TIANA’S BAYOU ADVENTURE IS DISNEY’S FIRST FOOD-FOCUSED THRILL RIDE

Beignets! Frogs playing bongos! Employee-owners! Disney’s updated take on its iconic Splash Mountain ride has it all, down to the magical realism of an animated bayou and a theme park depiction of the benefits of collective ownership. When Tiana’s Bayou Adventure opens at Walt Disney World on June 28 — and later this year at Disneyland — the ride will take passengers on a whimsical journey through critter-filled waterways, culminating in a Mardi Gras celebration and that iconic 50-foot drop. But, more importantly, it puts a Black culinary entrepreneur at the center of a log ride whose problematic roots necessitated removal.

Set shortly after the events of The Princess and the Frog, the film on which it’s based, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure sees the royal restaurateur expand on her dream of running a New Orleans restaurant to open Tiana’s Foods, a boutique farm and co-op. Yes, the entire backstory for Disney’s newest thrill ride is that a chef-princess bought an aging Louisiana salt mine, grew peppers and purple pod beans alongside her employee-partners, and turned it into a paradisal culinary kingdom.

The ride’s queue, which begins in a hypothetical front office, highlights Tiana’s in-house line of jarred vinegar peppers, garlic salt, and pecan oil before meandering towards a kitchen where beignet preparation is underway for the Mardi Gras celebration we see at the ride’s end. Park goers and dads in “Most Expensive Day Ever” T-shirts may not absorb the full markings of her entrepreneurial empire while diddling on their phones in line, but they’ll nevertheless be surrounded by framed commendations, newspaper clippings, and family mementos signifying that Tiana’s Foods is a successful New Orleans institution.

For a business helmed by a woman who fell for a prince while the two were temporarily incapacitated as anthropomorphic amphibians, the premise isn’t entirely far-fetched. (After all, even real princesses need multiple irons in the fire.) And while plenty of noteworthy foods are sold across Disney World and Disneyland, positioning the first Black princess as the founder of a farm-workshop, teaching kitchen, and branded line of consumer packaged goods may be the greatest culinary tie-in these parks have ever seen.

Still, we can’t discuss a water ride based on an HGTV archetype without first acknowledging Splash Mountain’s ties to 1946’s Song of the South. The film, effectively buried by Disney, has long been condemned for its overt racism and outdated stereotypes. What many don’t realize is that its reputation is not just hindsight — upon its postwar release, the NAACP said its depiction of an “idyllic master-slave relationship” helped “perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery.” (Karina Longworth’s brilliant six-part series on Song of the South covers the film’s complicated history in depth, from the blackface minstrel roots of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” to the success of its subsequent re-releases in the ’70s and ’80s.)

When Splash Mountain debuted at Disneyland in 1989, the park intended for it to stay divorced from the more problematic elements of its source material by focusing on lighter fare, like silly animal shenanigans and singing geese. Invoking Song of the South while obfuscating the film’s racist plot points provided convenient solutions to problems Disneyland faced at the time, allowing it to successfully repurpose a gaggle of leftover animal robots, utilize spare characters to draw crowds towards a distant corner of the park, and appease the thrill-seeking interests of teens, including then-CEO Michael Eisner’s son.

For decades, it worked. Like the Pirates of the Caribbean wench bride auction and Jungle Cruise’s shrunken head salesman, both of which have since been altered, Disney’s beloved log flume ride was tolerated until it wasn’t. In June 2020, on the heels of a cultural reckoning following the Black Lives Matter movement and murder of George Floyd, Disney revealed Splash Mountain would close and be re-themed to The Princess and the Frog.

Some bemoaned the change out of pure nostalgia, the stale smell of chemical-treated water and awe-struck ride photos forming early family memories. For others… let’s just say they didn’t take it well. But Disney’s choice to forge ahead anyway presented the company with an opportunity to right a wrong while giving us the most idealized version of culinary prowess — a gastronomic Fantasyland set in 1927 New Orleans — we’ll ever see within a theme park.

The origin story of The Princess and the Frog’s titular royal is, after all, rooted in reality. Artists working on the 2009 animated musical modeled Princess Tiana and her culinary aspirations after Leah Chase, executive chef and co-proprietor of Dooky Chase restaurant. Born in 1923, the award-winning Creole chef and Louisiana native famously used her cooking to fuel community advancement, offering her restaurant as a cultural hub and meeting place for civil rights activists during segregation. In her honor — Chase passed away in 2019 — the Chase family closely participated in the creation of Disney’s newest attraction, offering their seasonings and gumbo base for sale in the ride’s gift shop, marking the first time they’ve ever been sold outside the restaurant.

As for the ride itself? It’s a party. Animals bang on bongos fashioned from bottle caps, fireflies dance to Afro-Cuban music, and with a mid-ride segment of jumbo mushrooms and frog musicians that plays like a portal straight to the Rainforest Cafe, the lengthy log ride is a lively journey culminating in a raucous Mardi Gras party with the film’s stars.

There is, however, one critical failing on Disney World’s part. For a ride that pumps in the scent of Tiana’s honey-slathered beignets in its final scene, they should be sold at the exit, not at an Old West-themed outpost a short walk away. A rare misstep in a ride that has been so thoroughly planned out, but hey — that’s what soft openings are for.

2024-06-17T16:41:27Z dg43tfdfdgfd