A Q&A with Tiana’s Bayou Adventure Imagineers

Last week, Disney invited a few media members to historic Preservation Hall in New Orleans to have a Question and Answer session with the creative team working on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. The event was a part of a larger event giving some insight into how Imagineers are immersing themselves in New Orleans while creating the new attraction which opens in 2024.

Carmen Smith, Charita Carter, Ted Robledo

Carmen Smith, Charita Carter, Ted Robledo

The three Imaginees were:

  • Carmen Smith: SVP & Executive Creative Development Product/Content & Inclusive Strategies
  • Charita Carter: Executive Creative Producer
  • Ted Robledo: Executive Creative Director

While we were not permitted to video the session, we were allowed to audio tape. Below is a transcript. Because the Imagineers often refer to each other by their first names, I’ve used first names when identifying who is speaking.

The Imagineers, along with Stella Chase Reese, at the 2023 ESSENCE Fest in the same location, Preservation Hall

The Imagineers, along with Stella Chase Reese, at the 2023 ESSENCE Fest in the same location, Preservation Hall

Question: Can you give us a little bit of background on typical research? We've heard so much about coming to New Orleans, but can you compare this type of research with other research that we've had for previous attractions?

Carmen: Just about every project that I’ve been on, we always start with arming with knowledge. So when we think about whether it is – actually, we have quite a few projects in the queue right now that we're working on. But even with our projects in Asia, we spent probably close to 10 years on the ground, being there, talking with people, doing deep dive research. That is almost every project. When I think about our hotel in Hawaii, we had Imagineers there for upwards of three years before we even broke ground, because for us it's so important not to have a transactional relationship, but to have a relationship.

And so again, back then, Joe Rohde, who’s an amazing Imagineer, we spent a lot of time on the ground talking with people, doing a lot of research and many of the artisans that helped us create the Aulani experience actually came from the island, and it was, I think it was Discovery [channel] did a a documentary on the similar process where we really like to bring the artisans from the community to work alongside us.

Question: Can you clarify which of the characters we’ve seen will physically be present in the ride? For example, the PJ art or Naveen’s little brother?

Charita: OK, well  … playing back in my mind, everything that you have seen … I believe the answer is everything that you have seen will be manifested in a physical form. So when you saw earlier at the Jazz Museum, you saw the baby little brother Ralphie, he will be physically there with a physical drum set that was inspired by the drum set that we saw. The possum that you see in PJ's painting, she will be there. They all have names that I think we're going to be revealing, but yes, we have – I think Ted mentioned we have 17 new characters, and all of those characters will be represented as Audio Animatronics.

PJ Morton's Painting

PJ Morton's Painting

Ralphie and His Drumset

Ralphie and His Drumset

And then of course, what we call our hero characters, the main characters Tiana and Naveen, and of course, Louis, will all be physical animatronics. Does that answer your question? And, of course, Mama Odie. How can you forget Mama Odie?

Question: How do you keep your inner magic alive?

Charita: Well, you know, PJ mentioned that we are so fortunate because we get to be kids at heart as a part of our day-to-day 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 on with our organization as a part of our innovation – you know, 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 it. I can't explain to you how amazing that is and I feel very fortunate. And so being able to do that continues just to feed me. And I never stop dreaming. Before I finish one project I'm already dreaming about the next project, so I really consider myself very fortunate.

Ted: For me, I think I'm just inherently a very curious person. And I've always been curious when I see something that fascinates me, especially things I don't understand, but if there’s something I find that intrigues me about it. I'm a fan of history. I mean, I can't do my work without music on in the background. You know I'm an artist by discipline and trade, so art brings me a lot. But I think really the one thing that kind of keeps the wire of magic inside is seeing how people react to what our teams do. I think it gives us not just a sense of like, “oh, we're so proud.” Yes, we're proud, but there's this feeling of responsibility, and it just kind of keeps me inspired. “Hey, we made somebody smile. That made me feel good, yeah I want to keep this thing going.”

Carmen: I would say I've been with the company 40 years, and that's a long time, but I swear every day I wake up and I feel like how could I, as Ted shared, make a difference in this world. So, and again, our work feels like service in a way because our goal is to tell stories that we hope will inspire, to bring joy and magic to not just every boy and girl here in the United States, but the whole world. And I remember many, many years ago, I was in Beijing, and when I got to the airport – this had to be the 80s – here's this little boy on the other side of the world, and he's wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt. And I just didn't think at that time how far our stories go, but the responsibility that we have in the way in which we tell our stories and that's something I hold near and dear to my heart, and the fact that they allow us to tell these stories and to make sure that everyone feels like where you see them and hear them. It's a blessing to work alongside Charita and Ted, and all my other colleagues that bring stories to life.

