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

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.

 

Animal Kingdom’s Latest Delicious Treat is… Poop

A while back, I praised Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter for creating the perfect theme park food crossover. Famous fictional food in a theme park is something Disney has never quite mastered, though they do allow you to eat famous fictional mice for every meal of the day.

But now that bare-bones approach is about to become extinct.

Today was my first opportunity to sample the many new shops and food locations that have sprung up in Construction Wall City Animal Kingdom, and I’m here to declare that a new theme park treat champion has been crowned.

Zuri’s Sweets opened only a few days ago, and features exciting and strange beef jerky flavors, African infused olive oils, and candy dispensing machines that actually dispense trail mix and other exotic combinations instead of M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces.

It’s one of Disney’s better attempts at merchandising in recent memory. It has not yet been overrun with the same generic merchandise that you can find everywhere else, and even the Timon and Pumbaa gummy candies at least have an African slant to them.

But the candy and pastry counter caught my eye. Not because there are new elephant and monkey candy apples, but because for the first time anywhere, a theme park is offering an assortment of pastry animal poop that you can buy.

How much would you pay to eat animal poop? $10? $20? How about only $3.99 (or one Disney snack coupon)!!

How much would you pay to eat animal poop? $10? $20? How about only $3.99 (or one Disney snack coupon)!!

No joke, it is a series of pastries called “Match the Species,” and they are designed to look like the bowel movements of exotic animals. There are four flavors.

  • Elephant
  • Giraffe
  • Cotton-Top Tamarin
  • Hippo

We did not sample any of these delectable dishes, because we had already just come from the bathroom. But otherwise, I can assure you we would have been all over these like flies on… well, tasty chocolate scat, I guess.

Take that, Butter Beer.

 

The man who invented paradise: The secret history of Disney’s Tiki Room & Trader Sam’s

Upon hitting the scene in 2011 The Disneyland Hotel’s Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar became an instant hit. How could it not be? After all, it combines several things Disney does extremely well: heavily themed environments, clever special effects and deep back-story. Of course it also includes alcohol that curiously and inexplicably remains a major draw for many Disney fans (take a trip to Epcot during the food and wine festival for unfortunate, sloppy proof of this).

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It could have opened 50 years earlier and been right on point.

After enjoying several years as the only Disney Tiki bar (making many of us scratch our heads, bewildered as to why it took over 55 years for Disney to get around to building one), Trader Sam’s expanded this Spring with an all new location in the Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World. The perfect and obvious choice for a Tiki bar now proudly has one (this time called Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto) and the crowds are proving once again that Tiki is back and perhaps poised to become even bigger.

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A synthetic, idealized South Pacific resort surely deserves a synthetic idealized tiki bar!

Most people, even non-Disney fans, grasp that the parks inspired both Trader Sam’s locations. They clearly have an Adventureland feel to them (even sharing their names with the Jungle Cruise character) that would be obvious to anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the parks who wandered in. The West Coast version takes most of its inspiration from the Jungle Cruise and The Enchanted Tiki Room while the East Coast incarnation adds elements of the sadly defunct Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea attraction.

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Is this Trader Sam?

 

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Or is this Trader Sam? It all depends on which coast you are from.

In many ways, both locations have finally brought to fruition a concept Walt Disney had dating back to the early days of Disneyland. Over and over again, Imagineering has tried to combine Disney style show elements and exotically themed environments with dining establishments. Famously, the original concept for the Tiki Room started as a restaurant and dinner show before being scaled back to the current show (though you can enjoy Dole Whips inside the original Disneyland version).

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The original concept for the Enchanted Tiki Room has tables and food and feels a lot like Trader Sam’s does today.

The Blue Bayou restaurant in New Orleans Square layered rich environments on top of a dining location and many other Disney restaurants have taken that same path over the years (Epcot’s San Angel Inn, Disneyland’s Tahitian Terrance, The Explorers Club in Disneyland Paris and so on). Even Club 33, the members only, off limits to regular riff-raff, bucket-list worthy private club originally called for interactive animatronics to entertain diners. Yet somehow, over all of this time, Disney had never successfully combined themed environments, attraction-like show elements and dining all in one… they have come close but never quite nailed it.

