Walt Disney’s Love Letter to New Orleans

Walt Disney’s Love Letter to New Orleans

Everyone knows the spirit of New Orleans is alive and well at Disney parks around the globe. From New Orleans Square at Disneyland Resort to Port Orleans at Walt Disney World Resort and even to the upcoming attraction Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, the vibrant heart and soul of the Creole hub of the south remains.

But, have you ever thought about where this inspiration came from? Join us on an adventure down the bayou as we share rare images from Walt Disney’s early visits to New Orleans and how his love for the city had such an unexpectedly large impact on the future of Disney parks.

Contributed by: Becky Cline

Devilishly Burned Coffee and New Friends

Since his first visit in November of 1940, Walt Disney traveled to New Orleans many times for both business and pleasure. While it is not known exactly what was on his itinerary during his first trip, one thing is absolute: he was captivated by the beauty of New Orleans.

He found himself visiting frequently over the next several years, enthralled by the lively spirit of the city and with the deep history and culture all around. Two things in particular Walt enjoyed about the city was its people and food. It’s no surprise he found himself at Antoine’s Restaurant where the two join in perfect harmony.

Antoine’s was and remains a staple of New Orleans food, culture, and history. With over 180 years of rich history and the birthplace of Oysters Rockefeller, the restaurant became a beloved stop for Walt. As pictured, Walt frequently visited Antoine’s and even brought friends and family like his wife Lillian, brother Roy and his wife Edna.

One document related to his 1956 trip to New Orleans indicates that Walt and his wife Lillian were scheduled for dinner on Tuesday, June 5 at Antoine’s, hosted by Mr. Roy Alciatorie, the grandson of Antoine.

That document, shared by the Historic New Orleans Collection, is an exclusive copy of a curated menu that Roy created for Walt’s dinner featuring classic New Orleans seafood like crawfish, crabs and a unique cocktail invented at Antoine’s in 1880 called Café Brulot Diabolique or “devilishly burned coffee.”

It’s clear that Walt and Roy stayed in touch because in the Walt Disney Archives, there is an August 1956 letter from Mr. Roy Alciatorie of Antoine’s to Walt.

In the correspondence, Roy thanks Walt for sending his granddaughter an autographed picture of Dumbo. In Walt’s autograph request files for 1956, there is even a note on a Katz & Besthoff canasta slip with a note that reads, “Alciatorie grandchild,” leading Archives research staff to believe that Walt did dine at Antoine’s a handful of times, even celebrating his brother Roy and wife Edna’s wedding anniversary there in April 1965.

Walt Becomes an Honorary Citizen of New Orleans

Along with the culinary scene of New Orleans, Walt was enamored with the people he encountered there. He built a close relationship with the Mayor of New Orleans Vic Schiro and when Walt began development on New Orleans Square at Disneyland, he shared his plans with the mayor and kept him updated on its progress over the course of the next five years.

The two men even became so close that in June of 1959, Mayor Schiro proclaimed Walt an honorary citizen of New Orleans. Walt returned the favor on July 24, 1966, when he invited Schiro to help him dedicate the newly built New Orleans Square. The two would occasionally joke about switching roles with Walt as Mayor of New Orleans and Schiro as the “Mayor of Disneyland.”

Bringing New Orleans to Disneyland

As “in love” as Walt was with the people and food of New Orleans, he often found himself thinking about the sounds of the city. For this reason, on Oct. 1, 1960, the very first New Orleans-themed celebration was held at the park, featuring major artists and popular New Orleans jazz entertainers of the time.

The event even featured a group called The Firehouse Five Plus Two, a jazz band that was very popular in the 1950s and consisted of members of the Disney Animation department. For the event, jazz was performed throughout the park including aboard elaborate rafts that floated down the Rivers of America.

The inaugural 1960 event was so popular that it became an annual event for several years after, providing guests with incredible jazz and NOLA ambiance in a uniquely Disney fashion.

Inspiration from Little Bird in New Orleans

With all the inspiration Walt had found in New Orleans, he was eager to integrate a similar spirit into Disneyland. During trips in the 1940s and early 1950s, Walt loved to buy antique toys to bring home. In both New Orleans and Paris he discovered antique mechanical singing birds that wound up like a music box.

The little caged birds, made by the same Parisian company, Bontems of Paris, fascinated him and he purchased and brought them home to Burbank. There at the studio, he asked his mechanical wizards to figure out the technology used to animate them. This laid the foundation for what we know today as Audio-Animatronics technology.

Walt’s little toy birds eventually inspired the beloved figures in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and many more beloved Disney attractions.

This new technology made Walt’s New Orleans Square a very special new land indeed. It was this very antique technology that served as the foundation for the new technology that made attractions like the brand new Rapunzel’s Lantern Festival in Fantasy Springs at Tokyo Disney Resort and many other attractions possible.

Recreating New Orleans at Disneyland

With the success of a New Orleans-themed festival Walt and his Imagineers began working on the park’s first major new land: New Orleans Square. As early as 1957, the Imagineers began their research on Louisiana and New Orleans.

There is a memo in the collections of the Walt Disney Archives that is addressed to the first president of Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney Legend Bill Cottrell. In the memo, there is a list of some of the books purchased on the topic — books covering the history of Mardi Gras, the French pirate Jean Lafitte, and even “Patios, Stairways, and Iron Lace Balconies of Old New Orleans.”

This research would be instrumental in re-creating the elegance, culture, and architecture of New Orleans. Walt Disney had always enjoyed the sights, sounds, and culture of New Orleans and he delighted in incorporating these unique elements when reimagining New Orleans for the park.

Opening in 1966, New Orleans Square only continued to grow and expand as new attractions, sights, and restaurants began to spring up and flourish. Among the most memorable dining experiences in New Orleans Square can be found at Café Orleans and the Blue Bayou Restaurant, both are still located in New Orleans Square, next to the former French Market which has now been reimagined as Tiana’s Palace Restaurant.

Inside the restaurant, guests can find references to past inspirations, such as this pun-derful allusion to the Firehouse Five Plus Two with the Firefly Five Plus Lou drum.

Each and every detail and element points to the legacy of Walt Disney in the painstaking care Imagineers and designers have taken today in imagining how to bring Tiana to life at Disney parks.

As we look forward to the opening of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure on June 28 at Walt Disney World and later this year at Disneyland Resort, the same care and attention is applied. It is in fact only fitting that the technology for the figures in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure that will be in the attraction was inspired by iconic antique wind-up mechanical birds.

Today, you can still celebrate the spirit and grooves of New Orleans as you join Tiana on her wild ride, meeting cute critters and seeing many familiar friends along the way. We look forward to welcoming you into a New Orleans adventure of your own very soon.

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