The Secret Origins of Trader Sam’s: Has Disney Raised the Tiki Bar?

Click HERE to read part one of this series to learn all about the history of the Tiki movement and how it fits in with Disney.

What is the sound of paradise? Softly crashing waves? Gentle trade winds carrying the sweet smells of hibiscus and coconut? Far off ukulele playing an exotically relaxing tune? Or is it a frantic cacophony of metallic cowbell clangs, howling air sirens and fellow patrons chanting gibberish all around you? Parkeology took a coast to coast field trip to find out:

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It’s almost perfect…

Before we look forward we must look back. It is important to understand what Tiki bars are about in the first place before we can understand if Trader Sam’s is a success. What is a “trader” exactly anyway and how did it become part of all of this? Last time we revealed the origins of the Tiki movement (and by extension themed entertainment in general), now lets look at a few of the details.

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Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel

Tiki is fun. That is a simple statement but ultimately that is the driving force behind both the original and the newly revived Tiki movements: fun.

During prohibition drinking became a clandestine (and of course illegal) activity. Secret backrooms and speakeasies served smuggled (and often watered down or homemade) drinks to their customers. Bars were not about creating fun or fantasies as much as they were about delivering a coveted product in a sufficiently covert manner. Mixed drinks and cocktails were created not because of the innovative geniuses behind the bars but rather to mask the barely potable bootlegged booze being served.

Bars flourished at the end prohibition yet in a relatively short period of time the country was entangled in World War II. This was a time of shots and beers and finding ways to make it through the third shift at the shipyard. With so many larger problems to worry about, creative mixology and “fun” drinks were the last things on anyone’s mind.

Once the war was over the country was exhausted. Clear of the hard times, we sailed into the mid-century looking for new and better ways of doing things, and new and better experiences.

The world is filled with obstacles both big and small. It was true in the forties and it is true today, it has always been true and it always will be true. We escape life’s complications by spending time with people we love; by visiting places we love, by finding spots (both physical and emotional) that allow us to forget our worries.

Disneyland is the epitome of this idea. It is billed as the “Happiest Place on Earth” and despite it often being filled with unhappy, screaming kids and tired, frustrated adults, for the most part it delivers on its promise.

Walt’s first park was born at a time when escapism was becoming very fashionable and optimism was pushing aside uncertainty. Our future was bright, shiny and happy. Not ironically happy or just possibly better, there was no doubt about it; the gleaming and polished future would be the best time of our lives.

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The movie tanked but the sentiment was dead on

Simultaneously (because of advances in travel the lustrous future was bringing) Americans were able to stretch their boundaries. We wanted to escape the factories and fields that tied previous generations to their hometowns. Yet the reality was that overseas excursions were still expensive, cumbersome and out of the grasp of many. Regardless everyone could have artificial escapes. A trip to Disneyland allowed visitors to venture to far off locations and find their ersatz happy place.

The Tiki movement was doing the same thing.

Tiki expanded built on the simple premise that having fun by being transported to a different place (even if it were a completely fabricated one) was an enjoyable experience. Tiki was a light-hearted trip everyone wanted to take.

When Don’s Beachcomber Café opened it set the stage for every Tiki bar that followed. The beachcomber character is a dropout from civilization. He chooses a life of leisure, lounging on lazy shores instead of fighting in the daily grind. A beachcomber was not only carefree but was also the most interesting man in the world long before a beer company came upon such an idea. The first Tiki bars were bamboo hideaways featuring thatched roofs, found objects (fishing nets, conch shells, drift wood and glass fishing floats) and exotic drinks. They included none of the trinkets and Tiki carvings now associated with most Tiki bars. Those would be added as Tiki bars evolved away from the beachcomber concept and into the trader motif.

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His real name is Jonathan Goldsmith and before he was the most interesting man in the world he was best known for being shot between the eyes by John Wayne in a 1976 Western.

The trader was not only a freewheeling societal drop out like the beachcomber but also an opportunist who used his travels to his own financial benefit. Trader bars expanded on the look of the beachcomber and added a nautical twist. This “Seven Seas” feel included old fashioned ship’s wheels, ropes and pulleys, crates and barrels and any bauble or doodad found on a far away adventure. These seafaring merchant and collector elements added substantialy to the stories being told.

Tiki décor evolved to the point that the imaginary adventures of the made-up proprietors could be told simply by observing the trinkets scattered throughout the bar. Some elements became standards of almost all Tiki bars (such as rum barrel shaped mugs and eventually Polynesian Tiki carvings). Exotic tales could be woven out of the amassed and curated collections.

