If you’re in search of an apt example of the thematic differences between Walt Disney World and Disneyland, comparing their shared attractions, aesthetics, and themes is usually the quickest way to the core of the question. Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and many other attractions can be found at both parks, yet each entity is vastly different from its sibling. All of these attractions aim to entertain and exhibit a themed show but do so by playing by different rules and employing different methods. Now that Imagineering has built two Trader Sam’s, this analogy is all the more deepened by the similarities and differences forged between Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto in Walt Disney World and Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar in Disneyland. Exploring these variances and the different methodologies between the two Tiki bars illustrates the subtlety and artistry in each. Imagineering has gotten lightning to strike twice; where Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s was an apt reflection of American Tiki culture and its resurgence, Grog Grotto undergirds Tiki culture’s place in the current pop culture psyche and Walt Disney World’s connections to it. Although in The Polynesian Village Resort, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto is just as much of an artful and subtle attraction as anything found within The Magic Kingdom or Disneyland.
Americana, Tiki, and Culture
Culture is a strange and almost indefinable thing. Academic debate and scholarly research places culture along a sliding scale of shared behaviors, beliefs and practices, intersecting and being influenced by political power structures and how people act within paradigms of hierarchy and belief. The term ‘Tiki Culture” falls into that broad definition, in an odd way. Tikis, themselves, are Polynesian deities and statues that are couched in religious beliefs about fertility, sexuality, and mythology. These cultural touchstones were seen as foreign and exotic in the early 20th century as America looked to expand into the Pacific. Following the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco and World War II, the exotic aesthetics, the imagery of Polynesia, and travel to the tropics came into vogue, symbolizing leisure, travel, and America’s new prowess in the South Seas as Hawaii became a state. The midcentury outgrowth of tropically inspired Americana is now considered “Tiki Culture”, despite not truly being linked to the actual Polynesian myths, customs, and religious practices that define the collection of cultures across the Pacific Ocean. Instead, “Tiki Culture” is referential to the wave of Tiki bars and Polynesian inspired establishments whose popularity exploded in midcentury America. Navigating these waters is tricky, considering the strains the cultural appropriation and benevolent racism that can be associated with midcentury attitudes toward “exotic” and foreign cultures. Without a doubt, the original wave of Tiki Culture from the 1930s and 40s was couched in “othering” a people and their way of life, arts, and belief systems. Seemingly, since then, the American strains of Tiki Culture that have centered around Polynesia have dropped the veneer of exoticism and has realigned itself on what Tiki meant for pop culture in the 1950s, 60s, and beyond. When Tiki began to resurge in the 1990s, it was focused on craft cocktails and the custom made ceramic mugs that they came in. Evolving out of appropriation and more into an appreciation of what Polynesian culture had been to midcentury Americans, “new” Tiki Culture rests on a thriving and vibrant artistic community, a healthy appreciation for libations, and the history of midcentury entertainment. Both Trader Sam’s establishments bolster and illustrate this notion, without abusing the imagery of a sacred culture, but instead engaging with the historical niche from which Tiki first emerged into pop culture consciousness.
In fact, one of the earliest markers of Tiki Culture in the USA was Tiki Bob, widely regarded as among the first mass produced Tiki mugs and the symbol for one of San Francisco’s earliest Tiki bars. Bob himself wasn’t modeled after a deity or a Polynesian figure, but rather took the form of a palm tree stump with a cheerful face carved into it. Tiki Culture in the United States was a longing for escapism to the tropics and nature, surrounded by the idea of Polynesia. As an aside, an original Tiki Bob appears in both Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s and Grog Grotto, but more on these wonderful historical footnotes later. I am also apt to wonder aloud if Rolly Crump was familiar with Tiki Bob when he created Tangaroa because the similarities happily speak for themselves.
Illusions of Intimacy
Although Grog Grotto and Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Bar have roughly the same thematic product, the different ways in which they come to this end result differ dramatically. Perhaps unconsciously, Disneyland places Trader Sam’s directly in the middle of its googie and retro-inspired campus, a subtle nod to the actual thematic modus operandi of classic Tiki bars from the 1950s and 60s. During the initial wave of the Tiki craze, as bars were popping up all around midcentury America, they were frequently in the most common of locations, akin to how every suburbia or urban landscape has a sports bar, these days. However, instead of televisions, beer, and chicken wings, Tiki bars offered a respite from the overtly modern and fast paced world outside by providing a heavy dose of island escapism and faux tourism. While the facades around the Tiki bar might be reflective of the contemporary world, once inside, that aesthetic melted away into the often nautical and Polynesian paradise found in most Tiki establishments. Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s takes advantage of placing its island hideaway surrounded by a hotel rife with 1950s and 60s aesthetics and architecture. This disjunction, while historically accurate, is jettisoned at Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Village to make the illusion and placemaking of Grog Grotto all the more potent.
