Walt Disney World’s #CelebrateSoulfully initiative was birthed as a means to provide its guests of color with culturally specific experiences to make them feel included and seen in every way throughout the theme parks and various attractions and excursions the company offers. Their latest release is a line of Princess Tiana merchandise. The collection, which includes an array of kitchenware and apparel, marks the first time Princess Tiana will have her own festival merchandise line. To commemorate the whimsical New Orleans-inspired kitchen flair, Disney enlisted the help of The Chew alum and famed Chef Carla Hall to travel with Black journalists throughout numerous eateries across its parks and resorts to dine on the best food and drink inspired by Black stories throughout the world.
From Aug. 13 – 17, members of the media were treated to a jampacked itinerary of dining and entertainment, equipped with menu items and presentations from the talented chefs who prepared them. We began with a private dinner at Jiko – The Cooking Place at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. The menu incorporates blends of traditional African, Indian, and Mediterranean cuisine with items like steak, chicken, seafood, and plant-based dishes infused with a uniquely bold blend of flavors and fragrant spices. The following day is when the fun really began.
Hall helmed the food tour, meeting everyone at Scat Cat’s Club at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter. Set in a southern-style jazz lounge with music memorabilia, we chowed down on gumbo and NOLA’s famous beignets, but this time in the shape of Disney’s beloved Mickey Mouse. Next, we headed to The Polite Pig at Disney Springs, which features “modern barbecue.” Pulled pork sandwich sliders melted with every bite, accompanied by cauliflower and Brussel sprouts.
At Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine at Disney Springs, we feasted on low country shrimp and grits, their famous fried chicken breast, skillet mac-and-cheese, and washed it down with sweet tea. The tour ended at Tiffins Restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, where the theme of travel can be seen and felt everywhere you look.
Later that evening, we enjoyed a live cooking demonstration by a Walt Disney World Chef (Chef Douglas) and Hall, while enjoying tasty samplings of collard greens and lambchops, among other appetizers. One of Disney’s certified Sommelier Debbie Sacleux allowed us tastings of three wines from the McBride Sisters, which she serves at Cinderella’s Royal Table at Magic Kingdom. Princess Tiana made a special appearance for photos and a special meet and greet with the media. Disney also provided us with passes to the EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival, where we could taste food from around the globe – from Canada to Hawai’i.
On one of my final nights, I opted to return to Jiko for a dinner with local friends and family. Our bartender and waiter, Lo and Nichelly, were exquisite. Thanks to their recommendations, we dined on boar tenderloin, seared scallops, oxtail, snapper, and lamb chops. Lo treated us to a special wine tasting of different South African wines to pair with each dish, as well as a dessert wine for the sweets. We had several full glasses that we purchased as a result of the tastings and even purchased a bottle of wine to enjoy outside of the restaurant. They took excellent care of us, staying with us until the eatery closed.
Shadow and Act Unscripted spoke with Hall about the partnership with Disney, which is the first of its kind in the company’s history. She also dished about what she hopes to do next with the Disney brand.
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S&A Unscripted: First and foremost, this is an unprecedented partnership for Disney. How did your partnership with them come about?
CH: Oh, my God – they reached out to me and they said that they were doing an event and celebrating the new line of merchandise for Princess Tiana. And I was like, ‘Wow.’ And then, honestly, it just got deeper and deeper and to know were going to do this soul food tour with Black journalists. And I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ I mean, honestly, I was amazed and happy and excited because it hadn’t been done before. I’ve been coming here probably for about eight years. It has gone from being like a chocolate chip cookie to something just very diverse and seeing all the diversity, the diversity that I see at the park – and I’ve been doing the Epcot Food and Wine Festival for some time, so I know that there is interest there. But to actually see people who look like me and to celebrate a character who looks like me and to celebrate the thing that I think we how we pass on our culture, which is through food, that should be celebrated. The only answer was yes.
How important do you feel that it is for guests of Disney who look like us to have food that they can experience that they can identify with - versus just a hot dog or a turkey leg?
CH: It’s really important. I think because – also just the point and the fact that you can go on a ride or have an experience in the park and then come together around food that you might have at home as a family and discuss your day. That’s really important because that’s very much a part of how our kitchens work and how our homes work, and how the fellowship and sharing works in our community. And I think it’s really important that that food is here. So it just magnifies that experience and why they want to come back.
How are you looking for your partnership with Disney to expand? You said that you're doing the Epcot Food and Wine Festival and have been for some time. Now you’ve added this. What are you looking to see happen in the future?
CH: Well, I’m hoping that, and I know that there there are a couple of people who are doing a couple of stories about the luxury experience at Disney – and I have come back and am a fan of that luxury experience. And I also want to bring my family. So I see that there are so many things that I can bring them to. It’s one thing to bring my young nieces here. I think the next thing that I want to work on is bringing some of my Black friends here.