Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is way better than Splash Mountain probably deserved

The Tiana animatronic in Walt Disney World’s ride Tiana’s Bayou Adventure wearing a sporty jacket and pants combo, with a hat, as she treks through the bayou.
Photo: Olga Thompson/Disney

The new Princess and the Frog ride, opening June 28 at Walt Disney World, is the glow-up of the decade

In 2020, Disney announced plans to reboot Splash Mountain, the beloved but controversial log-flume ride found in three of its theme parks. The decision sparked plenty of griping from curmudgeonly fans, largely because of the decision to focus the ride’s makeover around the 2009 animated feature The Princess and the Frog and its leading lady — Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess. Personally, I thought, It’s about damn time. Splash Mountain needed an update years ago, and no matter what antiquated OG Disney park fans claim, it finally has a worthy one.

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure keeps the good parts of Splash Mountain — that final 50-foot drop and the resulting SPLASH! — while dropping the ties to Disney’s buried movie Song of the South, updating all the tech, and refurbishing the animatronics. The Walt Disney World version of the attraction, which opens to the public on June 28, keeps the same track, but fills it with a new story and radically updated technology. (Disney Parks says the Disneyland version will open in 2024, but has not yet set a date.)

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is a log-flume ride that floats parkgoers through locations inspired by the animated movie, as the ride gradually escalates in height and intensity. Going back to the frame of the old ride and seeing a new story and different characters there is like having a reunion with a high school acquaintance you only liked in certain settings, and finding out they’ve gotten a glow-up while also shedding some of their biased views. Do I still want to hang out with said high school acquaintance? I’m more open to it now that the ride isn’t built around a story that already felt dated and dubious back in the 1980s.

As a kid growing up in Florida and visiting the theme park frequently, I had the opportunity to ride the original Splash Mountain often enough to declare that it was fundamentally fine. I wasn’t clamoring to visit it on every Walt Disney World trip, but I was totally open to riding it when the opportunity presented itself. It did offer some relief from the sweltering heat, and an exciting drop.

The sign for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure at dusk
Photo: Olga Thompson/Disney

When it worked, that is. Splash Mountain broke down a lot, with the long queues pausing indefinitely as the park attendants worked to get the ride functioning again. (Notably, this once happened in the middle of a school trip. My friends, already tense from getting up at 5 a.m. and walking around for hours in the Florida heat, launched a huge debate about who was going to wait for the ride to start up again and who was going to leave. Sides were taken.)

Splash Mountain dropped to the middle of my Disney trip list, simply because I could get everything it offered somewhere else. If I wanted for a refreshing break from the heat, I’d rather go somewhere actually air-conditioned. If I was looking for a thrill, Space Mountain was more exciting, high octane from start to finish instead of a long, dull buildup to one adrenaline-hit moment. And if I wanted to stare at animatronics, I preferred Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion, which were generally more atmospheric. I’d take a chance if Splash Mountain was surprisingly unbusy (which did work out on some “colder” weather trips), but my FastPass (RIP) priorities lay elsewhere.

Even when the ride was working, the animatronics were dated and janky. Its plot, to the extent it had one, was so nonsensical and unrelatable that it took me ages to learn the characters came from a hotly contested movie that wasn’t available for viewing. That means I didn’t see any familiar characters or scenes while riding it like I did at other Disney attractions, like the Peter Pan’s Flight ride. Splash Mountain didn’t have a nice, tight narrative of its own like other non-movie attractions, including Haunted Mansion or Tower of Terror. I usually zoned out during the slower parts of the ride, waiting for the big drop.

The exterior of Tiana’s bayou adventure, showcasing an artificial swamp
Photo: Olga Thompson/Disney

Learning that the ride was themed around Song of the South didn’t exactly help make the story more immersive, but it did offer useful gossip fodder when I was waiting in line. By the time I was going on Disney field trips in high school, I was whispering to my friends, “Did you know…?” and shaking my head at the cheerful critters singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

But Tiana’s Bayou Adventure immediately grounds the story in elements familiar to modern Disney viewers. In its story, which opens after Princess and the Frog’s events, Tiana’s restaurant has taken off, along with her employee-owned business, Tiana’s Foods. To bring her community together, she’s hosting a huge Mardi Gras bash. And to make the celebration complete, she needs musicians, so she sends Louis the trumpet-playing alligator (and the park guests) to the bayou to look for some critters who know how to jam.

