Tiana’s Bayou Adventure Is a Glorious Celebration of New Orleans

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Tiana’s Bayou Adventure Is a Glorious Celebration of New Orleans

Who doesn’t love a party? Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is the biggest bash you’ll find at Disney World when it opens on June 28. It’s a joyous celebration that captures the spirit of New Orleans while continuing Tiana’s story from The Princess and the Frog, and is an ideal replacement for Splash Mountain, preserving its ride system and legacy of adorable animatronic critters while establishing a more immersive, more defined sense of time and place. It’s a welcome addition to the Magic Kingdom, and will no doubt be one of the most popular attractions there, especially on those blazing Orlando summer days. There are some technical issues that still need to be worked out, but when it’s running smoothly—as it was when I rode it at a recent media preview—it’s one of the best attractions at Disney World.

If your favorite part of Splash Mountain was getting wet and falling down a 50 foot drop, don’t worry: the ride system is the same. On a purely physical level it’s the same log flume ride it’s always been. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure elevates that experience with state-of-the-art animatronics that move, talk, and emote with a surprising level of realism; an exuberant new soundtrack that improves on Splash Mountain’s; and a firm commitment to celebrating the unique culture of New Orleans and the people who make it. 

The music might not be as instantly familiar to older Disney fans as some of the songs from Splash Mountain, but it improves on the old ride by making the soundtrack the single most important part of its immersive environment. The music of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is the foundation for everything else, driving both the loose story and helping it conjure the joyous character of New Orleans. It uses a handful of songs from The Princess and the Frog, with highlights including “Dig a Little Deeper” and “Down in New Orleans,” and introduces a fine new song “Special Spice” during the celebratory final scene. One stretch of the ride is driven by a fantastic zydeco number that sounds like nothing else heard in a theme park ride before, and that really sells the illusion that you’re riding through the Louisiana bayou. Music is one of the most crucial aspects of a theme park ride, and can easily elevate a good experience into something genuinely great. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is more proof of that.

In the world of the ride, that music is played by a variety of musical critters brought to life through animatronics. These new band members, who all have names and (unsurprisingly) stuffed animals in the gift shop, are a technological step up from the animals that used to spin and cavort through Splash Mountain. Tiana’s new pals are adorable, from the frogs who play flowers like hand drums, to the cat who scratches a stolen license plate as if it’s a wash board. Lifelike animatronics of Tiana, Louis and Mama Odie reappear throughout, guiding the very loose story (they’re looking for musicians to play a big party at the last minute because Louis forgot to book a band). It does also feature screens, which is always a controversial subject for Disney rides; their use is minimal here, and smartly done, mostly used to display trails of fireflies on their way to the big party, and for a couple of size-related gags that would be difficult to do with animatronics. 

One of the biggest worries about the ride’s transformation was what would happen to Splash Mountain’s final scene. After surviving his plunge into the briar patch, Br’er Rabbit was greeted home by a choir of animals on an old riverboat. It was an incredibly joyful and heart-warming finale, and one of the best moments in any Disney attraction. Tiana’s doesn’t reuse the boat, but it replaces that scene with one that’s just as euphoric. Tiana, her friends and family, and all the animal musicians they’ve met throughout the ride are throwing a party in front of a glorious New Orleans mansion, with Tiana and the band singing the ride’s new song “Special Spice.” It ends the new ride on just as high of a note as the old finale did, sealing Tiana’s Bayou Adventure as perhaps the best retheme of an existing Disney ride yet.

The nature of the retheme can be best summed up by how Tiana’s Bayou Adventure presents its big drop. For all its light-hearted charm, Splash Mountain was fundamentally about danger; Br’er Rabbit was constantly threatened by the schemes of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, and that drop was portrayed as something to be scared and anxious about by the characters in the ride (even though it’s actually part of Rabbit’s plot to escape his tormentors). In Tiana’s that drop is purely celebratory; it represents the moment when riders transform back into their full human size after a brief stint as frogs, and not as something risky or deadly. It’s no less thrilling, and the drop itself is ultimately ecstatic in both rides. Both approaches are equally valid, but the new approach fits the new ride’s tone much better than the old one would. The main thing about Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, again, is that it’s a party, and replacing the dread of the original drop with revelry reinforces that focus.

Story can be greatly overrated when it comes to theme park rides. The best attractions—Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World—run on atmosphere instead of plot. Some liken them to cocktail conversations, whereas I like to compare them to Robert Altman movies; a great theme park ride is like a snapshot of a specific time and place, immersing you in its world without worrying about a traditional, overt storyline. Like Splash Mountain, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure probably insists on its plot a little too much—the ride’s pacing can feel a bit off, with irregular pauses throughout, most likely so one of the plot-centric animatronics can “hit its mark” and impart whatever story beat it’s intended to—but you don’t have to hear its dialogue or understand its backstory to enjoy the experience. A ride like Rise of the Resistance needs a strict, clearly delineated plot in order to feel like an adventure worthy of a Star Wars movie; a celebration like Tiana’s Bayou Adventure just needs the merest suggestion of a story. It doesn’t overdo its plot, but it could still be a little more relaxed about it.

That’s not a major issue. The current tech problems that seem to be plaguing the ride during previews could become one, though. Again, my one-and-only trip on the ride went off without any substantial delays. There were brief pauses before each drop, and a bit of a backup at the end of the ride during the return to the loading station, but I had a largely smooth experience. I know the ride was beset with delays throughout the preview hours, though, with one friend of mine taking a half-hour to get through a single ride. Hopefully they can figure out these hang-ups and get them resolved before it opens to the public. Considering how much it costs to get into the Magic Kingdom these days, and how much scheduling is involved to maximize your stay, anything that causes a delay or wastes a guest’s time needs to be ironed out as quickly as possible. 

Again, I personally didn’t experience any major delays riding Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. It took me maybe 13 minutes to get from start to finish. And the short pauses I did see just let me hear more of the ride’s great music, and pay better attention to its songs. The Tiana’s Bayou Adventure that I rode is a more than worthy successor to Splash Mountain; it’s a wonderful celebration that pays tribute to America’s most vibrant city, and which should please guests of all ages for decades to come.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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