Grog Grotto’s illusion as a secret little jungle outpost allows it to mesh with the overlying theme of the Polynesian Village. Tucked away in the very back of the Great Ceremonial House, the already tropical and Polynesian motifs of the hotel carry over into the secluded and almost hidden bar. Grog Grotto boasts no large marquee or sign that beckons you into the bar. Instead, the establishment is inconspicuously placed at the far end of a hallway leading out of the Great Ceremonial House and to the Seven Seas Lagoon marina. Only a wall made of igneous rock and a small wooden door with the Trader Sam’s logo on it offer any clue as to its whereabouts. This subtle placement works wonders for how Trader Sam’s presents itself to guests. My first thought upon seeing the entrance were along the lines of Grog Grotto being a ‘Polynesian speakeasy’ despite those terms being anachronistically used and placing the south seas in conjunction with Prohibition.
By being modest and discrete, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto feels exclusive, secret, and wonderfully quiet and removed from the rest of Walt Disney World. Where the Polynesian influences of the hotel allow Grog Grotto to exist in a thematic space that is very much tied to the wider establishment it is in, the way Grog Grotto separates its space from the rest of the resort is key in establishing its mysterious mood and its highly controlled illusion. The thematic qualities of Grog Grotto are heightened because of the seamless tropical aesthetic that exists between the hotel and the bar and its seclusion as its own entity. Grog Grotto could be a tiny little outpost in the heart of a fantastical Polynesian settlement, not just a hotel Tiki bar as Disneyland Trader Sam’s is positioned.
Beyond the physical space that is Grog Grotto, the surroundings of the Polynesian Village Resort also play into how the bar functions and creates an illusion. Aside from its placement in the Great Ceremonial House, Grog Grotto utilizes its proximity to the water and boasts the Tiki Terrace to fully round out its thematic impact. A traditional Polynesian lanaii, the Tiki Terrace is perhaps the most relaxing and natural feature of Grog Grotto. Surrounded by a waterfall and the Seven Seas Lagoon Marina, the Tiki Terrace is an exquisite outdoor feature of Grog Grotto. Relaxing with a drink in the dwindling sunlight, surrounded by tiki statues and listening to the live Polynesian music isn’t a strictly theatrical and designed experience, but it is still thematic. Trader Sam’s Tiki Terrace is a hidden gem of both Grog Grotto and, frankly, the rest of Walt Disney World for the sublime outdoor environment it crafts. Enjoying the fresh air and sounds and tastes of this fantasy version of Polynesia is an experience unto itself.
Back inside the bar, however, the intimacy of Grog Grotto is an asset to its thematic illusion. Although many fans clamored for a facility larger than the Disneyland original, Walt Disney World’s version of Trader Sam’s is roughly the same size, allowing its raw simplicity to first, bolster its believability and authenticity as a Tiki bar, a second, to be a contained space where all of its illusions and props make a visually arresting impact on the viewer. Grog Grotto’s homely scale is human and laden with character. Despite this, there are some small differences between Disneyland and Walt Disney World, primarily found in the layout of Grog Grotto. Where Trader Sam’s opts for a “U” shaped bar that has seats on three sides of the room, Grog Grotto has a simpler bar, in the very back of the space. With the bar pushed out of the way, the rest of Grog Grotto is filled with small tables, but allows for more “walking space” for patrons. Grog Grotto feels inherently larger and easier to get around, even when it’s crowded, because of this. Operationally, this works better, and upon reflection, I find that it does not effect the charming scale and mood of Grog Grotto. Rather, by having the middle of the room open instead of cluttered with a bar and people, the space is open, your eyes are drawn up into the rafters of the A-frame ceiling, where more layers of props and kitsch can be seen. Initially, I preferred Disneyland’s more traditional layout, but a few days in Grog Grotto changed my mind.
Grog Grotto also has a small foyer that Disneyland’s does not have, which is another operational boon for the Vacation Kingdom bar. Instead of stepping right into the bar, you find yourself in a small antechamber, where you can leave your name if there is a wait, and, on your way out, pick up your Tiki mugs. While installed for practical purposes, I find that this small room is another layer on Trader Sam’s thematics, if only for the view it provides into the main bar room. Adorned with a beaded curtain, the door to Trader Sam’s offers a vista of the surfboard-shaped table in the middle of the room and perfectly frames a full wall of artifacts, relics, keepsakes and props that define the space of Trader Sam’s. This first tantalizing view thoroughly impressed me when I walked into Grog Grotto for the first time if for just how purposeful it seemed. Imagineering’s subtle use of stage craft that is readily applied in the parks is now popping up in a resort and Trader Sam’s illusion is conveyed all the more effectively because of it.
