She’s a ubiquitous fixture of The Polynesian Village. She stands on nearly every walking trail, glaring at guests, holding her torch aloft, and carrying a speared fish on a triton. If you’ve been to the Polynesian, you’ve seen her, perhaps without realizing it. This is almost to be expected, considering the believable illusion that the Polynesian Village paints; one tiki statue shouldn’t draw attention, but should mesh with the environment of the tropics you’ve been fortunate enough to visit. What you might not realize, however, is the interesting history behind Uti, The Goddess of Fishing, and that her original purpose WAS to draw attention and be part of the face of one of Disney’s most iconic attractions.
It can be argued that each of Disney’s attractions are the work of a collective. Each artist working on a project adds style, texture and their own unique aesthetic to the final form, which usually creates a milieu of sensibilities and details. Although the most convincing environments created are dictated by an overriding and coherent thematic illusion of believability, distinct textures and details are really what is memorable and even comforting about Disney’s brand of thematic environments. In this case, Rolly Crump’s involvement on the Enchanted Tiki Room is a shining example of personal style crafting an iconic aesthetic, and here, a character in Disney’s pantheon.
After John Hench’s rendering for a ‘Tahitian Tiki Restaurant’ had been approved for development, Imagineer Rolly Crump was tasked with the physical aspects of the new show planned for Adventureland. Formally an “in-betweener” in the animation department, who worked on making animation as fluid and as lifelike as possible, Crump’s new position would allow him to craft characters under his purview and with his own unique style. By the time the Enchanted Tiki Room had evolved out of being a restaurant and into a full fledged E-Ticket experience, Crump carved and painted nearly all of the tikis inside and outside of the attraction.
Here’s where Uti comes in: The Enchanted Tiki Room’s waiting area was given nearly the same amount of care and attention to detail that the interior show was to receive. Although not strictly lashed to the musical show within, the preshow venue boasts its own tropical interlude and features the deities of Polynesia all bellowing forth their island mythos. There are currently eight tiki gods in the tiki garden, but Uti used to be the ninth. While the tiki gods aren’t anthropologically correct, they are based on Rolly Crump’s knowledge of South Seas culture. Crump was heavily influenced by Katherine Luomala’s cultural study “Voices on the Wind: Polynesian Myths and Chants” and the artistic contributions of Oceanic Arts, a purveyor of the tiki culture that was sweeping mid century America as Disneyland was building the Enchanted Tiki Room. Thus, Uti’s design was influenced by the Hawaiian practice of night fishing, in which villagers would attract fish with torches and catch them with spears.
Where all the other tiki gods stood inside the tiki garden and had a speaking roll about their mythological role and backstory in tiki apocrypha, Uti was the silent sentinel that stood over the gateway entrance to the Enchanted Tiki Room. Situated high in a outrigger canoe, she was equipped with a working gas torch and enjoyed a place of prominence next to the attraction’s marquee and Juan, the Tiki Room’s ‘barker bird’, as voiced by Wally Boag. Thus, Uti was the face of Disneyland’s Tiki Room for nearly 40 years.
Uti’s silent and imposing reign over Adventureland only came to an end in the early 2000s, when falling maintenance standards allowed for her torch to go dark and mold to claim her perch above the entrance. The tiki hut that supported the Uti statue collapsed and was rebuilt without the iconic deity.
As sad as this short story might be, Uti does live on at the Polynesian Village in Walt Disney World in multiple forms, along the lush landscaping and winding paths of the resort’s grounds. While more humble than originally intended, Uti’s inclusion at the Polynesian is a tacit and quiet nod to Rolly Crump’s work and Disney’s long history of tropical island thematics. And in more recent developments, Uti was lovingly crafted by Disney Design Group artists Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily as a keepsake figurine for The Enchanted Tiki Room’s 50th anniversary, earlier this year. Unsurprisingly, the Uti figurine was one of the merchandise line’s most popular pieces and had to be restocked repetitively.
So, the next time you’re wandering the Polynesian and the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon, pay heed to the glaring tiki goddess lifting her spear and torch aloft. Uti is now just another detail along the path, but her long history and story warrant reflection and recognition for her ties to one of Disney’s pioneering imagineers and seminal Disneyland attractions.
UPDATE: As of March 2015, Uti is still in her original location at entrance to the Polynesian Village, following its massive refurbishment. Also, another Uti statue has been added to the Tiki Terrace at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, but this one is painted in a stunning native color palette. The “new” Uti statue hails from the Polynesian Village’s early years, as it was positioned outside of the original Tangaroa Terrace restaurant. Oceanic Arts carved and painted this version of the statue, making it a veritable and valuable piece of Tiki Culture history.