In the previous article, I discussed the beginnings of the United State’s fascination with all things Tiki, looking into how the culture grew and exploded. Today we’ll look into the Enchanted Tiki Room itself, from its beginnings through today. At the end, I’ll take a deeper look into why it has remained as important now as it ever was.
The Evolution of the Attraction Design
It was in the midst of this pop culture phenomenon that Walt Disney decided to change the amusement park business. When Disneyland opened its gates in 1955, Walt had decided to build an entire section devoted to the exotic worlds as seen in his True Life Adventures series of documentaries. In early guidebooks for Disneyland, Adventureland is described:
“Here you can stroll through a Tahitian village lush in its exotic beauty, marvel at the unusual exhibit of South Seas products displayed at the Bazaar, or take an explorer’s boat on a journey through tropical rivers where life-like wild animals add thrills and excitement to your trip to the far ends of the world”
What would become Walt’s trademark, theming the environment to transport you somewhere else entirely, was well demonstrated in Adventureland, once the tropical foliage had time to grow in. Early reports on the Jungle Cruise, the only attraction open in 1955 in Adventureland, was a sparsely landscaped attraction. The tropical plants chosen by Bill Evans would take a few years to grow into the lush jungle typically associated with Adventureland.
It’s not hard to look at the impact that the early tropical restaurants and tiki lounges had on Walt as he made his way through Hollywood. Adventureland was the tiki bar environment on a massive scale. You wouldn’t just sit in an indoors version of paradise, but walk within it. With Eli “The Real Beachcomber” Hedley providing artifacts and setting up shop, and with the meticulous landscaping work of Bill Evans, Adventureland would go farther than any tiki bar had gone before.
In 1962, the tropical influence grew in Adventureland with the addition of the Tahitian Terrace restaurant. This dinner show served up “South Seas” dining (food served at most Polynesian themed restaurants had little to do with actual native foods) with a show filled with hula dancers and fire walkers. Dressed in grass skirts and sarongs, the dinner show brought an American interpretation on tropical culture.
Walt wanted more however. He wanted to add a Chinese restaurant to the park. His original idea (which would prove quite controversial today) had an automated figure of a Confucius style character in the lobby, which would interact with guests and provide “words of wisdom” while guests waited to enter into the dining room. The meal would be accompanied by a show, featuring live and fake animals, and a talking, fire breathing dragon. The dessert would be a show of singing birds. The dragon and Confucian figure were dropped when technology was not quite up to the challenge, thank goodness. Walt rethought the idea of the dinner-show as well, realizing that people might be too mesmerized by the show to finish their food in time, leaving no time to turn the restaurant over in time for the next show.
With the dinner now out of the picture, what was left was the show itself. Walt had found a little clockwork bird in a curio shop in New Orleans, and was fascinated by it. He asked his imagineers to use the bird as an inspiration to build a new type of figure. The show would require a new kind of animated figure, one that would be able to perform complex movements in synch with the audio of the show. His imagineers developed this new technology for the Tiki Room. Walt, ever the showman, described it like this:
Now to accomplish this, we created a new type of animation, so new that we had to invent a new name for it—Audio-Animatronics. The same scientific equipment that guides rockets to the moon is used to make Jose and his little friends in the Tiki Room sing, talk, move, and practically think for themselves. I guess you could call him a creature of the Space Age!
Tiki Room Audio-Animatronic figure
To build the lead characters, the first designs for the show were put together by Rolly Crump and Marc Davis (Marc’s first Imagineering assignment). Marc himself was a collector of South Seas art, so he poured his attention to detail into the birds, flowers, and tikis. The Animatronic figures were created, and then covered in real feathers to ensure the realistic design. Not too realistic however, the birds needed personality, and the Imagineers made sure to give them just enough to give the show a touch of whimsy.
The script was written by Larry Clemmons, Marty Sklar, Wally Boag, and Fulton Burley. The writers made sure to inject the script with the humor that became a hallmark of the attraction. Voices for the four emcees (Jóse, Fritz, Pierre, Michael) were provided by Boag, Burley, Ernie Newtown, and Thurl Ravenscroft.