Walt Tiki World
Grog Grotto’s thematic qualities and illusions are undergirded by their connections to the rest of Disney’s lore and the mélange of backstories that populate the theme parks. By engaging with the topics, localities, and stories found in Adventureland and beyond, Grog Grotto is also implicitly engaging with the midcentury American culture that originally inspired those attractions. Grog Grotto’s inclusion of Jungle Cruise imagery and its references incorporate the overall theme of colonial expeditions and the spirit of exploration. Meanwhile, a heavily reliance on the mythos of the Enchanted Tiki Room easily ties the bar to the original wave of Tiki Culture and obliquely references the ways midcentury Americans saw the world and viewed entertainment and escapism. Where Trader Sam’s physical construction and seclusion bolsters the midcentury tradition of hidden escapism and exotic fantasies, so does the fantastic pulp cultural wellspring that it draws upon. By now, Disneyland’s midcentury and American appraisal of popular entertainment is so engrained in how theme park attractions are built that it seems only natural that these cultural markers show up in Grog Grotto.
Grog Grotto’s references to other Disney attractions allows it to what I have previously called a “meta-synergy”, where connections to Disney’s cannon of characters, stories, and lore simply seem to fold back on themselves. Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto is a strange and self-aware little corner of the Disney thematic universe where Trader Sam (from Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise) is well aware of Chief Name (the unofficial/official name of WDW’s head salesman). Where this level of self-referential décor and thematic content could seem creatively lazy, I find it to be subtly expansive for Disney’s already existing attractions. By referencing attractions that are not directly tied to Grog Grotto, Disney has seemingly given those attractions more “screen time”, of sorts. Places like the Enchanted Tiki Room or the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House are no longer bound by Adventureland, but instead, almost advertised outside of The Magic Kingdom. Their implicit inclusion outside of the theme park makes them less static and gives them life as actual locations would have in the world that Trader Sam’s attempts to build. Grog Grotto could easily be an extension of Adventureland, simultaneously fitting into it, but physically apart from it, so as to create more thematic depth when considering the spaces that the Tiki Room, or the Jungle Cruise, create.
Admittedly, the strangest way in which Grog Grotto expands its locality and realism is with the Nautilus drink and the 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea effect. Although this classic ride was located in Fantasyland, since its closure its aesthetics and overall storyline have been more closely associated with Adventureland. After all, the film even features a South Seas tribe of cannibals (who carry shields with delightfully Disneyland/Adventureland-esque markings on them) and Harper Goff’s Victorian steampunk aesthetics, not to mention the peril of the giant squid. Despite Jules Verne penning the novel in 1870, Walt Disney’s 1954 adaptation has solidified the themes and overt message of 20,000 Leagues as a mid-century American story, at least in Disney’s use of the film. With that in mind, the pulp aspects of 20,000 Leagues make the jump from 1971 Fantasyland to having a home in the idea of Adventureland that is found in Trader Sam’s. And what a home it is, too- easily the most immersive (pardon the easy pun!) and astounding effect in the bar, seeing and hearing Grog Grotto sink beneath the waves and embark “on a voyage through liquid space” ties the nautical spirit of 20,000 Leagues to the midcentury Tiki bar that Grog Grotto emulates.
Enchanted Tiki Effects
Now is probably the best time to mention the other effects in Grog Grotto. Although the Nautilus takes the cake, the others are nearly as astounding and, simply, fun. The Shrunken Zombie Head effect is easily the subtlest and is triggered without any announcement from the cast. The room glows a sickly and mysterious blue hue and the “East Coast Brach” of shrunken heads on the Trader Sam’s family tree are highlighted under a backlight.
Next, the HippopotoMai – Tai effect features the sounds of hippos cavorting around on the “roof” of Trader Sam’s and the cast members shouting “Two shots of rum!” as two gunshots (two sharp blasts of red light) punctuate the gloom. It’s a little silly, but cute. This effect goes off quite frequently, as does the Krakatoa sequence. Grog Grotto’s Krakatoa sequence is nearly the same effects as Disneyland’s though the Floridian version of the Enchanted Tiki Windows utilize better projection technology, and their animated rainfall and volcanic eruptions look all the more realistic and convincing. To my layman’s eye, it appears that the backgrounds of the windows are molded in a more detailed manner, allowing light to catch the surface in a clearer and much more nuanced way. There’s a lot more depth to Grog Grotto’s windows than there are to Disneyland’s.
