Walt Disney World's newest ride: Tiana's Bayou Adventure

Tiana's Bayou Adventure is a new ride due to open in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida) on June 28. I was invited by Disney to preview it, and this week I was able to ride the attraction. (Spoilers of the ride follow, so be advised if that matters to you.)

I already posted about the full ride video Disney has provided here.

Tiana's Bayou Adventure is a log flume ride, and a re-theming of the 30+ year-old ride Splash Mountain, which was based on the 1946 movie Song of the South. Splash Mountain (originally intended to be titled Zip-a-Dee River Run until then-CEO Michael Eisner wanted to create synergy with Disney's then-hit movie Splash) opened in Disneyland (Anaheim, California) in 1989 and Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida) in 1992.

It was decided by Disney a few years ago that because the movie Song of South, about a former slave on a plantation entertaining a white boy with tales of forest creatures, was racially problematic, the ride based on it in Disneyland and Walt Disney World should be replaced. You can call it "culture wars," and you can call it "woke," but the fact is that Disney has done a good job of tweaking its theme parks to make them more welcoming to all people.

Imagine being a black kid attending the early days of Disneyland in the 1950s and pretty much the only black people you see represented in the park's shows and rides are depicted as servants and savages. The Disney company has been around for 100 years, and the country has changed a lot in that time. So must their content.

Tiana's Bayou Adventure uses the exact same ride track as Splash Mountain, but is based on the movie The Princess and the Frog (2009). The Princess and the Frog was a modest box office hit when it was released, but as with many Disney animated movies, enjoyed ubiquity among home-viewing children in the following years. Tiana's profile will be even further raised with an upcoming Disney+ streaming animated show, "Tiana."

Tiana is Disney's African American "princess," and rooted in reality: she lived in a real place and time — New Orleans in the early 20th century — grew up poor with a working mother, and her father served in the U.S. military (and it's suggested that he died as a soldier in WWI).

Tiana is a character perfectly constructed for diversity and patriotism and… dare I say "virtue"?

Racial elements aside, Splash Mountain was an extremely well-crafted ride (and featured only the animated folk-tale animals of the movie, not any people or plantations).  It followed the story of Br'er Rabbit as he ventures out from his home and then must avoid comedic attempts by Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear to capture and eat him. It follows a three-act structure, with the end of Act 2 seeing Bre'er Rabbit actually caught by the villains. In Act 3, Br'er Rabbit escapes by convincing his captors to throw him into the briar patch.

The story was played for laughs, and most riders probably didn't even follow a "story," but let the various scenes wash over them. But I think the subtle narrative tension of the chase and the traps contributed to the anticipation of the ride's thrill component. The climax of the story and ride is the flume's 50-foot drop into the "briar patch."  This is followed by a celebratory scene of animatronic music and dancing.

In creating Tiana's Bayou Adventure, Disney decided not to simply re-tell the story of The Princess and the Frog, which had its own narrative tension. Instead, the ride is essentially one big post-third act celebration of Tiana's success. It takes place one year after the events of the movie resulted in a very happy ending, with Tiana not only realizing her dream of opening a New Orleans restaurant, but doing it with her new husband Prince Nazeen. And now she's started a successful retail food business, Tiana's Foods.

Photo credit: Ruben Bolling

Her biggest problem at this point in her story is choosing a musical act for her Mardi Gras party.

And that's the adventure we join her on for the ride. It's a joyful, musical celebration from start to finish, with the lowest narrative stakes possible. Tiana and her trumpet-playing alligator friend Louis tour the bayou listening to musical bands of swamp animals, large and small. Don't worry: they're all great, and she hires them all.

Photo credit: Olga Thompson; posted with the permission of Disney Experiences

Many Disney theme park dark rides based on movies are what some people call "book report" rides. Rides like Peter Pan's Flight, Journey of the Little Mermaid, and Splash Mountain tell the story of the movie (or some component of it), for riders to re-live.

The only other Disney dark ride based on a movie I can think of that doesn't tell the story of that movie, or even a similar story, but instead just allows riders to visit and enjoy the vibes in the world of the movie is the Na'vi River Journey, in Animal Kingdom. On that ride, riders take a slow boat down a river on the planet of the movie Avatar, observing alien animals and native music.

And the vibes of Tiana's bayou are great fun. Imagineers took great pains to authentically represent New Orleans music and culture, and the songwriters and musicians recorded are actually from the city. The ride is beautiful, with vibrant colors, advanced animatronics, and appealing new animal characters.

I really liked the queue, with guests winding their way through the offices of Tiana's business, the walls covered with mementos of her success. I especially liked this room, so evocative, you could almost smell the beignets (in fact, the scent is pumped into the scene).

Photo credit: Ruben Bolling

And of course the flume track from Splash Mountain is still a hit. That fifty foot drop at the end is always exciting, although on this new ride, it's unclear what it represents. I polled other people who were invited to the preview, and two main theories emerged: riders had been magically shrunk down to sample the music of frogs and the drop represents us tumbling back to normal size; and the drop is simply an exciting short cut to the Mardi Gras party that ends the ride.

Photo credit: Olga Thompson; posted with the permission of Disney Experiences

Either way, it's a fun (and wet) way to end a very appealing ride. Disney's been on a great roll, with its latest rides like TRON Lightcycle / Run (Magic Kingdom), Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind (EPCOT), and Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway (Hollywood Studios and Disneyland) some of the most amazing rides ever made.