Charita: You know, and if I could just add to that too, because even in the couple of days that we've had with all of you, several of you have come up and you've talked to us and you have told us how personal this experience has been and how excited you are, and that really fuels us. And this idea of being able to be impactful, to in some cases set young people on a whole new trajectory because of an experience they have. That's really powerful. And to be able to be a part of that in some small ways is just a blessing


Question: You’re replacing an iconic attraction, obviously. You’re doing the first major attraction for an iconic movie. You’re human beings. Do you guys feel the pressure?

Carmen: Every day.

Ted: I want to speak to that, because during our dinner together yesterday, something came up. It was a great conversation and it provoked me to think things that I have heard sort of codified in a way. But we know that people love the previous attraction. I grew up with it too as a teenager. We know there's a lot to love there and I think that the team agreed that what is good about it … what do people really love about it? Do you think they love the feeling that they get? The thrill, the adventure? That is sacred, we cannot take that away. But I think everything that Walt Disney Imagineering has done over the many decades of experience and as Walt said, Disneyland is never finished. I'm paraphrasing, but it's never done. It's always changing and trying new things.

But I think what became my word last night at dinner with some of you was we can always do better, right? And I think that's all this team wants to do is something is good, something is great … but as we grow older and we learn a few more things and say like hey, you know I know a little more now. How can we make everything that we do better? And at the essence of what we're doing here, that's all we're trying to do. We're not trying to burn it all down and build it all up again, no. No, we want to add to it. And that's why binging on partners like PJ, I mean I can't wait for you guys to hear this. That's why we keep teasing it, but it's not done yet. So you know that's, that's all we're trying to do.

PJ Morning During a Recording Session for the Attraction's Original Song

PJ Morning During a Recording Session for the Attraction's Original Song

Question: You mentioned that you were working with cosmetologists to expand on how black hair and texture and everything would work? Can you talk about how you approach that process?

Carmen: We'll all share on this one. Again, you hear this word again and again – authenticity. Tisa Powell – she was with us on stage at ESSENCE last year – really helped us. She does deep dive research when it comes to both the complexity and diversity of hair, and she was our guiding force, giving us insight into hairstyles of this particular place and time. And again, we were guided by the research and the costuming as well. We have a superb costume designer, Ida Muldrow, and so these women came to us with research and data – texture, color – and many of them had worked on previous projects that focus on this particular time period, so they had access to great information. But there is a wealth of talent at the Walt Disney Company, and so it's truly an honor. Charita and I just happened to be on a zoom call where Tisa Powell and Ida Muldrow were giving us some insight, not about the project but about their ability and their work…

Charita: Yeah, I'll speak specifically to that. Because what they were doing is, they actually work for the park, so they're not Imagineers, but they had come and had introduced us and on a zoom call they had put together a presentation for all the people in their division to understand about black hair. And so we saw the presentation and we had a chance to talk to them, and I was like “Carmen, we have been looking for a cosmetologist and a custom designer, I think I found them.” And so we went ahead and we cast them. And it just opened up the door to have this experience. I think it was one of the first times they were working directly with Imagineers. And it just worked out beautifully.

Question: They worked at the park?

Charita: The job that they have is to maintain the Audio Animatronic figures that we have in the park, so they're not necessarily with Imagineering, they're with our parks.

Carmen: They've been designing all the hair for our characters and even for our cruise ships. And they do a lot of work around all the designs for the costumes as well.

Charita: Just getting back to the fact that we talked about casting a wide net with our casting. So as Carmen mentioned, we looked in different corners of our company that we normally don't look at as well as reaching out to the community. So that's just been really, really a special dynamic of this particular project.

Carmen: Ted, you gotta share

Ted: Alright, I gotta say something. As a kid born from two immigrants from Philippines and growing up in Southeast Los Angeles, I will say this. I was so fascinated by both the presentation of both, you know, to Tisa’s presentation on hair and her stories about her grandmother and what her grandmother wore at her college and all these kinds of things of the time. But listen, from the education that I got from Tisa, a very smart talented African American woman, even I, a dude from LA, I know what edges are now.