Long after the original Tiki trend ran its course views towards bars had turned more serious. Speakeasies (though now faux recreations co-opting the covert styles of the originals) became popular. Bars were no longer fun, they were serious places where tattooed and bearded hipsters in vests or suspenders (or both) stirred brown liquors in short glasses. Where had all the whimsy gone?

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May I have a twist of pomposity and a dash of beard trimmings in my drink please?

As a counterpoint to the sober and austere bars of the last 20 years the lighthearted fun of Tiki bars has returned. New establishments have cropped up all over the world and Disney has actually found itself in the unique (and somewhat odd) position of being a leader in this trend. Trader Sam’s provided a perfect opportunity for Disney to combine its rich park history and back stories with the established formula of Tiki bars to create something original.

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The original Trader Sam’s is small, cluttered and just about exactly as it should be.

The trader motif of Tiki bars seems custom made for Disney and its mastery of thematic environments; but a true Tiki bar is about more than just decorations, more than just elaborate mugs and flowery garnishes. There has never been any doubt that Disney could deliver the look of a tiki bar, but could they capture the spirit of one?

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The new Grog Grotto is slightly larger and a little less focused on its theme.

Parkeology had the opportunity to visit both Trader Sam’s locations (starting at Walt Disney World and finishing in Disneyland) within a day of each other. By flying coast to coast we had the chance to compare and contrast them back-to-back and also to measure them against more traditional Tiki bars.

Rather than re-hash every specific detail, drink and decoration found in each location (that can be found ad nauseam on the web for those interested) lets focus on the broader ideas behind them.

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One of our favorite details: Both versions of Trader Sam hang out for a photo (sorry about the glare) as seen at the Grog Grotto.

Clearly Disney has the means and knowhow to create incredible environments and both versions of Trader Sam’s deliver on this. The California outpost is a slightly smaller scale, more intimate and sticks closer to the South Seas, Polynesian Tiki inspiration. Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto in Florida veers a bit more into the nautical side and incorporates elements of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea into its décor (including not only a diving helmet and art work but also a giant squid tentacle holding a bottle of rum). This is fitting given the location at Walt Disney World (former home to the much missed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea attraction).

Both are great fun. Both have elaborate lighting, sound and visual effects that happen around the bar when certain drinks are ordered. Tiki Goddesses come to life, rain storms suddenly occur and flaming drinks are proudly displayed. While this may seem like a Disney contrivance it actually has its roots firmly planted in Tiki tradition. During its heyday many Tiki bars would feature “Mystery Girls” who would deliver specialty drinks to the sounds of drum beats or other similar events that would only take place when specific drinks were ordered. Theatricality and drama have always been hallmarks of Tiki bars and using some Disney “magic” Trader Sam’s brings that to a whole new level.

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“Mystery Girls” were the original Tiki bar special effects… and perhaps even more spectacular then simulated volcanos. “Rum for your life” indeed.

Similarly well done is the actual décor, especially at the California version. There the walls are filled with photos, notes and props all somehow relating back to the Disney parks and history (specifically Adventureland and its attractions). The Florida version (housed within the Polynesian Village Resort) has a similar attention to detail but many of the props on display feel a tad more generic and less Disney specific. Also (though nautical) the steam-punk design of the Nautilus submarine feels a little incongruous with the various bamboo and Tiki knick-knacks. Still the trader theme is a natural fit and Disney squeezes every ounce of fun out of the themes. It is obvious that those charged with creating these spaces (again, it is especially clear in the original incarnation) love Disney, love Tiki and have a deep knowledge and respect for both.

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Bathed in the aquatic blue lights of Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto the Nautilus mug is precisely the type of fun custom touch people love.

Both locations serve a wide range of Tiki drinks including several classics though oddly only the Disneyland version offers a rum barrel designed mug (used for the Ship-Wreck drink). The Walt Disney World version lacks this drink (I am assuming because they do not have the corresponding ship in a bottle special effect) and therefore lacks the mug. I hope they change this. The rum barrel is the most classic “trader” mug and has been a staple in most Tiki bars. Any number of different drinks could be served from a barrel mug and it should have a home at both locations. Perhaps to make up for that oversight the Florida bar features a large scale Nautilus inspired mug that does a good job blending traditional Tiki with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (though I wish it were matte and not glossy). Both bars have a zombie drink (an absolute classic) served in shrunken zombie head mugs. For the most part the drinks are good. They are not using the most premium of alcohols and they are tasked with serving very high volumes but all things considered both bars stand on their own in this area.

