Disney makes a better splash with Tiana's Bayou Adventure

June 10, 2024, 12:06 PM · Tiana's Bayou Adventure stands as the bravest creative decision I have seen in more than 20 years covering this industry.

Disney did not need to change Splash Mountain. The flume ride remained popular with fans, 30 years after its debut at Disneyland in California. But ride's theme emerged from a racist dog whistle, and Disney leadership decided that they did not wish to be associated with that any longer. In doing that, Disney risked provoking the wrath of the countless fans who loved Splash Mountain - all to right a wrong that most of those fans did not, and could not, see.

That's a brave creative choice.

Now, the thing about dog whistles is that most people do not hear them. Such as the case with the racism behind Splash Mountain. For most Disney visitors, that flume ride was simply a master class in creative design. Splash Mountain took a classic amusement park thrill ride and plussed it with music, visual humor, beauty, drama, and suspense. From a slow first act, the ride built into one of best examples of narrative pacing anywhere in Disney's theme park portfolio. Sure, the ride dragged narratively after dumping you into the Rivers of America, but that was the price of creating an iconic photo op of its drop for fans walking past Chick-A-Pin Hill.

Disney always knew that Splash Mountain arose from racist origins. Heck, that's why Splash Mountain existed - not because Disney wanted to perpetuate that dog whistle but because the company wished to silence it. Splash Mountain is based on Disney's 1946 live-action/animated musical, "Song of the South," adapted from Atlanta Constitution journalist Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories. Those had proven wildly popular over the more than 60 years since their original publication, with Harris hailed by Mark Twain as a master of "negro" dialect.

But a significant level of the Uncle Remus stories' popularity was driven not by Harris' sharp retelling of enduring fables featuring the trickster hero Br'er Rabbit. It was driven by that dialect, which many white people imitated to mock and demean Black Americans. One person's mastery became many others' minstrelsy. Still, many Americans did not hear - or chose to ignore - the hate behind the laughter. A dog whistle blew.

By the late 20th century, as more people "woke" up to recognize how racial discrimination permeated much more of everyday life than many of them had thought, The Walt Disney Company decided to put away "Song of the South," withdrawing it from video stores and theatrical rotations. But the movie's "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" remained an Academy Award-winning tune beloved by many. Could there be a way to rehabilitate that song, as well as Br'er Rabbit and the animated characters of "Song of the South," by distancing them from the Uncle Remus character?

That was Disney's plan for Splash Mountain. But that attraction brought Br'er Rabbit's most famous story to life in a very unintended way, for it demonstrated that no matter how hard Disney tried to disentangle itself from the racist dog whistles heard by ill-willed fans of the Uncle Remus stories, it simply never could pull away from them. And once people woke up to where the "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" lyric came from, that was it. The only way for Disney to unstick itself from this mess was to wash its hands of Splash Mountain, its characters, and its songs.

But Disney did not want to lose its flume ride. Of all its franchise it could have chosen to retheme Splash Mountain, Disney picked the one that cut to the heart of its problem with the former attraction. "The Princess and The Frog" was Disney's next-to-last traditionally animated film, but more to the point, the 2009 movie introduced Disney's first Black princess, Tiana. Disney broke the dog whistle and replaced it with a raucous celebration of New Orleans and its Black heritage.

Tiana's Bayou Adventure
Tiana's Bayou Adventure. Photos courtesy Walt Disney World

Tiana's Bayou Adventure send riders off to the tune of "Down in New Orleans" before Tiana greets us on the ride's main lift. I got a sneak peek at these Audio Animatronics earlier this year, and they continue to impress in their on-ride environment. As with the latest generation animatronics recently debuted in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, these characters defy their mechanical nature by moving, gesturing and speaking very much like the beloved cartoon characters brought to life.

Narratively, TBA (again, does anyone at Disney consider the initialisms for these rides that Disney fans inevitable will use?) is another Radiator Springs Racers. You will find no villain here - no story arc driven by a conflict and its resolution, save for the very low-stakes challenge of finding a band to play Tiana's soiree.

That's not a knock. Plenty of wildly popular Disney theme park attractions eschew the conflict/resolution narrative structure, i.e. "...and then something goes terribly wrong." My favorite Disney World-exclusive ride, Flight of Passage, delivers tear-jerking emotion without a villain or a fight. Even the Magic Kingdom's top-rated attraction, Haunted Mansion, is a vibe without much of a storyline - despite multiple attempts to retcon a narrative onto the attraction.

As on Radiator Springs Racers, the story is our journey. We are not on our way to a race but to a party, thrown by Tiana and Prince Naveen at their home to celebrate "family and friends of New Orleans." Along the way, we pick up that band inside the stunningly designed bayou that Walt Disney Imagineers have crafted for the ride.

Here, at last, lies the "Blue Bayou" that Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom never had before now. Even more lovingly decorated that Disneyland's 1967 original inside Pirates of the Caribbean, Tiana's bayou comes alive with Audio Animatronic critters playing "Gonna Take You There" and animated fireflies on background screens, all hyped by our gator Louis, who appears via multiple animatronics during the ride.

With a band in hand, the next act belongs to Mama Odie, who shrinks us down to the size of the musical critters we've just met - also the size of Tiana and Naveen for much of "The Princess and The Frog" - to help us "Dig a Little Deeper" and find the soul, the love, and the rhythm that they all learned living small in the bayou.