You may recognize some of the names of the Imagineers that worked on this attraction. Note the pedigree that went into making this show something special. There were two more legends yet to leave their mark.
A Musical Luau
The Sherman Brothers had written music that became a hit for Mouseketeers Judy Harriet and Annette Funichello. When Walt showed an early version of the show to The Boys, they recalled a Calypso song that they had written for the Swiss Family Robinson. Taking this melody they then rewrote the lyrics, and soon “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” was ready to go. The song does everything a good Sherman Brothers attraction song would become synonymous with. It told the story of the attraction, it set the tone of the show, and it used humor and imagery to convey all that was needed to know about the attraction to come. All this to a catchy tune that adults and children could sing along to.
Now that the theme song was written and the script was ready, the rest of the show needed to be filled in with music. An instrumental number “Barcarolle”, a song from the Offenbach opera “The Tales of Hoffman”, was added using whistles and birdcalls (performed by a professional bird caller who could imitate 900 different species of birds). “Let’s All Sing like the Birdies Sing” (a song written in 1932), introduced in the show as the bird national anthem, was included and performed with the chorus of lady birds on the bird-mobile that was lowered to the audience with the help of the magic fountain in the center of the room. Next came the “Hawaiian War Chant”, the oddly named traditional Hawaiian song. The song was originally written in 1860 by Prince Leleiohaku as Kaua i ka Huahua'I, or “We two into the spray”, a love song about a secret romance.
We two in the spray
Oh joy two together
Embracing tightly in the coolness
Breathing deep of palai fern.
The wraps up with the “Closing Bow”. As guests left they were sung out to a humorous twist on “Heigh-Ho” that was written by Wally Boag.
The show was ready, the birds and flowers were ready, and soon the Disneyland public would be introduced to our feathered friends.
Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room
Once the show was written and recorded (in something that seems impossible in this day and age) it took only three months of construction before the show was ready to open on June 23, 1963.
Guests coming into Adventureland were greeted by an amazing sight. A bird sitting outside of the gates to the attraction was calling for guests to come in and enjoy the show. It was modeled after the traditional carnival barker who would call out to passing guests to get them to come in to whatever attraction they were stationed in front of. The Barker Bird, or the Tiki Room Ballyhoo Parrot, was an Audio Animatronic (Emcee Jose’s cousin Juan) that would call out to passing guests to invite them into the show. When the attraction opened in 1963, the Barker Bird did his job well, drawing crowds at the gates of Adventureland. It worked too well at times, causing a bottleneck of people stopped to watch the bird go through its spiel.
Outside of the building, a pre-show was created that evoked the island spirit that the attraction was based on. A series of carved tikis were spread around the courtyard. As the preshow started, they took turns giving small poems about the god that they represented in Polynesean culture. Imagineer John Hench was responsible for the idea to use the tiki gods as the preshow. The sculptures were designed by Collin Campbell and sculpted by Rolly Crump; the script was written again by Marty Sklar. The preshow was short, running under 5 minutes, but served to get the audience into the spirit of the attraction.
The show itself lasted over 17 minutes when it debuted and could handle around 200 people at a time. Compared to other ride types that are available today the capacity is relatively low. Based on an interview with Diana Lai, an original hostess, they had 20 minutes in total to run the show and turn over the crowd, and assuming a full crowd that’s about 800 people per hour.
Many of the tricks that Walt had seen in some of the local tiki lounges found their way into the show as well. The backdrops that could transition from light to dark, the rain, the thunder and lightning. These staples of some of the more advanced tiki bars gave this little show the ability to transport guests far away from their current environment and into a tropical paradise.
The attraction was initially sponsored by United Airlines, who were trying to capitalize on the 1959 addition of Hawaii as the 50th state. This sponsorship lasted 13 years until Dole took over as sponsor in 1976, and remains the sponsor today.
