Talking Tiki - The Sublimity of Trader Sam’s
I never thought I would write about the thematic qualities of a bar, but here we are. I am honestly not that much of a drinker, but I do enjoy a good strong tropical concoction, usually served in a pineapple or a tiki mug. Even so, the drinks themselves aren’t the topic of this look at Trader Sam’s… Trader Sam’s was one of those things in Disneyland that captivated me in a way I didn’t expect and for reasons I was genuinely surprised by. For something so simple, Trader Sam’s boasts a bevy of tricks and illusions that elevates it out of being a simple amenity and close to a complete thematic statement. Trader Sam’s is an excursive themed show that also happens to be a bar at the Disneyland Hotel. In doing so, Trader Sam’s draws upon a cultural wellspring of history to resonate so deeply with its patrons.
When it comes to the amenities that Walt Disney Imagineering designs, I usually place them on a different level than the attractions that are produced, considering the thematic integrity that is afforded to attractions. With amenities, functionality usually prevails over the overall coherency of place-making; spaces are enlarged, light levels are heightened, details are usually contained to one central exhibit area, such as a lobby, and the theme of the place in question progressively decreases as you get farther away from that central space. For a pretty unilateral example of this, look at Disney’s model in constructing hotels. The Grand Floridian is a behemoth, far surpassing the scale of a Victorian retreat in in the wilds of Florida’s scrub in the 1910s and 20s. Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Polynesian, even, boast wonderful central areas, that contain the thematic “thesis” of the resort, but stepping away from the lobby in both, quickly removes you from these environments and places you squarely back into a hotel environment. This can’t be avoided, sadly. However, Trader Sam’s is able to cheat this paradigm by nature of being a freestanding structure, tucked away at the Disneyland Hotel. Although largely disconnected from the overall retro and nostalgic theme of the Disneyland Hotel, Sam’s uses this disjunction to make its thematic illusion and environment all the more potent and historically apropos.
Much in the same way that the tiki bars of the 1950s and 60s were little bastions of escapism, Trader Sam’s layers of detail and whimsical grit allow it to stand out from the rest of the Disneyland Hotel. This technique could be considered a subtle nod to the long history of tiki bars and tiki culture that Trader Sam’s owes its heritage to. In 1934, Don the Beachcomber, the founding father of Polynesian inspired bars and entertainment venues, opened his original restaurant in Hollywood, California as a lush tropical paradise that was designed as a respite from the encroaching hectic urbanism that marked 20th century America. Only 5 years later, the Golden Gate International Exhibition opened in San Francisco and heavily featured Polynesian culture with predominantly South Pacific national pavilions. Although this world’s fair focused on the commerce and industry (readers of this blog should find this familiar!) of the southern seas, the architectural and artistic offerings were the early inspiration for the designs of the mid-century modern aesthetic that most tiki establishments employed. The early vestiges of adapting the actual Polynesian deities into American art were encapsulated in the statue of Pacifica, Goddess of the Pacific, which stood at the center of the fair.
World War II only exacerbated the Polynesian trend. Veterans returning home from the Pacific theater were taken with the landscapes and cultures they had encountered and sought to recreate the more lighthearted side of their ventures. Don the Beachcomber, in particular, popularized rum-based drinks and Cantonese faire as standards of the tiki dining establishment. Among the myriad of offerings that came to define these venues were the pu-pu platter and the mai-tai. Both are served at Sam’s. The mai-tai in particular was an icon of the tiki-craze that swept the United States in the post-war era and its invention was hotly contested by Don and Trader Vic, who also opened a line of tiki bars around the nation, after Don’s original bar flourished. Don and Vic also popularized cocktails such as the Scorpion and the Zombie, another of Sam’s signature beverages.
Widespread acceptance of Polynesian pop culture was also linked to the after-effects of World War II. A post-war economic boom allowed greater ease of travel to California and Hawaii, as the middle class was bolstered by the influx of post-war manufacturing and the maturation of war-bonds that had peaked since the cessation of hostilities. Hawaii’s admission to the United States in 1959 also raised interest in the culture of the new island state that was added to the Union. The newly strengthened middle class took advantage of their new affluence with recreation that centered on travel, escapism, and this new exotic local. On a smaller scale, the tiki bar contained all of this and appealed to the economics of the era. Despite the fact that more and more people were able to travel, the luxuries of a quick getaway to the tropics by way of a drink or two in the recesses of a dim and lushly decorated bar appealed to the throngs of people joining the hectic workforce in the late 50s and 60s. Even Walt Disney’s gleaming city of the future, EPCOT, boasted an A-frame tiki bar on the outskirts of the residential green belt. The demands of growing American industry required equal growth for downtime and relaxation. The tiki bar answered these calls and it is here that Trader Sam’s takes its cue and flourishes as a living example of tiki culture while holding its own as a themed statement and show.
