction serves as a sequel to the 2009 Walt Disney Animation Studios film The Princess and the Frog, and the ride will embody the heart and spirit of New Orleans. The movie used hand-drawn animation to paint a beautiful picture of the city and bayou in the 1920s, but WDI needs to make this animated world a reality. For it to work, there must be a dedication to authenticity because New Orleans isn’t just a fantasy city in a cartoon – it is a real place that many love and call home.
I was recently invited by Disney to be hosted in New Orleans for a few days and learn the latest updates for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure and walk in the footsteps of Carmen Smith (SVP & Executive Creative Development Product/Content & Inclusive Strategies for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products), Charita Carter (Executive Creative Producer for Walt Disney Imagineering), and Ted Robledo (Executive Creative Director for Walt Disney Imagineering).
This type of trip is a day in the life of being an Imagineer, but it was also a groundbreaking exclusive journey into the creative process behind the attraction for myself and other members of the media. WDI found inspiration in local artists, archives, restaurants, and of course, the bayou. It required tasting the city’s finest creole food, listening to jazz in the heart of the French Quarter, and studying the living history of the city at its best museums.
I only got a taste of what Imagineers get to experience and how the sausage is made, but it opened my eyes to the more intricate aspects of what it means to be an Imagineer and I walked away with a deeper appreciation for the Crescent City.
“Dreams do come true in New Orleans.” – Tiana
On June 25, 2020, Disney announced Splash Mountain would be closing at Disneyland and Walt Disney World to be reimagined. Splash Mountain was a fan-favorite attraction for years and had great bones. The ride experience was long and offered paced-out thrills, lots of animatronics, and the music helped tell the story based on Song of the South. The 1946 Walt Disney film hasn’t been in theaters since 1986 and has never been wholly released on home media in the United States. Disney CEO Bob Iger stated in 2010 there were no plans to release Song of the South and that the movie was “antiquated” and “fairly offensive.”
Reinventing Splash Mountain gave Disney an opportunity to slowly move away from Song of the South and open the door for Princess Tiana’s first attraction. Tiana has been in shows, parades, and even has a restaurant on the Disney Wonder Disney Cruise Line ship, but no dedicated attraction. The retheme allows Imagineers to build upon the previous attraction and elevate the experience while telling a fresh, relevant story. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure promotes inclusivity and distances Disney from a controversial movie in its vault.
Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is trading in the mountain for a salt mine that Princess Tiana purchased and transformed into Tiana’s Foods. Tiana’s Foods is an employee-owned co-op specializing in spices. During the attraction, Princess Tiana, Naveen, and Louis take you on an adventure through the bayou as they prepare to host a one-of-a-kind celebration during Mardi Gras. Tiana is throwing a party as a thank you to everyone who made Tiana’s Foods a success, but everything goes wrong when they realize there’s a missing ingredient. However, the missing ingredient isn’t always food.
Other familiar faces from the movie will make an appearance like Mama Odie, Eudora, Charlotte, Big Daddy, the King and Queen of Maldonia, and Prince Ralphie. Voice talent from the film will be reprising their roles, including Jenifer Lewis as Mama Odie, Bruno Campos as Prince Naveen, Michael Leon Wooley as Louis, and Anika Noni Rose as Princess Tiana.
Dozens of new Audio-Animatronics figures will be found in the attraction, including a brand-new cast of original Disney characters with distinct names and personalities, along with new character animation for the attraction as well as a magical kind. Familiar tunes from the film will help set the scene along with new, original music. New Orleans native PJ Morton is on board to write, arrange, and produce an original song for the attraction along with producing all-new arrangements of songs from The Princess and the Frog within the attraction.
The story of the attraction starts with the queue. The sweet scene of beignets will permeate the air. A period radio program will play music while being interspersed with an important message from Tiana who needs help with the party she’s throwing. The music we’ll hear in the queue is being produced by Grammy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated musician Terence Blanchard. The New Orleans native is selecting songs from the film for the queue along with iconic themes from New Orleans. The sights, sounds, and smells will all work together to provide an authentic representation of a city full of royalty and inspiration.
