Inside Disney World’s New ‘Tiana’s Bayou Adventure’ Attraction With The Black Women Bringing It To Life

Walt Disney Imagineering

Grab your wet bags, ponchos, and waterproof boots because we’re headed to the bayou. Tiana’s Bayou that is. On June 28, the water-centric attraction will make its debut in Disney World‘s Magic Kingdom theme park, fully loaded with Mama Odee, music-playing critters, and several supporting characters we’ve grown to know and love from the 2009 animated film The Princess and the Frog. But before we proceed, you should know that Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is not your average theme park ride. It is both a nuanced love letter to New Orleans and Disney’s first African-American princess, rooted in The Big Easy’s rich history and brought to life by a masterful group of Black women.

Inside Disney World’s New ‘Tiana’s Bayou Adventure’ Attraction With The Black Women Bringing It To Life
Olga Thompson, Photographer

The History

To fully appreciate the work that went into this attraction, it’s necessary to highlight the woman who has most heavily influenced the Princess Tiana character: Leah Chase. Even 15 years after its release, many are still unaware that The Princess and the Frog is inspired by the life of Chase, who, like Tiana, was a New Orleans chef and entrepreneur. Her notable contributions to the culinary world earned her the title of “Queen of Creole Cuisine.” Considering the deep history behind Tiana’s story, it was only right that the Walt Disney Imagineers teams broached this endeavor with care and intentionality.

Imagineers set out to curate an experience that feels true to 1920s New Orleans. The behemoth of an endeavor took years of meticulous planning, beginning with extensive research. Amongst WDI’s fact-finding endeavors was a series of trips to New Orleans. Trips that yielded bayou excursions, consultations with academics and cultural curators, chefs, musicians, and, of course, advice from the relatives of Chase.

“Walt Disney Imagineers have done a lot of research trips to New Orleans,” Senior Production Designer and Walt Disney Imagineer, Brittany Smith, tells ESSENCE. “I, myself, have gone personally and while on a personal vacation. I did a lot of exploring. Soaking up New Orleans art and food, music, all of it.”

Since childhood, Smith dreamed of working for Disney. And it seems that it had always been her destiny to work at the helm of this historic attraction. A self-proclaimed “Disney kid at heart,” she got her start sitting in front of Disney movies and copying the characters.

“I always knew I wanted to work at Disney in any capacity,” she admits. “In my child-mind, I thought I would be making movies. I didn’t know this role existed. You don’t really know until you get here.”

Though she’s not making movies, she has an essential role when it comes to bringing those films to life at Disney parks. For Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, Smith served as an art director, planning out the project’s scope and then supporting the various departments as they assembled the attraction.

Creating Tiana’s World

Given all the research that went into this project, it’s evident authenticity was at the top of mind for WDI when mapping out the ride, which is a reimagining of Splash Mountain. Disney World enthusiasts who are familiar with Splash Mountain will immediately notice the dramatic change the edifice has undergone. The outside of the attraction serves a drastically different ambiance as it now resembles the magical bayou where Princess Tiana and Prince Navid took their transformational journey. Calming waters now flow throughout and a magical glow reminiscent of those radiating from fireflies is projected throughout, effortlessly offering feelings of hope and serenity, recreating emotions similar to those summoned by the bayou scenes in the animated film. Additionally, fans will likely notice the sweet aroma of Tiana’s famous beignets in the air. This masterful mood-setting, first-impression design work can be attributed to the WDI team in partnership with Smith, who lent her expertise to designing “a set mock-up” of the bayou’s exterior.

While navigating the queue, guests will be greeted by the artistry of Louisiana artist Malaika Favorite, who designed murals for the attraction. The artwork will not only tell the story of Tiana’s fairytale ending but will also offer a take on her new life as a princess and businesswoman. “We discussed Tiana’s story, her world, and what she was doing in her new life as Princess Tiana and a New Orleans entrepreneur and community development activist,” shares Favorite of her creative process of planning the mural in collaboration with Walt Disney Imagineers. “We discussed Tiana as a person in history who had a past, present, and future. This, I learned, is the magic of Disney: to believe in the characters you create and model their environment as carefully as you would your own life. I learned to think of Tiana as a woman who helped to shape New Orleans’s history and culture based on the life and work of Leah Chase.”