Charita: The first day he came by and told me my edges were tight, I was like, “Ted, we know each other like that?”

Carmen: When you bring Ted to a presentation to leadership he leaves no stone unturned, and I just sit there in awe because again, I think when I share with you earlier when you take people on the journey, and they learn all this information, it applies to all the work they do in the future. And I just, I sit back and I just, I just, I love Ted.

Ted: Thank you, I love you, too. It's a privilege, and I mean honestly, it's just … I think the rest of the folks from our team who didn’t get to be with us today, too, it's a privilege for all of us to have folks who are experts and are authorities in what they’re speaking of, speak directly to us and as you said Carmen, that arm us with that knowledge.

Question: Well, I'm really glad that you're getting your edge education. As a young black girl, I mean like on a note, the authenticity might be like a checkbox at times. Like, make sure we do this. Make sure we. do this. But like I grew up in a world and a lot of us grew up in a world where like from video games to films, they just didn't have our hair to the point where out of frustration you just cut it off. But the question I have for you, I've never felt more like an imagineer than in this moment, right? Traveling with you all, thinking through it. I have a very practical technical question. How long is the ride? How long do we get to enjoy it from end to end?

Ted: OK, I will say this, that the ride that you knew that ride time I believe at Disneyland was around 9 minutes-ish. and at Magic Kingdom it was 10 minutes-ish, that stays the same. But you're bringing up something that makes me think, because I was having a conversation with someone else. To us, it’s more than a ride, it's the story. And it's this journey. It starts before you even get on. 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 [Blanchard, music arranger, producer and performer for the queue] is going to be helping us with. That kind of gets people in that place and in that time and in that region … you know, get that in their heads, it starts there in the queue. There’s never been a better time to be in the standby line.

Terence Blanchard and Princess Tiana

Terence Blanchard and Princess Tiana

But also there's so much of her story that was touched upon in the field, her relationship with her father, a World War One veteran, Her relationship with her mother. We like to say that was her entrepreneurial inspiration for her to be the successful business woman Tiana is today. In our story, we want to take advantage of that. And now that we know we've got people captured in this queue, we're going to expand upon that and try, you know, no pun intended – but intended – to dig a little deeper and talk like, what it’s like for an African American man in World War One to fight for this country? And how can we sort of hint upon some of the real of that, and that division in World War One, and start to honor that in very sort of respectful ways, but ways that sort of add to the story of what made Tiana a person today. Because we think that's a part of It.

Artwork in the Lobby of Dooky Chase restaurant showing Tiana and Leah Chase

Artwork in the Lobby of Dooky Chase restaurant showing Tiana and Leah Chase

When we see her mother and the dresses that she made, we know she made it for little Charlotte. Charlotte wasn't her only client. Who else did she sort of serve? And we wanted to be able to sort of again tell that story of what makes Tiana who she is. And now with this new business and all of the research that we've done and understanding how folks like the Chase Family run their business and it inspired us and hearing the stories about (looks at Stella Chase) your mother, Leah, doing all this great charity work for the community inspires us. If Tiana really is modeled after Leah, she probably would have done those things too and that movie, in fact, starts with herself making Gumbo with her dad, and when they're all done, what's the next scene? They're sharing it with the community. Why would she stop doing that as a little girl? She would continue to do that. So the ride is the ride. But the line is more story and is just as much of that attraction. We're taking advantage of that to bring more Tiana, more of that story, more New Orleans to our guests.


Question: Speaking of digging a little deeper, are we also going to tap more into Prince Naveen’s story because he has such a unique backstory, from a global perspective, it'll be interesting to see how Princess Tiana and he merge the two worlds. Especially as they continue to grow their family and their communities.

Ted: Well, 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 as part of a series or miniseries. I know earlier conversations about her relationship with her husband, who was from another country, likely of mixed race, depending on that time and period, it's a time of indigenous people and colonization and all those complexities of the world.

I think that that team, from what little we've heard of, is going to explore that a little bit. But I will say this about Naveen. We knew early on that even if Naveen plays a small role or big role in this story of ours, he has a role because it's important to sort of show they're a married couple. They care about each other, And I think really the journey, as much as it's Tiana’s journey in that film, it was also Naveen's journey, right? And she kind of had to show him the better person he could be. So to honor that, we want to make sure he's included somewhere in a very real, real way. And actually, it's quite humorous, his little performance in our story, so I can’t wait for you guys to hear that.