“The narrow-winding streets, intimate courtyards, and the iron-laced balconies are authentic in every detail.” – Walt Disney on New Orleans Square
Research trips have been an important tool for Walt Disney Imagineering and Walt Disney Animation Studios for many years. In 1941, Walt and a group of studio employees, known as El Grupo, made their way to South America on a “goodwill tour” which resulted in Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944). The trip took them to Brazil, Argentina, and beyond providing inspiration for those on the journey while also quelling Nazi influence in the continent.
Disney has ties to New Orleans that date back to the 1940s and 1950s. New Orleans was a stop during a research trip for Song of the South, but perhaps the greatest moment happened during one of Walt’s vacations in the ‘50s. Walt and his wife Lillian found a mechanical bird in a gilded cage in an antique shop. This mechanism of the bird was dissected by Imagineers and ultimately paved the path to Audio-Animatronics.
Disney and the Imagineers visited New Orleans when planning and building New Orleans Square, the first new land added to Disneyland in 1966. New Orleans Square is still to this day one of the most detailed and authentic lands in any Disney park. Walk through the land with someone who was born in raised in New Orleans and they’ll tell you it feels just like an idyllic version of home. The sound of music permeates through the streets, the balconies add height and immersion, and the Romeo hooks on the balcony poles can still be spotted around the French Quarter.
New Orleans Square has evolved over the years. Stores have changed like La Bat en Rouge into Eudora’s Chic Boutique Featuring Tiana’s Gourmet Secrets, Club 33 (Walt’s private club in the park that opened after his passing) was added and eventually had its entrance moved, and the French Market Restaurant is currently undergoing its transformation into Tiana’s Palace. It retains its charm thanks to the intimacy and attention to detail.
Imagineering trips to New Orleans played an integral role in the land being what it is. Last summer, I had the chance to sit and chat with Tania McKnight Norris. You may not be familiar with her name, but even the most casual Disneyland and Walt Disney World fan could tell you where her most famous work is on full display. Norris is the Imagineer who designed the iconic Haunted Mansion wallpaper. She knows it so well that she was able to accurately point out something about my shirt that was not quite right. It’s because I was wearing the Muppets Haunted Mansion shirt that takes the wallpaper design and alters it to include Muppets.
Anyways, Norris shared with me how proud she is of all the work she did for Disney, but New Orleans Square is easily her biggest accomplishment. She told me about being in New Orleans with Walt and other Imagineers shopping for props to bring home and place around the land. They also purchased materials so they could fabricate and recreate little touches they found in New Orleans. Hearing Norris talk about traveling with Walt gave me chills for two reasons. One, there aren’t a lot of people left who had first-hand encounters with Walt, let alone traveled with him. Two, New Orleans Square is by far my favorite land in Disneyland, and hearing about the love that was put into it places it on an even higher pedestal.
Research trips didn’t die in the 1960s. Walt Disney Animation continues to study locations and cultures when making movies like The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, and Encanto. Walt Disney Imagineering still travels around the globe to get inspiration from real places even when creating fantasy versions. Joe Rohde took research trips to the next level when looking for inspiration as the lead designer for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The one-hour documentary on the making of Expedition Everest is a prime example. Rohde put the same attention to detail into the creation of Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa which saw some Imagineers stationed in Hawaii for three years before they even broke ground. The hotel showcases a true representation of Hawaiian culture and heritage which can be attributed to the relationship Disney made with Hawaii.
When designing Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Walt Disney Imagineering traveled to Morocco and Turkey to experience their open-air markets. It’s exactly why you can technically be standing on a planet in a galaxy far, far away, but it feels grounded in our reality. Research continued in California when Imagineers traveled to George Lucas’ private archives to study original concept art. Imagineers traveled to the United Kingdom to study film sets, costumes, and props. Research trips are critical to Imagineering and vital no matter how far they travel to get to Asia or Africa or stay close to home in New Orleans.
