Want to see Disneyland’s most advanced animatronics? Visit Tiana’s Bayou Adventure

Princess Tiana, in an explorer's outfit
Walt Disney Imagineers put the finishing touches on an animatronic of Tiana destined for the new Tiana’s Bayou Adventure ride.
(Christian Thompson / Disneyland Resort)

Cutting edge robotics are descending upon the Disneyland Resort.

With new droids arriving at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge this week — and some of the most lifelike characters ever created coming later this year to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure — the Walt Disney Co. this year is elevating the wizardry that is theme park engineering.

Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s typically-secretive arm devoted to theme park development, hasn’t been shy regarding the testing of bipedal droids that can hop in place, bow their heads and nudge humans like robotic pets. A trio of them, known as BDX droids, made their one-day debut at Galaxy’s Edge late last year, a surprise appearance that went viral among Disney and “Star Wars” fans. Knee-high, the “droids in training,” as they were labeled by Imagineering, possess a wobbly cuteness.

They’ll be returning to Disneyland starting Friday, and appearing throughout the resort’s spring “Star Wars” promotion known as Season of the Force, which lasts through June 2. Their temporary appearance fulfills a long-held promise to bring more robotic life to Disneyland’s space fantasy franchises.

Disneyland's BDX droids
A trio of BDX droids will return to Disneyland on Friday and appear throughout the resort’s spring “Star Wars” promotion known as Season of the Force, which lasts through June 2.
(Mike Pucher / Walt Disney Imagineering)

The droids, and their ability to dance, coo and generally steal the hearts of guests, were shown to media on Tuesday at an event that highlighted current and upcoming Imagineering technology — all part of embattled Chief Executive Bob Iger’s promise to “turbocharge” Disney’s investment in its parks. Disney has pledged $60 billion over the next 10 years in its experiences division, with at least half of that total dedicated to parks and resorts, according to a recent SEC filing.

In addition to the adorable BDX units, Disney showcased a host of next-generation robotics that indicated the future of theme park attractions is one where figures can not only move like us, but potentially move among us. A highlight: A Duke Weaselton figure from “Zootopia,” which was used to promote the recent opening of a land themed to the 2016 film at Shanghai Disneyland. In a clever illusion, Weaselton was shown pushing a cart that turned out to be a robotic figure itself — one that the Weaselton figure was just hitching a ride from. The small crowd of media was enchanted when Weaselton finished his cameo by hopping aboard the cart.

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Still, Imagineering opted to withhold details about it’s most high-profile projects. Walt Disney World representatives teased expansion for the Florida park’s Magic Kingdom, stating construction permits would be filed in the coming weeks. More advanced in planning, Disney said, are changes coming to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, where a “Tropical Americas” land is slated to replace the DinoLand U.S.A. area of the park. Footage of a research trip to Mexico was shown, as was a zoomed-out piece of concept art, but no attractions were detailed.

Closer to home, Imagineering didn’t mention any of the long-term projects that they’ve promised for the Disneyland Resort, including an updated timeline for the “Avengers” ride at Disney California Adventure, a location or an attraction for the “Avatar”-focused experience, which Iger referenced Wednesday at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting, or anything that could be considered part of the DisneylandForward project.

Conceptual art that shows a lush alien world and a potential boat ride.
Concept art for an “Avatar”-inspired experience that could come to the Disneyland Resort. Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger described the art as “creative inspiration.”
(Disneyland Resort)

The latter is awaiting final approval from the Anaheim City Council, which will likely vote in the coming weeks on a proposal that would allow for changes to the park’s zoning and give Disney more flexibility to reimagine its existing 490-acre footprint in Anaheim. The project promises a minimum $1.9-billion investment in the theme park, lodging, entertainment, shopping and dining within a decade, according to city officials.

Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Experiences, wrote in a blog post after Wednesday’s shareholder meeting that further news on Disneyland-related attractions was tied to the approval of DisneylandForward. “We were thrilled to unveil a piece of inspirational artwork developed for a potential new Avatar experience at the Disneyland Resort,” D’Amaro wrote. “We are excited about the stories our guests could experience at Walt’s original theme park destination after approval of DisneylandForward — including the chance to experience all-new Avatar adventures with a visit to Pandora.”