Charita:  And that's just going back to that expanded palette I was telling you guys about a couple of days ago that we have to tell the story which makes it so exciting. Obviously on a 9 to 10 minute flume ride, you can't tell at all and there is so much to tell. So we have this unique opportunity to continue to tell the different layers of Tiana's Story and her family’s story.  

Question: We know there's going to be a lot of animatronics on the ride. Is there any original animation being done that's going to show throughout the attraction on screens or any way like that?

Ted: Yes. I will say this – both in the character way and also in a magical kind of way.

And going back to another question, someone was asking about how many original characters or who are the characters  we’re going to see. I wanted to also say that there are some characters who will be animated and be present because in the research done here in my discovery, I did not know this. But in doing the research and the history of Louisiana and In New Orleans, my family, my parents came from the Philippines. And I was first born here in this country. And I come to find out later on that before there was even the existence of the United States, because the Philippines, along with Mexico and much of South and Central America and Cuba, were colonies of Spain, the first Filipinos, apparently that were known in North America were here in Louisiana, because they jumped off of the Spanish galleon, not literally jumped off, they said. “We're going to park here because we're sick of  going back and forth across the Atlantic and Pacific.” And that was a very real moment for me.

And so in going to the historical collection here and learning about people from Mexico, people from the Caribbean, people from the nations of Africa coming to this place, we said, you know what, we gotta show that somehow. I'm not going to spoil it, but we gotta represent them somehow. There's a Chinatown here in New Orleans, you know? And so we gotta find a way to at least give a little hint of that, because it was very personal to me. And just again, I felt like now it's our responsibility to kind of like pass that on and kind of share that.

Charita: I wanted to go back to the question about the original animation real quick, too. It's important to understand that we are working with Walt Disney Animation studio on this project. They are a collaborative partner with us on this attraction.  

Question: I have a quick two-parter question. Imagineering has a long history of sort of recycling some old things or reusing things, adding Easter eggs to attractions. And since Mark Davis built that incredible America Sings attraction that Tony Baxter then moved those animatronics over to Splash Mountain, do you all have any of the characters that we might see again in a different way or any other little Easter eggs to Splash Mountain?

Carmen: I say, you know, surprise. I say we don't want to, we want you … I think the ride is also a discovery, and I think when you find Easter Eggs it's like “Wow” and I don't think we want to give that away just yet.

Question: You're killing me. The other half of that is you've extended the storyline at Disneyland with Tiana's Palace restaurant and Eudora’s Chic Boutique shop. Will Walt Disney World get a similar treatment?

Carmen: I will say, can't say. Stay tuned.

Concept Art for Tiana's Palace at Disneyland

Concept Art for Tiana's Palace at Disneyland

Question: So we know Tiana to be the most fashionable princess. She has nine outfits even though she doesn't even get to be human for the whole film, she has more dresses than anyone else. Are we going to see more outfits than the new one that you revealed?

Charita: I can say yes you are.

Ted: And it’s fabulous

Question: Is the attraction going to be tied at all to the Disney+ series?

Charita: Well, I think what we can say is just like we've been working with Walt Disney Animation Studio on the attraction itself, we have had a number of sessions with the Disney+ team, so it's very important to understand and have continuity along those lines. And I think that's really all I can say about that. But we are a very collaborating organization.

Carmen: This is something that you'll find out more about probably in 2024, but when I think about Tiana, someone asked a question about outfits, and I also work for Consumer Products, Games and Publishing, and I think about how we're going to express her story, her clothing in so many different ways. If you go to ESSENCE Fest coming up, you'll probably get a sneak preview of some things that we're thinking about. But again, we want people of every age and every walk of life to enjoy Tiana in some way, and we’re going to have that for you.

Doobie Moseley
Doobie is a co-owner of LaughingPlace.com having founded the website with his wife Rebekah in 1999. He became a "hardcore" Disney fan in 1995. His favorite Disney film is Snow White and his all-time favorite attraction is the PeopleMover. Having lived near both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, he's visited them literally thousands of times. He currently lives in Nothern California with his wife and teenage son, but looks forward to living in Florida again soon. His absolutely favorite activity is going on a Disney cruise (he's done 12 as of February 2023).