“Welcome to Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room”
If you’re a first time visitor to Walt Disney World, it can be easy to miss. The building itself is large, highly stylized, and still almost completely blocked from view by a giant spitting camel and a ride identical to the classic Dumbo attraction. It wasn’t always this way. You’ll hear some of those that grew up on the pre-millennium parks grumble about the carpet ride “ruining the theme” of Adventureland. What was once themed around mysterious jungles, recalling those in Polynesia and Africa, now sports an odd Middle-Eastern section smack-dab in the middle of the land. The merits of this attraction and theming can be discussed another day.
What lies in that building that towers over the carpets is descendant from one of the most important attractions ever built. One could argue that without it, the parks as we know them today would not exist. While designing and building this cheerful little show, the Imagineering department needed to step outside of anything that they’d ever built before. They needed more than just the slight movements that were still stunning crowds over at The Jungle Cruise, and Uncle Walt pushed them to create something new, something with realistic movements synched to sound, what would become known as Audio-Animatronics. Bringing the birds, flowers, and Tikis to life created a whole new technology, one that would set the standard for Disney Parks moving forward.
But why? Why Tiki? With a park filled with Davy Crocket, Snow White, and Mickey Mouse, why a tropical revue? What was it that led Walt and his team to create this classic attraction? The answer to that will bring us back over a hundred years, take us halfway across the globe, involve famous explorers, the Great Depression, World War II, Clark Gable, and a whole lot of rum.
As I wrote it, this article got away from itself a little bit, so in order to try and cut down on the wall of text effect, I split it up into two parts.
Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room
Early Polynesian Fascination
Polynesian culture goes back thousands of years, and the culture is full of deep tradition and heritage. For our story however, the story of how Western culture developed an obsession with the islands of the Pacific, we only need to look back a few hundred years. When the West discovered the cultures that lived among the islands dotting the Pacific Ocean they were fascinated. In the late 1700’s Captain James Cook made voyages around the Pacific islands, looking to map the continent of Australia, and later in search of the Northwest Passage around the American continent.
What Cook, and later explorers, discovered on these islands was a culture of people who lived in a seeming paradise (often compared with Eden) and living what at the time was an extraordinarily liberated culture. These explorers wrote about their encounters with the native population in detail, recording their discoveries for science. Once the explorers returned to their homelands, the stories of their travels intrigued the people, tales of a relatively carefree lifestyle, unencumbered by the societal norms that European nations were living under. The carefree dream of the tropical island was born from these early tales of escape to paradise.
The next wave of travelers were drawn by these stories. The mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s saw artists and authors like Samuel Clemens, Herman Melville, and Paul Gauguin. Clemens wrote stories of his travels to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) for the Sacramento Union, intertwining his famous humor and folksy style with the beauty of the islands. Melville wrote a trilogy of books of travel in the South Pacific. Gauguin famously left life in the west and moved to Tahiti, painting and sculpting until his death.
The work from the artists and authors were translated into the media of the day, music and film. The music of the South Seas was first introduced to a large portion of Americans by the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. By the 1930s, 25% of all recorded music was Hawaiian.
“The Moon and Sixpence” (1919), a film inspired by Gauguin’s life story, glorified the idea of leaving stressful modern society and escaping to tropical islands. In order to shoot films based on island locations, Hollywood converted nearby Catalina Island into it’s tropical shooting location. Part of the set of the film “The Mutiny on the Bounty” was turned into a bar named Christian’s Hut, named after one of the main characters. The location was so popular that a 2nd location was opened up in LA. The LA location soon became frequented by many of the day’s film stars.
A side-effect of Hollywood’s focus on South Seas films was that a large number of set designers and special effects artists were learning how to build tropical themes. These talented artists started taking work designing environments for restaurant and lounges. The owners wanted their customers to be transported from the urban sprawl of the city to a tropical paradise. Tiki bars like The Hurricane (again inspired by a popular book/film) would go past simple island theming, taking advantage of Hollywood’s special effects talent. It was one of the first to have rain storms in the restaurants, with real water dripping down from the ceiling onto faux windowpanes. Lightning and thunder effects were installed and complete set backdrops were created, some with twinkling stars and the ability to change from day to night during the course of a service. The phenomenon didn’t stay only in California, soon spreading across the country. In Columbus Ohio, the Kahiki had live parakeets that lived among the trees in the restaurants, flying from tree to tree, singing while diners enjoyed their meals.
Walt Disney was known to frequent some of the California tiki bars. Clifton’s (Clifford E. Clinton’s Pacific Seas Cafeteria) in downtown LA is said to have been a large source of inspiration for Walt. Multiple levels of tropical paradise rose up inside the building, with palm trees, bamboo huts, and waterfalls spread all over the dining room. A poet once wrote about Clifton’s:
Step from the street with its dust and cries
Into an island paradise
Amid these tropic trees and flowers
Find rest and peace and happy hours
From here you’ll seek the streets again
Refreshed to meet your fellow men…
Not only was urbanization a key factor to the rise of tiki, the US was in the middle of the Dustbowl and the Great Depression. Ideas of tropical paradise where you’d want for nothing struck a chord with a large portion of the US population.