Iger said at the media event that Disney will be careful to spread its investment in its theme parks over the next 10 years. “We actually have a fairly good idea in the near-term of what’s being built, but we’re purposefully not going to allocate it all,” Iger said. “Because who knows? In five years we can end up with a giant hit movie — think ‘Frozen’ — that we may want to mine essentially as an attraction, or a hotel or restaurant in our parks. So you want to maintain some flexibility.”

And yet that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of activity coming to Disneyland in 2024. Slated to open later this year is Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, a retheme of the popular log flume ride Splash Mountain. Disney dedicated much of the afternoon to revealing some of the key audio-animatronics for the attraction. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will open first in Walt Disney World, and tells an original story that occurs after the events of “The Princess and the Frog,” the 2009 fairy tale that stars the company’s first Black princess.

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Expect Tiana’s Bayou Adventure to be full of large-scale show scenes. Press were shown four different iterations of Tiana. Early in the attraction she’ll greet guests from a perch, then as the ride continues, she’ll get closer to passengers — in one instance even directing a critter band. The attraction will culminate in a giant Mardi Gras musical celebration. Characters from the film, including Tiana’s friend Charlotte La Bouff — adorned in a pink, felt-like dress — and a regal Eudora (Tiana’s mother) will welcome guests into the final scene.

It was immediately apparent how fluid the figures moved, with La Bouff and Eudora both swaying to an unheard rhythm. Tiana, too, seen in equestrian pants and an explorer’s jacket, is full of exaggerated arm gestures, speaking to guests with an excited flourish. Prince Naveen was shown plucking a banjo, his eyes rolling and blinking in time with his strumming. The figures, including an outsized Mama Odie, sporting a colorful abundance of beads, are among the most lifelike in Disney’s arsenal. Accompanying Mama Odie was a bopping Juju, a snake companion who was bouncing over a plate of beignets, forked tongue hanging out in a dry but convincing drool.

A jovial robotic alligator holding a trumpet.
A look at Louis, the trumpet-playing alligator from “The Princess and the Frog,” as he’ll appear in his audio-animatronic state.
(Christian Thompson / Disneyland Resort)

Some recent animated-to-animatronic figures, such as those seen in Toontown’s Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, display more of a digital sheen from projection technology, meaning their faces have a cartoon-like, CGI feel. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure felt more tactile, with carefully sculpted faces and natural hair. Charita Carter, one of the Imagineers leading the project, said that while there is a fantastical nature to the “Princess and the Frog” property, it was important to ground the attraction in the reality of New Orleans.

“Tiana is one of the few princesses that really comes from a real place,” Carter said. “It’s a place that can be experienced. We have a comparable [one] that our guests would have, so it only made sense. The city is so special. It sounds like a cliché to say that it’s a magical city, but it’s a magical city. When you get off the plane and hear the brass band in baggage claim, where in the United States do you go and have an experience like that? So when you marry someplace that is that special with a fantastical story, it’s a wonderful, beautiful blend.”

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The attraction does not yet have an opening date on either coast, but Disney has previously announced a summer opening at Walt Disney World and later this year at Disneyland.

Carter, one of Imagineering’s most prominent Black executives, has been with the project as a producer since its reveal in the summer of 2020. It was then that Splash Mountain become the topic of a heated social media debate in the moment of cultural reassessment and nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd. (The original ride’s imagery is rooted in the dated and racist 1946 film “Song of the South.”)

Disney, when it went public with its decision to give Splash Mountain a “Princess and the Frog”-themed makeover, cited the need for the ride to embrace a fresh, “inclusive” concept. In a brief interview at the Tuesday event, Carter was asked to reflect on the four-year journey to bring Tiana’s Bayou Adventure to life.


“When I got the call from the president at the time to lead this team as the producer, I cried,” Carter said. “It was a realization of how important bringing Tiana to a dimensional space is — being the first African American princess, being an American princess from a real place and knowing there are people who live in New Orleans, live in the South, that would be able to relate to her in a special way. The weight of that. It was joy. But then there was also weight. Like, ‘OK, let’s do this.’”