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I want to love the Adventurers Club but I could never warm up to it… to much “Kungaloosh!” and not enough charm or whimsy.

The former Adventurers Club, on the also former Pleasure Island, came close. It did have animatronics and show elements in a richly themed environment, but it also had regulars who often took over the property and created an oddly exclusive feel, one in which regular folk were not in on the jokes and unwelcome (Kungaloosh!… oh shut up please). Beyond that, “forced fun” (a somewhat uniquely Disney experience where the pressure to have fun becomes so great that actual fun becomes impossible) would often overwhelm a visit.

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Yea!!!!! Look how much fun we are having!!!! Yipeeeeeeee. That one guy even has a noise maker… YES!

The Adventurers Club tried so hard to be fun and irreverent and off beat and spontaneous that it usually failed to be any of these things. It did have a great environment and served drinks and perhaps some simple snacks… however it was basically a comedy club with a bar attached, not really what Walt was going for with his original concept of the Enchanted Tiki Room.

With Trader Sam’s Disney scaled things down, made the room intimate and lavished layer upon layer of thematic details. It may be enjoyed on the simple premise that it is a Tiki bar or one can delve deeper and find hidden jokes and references to past and current attractions. They of course serve Tiki drinks in a variety of exotic and elaborate mugs (as is Tiki bar tradition) and enough food that a group could eat a meal there. Furthermore, there are legitimate show elements happening all around you. Ordering specific drinks will trigger special effect sequences that range from erupting volcanoes to sinking ships. Trader Sam’s is fun, it is for the most part inclusive and is as close to Walt Disney’s concept of the Tiki Room as we are likely to get.

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Hey José, pass the guacamole will ya?

Considering that you are reading this on a website devoted to the small details of the Disney parks you likely know all of this already, in fact you have probably been to one or perhaps both locations. Maybe you have a souvenir Zombie mug sitting on your desk, or maybe you have custom built shelves to hold your complete collection of Tiki mugs (we are not judging you). But few fans have really thought about why any of this exists in the first place, why was Walt so intrigued by Polynesian and Tiki themes? It may have taken six decades to get here but where did it all begin?

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The future is now!

Mid-Century America was an interesting time and place. Technology was delivering experiences never before dreamed of. The United States enjoyed an economic and cultural leadership role but also toiled under the “Red Scare” and newfound pressures to move to the suburbs locked into a 30-year mortgage. It was both an exciting and uncharted time filled with humor and a certain synthetic feel. Polyester was better than cotton, frozen food was better than fresh, Monsanto was paving the way to the future and artificial turf was going to replace lawns everywhere: it was the American dream! Disneyland was created at perhaps the only time in history that it could have been, it is very much a reflection of the popular culture of the time. As much as we hate it when Disney tries to be “hip” and “edgy” the truth is that Disneyland has ALWAYS been tied into the zeitgeist. The mid-fifties was a time when multiple trends were emerging within pop culture. Westerns were at their peak (thus Frontierland), the googie architectural movement with its atomic age shapes and space age excitement was in high gear (fueled by the space race over the next 15 years) and so Tomorrowland was born. There was also a fascination with exotic locales and cultures that were foreign to most Americans; the Tiki movement exemplified this and Adventureland became Disneyland’s physical manifestation of it. What later became ironic, kitschy or at worst; tacky, was in fact a hugely popular cultural movement that covered the entire country and lasted over 40 years.

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Mickey Mouse poaching ivory… you probably would not see that today.

The Tiki movement started in California in 1933 when Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (a young unemployed former prohibition era bootlegger) took the nom de plume of Donn Beach (he later legally adopted this name) and opened up Don the Beachcomber. It was a small bar located in an old tailor’s shop in Hollywood. Decorated with bamboo, thatch roofs and tropical knick-knacks picked up form his island travels, it became an instant smash. Don expanded to a larger location and soon the Hollywood elite (such as Walt Disney) were hanging out drinking the rum and fruit juice cocktails Don concocted with an eye on escapism. Even though these drinks were based on Caribbean liquor and had absolutely nothing to do with the South Pacific (and the actual use of Tiki statues would not come for many years to follow) Tiki as we know it was born.