The log ride takes guests deeper into the bayou, where eventually, Voodoo priestess Mama Odie “transforms” them down to frog size so they can have some animal perspective. That also adds fun to the ride by scaling the set-pieces larger to give the illusion that riders are now teeny-tiny. To “get back to human size,” riders hurtle down the attraction’s final drop and toward the epilogue, where we see Tiana and her friends, human and animal, partying it up in New Orleans.

From the get-go, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is already more immersive and modern than its predecessor. The waiting area, which is supposed to take guests through Tiana’s office and kitchen space, is chock-full of little details, like letters from her father’s time in the military and newspaper clippings about her burgeoning food business. It’s much more intricate than the original ride’s generic farmhouse queue. The early parts of the line invite guests to amuse themselves by playing I Spy.

A set of Tiana’s kitchen, featuring a note on a chalkboard written by Tiana herself
Photo: Olga Thompson/Disney

On a press trip to preview the ride ahead of opening, I spent the walk through the line area marveling at all the little details. Boarding the log flume, I found the plastic seating as hard as it was when I was a kid, and still dappled with droplets of water from previous ridethroughs. The log boat jerked forward, with the familiar old swish-swish of water lapping against fake wood. It was just as I remembered it, and I wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad. I re-ride my favorite Disney attractions to experience the same joys over and over, simply because I am very fond of them, and want to recapture the glee they gave me the first time. But this was supposed to be something new.

As a Disney PR rep confirmed to me on the press trip, the ride’s basic frame and mechanics haven’t changed. The winding water track that takes you inside and outdoors, through a series of animatronic set-pieces and tableaux, is the same as ever. It all played out as I expected — but the very evident makeover made all the difference.

The biggest updates are the animatronics, which are polished beyond the extent of recent Disney fare. Instead of the projected-face animatronics of the Frozen Ever After ride in neighboring Epcot, the Imagineers opted for the more expensive but full-fledged modern animatronics more often seen in Disneylands abroad. They look like the animated movie lifted directly into a 3D space, moving fluidly and expressively.

The Mama Odie animatronic perched in a tree
Photo: Olga Thompson/Disney

As it turns out, having an existing attachment to the movie’s characters and a familiarity with the ride’s music (tracks directly from The Princess and the Frog, like “Gonna Take You There” and “Down in New Orleans”) makes the whole ride worth paying attention to. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure had me actually looking forward to each turn of the ride, to catch all the new, detailed animatronics, the way the ride brings the movie’s bayou setting to life, and the video screens showing animated scenes of the characters. The slow-moving parts were actually my favorites for once, since I could swivel my head like an owl and absorb every little detail of the setting and story.

The ride introduces new characters who aren’t in the movie (all music-making critters for Tiana’s new Mardi Gras band), but unless you’re particularly predisposed to counting every single new possum and raccoon, the best parts are seeing the familiar characters in new scenarios.

Tiana wearing a gorgeous green dress in the final scene of the new Disney attraction
Photo: Olga Thompson/Disney

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure does lean a lot on those new cartoon critters — which are all immediately available in plushie form in the adjacent store. The focus on animal characters could have been a sticking point here — one of the biggest critiques of the movie was that Tiana spends most of the story as a frog, giving Disney a chance to boast about the film’s racial representation while minimizing actual Black faces and bodies. But the ride doesn’t have a moment without Tiana. She’s there with us via animatronic, voice-over, and video throughout the entire ride, sporting a cute new outfit and her usual determined attitude. The attraction is indisputably hers. And by the end, she and her friends are celebrating Mardi Gras with a spectacular party — plus an infectiously catchy new song.

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure keeps Splash Mountain’s general pacing and jaunty mood. The physical shell of the ride is still intact, with its lazy-river-like buildup, escalating into one of the theme park’s most thrilling drops. But the new ride actually makes those languid parts interesting. The world of The Princess and the Frog, as seen in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, is bright and vibrant — and not burdened with a racist legacy. Instead of the ride’s only appeal being the singular drop, the entire attraction commands attention. It’s just what Tiana deserves.

A log flume cascading down a water track
Photo: Olga Thompson/Disney

[Disclosure: This article is based on a press event held at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, on June 9 through 11. Disney provided Polygon’s travel and accommodations for the event. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.]

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