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Disneyland’s ‘Tale of the Lion King’ celebrates African culture

Chef Natalie Willingham at a media preview of "Tale of the Lion King" on May 26 at Disneyland Park.
Chef Natalie Willingham at a media preview of “Tale of the Lion King” on May 26 at Disneyland Park. Willingham developed a menu of snacks to be enjoyed while watching the show that highlights African flavors. Menu offerings include chicken-coconut curry sweet potato, salted plantain chips and berbere-spiced popcorn.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

Disney’s “The Lion King” is arguably one of the company’s most famed stories. This summer, the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim is telling the familiar journey of Simba in a new way.

On May 28, a live stage show, “Tale of the Lion King,” opened at the Fantasyland Theatre in the theme park with a distinct focus on African culture.

The story-theater adaptation of “The Lion King” is part of “Celebrate Soulfully,” programming that kicked off in February in honor of Black heritage and culture.

“I have worked in the theater a long time,” said creative director of Disney live entertainment Susana Tubert. “So I always ask myself, ‘What story are we telling and who should own that story?”

A special preview 'Tale of the Lion King' on May 26 at the Fantasyland Theatre at Disneyland Park.
A special preview of ‘Tale of the Lion King’ on May 26 at the Fantasyland Theatre at Disneyland Park. The show features a focus on African dance and culture, and is part of Disney’s “Celebrate Soulfully” programming.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

The show is directed by Paul Bryant and the creative team includes choreographers Kevin Wilson and Marcel Wilson, whose credits include working and touring with artists like Janet Jackson and Britney Spears as well as cosmetologist Shemika Draughan, who specializes in braiding and highly textured hair care.

“I think that as company, we are recognizing that we need to augment the voices at the table so that our products are authentic, genuine and as beautiful as what you see today,” said Tubert.

The show is accompanied by snacks developed by Disney chef Natalie Willingham that highlight African flavors.

“I wanted the food to match the story on the stage,” said Willingham.

The Troubadour Tavern, located next to the Fantasyland Theatre, will serve snacks like salted plantain chips and berbere-spiced popcorn for the show.

“It is still theater food, something that is still quick and easy to grab that you can enjoy while watching the show,” said Willingham. “Berbere is a spice commonly used in Ethiopian cuisine.”

Berbere usually blends red chili peppers, fenugreek and ginger with warm spices like coriander, cardamom, allspice, cumin, cloves, cinnamon and indigenous spices like korarima and ajwain. It turns the buttered popcorn into a spicy, tangy snack.

Chicken-coconut curry sweet potato from Disneyland park's Troubadour Tavern.
Chicken-coconut curry sweet potato from Disneyland park’s Troubadour Tavern features a baked sweet potato topped with a Malawian chicken-coconut curry at a special preview of “Tale of the Lion King” on May 26. The dish is one of the new menu offerings highlighting African culture.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

“We also have a sweet potato that is kind of paying homage to our previous potatoes that we had, but now it ties into our story,” said Willingham. “It’s a sweet potato, which is something you will find grown in Africa, topped off with a Malawian curry, which is also a region within Africa, so it has chicken and kale along with coconut milk.”

For dessert, the Tavern offers Hakuna Matata Sweets, which is a trio of animal print cookies, including a coconut macaroon, pineapple orange thumbprint and a butter chocolate chunk cookie topped with cacao nibs.

“They are also inspired by ingredients you will find in Africa, so there is coconut and there is chocolate cacao nibs you will find on the Ivory Coast,” said Willingham.

A cup of Pride Rock Punch, at a special preview of "Tale of the Lion King" on May 26.
A cup of Pride Rock Punch, at a special preview of “Tale of the Lion King” on May 26. The drink contains pineapple, mango and orange juice along with tamarind and is served at the Troubadour Tavern at Disneyland Park to go along with the new live stage show, “Tale of the Lion King.”
(Sarah Mosqueda)

Cardamom Cold Brew and Pride Rock Punch made with pineapple, mango, tamarind and orange juice are also available.

Willingham said she rewatched “The Lion King” movie for inspiration but also did heavy research on African cuisine for the menu.

“Being African American, I am very familiar with the soul food,” Willingham said, “But the African cuisine was something very, very different so I did have to do a lot of research to make sure I was being true to that.”

Willingham said she is proud of the menu she developed.

“Everything that we did put together is all food that I would enjoy and eat myself and that I would be happy to bring my kids in to enjoy.”

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