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The rum barrel mug is available only on the west coast… an oversight I hope they correct soon.

Both bars serve Asian / Polynesian inspired food though they have completely different menus. By reading the menu we prefered the Walt Disney World version but in actual execution we enjoyed Disneyland’s food more. Both menus have a versions of Tuna Poke’  with it being executed better at the California bar. While not intended for full meals (they are more appetizer portions) ordering a few items off either menu will help soak up the rum and leave patrons satisfied.

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Zombie mugs (different color schemes for each location, this is the current Disneyland version) are well done and a nice touch.

Both play suitably “exotic” music at appropriate volumes to serve as a background soundtrack and not the focus of the show (as it should be).

So far so good- Disney has created unique, elaborate, intimate and just plain fun atmospheres. They have filled them with lots of in-jokes relating to the parks and great one-of-a-kind special effects. The drinks and food are mostly good and the music is generally on point. But not everything is perfect.

Click the link to hear the relaxing music of Trader Sam’s

I’m happy to report that the “forced fun” idea we spoke about last time is largely absent from Trader Sam’s however it feels as though Disney is trying hard to work some of that in. Ordering certain drinks causes the staff (and those regulars who may be in on the joke) to start shouting specific chants. This can set up a feeling of being on the outside looking in. I’m not sure why Disney thinks this is a good idea. Creating situations in which some customers feel left out and excluded is not only not fun, it is just plain rude. In fact loud chants and clapping are just the tip of the iceberg.

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Does this guy look like a lot of fun to hang out next too all evening? Get used to it.

Some drinks trigger suitably interesting special effects such as a Volcano erupting outside the artificial windows, however that is apparently not enough. Disney has its cast members loudly clang cowbells and whirl sirens. Sometimes the bartenders yell, “Run for your lives!” (Or it may be a pun “RUM for your lives!” we are not sure. Knowing Disney it’s probably the pun). Other times (at the Grog Grotto) the bartenders don snorkeling gear and “swim” around the bar. I understand that people seem to like this stuff and I know that the operations side of Disney thinks this adds entertainment value. To us it was just disruptive, irritating and unnecessary. Beyond that it certainly has nothing at all to do with Tiki tradition.

A major draw of Tiki bars is the idea that they are a laid back retreats, places to unwind. Traditional Tiki music made famous in the 50’s and 60’s is so low-key that it is almost ambient. It is meant to help guests escape from the cacophony of the real world to a calming getaway. Seldom does one need more cowbell in order to relax. I have never been lying on a soothing beach thinking to myself “I wish someone was screaming, clanging a bell and sounding an air siren 2 feet from my head right now… now pass me a Mai Tai.”

We all need more cowbell

This mars what could otherwise be a nearly perfect experience. The problem is amplified by the fact that some drinks (such as the Krakatowa) not only cause special effects, bell clanging, chanting, sirens, and other histrionics but also are extremely popular. This means that you may be “Rumming for your lives” every few minutes. Disney should learn that not every experience needs to be high octane, deafening and in your face (this is not Universal Studios after all). I’m surprised they have not yet introduced some sort of Tiki foam-head walk around character to harass you as you try to enjoy a drink. Perhaps they can get Stich to wear a lei and go from table to table shaking hands and rustling heads.

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Coming to a Trader Sam’s near you?

Tiki is best when it unfolds in an organic manner, when you can feel that escapism take hold. Imagine being mid way through a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean when the guy sitting next to you suddenly starts chanting and pantomiming a scuba dive. Does that sound like fun? Does that add to the experience? The answer if you are unsure is NO!

Clanging bells and chanting in-the-know patrons are in fact the polar opposite of the atmosphere one looks for in a Tiki bar. Fortunately this does not destroy the experience that is overall still very positive and highly recommended, but it does diminish it a bit. Sometimes tranquility and authenticity trumps forced interactivity and rambunctious cast members…. even at Disney.

Regardless of the intrusive noise both Trader Sam’s locations end up being resounding successes. After the huge popularity of the first I am a bit surprised that the Florida version is not larger. On one hand it’s great that they kept it intimate but this inevitably means long lines are more the norm than the exception. Making this worse is the fact that the Florida version only opens at 4:00pm (The original version opens for lunch and that is often the best time to visit for light crowds and less cow-bell). They instantly feel as if they have always been here and while both feel tied to the past they also feel suitably upgraded and “Disney-fied” to make them something unique.

