The Secret Ingredient in ‘Tiana’s Bayou Adventure’? Authentic New Orleans Soul

Like Princess Tiana’s beignets, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure has all the right ingredients.

Nearly two decades ago, a dedicated team of filmmakers from Walt Disney Animation Studios traveled from Burbank, California, to New Orleans, Louisiana, hoping to find some inspiration for their next feature, The Princess and the Frog—and they found it in local legend Leah Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” and owner of Dooky Chase’s restaurant.

In fact, the character of Princess Tiana “would not be possible were it not for Leah Chase,” said Carmen Smith, the executive creative producer of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, opening Friday, June 28, at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and later this fall at Disneyland Resort in California. “She was a dreamer and a doer, a working mom of four who followed her dream to run a restaurant. She and her husband, Dooky, ran Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans, but it wasn’t just a restaurant; it was a gathering place that inspired so many.”

L-R: Carmen Smith, Creative Executive, Vice President, Inclusive Strategies for Walt Disney Imagineering; Kenneth Moton, National Correspondent for ABC News; Stella Chase Reese, Owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant; Marlon West, VFX Supervisor for Walt Disney Animation Studios; and Charita Carter, Senior Producer for Walt Disney Imagineering.

And so, when Walt Disney Imagineering announced in June 2020 that it was developing a joyful musical journey inspired by the 2009 film, it only made sense to reengage with the Chase family. “While Leah and Dooky are gone, their legacy lives on through the future generations who have been a huge part of this process,” Smith explained. “Their children were our guides… and we even made their daughter, Stella Chase, an honorary Imagineer.”

Just like the team behind the film, the team behind the attraction wanted to accurately represent the culture and spirit of New Orleans. Imagineers made frequent research trips to Louisiana, visiting the French Market and the bayou to consult academics, chefs, musicians, and more, all to capture the heart and soul of where Princess Tiana’s story is set.

“Our company’s ties to New Orleans actually go back beyond this project,” said Charita Carter, the executive creative producer of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. “They go back to Walt Disney and the opening of New Orleans Square, which was one of the first major expansions of Disneyland Park… We had an opportunity [for this attraction], so we actually sought out local artists and artisans that we wanted to collaborate with and be inspired by.”

The result, Carter added, is a “wonderful, authentic guest experience.”

Artwork by Sharika Mahdi

Set a year after the events of the film, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure finds Princess Tiana growing her business with an employee-owned cooperative, Tiana’s Foods, located inside an old salt mining facility. New Orleans artist Sharika Mahdi’s artwork has inspired the attraction from the beginning, and she even painted a mural displayed on two of the building’s exterior walls that highlight Princess Tiana’s professional journey and the creation of Tiana’s Foods.

Additionally, new artwork from Louisiana artist Malaika Favorite is featured throughout the queue. “Disney reached out to me in 2020 and said they liked my artwork and my style,” Favorite recalled. “They told me a little bit about the story, and they asked me to do some concept sketches so that Imagineering could further develop the attraction. They wanted to see how I interpreted the theme—which was cool, because I’d never done anything like that. Then they commissioned me to do four original paintings inspired by my sketch work.”

Guests take photos in Tiana’s test kitchen, part of the Tiana’s Bayou Adventure queue.

As guests walk through the indoor queue, a radio broadcast features Leah and Dooky’s daughter, Leah Chase-Kamata, singing, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” a Louis Armstrong classic reimagined by GRAMMY® Award winner and New Orleans native Terence Blanchard. “The most emotional part was working with Leah,” Blanchard said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the studio. She did one take and that’s all we needed. When you hear it in the queue, there is so much history, emotion, and experience in her vocals. To me, it just typified everything that we’re so proud of with this attraction.”

Speaking of music, PJ Morton also wrote, arranged, and produced “Special Spice,” an original song performed by Disney Legend Anika Noni Rose (the voice of Princess Tiana). Morton’s recording and production sessions took place in New Orleans, where he also wrote new arrangements for songs from The Princess and the Frog—which will be performed in the attraction by amphibians playing Afro-Cuban, Rara, and Zydeco music.

Morton shared, “I didn’t want [the music] to be a caricature of New Orleans. I said, ‘Let’s just make it authentic. Let’s make a great song that can live forever. It’s a combination: It’s New Orleans, it’s me, it’s Disney. All those things came very organically and very naturally.”

Blacksmith Darryl Reeves

From Princess Tiana’s bold new look to an original metalwork weathervane from third-generation master blacksmith Darryl Reeves and his apprentice, Karina Roca, no detail was overlooked in ensuring that Tiana’s Bayou Adventure reads like a “love letter to New Orleans,” Smith said. “We think those who are from the city are going to recognize that,” and those who have yet to visit the city “will look forward to experiencing it” one day, too.

One person who can attest to that is Drew Brees, former quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, who—along with Cameron Jordan, the NFL team’s current defensive end—was among the first to experience Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. “It makes you feel right at home,” Brees said. “It’s a great representation of our city, of our community, and of all of Louisiana.”