Finding Authenticity: Bringing the Real New Orleans to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure

Disney fans know the lengths Walt Disney Imagineering will go to research projects. We’ve read about trips to Nepal while creating Expedition Everest and Jakarta and Bali while working on Pandora. Last week, Disney invited members of the media to New Orleans to show us how getting immersed in local culture translates into an attraction, in this case, that attraction is Tiana’s Bayou Adventure which opens in late 2024 at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom.

The reason for this immersion is authenticity. As Carmen Smith, Senior Vice President Creative Development at Disney Parks Experiences and Products / Walt Disney Imagineering put it, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is a love letter to New Orleans. The characters are fictional but the culture is very real. People from New Orleans should say “wow, they did their homework.”

For two days we toured New Orleans to learn some of the sources of that authenticity. Our first stop was a bayou tour with Cajun Encounters. Imagineering wanted to be sure all the animals represented in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure could actually be found in a Louisiana bayou. We heard a story of how they had created an armadillo character but had yet to find one until the last day of one of their trips when they heard a rustling in the grass, and there they finally saw one which made it ok to use in the attraction.

Our tour was dominated by alligators! There’s no question Louis belongs. We also saw racoons, numerous birds, including a bald eagle, and lots of flying insects, so we’ll see what ends up in her attraction.

But the other thing we were taught to focus on during our tour was the sounds of the bayou. Our guide had us close our eyes and just listen. The bayou is full of many distinct sounds which I’ll now be paying attention to on the ride. We were actually shown a video of Foley artists, inspired by Disney Legend Jimmy Macdonald, who craft their own apparatus for recreating these sounds.

The trees and grass that line the bayou will also be reflected in the ride as we’ve already seen in some of the concept art. Spanish moss, magnolia trees, cypress knees, lily pads – these will all be a part of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure and, as I learned, are all very present in the real Louisiana bayou.

One of the highlights was seeing the Whiskey Tree. This one-of-a-kind tree in the bayou served as the inspiration for the Wishing Tree in The Princess and the Frog and the stretch of bayou leading up to it inspired the scene in the song “Gonna Take You There”.

Our next stop was the YAYA Arts Center (YAYA = Young Aspirations Young Artists). As we learned more about this incredible place, it was easy to see how it inspired the ride. As previously announced, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure takes place after the events of The Princess and the Frog. Tiana has given back to the community by creating an employee-owned co-op called Tiana’s Foods which served as the attraction’s setting.

The YAYA Arts Center was founded in 1988 to serve as an after school program to not only teach art, but entrepreneurship. Students, aged 13-25, hone their art skills through four levels. At each level they create art that can ultimately be sold, and the higher their skill level, the larger the percentage of the sale they receive. Art and entrepreneurship, the same combination that allowed Tiana to turn her talent for cooking into a thriving business that then gave back to the community. At YAYA, most of the instructors and executives are people that have gone through the YAYA program themselves and now come back to give back.

One YAYA alum with a very direct connection to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is Sharika Mahdi. Imagineering commissioned Mahdi to create four art pieces capturing the essence of New Orleans. The series serves as a source of inspiration for the Imagineerings bringing Tiana’s story to life. Three of her pieces had been previously revealed.

The third image above very directly inspired a scene coming in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.

At YAYA, we had the opportunity to view the fourth image.

Mahdi revealed the piece in a room filled with artistic chairs created by YAYA students, a tradition at YAYA. We were also shown a similar chair created by current and past students for Imagineering which would be going in Eudora’s Chic Boutique at Disneyland.

Our final stop that day was the world famous Dooky Chase’s restaurant. The matriarch of Dooky Chase’s was the late Leah Chase, “the queen of creole cuisine”, and the very woman who served as the inspiration for Tiana.

The restaurant itself also served as the inspiration for Tiana’s restaurant. In fact Stella Chase, the current matriarch, said not a day goes by that someone doesn’t come to Dooky Chase’s just so they can see “Tiana’s restaurant”.

Food is as central to New Orleans as anything, and at Dooky Chase’s we got to find out what makes New Orleans cuisine special. The food was amazing. But we were also able to hear a presentation on the history of Dooky Chase’s from Stella Chase. She told us how throughout its history it served the community whether it was being a place where civil rights leaders could meet or cashing checks for black workers who couldn’t get them cashed at a bank. Giving back to the community, again the setting for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, is authentic New Orleans.

Stella Chase

Stella Chase

Something else everyone associates with New Orleans is music, and at Dooky Chase we had the opportunity to meet Terence Blanchard who played all the trumpet parts for Louis in The Princess and the Frog and is providing new compositions and arrangements for the queue of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. As all performers seem to be, he was extremely honored to be a part of the film, and Imagineering surprised him with concept art from Tiana’s Bayou Adventure featuring him.