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The original Trader Same’s Photo courtesy of toursdepartingdaily.com

People often ask me if “such and such” Tiki bar makes me feel like I am in Hawaii… the answer is always no. Hawaii was never like what Tiki aims to be; a successful Tiki Bar makes you feel like you are in 1964 not like you are in the tropics. Tiki bars by their very nature are pure fantasy and make believe. Trader Sam’s does an admirable job of transporting guests in time while remaining thoroughly modern and certainly a complete fantasy.

If we had to choose we would lean slightly towards the Disneyland location with it’s charmingly small scale, lower key special effects, focused theme and arguably better food. However Walt Disney World’s versions in wonderful as well. Both the bars are worth visiting even if you are a non-drinker. They offer non-alchoholic drinks and the real reason to go is to enjoy the environments that have been lovingly created. Its worth noting as well that children are allowed at both locations but only up until 8:00pm when they turn adults only. Kids get a great kick out of the crazy effects and overall vibe of the places… after all they are all about fun and kids love fun!

It has been suggested that Disney should build a Trader Sam’s at the Disney owned Aulani resort on Oahu. Perhaps they will but I will end this post with a different prediction, or perhaps a recommendation: I bet you will soon see Trader Sam’s locations on the cruise ships. This is a perfect and natural fit.

Trader Sam’s will soon be (if they are not already) thought of as Disney classics.

If you missed it you need to click HERE to read the first part of this series!

 

17 thoughts on “The Secret Origins of Trader Sam’s: Has Disney Raised the Tiki Bar?

  1. I loved reading both these articles. But it bums me out the writer negatively reflects on how the staff interacts with guests when specialty drinks are ordered! That’s one of my favorite parts. I love the sirens & the thunderstorms & the chanting! Lol. If I wanted a quiet relaxing environment I’d make a drink at home. Not go to a bar in the 1st place. It’s only “forced fun” if you choose to look down on it & not to participate. Next time, get in on the joke. You’ll be surprised how quickly it turns from feeling silly to actually BEING fun!

    • i love that you love it Kinsey, that is what makes the world an interesting place. I totally appreciate the eoffort the staff puts into it and I LOVE the environmental effects but it can easily get to a point where it becomes overbearing and starts to detract from the fun, it is certainly lightyears removed from the original intent of “tiki” regardless. But again, obviously many, many people really enjoy it and I am glad you do as well. Also keep in mund that there is an element of tongue in cheek with most of what we do here. Thansk for stopping by, we hope you stay!

        • Oh, Drat!!! I just watched that movie two nights ago for the first time ever. Much better than I expected! Jack Elam was a treasure and should have been in more Disney flicks. If you don’t want the poster, can I have it? Pretty please, with pixie dust on top?

  2. “Also (though nautical) the steam-punk design of the Nautilus submarine feels a little incongruous with the various bamboo and Tiki knick-knacks.”

    Maybe, but not wholly. Most of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” takes place in the South Pacific, including the sequence of Kirk Douglas running afoul of cannibals on a tropical island. Disney also adapted Jules Verne’s “In Search of the Castaways” which has its climax in New Zealand with the Maoris. Besides the novels “Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “In Search of the Castaways,” Verne also wrote “The Mysterious Island,” “The Floating Island,” “Two Years’ Vacation” and “The Kip Brothers” taking place in the South Pacific. So there is a precedent! I also think it’s kind of ingenious that they designed the mug to look like a “native carving” of the Nautilus.

    Anyways, great series on Tiki! I’m jealous that you’ve gotten to Grog Grotto, since as you can imagine, I would be keen to get a Nautilus 🙂

    • Great points. It’s mainly the actual Nautilus design I was referring to. I do think the mug is awesome though. I used to work in both The Jungle Cruise and 20k so it is like my dream mug!

  3. You don’t have to be a guest of the Polynesian Village Resort to visit Trader Sam’s do you?

    • Not at all. It’s open to everyone. However you likely will have a wait (with a pager). Yesterday they quoted a 2 hour wait (!) while it was actually closer to 30 min.

  4. That side-by-side Trader Sams photo is awesome. As is this article! Yours is one of my favorite Disney sites and I really appreciate what you guys are doing.

    • Isn’t that photo great? I always find the two totally different Trader Sams interesting so I love how the addressed it.

      Thanks also for the kind words!

  5. Great article! I love the history and can’t wait to go to Trader Sam’s. I’ve been working my way around the world since moving to FL and have a new spot to try!

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