Why Disney Introduced a Princess Without a Movie – And What It Means for Inclusive Parks

Posted by Sasha Bailyn on Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Elena of Avalor

The highlight of a trip to Disney for many fans is seeing a favorite princess pass by in a parade, or posing for a photo during a character Meet and Greet with a cast member in a ball gown and tiara. Whether you’re a fan of the classic Cinderella or can’t get enough of the latest hits like Elsa from Frozen, Disney does one thing reliably: it brings the heroines of its blockbuster movies to life in parks.

Earlier this month, in an unprecedented move Disney introduced a new princess at Walt Disney World, Elena of Avalor. Elena is the first Disney princess to earn a spot in the parks without a major motion picture success behind her character. More importantly, Elena is the first princess based on Latin American cultures and is a strategic move for the Walt Disney Company and its broader diversity agenda.

According to Pew Research, the U.S. Hispanic population topped 55 million in 2015 and continues to grow each year. As a key and growing segment of the population, in many ways it’s surprising that there hasn’t been a Latina Disney princess up until this point. The Parks’ decision to bring Elena to Walt Disney World for a limited engagement visit says a lot about key moves toward inclusiveness at theme parks.

The character is the star of a series of the same name, Elena of Avalor, that’s on the Disney Channel and launched earlier this summer. In the announcement about the new character on the Disney blog, she was described as, “a bold, aventurera princess, whose love for her kingdom of Avalor, and most importantly, her familia, fuels her magical adventures.” Each episode of the show incorporates Latin culture, customs and different types of Latin American music ranging from salsa to mariachi.

Elena is currently at Walt Disney World and will be making appearances at Disney’s California Adventure later this fall. Currently, guests can interact with Elena in a couple of different contexts at the parks. In addition to Meet and Greets around the park, she’s also in a live show with other royal characters. The presentation is called “The Royal Welcome of Princess Elena,” and takes place at Cinderella’s Castle.  It explores her return to Avalor after defeating an evil sorceress and her current challenges to rule it alongside magical friends. The show’s themes align with the storyline of the animated series.

Princess Elena

While Disney’s lineup of princess characters has been fairly diverse, the company has made an ongoing commitment to increased diversification in recent years. The Disney princess introductions may be part of a larger initiative on the company to continue making their cast of characters as inclusive as possible. In a recent editorial, a journalist noted that the next big Disney film Moana focuses on a heroine searching for a fabled Polynesian island. Careful choices were made in the filming and a lengthy casting call led to the casting of several actors with strong regional ties. Along a similar vein, press interviews with executives behind Elena of Avalor noted that Disney brought in extensive cultural consultants to help create an authentic cultural context for the character of Elena.

Increased diversity in parks helps shape a richer visitor experience and influences the broader cultural dialogue. Theme park guests are drawn into an immersive world that’s akin to books, movies and video games. In this way, themed entertainment attractions are a significant cultural force. And it’s important to ask: will people who are visiting them, especially young people, find characters that they can identify with in the character lineup?

For entertainment designers, increased diversity in the theme park world represents an opportunity on several levels. One is simply engaging a wider audience of visitors by providing more relatable examples for a larger group of guests, whether that’s based on ethnicity, culture, or other criteria. Another is by expanding the potential base of stories and mythologies to integrate into the worlds that we create. In many ways, rides and attractions are often based on familiar storylines or cultural contexts – and looking for a broader cultural representation can help designers find innovative and fresh ways to explore universal themes. Finally, a larger palette helps give the basis for more creative and diverse visual inspirations, soundtracks and other design details that help bring attractions to life. Most significantly, taking a more inclusive approach to design lets attractions take on a larger social significance and make an important statement of acceptance, the power of diversity, and the benefits of appreciating a wide range of cultures.

Images courtesy of Disney, YouTube

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