For Disney's New Princess, Short Courtiers Swarm

Princess Tiana Greets Kids At The Mall i

Demand Performance: Princess Tiana greets two of her youngest fans at the Westfield Culver City Mall in California. The star of The Princess and the Frog, Tiana is Disney's first African-American heroine — which makes her both a new kind of kids' icon and a potential cash cow for Disney. Karen Grigsby Bates hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Grigsby Bates
Princess Tiana Greets Kids At The Mall

Demand Performance: Princess Tiana greets two of her youngest fans at the Westfield Culver City Mall in California. The star of The Princess and the Frog, Tiana is Disney's first African-American heroine — which makes her both a new kind of kids' icon and a potential cash cow for Disney.

Karen Grigsby Bates

The atrium of the newly renovated Westfield Culver City Mall echoes with the cheer of several hundred voices floating up to the sparkling skylights. There, the morning sun is just starting to take the chill off California's late-fall air. At ground level, little girls clutch their mothers' hands, rigid with excitement, while younger siblings doze in strollers. Everyone's attention is focused on the closed glass doors separating the crowd from the brand-new Disney Store — its wares tantalizingly visible, if not yet available.

Ask anyone in line why they're spending part of their Saturday here, and you hear the same word over and over: "Tiana!"

Tiana is Disney's newest heroine, all set to ascend to the princess pantheon and take her place alongside icons such as Snow White and Cinderella. Disney representatives say she's their first American princess. (Yes, they know: Pocahontas is a chieftain's daughter, but Disney refers to her as a Native American princess.)

Either way, Tiana is indisputably Disney's first African-American princess. And it's the lady herself who's drawn this crowd: To celebrate the store's opening, Tiana herself will appear later on this morning in the center of the mall.

"I am soooo excited!" Denise Ross squeals. She and her daughter, Alana, got up at the crack of dawn to be first in line when the store opened, the better to pick up prime Tiana merchandise.

"I'm even having my own Tiana party," Ross confides.

"And," adds Alana, "we're going to go see the movie."

Tiana and Family in 'The Princess and The Frog' i

Bedtime Stories: A young Tiana (voiced by Elizabeth Dampier) sits with her mother (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) and father (voiced by Terrence Howard) in their New Orleans home. The Princess and the Frog is the first Disney film to feature an African-American family, and many parents are glad to be able to point to such a clever, resourceful role model at last. Disney Enterprises Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Disney Enterprises Inc.
Tiana and Family in 'The Princess and The Frog'

Bedtime Stories: A young Tiana (voiced by Elizabeth Dampier) sits with her mother (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) and father (voiced by Terrence Howard) in their New Orleans home. The Princess and the Frog is the first Disney film to feature an African-American family, and many parents are glad to be able to point to such a clever, resourceful role model at last.

Disney Enterprises Inc.

"The movie" is The Princess and the Frog, Disney's brand-new spin on the old Grimm fairy tale about a prince who's been put under an evil spell. (He can only return to human form if he's kissed by a true princess.) Instead of Europe, it's set in 1920s New Orleans. And instead of a blond heroine, Disney chose to create Tiana.

In fact, the company has sunk a ton of money and energy into Tiana — the first-class launch, the full merchandising line, the posters and the publicity — and that's gone a long way to erase the bitter taste left by stereotypes from earlier Disney movies. (Remember Uncle Remus? The crows in Dumbo?) Because Tiana is smart, beautiful, ambitious, resourceful — and she's the color of milk chocolate, with black features that are echoed on many of the happy faces waiting in line. And if she's not a "true princess" when the movie starts — it's 1920s New Orleans, remember? — well, that's part of the story.

'Another Option' In The Ranks Of Disney Heroines

Rod Edwards' 4-year-old, Morgan, is already wearing a Tiana T-shirt. (Target and other stores stock some parts of the Tiana line.) Today, Morgan is hoping for a gown she can use for dress-up. Though it's pricey — about $90 — Edwards is planning to comply.

Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen as a Frog i

Froggy Went A-Courtin': Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) mistakes a dressed-up Tiana (voiced as an adult by Anika Noni Rose) for the "true princess" whose kiss will break the curse he's under — and she, as heroines in Disney movies often do, makes the most of the misunderstanding. Disney Enterprises Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Disney Enterprises Inc.
Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen as a Frog

Froggy Went A-Courtin': Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) mistakes a dressed-up Tiana (voiced as an adult by Anika Noni Rose) for the "true princess" whose kiss will break the curse he's under — and she, as heroines in Disney movies often do, makes the most of the misunderstanding.

Disney Enterprises Inc.

"It's good for little girls such as mine to see themselves in a positive light," he says. He wants economic support of Tiana to send Disney a message: Good job — keep it up.

Friends Cydra McLauren and Courtney Parker came with daughters Gabrielle and Caley. Like Edwards, McLauren has come with a shopping list.

"I'll buy a few things she can play with now and put a few away" as collectibles, she says.

The daughters are excited because the new movie is coming out. The mothers are excited because, as McLauren says, she was "totally into Snow White" when she was coming along. "But I am so, so happy my daughter will have another option!"

Sensing this might be the case, Disney released the merchandise before the movie opens — and has been gratified to see it fly off the shelves.

"We are selling out of individual items, particularly the dolls and the role-playing" items, says Mary Beech, vice president of Walt Disney franchising. Last month, in fact, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the deluxe Tiana dress — the one 4-year-old Morgan Edwards has been eying — sold out in that city in short order.

'Something That This Community Has Been Waiting On'

Back at the Westfield Culver City Mall, the crowd waiting for the store to open has multiplied into hundreds, maybe a thousand parents and children, all crowded around a central stage. They form a line that stretches the length of the mall. At 11:30, Disney's newest princess floats to the stage, gives a credibly royal wave of her white-gloved hand and turns, eyes bright, smile wide, to greet her tiny subjects.

"Now come on over here, so I can get some big ol' hugs," she coos.

Shy little fans approach and gently hug the princess in an awed daze. Their tearful mommies take photos.

Disney store manager Barbara Williams, herself African-American, looks on, and she's a little teary too.

"I have worked for the Disney company for 16 years," she confesses, "and this is something that this community — and I can include myself — has been waiting on."

Finally, their princess has come.

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