It was during the 1930’s where legends of the burgeoning tiki culture started making a name for themselves. Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic both became pop-culture icons with their tiki bars. The post-prohibition mood of the country in 1933 was celebratory, and Don and Vic were ready with rum-heavy drinks with tropical fruit juices and colorful names. Don’s famous “Zombie” was one of the first tiki drinks, mixing a proprietary blend of rums and fruit juices. The drink was stolen, copied, and eventually settled through the court system. Similarly controversial was Trader Vic’s invention of the Mai Tai, which was contested for years.
Don the Beachcomber became successful enough that he bought the house next to Clark Gable in Encino, and threw many lavish celebrity luaus. He was always smart enough to call the press to these parties, making sure photos of him and his celebrity guests showed up in the next issue of Life. Glamorous celebrities could be seen by millions, smiling and laughing with hula girls and grass skirts.
World War II hits the South Seas
Ushering us out of the Great Depression was World War II. Pearl Harbor became home to the US Pacific naval fleet prior to the surprise attack on December 7th, 1941 and with it came over 17,000 men and women. These soldiers were stationed in Hawaii, and once the US entered the war, were sent out with the fleet across the islands of the pacific.
For these GIs, what they found was a striking disconnect from the tropical dream that they had been sold. Hundreds of thousands of US troops fought and died among the islands and atolls of the Pacific. Those that did return often suffered from shell shock (PTSD). These soldiers would tell a very different story of the tropical island paradise in the South Pacific.
That is, of course, if the rest of the population wanted to hear it. During the war, the media kept pushing the tropical ideal with books, movies, magazines, and music. Nobody wanted to hear about battles for the beachfront, the thought that their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, were enjoying an extended vacation filled with hula dancers and coconuts was a much easier pill to swallow. The USO was happy to help propagate this alternate reality. While the war raged, Life Magazine printed a “War Souvenir” issue with a half-naked hula dancer on the cover. Pictures of GIs on tropical beaches were used to sell towels and comic books.
When the soldiers returned, many of them found it easier to try and forget the horrors of war and focus on the stories that were more in line with the population’s ideas of what had happened. Stories of native women, huts, and fun with their brothers in arms were easier for a post-war GI to retell. Mostly gone was the horror of war, in it’s place was Ernest Borgnine as wacky Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in McHale’s Navy.
Helping along the tropical war mythos was James Michener’s book “Tales of the South Pacific”. A lieutenant in the Navy, Michener was assigned the job of documenting the naval history of the war in the Pacific. After the war was over, Michener turned his writings into the collection of short stories based on his time in the Pacific Islands (Espiritu Santu and Vanuatu). While he did spend time on the front lines, he also spent a large portion of his time away from them as well, doing more of the things that one would expect on a tropical island. His work on this book won him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The success of the book lead to the ubiquitous Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific”, which captured the public’s imagination and won 10 Tony awards. The musical spawned a film, which entered the zeitgeist full force. The fictional island of Bali Hai from the show inspired swaths of new Polynesian restaurants, bars, drinks, and even motor lodges across the USA.
Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room
Tiki Culture Hits Mainstream
Island life was now deeply ingrained in US pop-culture, but “tiki” had not yet became the name of the movement. This didn’t happen until an anthropologist set sail on a small wooden raft, powered only by the winds, trying to prove that the Pacific Islanders could have migrated from South America. The raft was christened the Kon-Tiki. When the Kon-Tiki set sail and successfully landed on the island of Tahiti, “Kon-Tiki” became a household name. The book and documentary around this were best sellers and academy award winners respectively. The Kon-Tiki name was placed on locations across the country by anyone that wanted to evoke the thought of tropical paradise for their business. The word Tiki had now finally arrived.
The post-war explosion of “tiki” expanded past bars serving rum drinks and into the home. Tropical inspired items gave a natural balance to the more stark mid-century designs popular in the day. People built basement tiki bars, complete with the kinds of decorations you’d find in tiki bars.
One person who helped grow this trend was Eli “The Real Beachcomber” Hedley. Eli realized that the burgeoning Tiki industry meant that there was demand for items that mixed natural design elements with nautical or beach-themes. He set up the Tradewinds Trading Company that specialized in creating décor items that fit in any Tiki location, be it public or private. So synonymous with this style of decoration, Walt hired him to help decorate Disneyland’s Adventureland prior to its opening. Eli then operated the Island Trade Store in Disneyland for years after its opening.
By the mid-1950s, the now-familiar tiki statue started to emerge as the prominent symbol of tiki culture. Trader Vic used a historically accurate version of a Maori tiki as its logo and on all of its materials, menus, advertisements, cigarette lighters, cufflinks, and more. Few examples of real native tiki statues survived early missionary crusades against pagan idols. That didn’t bother the artists of the mid-century, as they took to creating their own versions of tiki statues. Mixing the graphic design of the time with tiki symbolism, the tiki started to take over as the representative of the exotic bars and lounges. While the public might have thought they were getting authentic island culture, what they were really getting was pop art inspired by native art.
The final piece of the tropical culture assault occurred in 1959 when Hawaii became the 50th state in the Union. With it, a wave of news stories and travel materials brought tropical beaches and swaying palm trees into the forefront of the minds of the population. The tropics were now officially a part of the United States.
Now that we’ve looked at the cultural phenomenon that was in place in the late 1950s when Walt opened Disneyland. Part II will be a dive into the attraction itself, including its design, its implementation in the US parks, and a bit of an exploration of its staying power.
Continue to Let's All Sing Like The Birdies Sing - Part II