Walt was very protective of his “baby” from the start. He routinely hovered around the attraction, ensuring everything was running smoothly. The hostesses were asked to constantly scan the 150+ animatronics and report to the engineers located in the basement control room if any of them was not in synch with the audio track. The birds themselves were maintained by professional taxidermists to ensure their realistic look. This seemingly “little” show was a massive technological advancement, with precise movement required to keep that feeling of awe and wonder that its creator intended.
The opening of the new park in the Florida brought the popular attraction to Walt Disney World on opening day in 1971. In WDW The Enchanted Tiki Room was renamed the Tropical Serenade.
The show script was identical save the newly developed preshow, featuring two toucans named Clyde and Claude. Instead of the tiki gods, a waterfall in the center of the queue would part and a stone door would open to reveal Clyde and Claude sitting on top of a tiki statue. Claude, voiced by Sebastian Cabot (who voiced Bagheera and was the narrator of several Winnie the Pooh films), and Clyde, voiced by Dal McKennon (who voiced Zeke from Country Bears and the Big Thunder Mountain safety spiel) would tell the humorous tale of their adventure finding the Enchanted Tiki Room.
Clyde and Claude pre-show
The pavilion itself was made grander, larger than the one in Disneyland, and came with a new sponsor, mascot, and refreshment stand. Instead of United, The Florida Citrus Growers association sponsored the WDW attraction. The Tiki Room building was named the Sunshine Pavilion, and aside from the attraction, housed the Sunshine Tree Terrace that featured orange flavored treats like the citrus swirl, and introduced Orange Bird to the guests.
Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room
The show ran from opening day through September 1, 1997, when it was closed for a re-imagining. Opening a little over a year later, guests were “treated” to an updated show. “The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management” had arrived at the Sunshine Pavilion.
Under New Management
Opening on April 5th, 1998, the updated version of the classic attraction replaced nearly everything in the original show.
The preshow was updated to reflect the new direction. Clyde and Claude were replaced by new birds, William and Morris (in a reference to the William and Morris Agency, a legendary Hollywood talent agency). The birds were voiced by two Hollywood greats, Don Rickles and Phil Hartman. The two birds were the agents for the new management of the Tiki Room and discussed their client’s takeover of the show without mentioning them by name.
Upon entrance to the main hall, the show started as normal. The familiar Sherman Brothers theme song queued up, but before our hosts could get through the first verse, the familiar vocal stylings of Gilbert Godfried (as Iago from Aladdin) stopped the music. Stating that he was going to “toss his crackers” if he had to listen to that song, he said that the music had to be updated for modern audiences.
Another new bird was brought in as counterpoint, Zazu (from The Lion King) warned Iago of the dangers of angering the Tiki Gods. Iago led the show through an updated set of songs that were slightly more recent hits, including an updated “Friend Like Me” (Aladdin, 1992), “Hot, Hot, Hot” (popularized by Buster Poindexter in in 1987), “In the Still of the Night” (The Five Satins, 1956), “Conga” (Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, 1985), and “Get on your Feet” (Gloria Estefan, 1989).
Replacing the magic fountain in the center of the room was a new high-tech animatronic of “Uh-Oa: The Tiki Goddess of Disaster”, who is angered by Iago’s changes to the program. The new animatronic was a highlight of the refurb, showing off the range and smoothness of movement for the new generation of audio-animatronics. Uh-Oa blasts Iago with a shot that leaves him singed and more of a friend to the Tiki Room and everyone joins in for the closing numbers.
The new show ran to tepid reactions until January 12, 2011, when a fire in the theater ruined some of the more advanced animatronics like Iago. After over a decade, the tiki gods had spoken resoundingly with fire.
Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room
Post-fire, management at WDW decided that Under New Management had not succeeded at bringing the show into the present. Some attractions are classics for a reason. On August 15, 2011 the show reopened with an edited version of the classic Walt-inspired show. The original pre-show was brought back, along with a mostly-in-tact version of the 1963 show.
Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room marquee
The new-old version removed the Offenbach number and cut some dialogue between the musical numbers. Nearly 5 minutes was trimmed from the original show, leaving the new show clocking in around 12 and a half minutes. The removal of the piece of classical music helped tighten up the pace of show to try and alleviate the complaints that the show was too long. The audio was pulled from a 2005 update done to the original Disneyland attraction that had included a remastering of the original audio tracks.
Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room show
The one major missing piece of the original was the magic fountain in the center of the room. The fountain area had been removed during the Under New Management update. This is where Uh-Oa was located in Under New Management. The 8 month refurbishment apparently was not enough time to rebuild the magic fountain or the cost to rebuild did not justify itself in management’s eyes. The focal point in the center of the room was replaced by a decorated box. The box may seem oddly placed to new guests who may not know the original attraction, as the center of the room is just a large decorated planter.
The newly returned attraction offered a well-needed return to what made the original Disneyland attraction a classic. In 2013, the Disneyland Tiki Room celebrated its 50th anniversary.
What Makes the Tiki Room Special?
There are a few questions that arise from a deep dive into this attraction.
- What makes an attraction stand the test of time while others fade?
- How did Under New Management fall so short?
- What is the lasting impact of a silly little musical review?
Here is where the article shifts a bit from a look at the history of a culturally influenced attraction into a bit of opinion.
What makes an attraction stand the test of time while others fade?
I can (and likely will) write an entire article on this topic alone, so I’ll focus on what makes this attraction stand the test of time. As we’ve explored earlier in the article, when this attraction debuted, it was an extension of something that was deeply ingrained in the cultural psyche of most Americans at the time. From dreams of a tropical escape brought about by authors and artists, musicians and larger-than-life characters, the Tiki Culture had permeated the mid-century American zeitgeist. Tikis were everywhere, in tiki lounges, restaurants, and in the rumpus rooms and basements across suburban America. While that fad started to fade in the late 60s (there were large numbers of Americans being sent over to tropical jungles of a different kind), the escapism and purity of purpose let The Enchanted Tiki Room hold on to the positive aspects of that fad and forgo the negative connotations that the war in Vietnam might bring. Tiki culture has ebbed and flowed since the 60s, having brief resurgences in the 90s and today.
If you think about the Disney resorts worldwide, there are Tiki Room attractions in California, Florida, and Tokyo. In California and Florida there are very popular tiki bars in the resorts, and in Florida the entire Polynesian resort is a testament to the staying power of Tiki.
On top of the cultural significance, it never hurts to have an unforgettable Sherman Brothers tune as your cornerstone. “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” hits (wait for it) all the right notes (told you). It’s something kids and adults can sing along to, it has witty lyrics that can bring a chuckle 53 years later, the chorus has a great musical device. A fun-to-repeat phonetic “Tik” sound that drives the song forward, the second syllable acting almost as a grace note to the more prominent first syllable.
Combine an entire room filled with animatronics, where the room itself comes alive by the closing number, a series of classic songs anchored by a song written by songwriting legends, mix in a little escapism, a spot-on thematic tie in to Adventureland, and a heaping helping of nostalgia (the power of which cannot be underestimated) and you have an attraction with very long staying power.
Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room show
How did Under New Management fall so short?
This one is an interesting question. With the long run time of the original show and a bit of the old “kids these days…” justification, it is easy to put oneself in the mindset that may lead to a revamp of this attraction. The Tropical Serenade version in WDW was not “Walt’s Original”, so the idea of touching this classic attraction might have been easier to swallow to some. The nature of the audio animatronics does potentially lend itself to an easy update, reprogramming the show is all that is needed once the script is written/recorded. Add a few new animatronics based on two very popular 90s, created during the resurgence of Disney Animation, felt like it could work as well.
So what happened that made this one of the worst received updates in WDW history? Only Stitch's Great Escape comes close in long-time guest vitriol. I think that there are a combination of factors that contributed to its failure. Speaking from personal feelings, there was something jarring about the difference in the mostly-realistic models of the traditional animatronic birds and the cartoon accurate versions of Iago and Zazu. For all of the birds, flowers, and tikis in the original attraction, only the main parrot characters had noticeable stylized elements. A majority of the bird chorus looked like they could have flown in that morning. Sitting next to very realistic representations of the birds, the new characters broke the suspension of disbelief that is needed for an attraction like this to really work subconsciously.