“I was confused by the topography… and the geography and choreography.” – Louis
I’ve only been to New Orleans once before this trip with Disney. It was over ten years ago and was for hours, so this was my first true experience in the city after hearing stories about it for years. I hit the highlights previously – beignets from Café Du Monde, strolling Bourbon Street, and eating my weight in jambalaya and gumbo. However, one day in the city (mostly spent in the World War II Museum) isn’t enough to know New Orleans. Full disclosure: I went back to the World War II Museum in my free time because they currently have on display a special exhibit about The Walt Disney Studios and World War II from The Walt Disney Family Museum.
Our research trip began with a stop at Vue Orleans. I expected just a small welcome party but was treated to what must be one of the best views of the city. The experience starts as a cultural exhibit where you can learn about the cuisine of New Orleans, surround yourself with the music of the city, and even meet historical figures that called New Orleans home. The highlight is a 360-degree outdoor observation deck that overlooks the Mississippi River, Canal Street, French Quarter, Treme, Garden District, and beyond.
Having a one-of-a-kind bird’s eye view of New Orleans helped me situate my place in the city and treated me to a sunset so spectacular that photos can’t do it justice. Seeing the change from the Central Business District to the French Quarter from 34 stories high was like time traveling. As great as the view is from above, the life of the city is on its streets.
“First rule of the bayou: never take directions from a gator.” – Ray
Tiana’s Bayou Adventure may be based around a salt mine, but the bayou is where guests will be transported to. In the attraction, the sights and sounds of the bayou will become animated during an enchanting evening. Much of The Princess and the Frog takes place on the bayou, but the movie wasn’t enough to draw inspiration from. Imagineers needed to visit the bayou to study the different flora and fauna and try to accurately recreate it in the attraction.
I expected the bayou to be far out from the city, but I was way wrong. We made it to the wetlands in under an hour and completely left the hustle and bustle of the city for peaceful serenity. The only sound you hear out there is from boats and wildlife. Traveling from Florida, the wetlands made me feel right at home versus what I expected which is the perfect version from Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Our tour of the bayou was during the day because fireflies aren’t out in abundance lighting the way with the help of moonlight like in the movies and rides.
We boarded boats like Imagineers and took off in search of creatures, critters, and vegetation. The wide-open waterways narrowed into small channels barely large enough to fit our boat through and that’s when the gators came out to play. Anytime the boats would slow or standstill, alligators would swarm causing terror to those afraid of the reptiles. Really, the gators were just hoping for a special treat from their boat-driving friends. You expect alligators in the bayou, but I didn’t expect the plethora of raccoons also looking for a snack.
We didn’t see any otters, beavers, rabbits, or possums while traveling the bayou. We did see a couple of turtles and heard many bullfrogs. Why is this important? These critters are some of the 17 new characters Disney is physically creating for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. They’ll be playing zydeco music on their instruments made crudely from natural materials found in the bayou.
We had the chance to see a rendering preview of what the otter animatronic will look like playing his fiddle and I was shocked by the amount of motion. The fiddle itself is a makeshift can with fishing lures helping to attach the strings, but the otter will be stomping its foot up and down while swaying side to side. Each character will have an individual performance, just like the otter. I’m very excited for these original characters considering Disney doesn’t always get to dream up new ones, but I’m most excited to see Louis, the trumpet-playing alligator, brought to life as an Audio-Animatronic. If you’re looking forward to seeing if Disney reuses animatronics from Splash Mountain, you’ll have to wait and see because they wouldn’t confirm if they were or if there’d be easter eggs to the previous attraction.
The sound of the bayou will be brought to life due to incredible foley work inspired by Disney sound effects artist Jimmy MacDonald (who was also the second official voice of Mickey Mouse). Foley artists are using handmade and custom instruments to replicate sounds like bullfrogs which are made with croak cans like MacDonald created. It’s simple – a can with a string attached and knowing the right way to manipulate the string. You can even get a higher pitch sound with a pluck. Slide whistles bring birds to life; even something as simple as a dog toy can be useful.