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Meet Mr. Beach… without him you would not have Trader Sam’s, the Tiki Room, the Dole Whip or life as you know it.

This was a time when air travel was just becoming democratized, it was just starting to reach a point where an average person could travel great distances. Previously you may be born in Kansas, grow up in Kansas and die in Kansas. Kansas was your world, Kansas was what you knew… the idea of beaches and palm trees and untamed native girls was as far away as the dark side of the moon. Visiting Don’s bar was like traveling across the globe to a fantastic shangri la you never knew existed, or perhaps knew could only exist in a place like this.

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The original Don’s Beachcomber Cafe gave birth to a trend that would last decades and spawn countless copies.

Don served in the Army during World War II and his wife took over and expanded the chain of bars when he was away (16 locations by the time he returned). When the war ended many soldiers came home from the Pacific theater suppressing the horrors they experienced and instead telling stories of uncharted beaches, topless girls and exotic food and drink. The country and the folks who lived and died in Kansas were fascinated. The fact that these tales were mostly fictional and bastardized hodgepodges  of Oceanic, Caribbean and African cultures (plus a good heap of pure fantasy) mattered less than the fact that they brought escapism, fun and relief from a long period of conflict. Looking at Tiki bars to learn about Polynesian culture would be like looking at the Country Bear Jamboree to learn about the mating habits of grizzlies; it was all make believe.

Mating occurs from May through July with a peak in mid-June. Female grizzlies begin bearing young at 3 to 8 years of age, and litter size varies from one to four cubs, with an average litter of two. Grizzly bears have a promiscuous mating system: cubs from the same litter can have different fathers.

Mating occurs from May through July with a peak in mid-June. Female grizzlies begin bearing young at 3 to 8 years of age, and litter size varies from one to four cubs, with an average litter of two. Grizzly bears have a promiscuous mating system: cubs from the same litter can have different fathers.

The world was getting smaller and these far-off fantasies were tantalizingly within grasp. Hawaii joined the union as our 50th state and interest in Tiki was at an all time high. The parallels of what was happening in popular culture and what Disney was doing, both in entertainment and eventually his park, cannot be overstated.

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A white girl in a grass skirt with a Chinese gong, a couple South Pacific Tikis, an African patterned rug, Hawaiian leis and holding a flaming drink made with Caribbean rum… all seems pretty authentic and culturally sensitive to me.

Many others joined the Tiki craze, most notably Victor J. Bergeron who opened a series of Trader Vic’s bars and restaurants. Vic brought a culinary element to Don’s mixology and while the two remained amicable rivals throughout their careers they also built upon each other’s successes. Soon patrons all over the world were enjoying “exotic” tropical dishes (really Americanized and homogenized Cantonese recipes) while sipping now classic rum drinks (such as the Mai Tai) in heavily themed, dramatically presented environments. Grand Tiki bars often had a sense of drama not found in your average drinking hole. Dimly lit and often isolated in the basement of hotels (the windowless locations allowed complete control of the environment), many featured waterfalls, grottos and flickering torches. Tribal drum beats, skulls and exotic flora and fauna were highlights. These were in essence Walt’s vision of the Tiki Room sans the singing birds twenty or thirty years before the Tiki Room would see the light of day. They were the prototypes for Adventureland and themed entertainment in general decades before Disneyland defined the genre.

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Vic brought food to Tiki, and giant wicker chairs, and volcanoes on tables… and mildy racist stereotypes as well I guess…

 

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All the New York Trader Vic’s was missing is some wise-cracking talking birds (whose mildly racist stereotypes would fit right in).

 

¡Ay, caramba! Who are you calling mildly racist señor?

The country fell in love; Donn’s little creation became a national obsession. Tiki was not contained simply to bars, by the mid-century it was everywhere; apartment buildings, hotels, bowling alleys, shopping malls, miniature golf, fashion and entertainment. Hula hoops, Hula lamps, Hula dolls and more. Movies such as South Pacific, Blue Hawaii and even Swiss Family Robinson swept audiences away to tropical paradise. Hawaiian shirts were worn without a trace of irony. Home furnishings were fabricated from bamboo and coconut shells. Exotic lounge music (known as exotica and mixing Oceanic and African influences) topped the charts.