The updated music did not help either. Part of what makes the original attraction work so well is the timeless nature of the music. The original music only gets more classic with age. The farther the music is removed it’s genre’s peak, the less likely they are to fade quickly. The Sherman Brothers wrote timeless music, and the pieces chosen for the original show stayed timeless. They are so far out of what is currently popular that they in some ways exist “out of time”. They are not parodies, they are just classic pieces that get more classic with age. The songs chosen for the updated Under New Management attraction however were more modern, but also not classic songs that stand the test of time by themselves. No offense to Buster Poindexter or Gloria Estefan, their songs will continue to live on, but a quickly slapped together parody of a song over a decade old does not inspire the same timeless feeling. The music was already outdated (not classic, there is a difference) the day the doors opened, and as we moved into the 2010s, the songs grew farther and farther out of sync with popular music. By choosing timeless music, you have a chance at a timeless attraction. By choosing more modern pop-music, you are then a slave to the trends of the time.
Lastly, and this may only speak for myself, there was a certain degree of disrespect to the original attraction shown by the new version. Yes, Iago was the “villain”, the grating voice of Gilbert helped get that point across, but his story arch was not believable. He interrupted a timeless musical number to speak poorly of it, which did not sit well with fans who loved the original. His voice, intended to cause reaction, did its job, but not in a way that made you happy to see him get his comeuppance or come to his senses. It was more that you wanted him to immediately go away.
I always attributed his script statements as commentary from the current Disney management towards the original attraction. The Enchanted Tiki Room was outdated to them, something to be derided and laughed at. While Iago angers the gods and somehow learns to respect them (through being hurt by Uh-Oa I guess), the resolution does not finish with the bird choir singing a classic song, just another version of a recently outdated song. “Conga/Get On Your Feet” closes out the show, meaning that while Iago was “punished” for mocking the original music, the birds in the end follow suit and change the music of the attraction.
This kind of slap in the face of an attraction directly tied to Walt and the Shermans is something that I feel long-term Disney fans found off-putting. It’s hard enough to replace a classic attraction with something new, but the successful attempts have typically done so with a some reverence to the original attraction. Look at the references to The Nautilus or Mr. Toad’s in the attractions that stand in their place now. Even Mission:Space has nods to Horizons built into it. Nostalgia is a tricky beast to deal with, and when messed with without respect, can backfire massively. I think that above all else, this is what doomed Under New Management.
What is the lasting impact of a silly little musical review?
This is pretty simple. Walt and his team designed something completely new when they were building the Enchanted Tiki Room. Without the innovation of Audio Animatronics, the Disney theme parks as we know them would not exist. While many other attractions in the Disney pipeline at the time would come to use the new technology (Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln), The Tiki Room was the first and therefore deserves its place among the greats.
This also started a line of attractions which are among my favorite kinds, the Audio Animatronic musical review. The Enchanted Tiki Room, The Country Bears, Kitchen Kabaret, even the Audio Animatronic shows like Carousel of Progress and the American Adventure owe a massive debt of gratitude to the Tiki Room.
The theme song itself is has a lasting impact. It’s widely known, and beloved. It’s Sherman Brothers gold.
Finally, I think that it gave Disney management a stark reminder at the power that nostalgia and timelessness can play in a theme park with a history like Disneyland or Walt Disney World. Without the replacement and failure of Under New Management, I can imagine a whole slew of updated rides/shows brought from being timeless into the world of pop-culture ticking timebombs. What other irreverent and disrespectful attractions would we be suffering through right now had it not been for the ramifications of the decision to close down this attraction and replace it?
Next time you’re strolling through Adventureland either at Disneyland or WDW, take a bit of a break, enter a tropical paradise, sing like the birdies sing, and celebrate this attraction that we’re so lucky to have. Where the birds sing words and the flowers croon…