If you’re heading down to the bayou, you’ll need the right attire. Tiana is dressing the part with her new adventure look as seen in previously shared concept art. She’s a princess with many looks, so don’t expect the same one for the entire attraction. Not only that but her costuming and hairstyle are rooted in the 1920s. Imagineers want to show as much variety as they can with hair and wardrobe, but it must be authentic to the time period as well as the character. WDI is even partnering with cosmetology and wardrobe consultants who maintain animatronics in the parks to make sure their knowledge brings a level of expertise to the attraction.
“Bring your paintbrush, we’re painting the town!” – Tiana
Visual arts play an important role in bringing any attraction to life, especially Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Imagineers were looking for inspiration for the ride and they didn’t have to look any further than Shariki Mahdi. Walt Disney Imagineering commissioned Sharika to create four paintings that offer a local’s perspective and we were there to witness the unveiling of the fourth and final piece. Mahdi was the perfect candidate as a New Orleans artist who lived in many different neighborhoods throughout her life. She also is an alum of YAYA, Young Aspirations Young Artists, Inc.
YAYA works to empower creative young people from ages 5-25 through visual arts education combined with entrepreneurial and life skills training. The program is completely free and artwork from artists has been sold internationally. YAYA is known for its painted chairs, one of which is in Eudora’s Chic Boutique, but students and alumni learn many different forms of art. We had the chance to witness glass blowing while at the campus, but their gallery is filled with painted art, ceramics, and more showcasing their talents.
YAYA itself was inspiring, but Disney invited Walt Disney Animation Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Marlon West to further dive into the visual arts. West has worked on The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Princess and the Frog, Moana, and the Frozen movies to name a few of his credits. His years of experience gave everyone in the room a new appreciation for effects in animated features and had to be wildly motivating for young artists.
“You know the thing about good food? It brings folks together from all walks of life. It warms them right up, and it puts little smiles on their faces.” – James
Tiana’s story will continue to evolve and grow as we learn more about her from the attraction as well as the upcoming Disney+ series set to debut in 2024. A lot of thought was put into Tiana and how she became the person she is today. Her mother, Eudora, made dresses for Charlotte, but who else did she create dresses for and how did that influence Tiana? What was it like for an African American man to fight in World War I, like Tiana’s father James, and how would that be honored and added to Tiana’s journey?
Food was a love language for Tiana’s family and James dreamed of his family owning a restaurant – a dream that passed onto Tiana. James wanted to share their passion for food like when they shared their gumbo with the whole community. These traits were impressed upon Tiana as a little girl and continued with her. The same idea of sharing food with the community can be found at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant – the next stop we made on our research trip.
The Chase Family who runs Dooky Chase’s Restaurant has a deep history with Disney at this point because the late Chef Leah Chase was a major source of inspiration for Princess Tiana. Chase was known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” and her daughter Stella carried on the family legacy. The first restaurant in the family was opened in 1941 by Stella’s grandparents to give people in the community a chance to celebrate life and enjoy good food in a safe and welcoming environment. Her father, Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., and Leah continued the legacy. It was always Leah’s dream to have a restaurant, but Edgar was a trumpeter who got pulled into the restaurant business. His trumpet still hangs in the bar today.
The restaurant has been a revolving door for many famous names including Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Freedom Bus Riders, Thurgood Marshall, Ray Charles, and the list goes on. President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have walked through the doors of Dooky Chase’s. People flock from all around the world to go to “Tiana’s” restaurant, which is lined with artwork from those in the community. There is enough history to attract any diner to Dooky Chase’s, but the Creole cuisine served inside might be even more impressive. The gumbo, redfish, fried chicken, and strawberry shortcake was among the best food I had during the research trip.
“When you hear that music playin’, hear what I’m saying, it make you feel all right.” – Tiana
Our second full day of the research trip focused heavily on the past and the best way to discover the history of the city is by visiting The Historic New Orleans Collection. The museum is an important tool for Imagineers as they’ve been able to consult with the experts there. The collaboration has allowed Imagineering to ensure they are accurately paying tribute to the region. Furthermore, the queue of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is directly inspired by newspaper clippings, advertisements, and other media from the museum. For example, a painting from the 1800s of the French Market during sunset provided a color palette for New Orleans skies.