Similarly, the Uh-Oa effect is greatly expanded upon in Walt Disney World. Where the same chanting and changing of lighting schemes happens, the entire affair is capped with gusts of wind blasting through Grog Grotto, the bar glowing blue, and the original Uh Oa audio animatronic figure from The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management lighting up, bellowing a line from the attraction, and casting her illuminated and haughty glare into the room. Although the Under New Management version of the Enchanted Tiki Room was much maligned and thankfully done away with after a serendipitous fire in the attraction, the inclusion of a vengeful and flashy Tiki goddess is appreciated in Sam’s. Uh Oa does not move, her presence dominates the space above the rafters at the back of the bar and she makes for a wonderful set piece that strengthens Grog Grotto’s ties to Disney’s theme parks and past interactions with Tiki culture.
In so including Uh Oa, Grog Grotto also does something that Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s does not: It takes a chance at reutilizing and refreshing aspects of past attractions that fell by the wayside. Despite being disliked by the majority of the Disney fan community, Uh Oa did exist in the Enchanted Tiki Room for nearly 15 years, and while a nod to her isn’t exactly admitting that this was a mistake (reinstalling the original attraction did that, albeit covertly) it is a connection to the history of The Magic Kingdom. As previously mentioned, the spectacular 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea effect and mug also reach back over the years to bolster Grog Grotto’s unique qualities. Perhaps my favorite inclusion of all are the 1970s Oceanic Arts pieces that originally adorned the walls and columns of the long-closed Tangaroa Terrace restaurant at the Polynesian Village. These spectacular totems were carved in Whittier, California by Robert Van Oosting and LeRoy Schmaltz, two gentlemen who have been carving Tikis since 1956, and who are widely considered the grandfathers of the classic Tiki movement. Grog Grotto’s deeper connections to the history of Tiki culture and Americana are strengthened by having art from the genuine article serving as the scenery and adding to the texture and allure of the bar.
Beyond the Oceanic Arts pieces, the set designers at WDI were also in tune with the modern tiki movement and were thoughtful enough to populate the shelves of Grog Grotto with mugs and art made by some of the best artists in the community. Tiki Tony’s pieces are the most visible, but there are some delightful Eekum Bookum, and Munktiki pieces hidden on the shelves behind the bar. And, as I alluded to earlier, Tiki Bob smiles down at patrons of Grog Grotto, serving as a reminder of the rich heritage of Americana and Tiki Culture that Grog Grotto is designed around. A postcard from the famous Mai Kai Polynesian Revue in Fort Lauderdale, Florida can also be found, framed, on the wall.
Farewell and Aloha
It’s been a long and transformative couple of years for the Polynesian Village. Undergoing a massive refurbishment, expansion, and visual refresh, one of the Vacation Kingdom’s oldest hotels has emerged fundamentally altered from its original incarnation. Over the past 43 years, the aesthetics of the original 1971 aesthetic were altered and modified, but not to the degree that was executed in 2014. I am, of course, talking about the removal of the original waterfall grotto that graced the lobby of the Great Ceremonial House …. and I am also talking about the inclusion of Trader Sam’s. While there will never be an adequate replacement for the artistry and history that was lost in the towering palms and cascading waters that defined the Polynesian Village, I am slightly comforted that Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto exists just down the hall and packs quite a thematic punch. No, I can’t really compare a thematic bar to an atmospheric lobby that withstood 42 years of Walt Disney World’s history, but I can take solace that something else captivating has been built. In a perfect world, we would have both the lobby waterfalls and Grog Grotto, but Walt Disney World exists in a strange sort of equilibrium. Amazing things are built, cherished, and then sometimes torn down, while new things are built. While I think that this equilibrium of losses and gains is unnecessary and that it is totally within Disney’s power to be more selective and respectful when maintaining their history, at least in this instance, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto is a plus for the resort. For me, the heart of the Polynesian Village, though once found in Fred Joerger’s carefully designed volcanic rocks and curtain-like flowing waters, has been uprooted, changed, and now found in a charming and intimate venue that pays homage to the great tradition Tiki culture, art, and escapsism of midcentury America.
This essay is intended to read as a companion piece to my first article on Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s. In that article, I delve a bit deeper into the conceptual and thematic history surrounding Tiki Culture and the creation of the Tiki craze of the 1950s and 60s. With that in mind, I decided to focus more on Grog Grotto’s differences and unique qualities in this essay.
The hardest part of this essay was trying to encapsulate a semester’s worth of study on the metaphysical and historical theory of “culture” into one paragraph. I am painfully aware of the often distasteful history surrounding the use of ethnic cultures and I fervently hope my statements were non-offensive. In the past, pieces such as this have garnered criticism over discussions of colonialism and appropriation. While it should be obvious that I do not approve of either, I feel the need to state that discussing these themes are integral parts to understanding both Trader Sam’s, the evolution of Tiki Culture, and the ways in which midcentury Americans looked at the world and created thematic environments.
My deepest thanks to my good friend @AtDisneyAgain (Twitter) for the use of his amazing photos of Grog Grotto. You can see those photos in their native habitat on his website in a review that he posted:
Hope you enjoyed!