Dooky’s Chase is very proud of its association with The Princess and the Frog and Disney as seen in the entrance:

This was all Disney had planned for us on Day One, but I could not go home without getting some of New Orleans’ world famous beignets. THE place for beignets is Cafe Du Monde, so a few of us walked down there to try them for ourselves. Amazing!

Day two first took us to The Historic New Orleans Collection / Williams Research Center. Carmen Smith and Charita Carter, Executive Producer on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, told us about the process of getting immersed in New Orleans, starting with talking during the pandemic, and continuing with multiple visits coordinated with the experts at The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is set in the 20s, so it was important for the Imagineers to learn about that period and give an authentic presentation of the New Orleans of a century ago. As Carter put it “as our designers are designing, and they’re putting things that are outward facing to our guests, we need them to feel confident in their design. So this partnership and the opportunity to come research here have been really integral to helping us accomplish that goal.”

Before departing The Historic New Orleans Collection we were able to look around a bit including at a piece from 1942 called “Mardi Gras parade scene” by Paul Ninas, which featured, perhaps, the first ever Hidden Mickey.

We also traveled to The Seignouret-Brulatour House of The Historic Research Collection, built in 1816. With its courtyard that’s been restored and the original pipe organ – it’s easy to see how places like this provide such inspiration and why “getting it right” is so important.

Even more than food, New Orleans is famous for jazz, and our next stop was the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Again, Carmen Smith and Charita Carter presented to us and told us about how important museum director Greg Lambousy was to creating the traveling experience based on the movie Soul. In creating Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, they decided to make Naveen’s little brother Ralphie a part of the story. On the ride, Ralphie is learning to play drums and the drum set he uses is based on a children’s set that includes a c. 1900 Chinese tom tom and a c. 1920 Zildjian and Chinese cymbals.

Smith and Carter also debuted new artwork showing Ralphie playing the drums and announced Ralphie would be in the attraction. A radio show will also be a part of the queue featuring a radio based on a c. 1930 Avrin radio and record player combination. That radio show will announce that Tiana is in need of assistance for the party being thrown that evening.

Carmen Smith concluded by telling us about a “magic moment” that they had. Tiana uses a salt mine for Tiana’s Foods, and while researching they saw a newspaper that had not only a salt mine, but also a water tower. Imagineering had already designed a water tower because it felt right, then were able to come to New Orleans and validate that it was accurate.

Touring the New Orleans Jazz Museum, especially with Greg Lambousy as our tour guide, further illustrated how being surrounded by the passion and the passionate will inform Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.

Home cornet played by Louis Armstrong

Home cornet played by Louis Armstrong

The music theme continued at our next stop, legendary Preservation Hall. Tiana herself greeted us during lunch in the courtyard before we went inside to learn more about Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.

Inside Preservation Hall, Imagineers John Dennis (Executive Creative Director, Music) and Ted Robledo (Executive Creative Director) reminded us the attraction’s name was announced in this very location one year ago at the ESSENCE Fest. Today they made another announcement – that Tiana’s Bayou Adventure would have a brand new song just for the attraction written and performed by New Orleans native PJ Morton.

PJ Morton and Tiana

PJ Morton and Tiana

Much like Terence Blanchard, PJ Morton talked about how happy he was to be working with Disney. Also like Blanchard, Morton was surprised with concept art for him being a part of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Morton and the Imagineers were actually in New Orleans working on the song, so unfortunately it was not ready to be debuted just yet.

Following that, we were allowed a Question and Answer session with Walt Disney Imagineering which we were not allowed to video, but we could audio tape and we’ve put together a transcript in a separate article.

Our final stop was Mardi Gras World, the place where the floats for Mardi Gras (and many other events including floats for an upcoming SeaWorld Orlando parade) are constructed. The festive atmosphere here, and of Mardi Gras, certainly informed some of the scenes in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure and undoubtedly will in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure as well. But what I loved here was finding Disney represented in the floats they have in storage. They told us that they are one of the few places licensed to create Disney likenesses without a Disney person onsite. Here are some I found:

This was my first time visiting New Orleans and it was easy to see why it’s a favorite American city. It inspired Walt Disney to create New Orleans Square, it inspired Walt Disney Animation Studios to create The Princess and the Frog and now it’s inspiring Walt Disney Imagineering to create Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Being such a historically and culturally rich city, I understand the desire to remain accurate and authentic. And now I much better understand the process by which Imagineering makes that happen. A love letter to New Orleans … I can’t wait to ride.

Doobie Moseley
Doobie is a co-owner of 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).