Only here, more than halfway through Tiana's Bayou Adventure, did I miss an element from Splash Mountain. The old beehive room amplified the excitement of that double down through brilliant use of rather simple decoration and sound design. But Mama Odie's "Honey, I Shrunk the Flume Log" scene delivers plenty of head-bopping fun in its place. The water's still jumping in this joint, with Tiana and Louis looking in on us via a plus-sized screen.

I have to note that while Disney has relentlessly promoted its partnership with Black creators in the development of Tiana's Bayou Adventure, almost all of its music comes from the film, which was scored by Randy Newman, an Academy Award-winning white Los Angeles native who spent much of his childhood in New Orleans. Newman's songs for the film draw upon blues, Cajun, jazz and zydeco influences, reinforcing the idea that New Orleans's musical culture - like its food and its visual art - reflects the influence of multiple races and ethnicities.

In other words, everyone is invited to the party. It's all fun, for everyone. Let me take you to this party via this new and complete on-ride video that I shot today, with Disney's assistance and permission.

Freedom and joy were not constants on Splash Mountain, where Imagineers used the story of Br'er Fox trapping Br'er Rabbit to create suspense and a feeling of discomforting peril as riders approached the lift that would send them down the mountain's 50-foot drop. There is no such apprehension here, as the lift becomes the spell by which Mama Odie returns us to our normal size, sending us on our way with a punny one-liner that provide TBA's most prominent reference to this ride's former identity.

On Splash, that drop represented Br'er Fox throwing Br'er Rabbit into the briar patch - allowing the trickster rabbit to escape into his home. It's a great ending to a story, but that was not the ending to Splash Mountain. Instead, riders floated along for another long minute on their way to Splash's final, riverboat scene. The gap was necessary since Disney could not position the riverboat show scene building immediately after the drop without turning the drop to face away from the park... or building a show building atop the Rivers of America.

Tiana's Bayou Adventure dodges that narrative pacing issue by focusing from its start on the party in the old riverboat show building as the finale of its story. The drop is just another adventure along the way to a scene that, again, exceeds its predecessor with more articulated animatronics, detailed set design and enlivened background via the smart use of screen animation. WDI has learned the hard lesson that screens do not work as the animation media for character faces, but they can fill the background of crowd scenes exceptionally well.

Tiana in the finale

The party scene also features the one original song on Tiana's Bayou Adventure, PJ Morton's "Special Spice." It's a rousing Broadway-style show-stopper that provides an appropriate finale for what it is now the best attraction in the most popular theme park in the world. Ride with me:

Having ridden Tiana's Bayou Adventure, it is clear to me that a "book report" retelling of "The Princess and The Frog" would not have worked on this flume ride's layout. Executive Creative Producer Charita Carter, Executive Creative Director Ted Robledo and their team have created a new narrative that fits the ride and should satisfy Walt Disney World visitors looking for a music-filled attraction featuring familiar characters and a not-too-intense thrill element.

That's right. When Splash Mountain opened in 1989, a 50-foot flume drop was a bigger deal than it is today. The standard for thrills has risen, and - frankly - playing up a drop that's just a step above kiddie-ride intensity risks disappointing some fans. Before it closed, I heard more than one first-time Splash rider say, "that was it?" about the drop. So I am fine with WDI's decision not to stir up riders' apprehension about the drop this time.

Sure, a great villain can help make dark rides more fun. But I am grateful that Imagineers did not pull a J.J. Abrams and tell us, "Somehow, Dr. Facilier returned" to set up our fall down the mountain. The bankers in "The Princess and The Frog" might have played effective villains in a sequel narrative, but casting them in that role would have put Imagineers in the position of addressing how much uglier life was in the 1920's American South for women and people of color than "The Princess and The Frog" was willing to depict.

Let's get real here. There was no way that Tiana was getting a mortgage on her own to buy a restaurant building back then - not when women in the United States could not get a credit card in their own name without a husband co-signing until 1974. A working-class, single Black woman getting a business loan on her own in the 1920's American South would have been, well, a fairy tale.

I hope that fans give Tiana's Bayou Adventure the chance to prove itself that countless real-life, aspiring Tianas did not get back then. And I hope that this review helps at least some Disney fans understand why Disney chose to change Splash Mountain into Tiana's Bayou Adventure.

People hear the word "racism" and often equate that with evil thoughts and conspiracies. But racism can happen through nothing more than the accumulation of countless decisions to stick with the status quo. It's a familiar story for many people of color - as well as for women or anyone else excluded from authority in the past. You can offer something better for 99 out of 100 things, but so long as that 100th thing is there to give them an excuse, the folks in charge will decide to stay with the familiar.

Disney could have stuck with that familiar. Company executives could have plugged their Mickey ears and pretended not to hear the dog whistle. But they did not. They made the brave decision to challenge their fans and invite us all on Tiana's Bayou Adventure.

And that is something to celebrate.

Cast moment at the opening of Tiana's Bayou Adventure
Disney World cast and Imagineers celebrate the opening of Tiana's Bayou Adventure

Update: After riding, I caught up in the exit hall with one of Walt Disney Imagineering's creative team leaders for Tiana's Bayou Adventure, Executive Creative Producer Charita Carter.

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