NEW ORLEANS, La. — Stella Chase, the daughter of the late Dooky Chase’s co-owner Leah Chase, sat down in front of a microphone and began telling her family’s story. The inspiration for the lead character in The Princess and The Frog, Princess Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess, Leah Chase left a dining and hospitality legacy that continues to feed people from all over the world year after year. In New Orleans, a city of restaurants if there ever was one, Dooky Chase’s story is always worth telling.

As Stella Chase spoke of her grandparents and parents she made numerous comparisons to the film. The inspiration for one of Disney’s most popular films and characters was born in that restaurant and fans continue to make reservations and stream through the doors in search of “Tiana’s Palace,” the fictional restaurant Tiana dreamed of owning during the film.

A mural outside of Dooky Chase’s restaurant has an image of legendary chef and businesswoman Leah Chase along with her motto.
Photo by Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice

“Everyday we get someone coming in here to eat at Tiana’s restaurant,” Chase said. A gold pin on the collar of her sweater read, “Pray, work and do for others.”

“That was my mother’s motto, ‘Pray, work and do for others’,” she explained.

There have been many inspirations for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, a new nine-minute long attraction that is now only a year away. As the film gets closer to its 15th anniversary in 2024, Disney allowed local and national media, including The Atlanta Voice, to get an unprecedented peek into how the attraction went from idea to reality.

Disney Imagineering, the creative engine that designs and builds all of the Disney theme parks, spent a lot of time in New Orleans studying everything from how the city looks, to its history, to the smells and sounds of its streets and waterways.

“With this attraction we want to give guests a taste of all flavors of New Orleans,” Walt Disney Imagineering Executive Creative Director Ted Robledo said during a morning presentation. 

Here’s what we found out about what it took to create the company’s forthcoming major theme park attraction, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.

The Artist

As Disney first American princess, Tiana holds a special place among the entertainment company’s legion of memorable characters. Part of the rollout for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, which will take over for Splash Mountain at both Disney World and Disneyland, is the art that will represent not only the attraction, but the film going forward. 

Sharika Mahdi (above), a native of New Orleans, was commissioned by Disney to paint several pieces depicting Princess Tiana and the many elements of life in New Orleans. Photo by Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice

Artist Sharika Mahdi, a native of New Orleans, was commissioned by Disney to paint several pieces depicting Princess Tiana. Of the four pieces, the most recent and final creation reflects strongly on the aspect of family. In the painting Tiana and her mother, Eudora, who was voiced by Oprah Winfrey for the film, sit on a couch beside a pillow adorned with an image of their late father and husband James. Both Eudora and James were entrepreneurial inspirations for Tiana, according to both Mahdi and Walt Disney Imagineering Executive Creative Producer Charita Carter.

“I wanted to create something that embodies the story of Tiana, and also embodies the story of Louisiana, the bayou and New Orleans,” said Mahdi, who grew up in shotgun houses in the city’s 7th and 9th Wards. She proudly referenced being born at Charity Hospital, a right of passage for Black New Orleans natives the way being born at Grady Hospital is for Atlantans. “I wanted the mother and daughter and father to be the centerpiece, and then I wanted to add those elements in an abstract sense that represents New Orleans, thus the story of Tiana and her dreams.”

Carter added that Tiana is more than just a Disney princess or a key character in a film or the main reason for a theme park attraction. Much more in fact.

“Tiana is an inspiration for everybody,” Carter told The Atlanta Voice during an interview inside Vue New Orleans, a 407-foot-high towering venue and attraction overlooking downtown New Orleans. “She had a couple of obstacles she had to overcome.”

Carter added, “It means everything. It is a privilege to be working on such a wonderful story. Everybody can be inspired by this story.”

One of the four paintings of Princess Tiana by local artist Sharika Mahdi commissioned by Disney. This particular painting is at Dooky Chase’s. Photo by Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice

Disney Senior Vice President Creative Development, Content, Products & Inclusive Strategies Carmen Smith said exploring New Orleans for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure has been a “One of a kind experience that we think our guests will enjoy. This whole story is about Tiana and her sense of community.”

Another of Mahdi’s images (left) for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure sits inside a room at Dooky Chase’s. In that piece Louis the alligator, which was voiced in the film by Michael-Leon Wooley, and a number of other new animated characters -there will be 17 in all, according to Disney Imagineering, play music while Princess Tiana and Prince Navine look on and smile. A community indeed.

The Music

Terence Blanchard (center) and PJ Morton (not shown) are musical contributors on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Both Blanchard and Morton are Grammy Award winners and New Orleans natives. Photo by Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will incorporate both original songs from The Princess and The Frog and new original music. 

PJ Morton, a New Orleans native and Grammy Award-winning musician, stood up from where he was seated on stage at Preservation Hall and prepared himself for what he was about to see. Disney executives presented him with framed art depicting him playing alongside some of the new characters on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. “Oh man, this is very cool. Wow,” exclaimed Morton. 

Along with Morton, fellow New Orleans musician, Grammy Award-winner and Oscar nominee Terence Blachard are contributing musically to the new attraction. Similar to how New Orleans can have different sounds coming from every street corner, Zydeco music will find its way into the attraction along with what can be considered traditional New Orleans jazz. 

The Bayou

Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 Atlantic hurricane that made landfall in August 2005, devastating the state of Louisiana and the region in a manner that remains unprecedented, shifted the Louisiana Bayou in a way that it will never look the same again. In many ways that is a good thing, according to bayou guides with Cajun Encounters Tour Company. 

One of the Cajun Encounters Tour Company boats during a tour Friday, May 26, 2023. Photo by Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice

The same way that there are routes that will never be entered again, there are now new byways through the bayou that didn’t always exist. What remains are the whiskey trees, plants, and wildlife that make the bayou a special place to find inspiration for songs, books, poems, and of course, a Disney film and a forthcoming attraction.

Disney Imagineers and animators took tours through the bayou to better understand what a bayou adventure would look, feel and smell like. For those not lucky enough to have traveled down the bayou by motor boat, the attraction will attempt to bring you into and through it.

“We like to say that the bayou is magic,” Carter said while describing their trips.

The History

New Orleans looks a certain way. You can’t properly capture the image of the city without knowing it’s history. The Historic New Orleans Collection, a local museum, research center and book publisher, assisted in giving Disney Imagineers a more clear picture of the city, both past and present. 

Almost a dozen Disney Imagineers have been in and out of the museum during the research period. What they saw are priceless relics that include paintings, statues, Madi Gras costumes, musical instruments including the cornet Louis Armstrong played as a youth while incarcerated at the Colored Waif’s Home in New Orleans.

The Historic New Orleans Collection has many important pieces of the city’s history on display, including the cornet Louis Armstrong learned to play with as a child. Photo by Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice

“They have an understanding of how important it is to interpret the story of New Orleans through a broader network,” Daniel Hammer, The Historic New Orleans Collection president and CEO told The Atlanta Voice

Hammer acknowledged that there were materials that Disney Imagineers took home with them to study. There were no stones unturned. 

On the amount of historical research being done for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, Hammer said, “I’ve been impressed with how they have immersed themselves in that.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Donnell began his career covering sports and news in Atlanta nearly two decades ago. Since then he has written for Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Southern Cross...