The sounds of exotica filled the air

The sounds of exotica filled the air

Even entire amusement parks were created to celebrate the newly en vogue cultural direction. Tiki enjoyed great longevity running from the mid 1930’s through the 1970’s before finally drifting into the world of kitsch by the 1980’s and off the map altogether in the 90’s and early 2000’s.

Tiki Gardens was a theme park located in (where else) Florida.

Tiki Gardens was a theme park located in (where else) Florida.

 

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Live the Tiki lifestyle!

 

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If you build it they will come: A proposed but never built Tiki Bowling Alley.

Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room opened during the latter part of the trend in 1963. Tiki was neither invented by Disney nor even re-invented by Disney, it was simply a part of a much larger movement, and it was Disney’s attempt at being “hip” and “edgy” for those times. To be fair Disney did put a spin on it by taking the traditional décor of Tiki and upping the ante with animatronics and theatrical lighting effects. But like much of American culture both Disney, and the Tiki movement in general, stole cultural symbolism and artifacts and transformed them into entertainment for the masses. Many Tiki statues served significant religious roles to cultures not at all understood by the white guys who appropriated them, thus were the ways of mid-century America. Nevertheless the Tiki trend was one of the most significant and widespread of our pop-culture history.

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Choose your religious icon of choice, now make it into a mug and serve a boozy slushy out of it… sounds crazy and yet that is exactly what happened.

By the time the seventies came around, Tiki was old enough that those who were interested in it during their youth had kids of their own… those offspring would often look at what their parents thought of as being cool and fun and (in the case of Tiki) escapism, and find it tired, tacky and embarrassing. Tiki was nearing its end. The Vietnam War changed the country’s view of the tropics, palm trees and jungles no longer meant paradise. At this same time American culture was shifting to more realistic and gritty forms of entertainment, cop movies displaced romantic tropical tales at the local theater and elaborately embellished fruity drinks were suddenly passé (not to mention that over the decades they declined in quality from carefully balanced creations to straight from a can syrupy sweet disasters).

Yea Mom... that's really "groovy".

Yea Mom… that’s really “groovy”.

Interestingly, Disney was in the midst of building another elaborate homage to Tiki and Polynesia: The Polynesian Village Resort. When Walt Disney World opened in 1971 the “Polynesian” as it was commonly known was one of the original hotels. Complete with Tiki carvings, torches, rain forests, luaus and waterfalls the hotel serves as a last great tribute to the Tiki movement and, in typical Disney fashion, was created just as the trend was ending: Disney never has been good at being hip and edgy after all. Despite all of its many nods to Tiki the Polynesian never had an actual Tiki bar… perhaps even Disney knew the ride was over at that point?

Just an excuse to post one of the most beautiful attraction posters of all time.

Just an excuse to post one of the most beautiful attraction posters of all time.

Coming full circle, the Polynesian Village now enjoys it’s own version of Trader Sam’s and Tiki is making a major comeback. Super trendy bars in San Francisco (Smugglers Cove), London (Mahiki), Chicago (Lost Lake, Three Dots and a Dash), New York (PKNY) and elsewhere have spearheaded a renaissance. The kids of the kids who rebelled against Tiki are now embracing it once again, appreciating the creativity and the style the originals brought to the scene. But how are the two Disney versions? After all this time do they capture the spirit of Tiki?

Today new Tiki bars like Lost Lake in Chicago carry on the traditions of Don Beach.

Today new Tiki bars like Lost Lake in Chicago carry on the traditions of Donn Beach.

The answer is a definite “maybe”. They are at once classic Tiki and totally anti-Tiki… they are Tiki bars as only Disney could do them.

Stay tuned for part two when we visit both versions of Trader Sam’s and see what they are all about. In the meantime raise a glass to dear old Don the Beachcomber and thank him for all the fun you have had over the years. Without Donn there is no Tiki, no national obsession with Polynesia, no Adventureland and ultimately, perhaps, no Disneyland.