For a Story on Disney, a Writer Tests New Waters


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I suppose I qualify as a Disney Adult, the pejorative term for grown-ups who visit Disney theme parks without children in tow.

Disney has 12 theme parks and two water parks around the world, and I’ve been to all of them. I was at Walt Disney World in Florida when the theme park reopened in July 2020 after closing for four months during the coronavirus pandemic. And I was at Disneyland in California in 2022, when Mickey Mouse was allowed to share hugs again after a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus. I also hung out at the Turkey Leg Stand in Disneyland’s Frontierland for an entire afternoon.

And this month, when Disney World began testing its newest ride, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, I was on it.

But I didn’t do any of those things as a dewy-eyed Disney fan. I go to the company’s parks because, as a reporter who covers the entertainment business, it’s part of my job.

Early in my career, in the late 1990s, I covered “hard news,” including cops and courts in Philadelphia. That posting was a picnic compared with my current one. Disney does not respond well, to put it mildly, when articles puncture its Happiest Place on Earth mythmaking. I once tried to get information out of a Toy Story Mania ride operator — I wanted to know how Disneyland employees felt about new safety procedures — and a corporate communications officer appeared out of nowhere and curtly put an end to the conversation.

As of 2021, the Walt Disney Company had a 500-person global media relations team. There is just one of me. Still, I aim to cover all the big news.

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure caught my eye as a potential story in 2020. That summer, as protests for racial justice swept the United States, Disney said it would close Splash Mountain, a popular and problematic log flume ride based on the 1946 Disney film “Song of the South,” and would replace it with one based on Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess. Tiana, an ambitious chef in 1920s New Orleans, was introduced in the 2009 animated film “The Princess and the Frog.”

The new ride would use the same ride track as Splash Mountain but would be entirely redesigned. Instead of featuring characters and music from “Song of the South,” an Oscar-winning film with racist depictions, the log flume would follow Tiana’s journey through the bayou, searching for musicians to perform at a Mardi Gras party.

Some people cheered the decision to remove Splash Mountain. Others threw full-on hissy fits.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of behavior — good, bad, ugly — with one word: silly. It’s a log flume, people. Get a grip.

But Disney is a huge part of how many people make their memories. Even the smallest change to a Disney park can spark intense reactions. Other examples include an ill-fated update to the Enchanted Tiki Room attraction at Disney World in the late 1990s, and worries over an update in 2012 of a revue called “Country Bear Jamboree.”

Park devotees want to reinhabit their memories as precisely as possible when they visit again. The logs no longer smell musty. They’re supposed to smell musty!

At the same time, the addition of a major ride themed around a Black heroine — the first marquee attraction at a Disney theme park to be based on a Black character — will have a positive impact on young visitors, particularly those of color. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will open to the public at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom on June 28; a similar version of the ride is set to arrive at Disneyland by the end of the year. Together, the two parks attract roughly 40 million visitors annually. That’s cultural power.

The overhauled ride also offered insight into Disney as a business. Yes, the company was trying to right a wrong with the removal of Splash Mountain. But the change was also about looking at the nation’s shifting demographics and spotting a potential growth opportunity: to “widen the net,” as one Disney ride designer told me, by creating more inclusive spaces at the park.

For these reasons and others, I try not to be too cynical in my coverage. In my main article, I really, really wanted to crack a joke about Disney missing the mark by naming the new ride Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Shouldn’t it have been called The Princess and the Log? Too flip, I decided.

To report the article, I flew to Florida from my home base in Los Angeles and stayed the night at one of Disney’s cheaper hotels, Port Orleans. (As part of The Times’s ethics guidelines, I never accept anything for free from Disney. The Times covered the bill.) The next morning, I met up with Jacquee Wahler, a Disney World communications executive who respects the journalistic process. She took me to a conference room behind Main Street in Magic Kingdom, where I interviewed a designer of the ride.

After an hour or so, we walked to the ride, which was in the testing phase. And after more interviews, I hopped into a log with a ride designer and took multiple trips through the bayou, asking questions along the way.

I didn’t love getting wet. (Luckily, my notebook was spared.) But taking the time to be there resulted in a better article — and helped me understand what Disney was trying to do with the ride in a way I did not quite comprehend over the phone.

The writer’s glasses after riding the new log flume.Credit…Brooks Barnes

As is often the case with Disney rides, the attention to detail was evident. For example, the ride is embroidered with thousands of tiny white and pink artificial flowers. But the grins of passengers left the biggest impression — especially those on the faces of Black riders. “I finally feel like I belong here,” one woman shouted.



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