Inside Disney World’s New ‘Tiana’s Bayou Adventure’ Attraction With The Black Women Bringing It To Life
Bennett Stoops, Photographer

The Hair and Fashion

Adding to the excitement, Tiana will undergo various transformations as guests sail along the bayou. According to Smith, the character will have a “day look, a night look,” and a slew of “wardrobe changes,” all coordinated with precision and intentionality by Disney Live Costume Designer, Ida Muldrow. “It’s the outfits for me,” Smith gushes, “and the fabulousness of it all.” Further, fans will experience Tiana in a whole new way. In addition to her more notable, iconic looks, she’ll also be dressed for the bayou with a 1920’s twist. Moreover, she will be sporting a new hairstyle that is reflective of the time – a look Tisa Powell, Cosmetology Manager for Disney Live Entertainment, admits was challenging to pull off. Surprisingly, Powell says that the most complicated part of the project was finding authentic examples of African-American hairstyles from the 1920s. However, in partnership with Muldrow, she “consulted family members from that era and pulled up pictures of actual people” to inform her work. “We had to dig beyond Google. I did a lot of reading. I consulted cosmetology textbooks and watched movies from that era,” says Powell. “We wanted to stay in line with the 1920s era.”

Once she settled on a look, the Florida native, who has been with Disney’s Cosmetology Department since 2007, recreated it on herself. “I wanted to make sure that when I did the style, it looked authentic, like something someone would actually wear and not cartoony,” she said of the creative process. “I wanted it to be as realistic as possible.”

The new ‘do is a 1920’s finger wave look, which the audio-animatronics team recreated using Marcille irons under Powell’s supervision. “Back in that time, they used Marcille irons. They did not have relaxers so they would just press their hair with a straightening comb,” Powell explains, breaking down the specificity of the style. “The curl has to turn this way. Length makes a difference – whether it’s to the cheekbone or the jawline. It does make a difference in the era. They understood the assignment,” she said of the audio-animatronics team, “so it worked out well.”

Inside Disney World’s New ‘Tiana’s Bayou Adventure’ Attraction With The Black Women Bringing It To Life
Bennett Stoops, Photographer

The Overall Impact

These women labored over their respective segments of this project with exactness and intentionality, hoping that all participants would walk away with meaningful and memorable experiences that outlasted the moment.

For Powell, she hopes that the ride will evoke positive self-esteem and self-identity. Additionally, her desire is that it will cultivate feelings of warmth and familiarity for older guests, who may recognize Tiana’s hairstyle as one their aunties or grandmothers may have worn. “I want everyone to experience her beauty. I want little African-American girls to see themselves when they go on this ride,” says Powell. “Not just them, but anyone who looks like Tiana, I want them to go into that ride and interact and evoke those feelings of pride. That’s what I want everyone coming out of that ride feeling.”

For Smith, she hopes that the experience will promote togetherness. “I hope that guests walk away with a sense of togetherness and appreciation. There are a lot of moments happening with this one, and I just hope that people digest it and leave the past behind. We’re building modern Disney World. This is an exciting moment to be here and to witness groundbreaking animation in audio-animatronics in this way plus the togetherness of everyone finally here at Disney, with inclusivity. I feel that’s the base of this: togetherness. I stressed that character Charlotte La Bouff’s presence is there because Charlotte helps our caucasian counterparts build allyship. Allyship is important in our story, especially in Florida. I feel that should be touched on as well. To get to that togetherness, we need all the possible allies.”

For Favorite, it’s the appreciation of culture that she hopes stays with guests.

“My hope is that, like the animated movie, my work will inspire young and old to appreciate the importance of culture,” she says. “I want the art to radiate smiles and good vibrations. Most of all, I want the art to be an introduction to the magic waiting for them on the ride as they re-live Tiana’s story.”

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is slated to open on June 28 at Magic Kingdom Park at Disneyland Resort. Click here to learn more.

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