One piece of signage that was pointed out to us as we wandered through the museum was a crate label for Green Dragon Brand Dry Pack Shrimp from 1927. The label was used directly as an inspiration for the labels on new products like her original hot sauces. Mardi Gras float designs and costumes like the 1938 Dorians King helped to guide the visual design of the celebration. The highlight had to be a 1945 painting depicting Mardi Gras featuring a parade goer wearing a Mickey Mouse mask proving that there are always ties to Disney even outside of California and Florida.
From the Historic New Orleans Collection, we made our way to the New Orleans Jazz Museum. The museum, housed in the former United States Mint branch, celebrates the history of jazz and New Orleans. We got to peek inside their archives where thousands of artifacts are kept safe including vintage newspapers and maps that helped to inform the placement of the salt mine in relation to the city center in the 1920s. This isn’t the first time Disney has worked with the museum. They collaborated on the Disney-Pixar Soul exhibit previously in the American Adventure pavilion at EPCOT.
True pieces of history are inside the museum that helped specifically guide the Imagineers in the creation of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. First, a Leedy bass drum set dated from the 1920s inspired a drum set that Ralphie, Prince Naveen’s little brother, will be playing in the attraction. The Imagineers also confirmed that both Ralphie and the drum set will be physical Audio-Animatronics. The radio seen and heard throughout the queue was inspired by a 1930 Avrin radio & record player.
“Glad to see you’re finally gettin’ into the music. Do you get my joke? Because your head is, it’s in the tuba.” – Prince Naveen
From the New Orleans Jazz Museum, we made our way to an iconic music venue in the heart of the French Quarter – Preservation Hall. The intimate, acoustic venue is open most days of the year for jazz concerts and pays tribute to the music that developed out of the melting pot that is New Orleans. We had a chance to hear music on the hallowed grounds which was truly spectacular, and the music guests will listen to in the attraction will reflect the same musical styles of Preservation Hall and New Orleans.
“You just keep your eyes at one of the biggest, gaudiest floats with a Mardi Gras princess about to kiss herself a… a frog.” – Tiana
Our final stop on the research trip took us to Mardi Gras World inside the Kern Studio. The tourist attraction is open yearly and gives visitors a chance to see where floats are made for New Orleans Mardi Gras parades. Kern Studios also has worked with Disney in the past in bringing their characters to life for floats alongside many other partners including Universal Orlando for their Mardi Gras parade.
Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is building up to that big celebration and it’s hard to get a scope for how huge Mardi Gras is without experiencing it firsthand. Our research trip didn’t fall over Mardi Gras, so this was a way to understand not only the process but the scope of the event.
“There’s magic in the air tonight, and anything can happen.” – Tiana
Walking into this trip, I had no idea what to expect and was skeptical of the entire experience. The chance to see New Orleans was captivating, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to see the city in the same way as the Imagineers. Carmen Smith said during one presentation, “It’s a magical place. You come in one way and come out the other – inspired. Your curiosity is heightened about the world, and you feel a sense of acceptance.” She was right.
My hesitance in covering this research trip was rooted in the point of the trip itself. The research trip was meant to show what Walt Disney Imagineering is going through to bring this attraction to life. There is a deeper story connecting to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure that is important to everyone involved. Ted Robledo acknowledged that people from the Philippines, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Africa all had a place in the history of New Orleans and it’s Imagineering’s responsibility to pass it on. It’s a real place and they want to celebrate it while making the people of New Orleans say, “Wow.”
Walt Disney Imagineering know that guests loved Splash Mountain for what it was, but they also knew they can do better. “We’re not trying to burn it all down and say that was bad. We want to add to it,” said Robledo. The story may not be important to everyone, but in this case, it is key to the attraction. The authenticity of New Orleans will be bursting through the seams of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure and guests will have a chance to feel the soul of the Crescent City when the attraction opens in 2024.