Evidence of Adventure
Like most things at Disneyland, the transition into the hideaway that is Trader Sam’s is sudden. The Disneyland Hotel, in its newest incarnation, is dedicated to the rich history of Disneyland itself, with most of that history dwelling in the resort’s formative years of the 1950s and 60s. With this in mind, the nostalgic mid-century style of the architecture provides for an almost appropriate backdrop to Sam’s and the disjunction that it requires. For the purposes of crafting an overall thematic illusion, Sam’s would be ideally situated on a beach amongst the sand and palms of a tropical climate. (More on this later.) But, here, in the middle of Anaheim, Sam’s exists as most tiki bars did when they were just blossoming onto the scene as the 20th century reached its middle point. Perhaps coincidental, or planned out to take advantage of this set-up, the urbanized and retro-nostalgic backdrop makes the impact of Trader Sam’s escapism all the more sweet and, while not thematically convincing, historically fitting.
Above: False windows and dioramas and escapism are integral to the believability of a tiki bar’s illusion.
Once inside, the theories that govern the thematic mechanics of Trader Sam’s are apparent by the simple and classic precepts that they operate under. Trader Sam’s, though an amenity, is essentially given the incredible scrutiny and care that a totally engineered and designed showpiece would have. The greatest instance of this is the size of the establishment. Trader Sam’s is a small room with several tables and bar, in terms of functionality. Nothing more. It is this raw simplicity that allows it to be a believable example of what most classic tiki bars strive to be: a small tropical outpost on the edges of civilization, filled with character and kitsch. Sam’s small space is intimate and homely, made appealing by the human scale it has: this IS some little forgotten nook on some wayward island, home to a cast of characters with stories to tell. Isolation from the outside world is crafted in the same way that theme park attractions do so: there are no traditional windows, and the environment is tightly controlled. The diorama windows, similar to those found in Walt Disney World’s Enchanted Tiki Room, serve as an extension of Sam’s ‘location’ in the southern seas. This technique also harkens back to the rich legacy of tiki bars from the 1950s and 60s. The famous Mai Kai, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida boats a small vignette window off of the Molokai Lounge, and other tiki bars employ similar false window vistas in an attempt to layer the illusion of environment and escapism. Further evidence of Sam’s background and story is found in the decor of the place.
Above: The Molokai Lounge at the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale boasts a picture window, while the Tonga Room (below) has its own interior grotto!
Trader Sam’s is stuffed to the gills with artifacts, relics, keepsake, and mementos that undergird its connection to the heritage of tiki and Polynesian pop culture that not only defined these venues in the 50s and 60s but also to Disney’s brand of “Adventureland” stories and attractions. By dint of this, Sam’s utilizes a sort of meta-synergy that places it at an intersection in theme park lore that utilizes Disney’s cannon of attractions, characters, and stories lashed against the already prolific culture of tiki bars and Polynesian pop. This doesn’t mean that Trader Sam’s uses generic “exotic” décor in an attempt to overload the senses. Each individual tiki, mask, picture, tchotchke, mug, or set piece in Sam’s implies a narrative about its patrons, its owner, and the overall environment. Although decadent in the sheer number of pieces that Sam’s uses, the way that Sam’s uses set decoration is not overwrought or lazy. Each piece sends a message that layers and stratifies the environment. There’s a tribal mask on the wall that portrays a caricature of Imagineer Joe Rhode. The Tiki Room’s deity columns make an appearance. The map from Indiana Jones’ Temple of the Forbidden Eye is on a frame on the wall. Even the Orange Bird from the Sunshine Tree Terrace lurks on a shelf above the bar. Compare this specific methodology to how the new Market House lazily carries out its theme on Disneyland’s Main Street. Instead of dwelling in the deeper cultural background that Middle America could support at the turn of the last century, piecemeal “country” décor is cluttered on shelves, meant to occupy space, but not to define it. Trader Sam’s décor occupies space but also adds to the narrative and thematic intent of the bar. Each piece is distinct and crafts the niche that Sam’s aims to fulfill.
With this in mind, Sam’s décor references The Enchanted Tiki Room, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jungle Cruise, and the Adventurers Club (amongst other attractions and shows) in a way that places Sam’s directly in line with these attractions, despite being removed from them by not only space, but by time as well. If transplanted to any Adventureland in any of Disney’s magic kingdoms, Sam’s could exist peaceably and forge a connection of familiarity between its guests and its new location. Further, the myriad of special effects triggered when ordering certain drinks makes Sam’s atmosphere charged and alive- very much similar to the environment one finds oneself in in a ride or show. Anything can happen, but this time, your actions and interactivity dictate the “theme show” of the enchanted tiki bar. That said, Trader Sam’s acts as an extension of Adventureland and plays into the entertainment tropes that Disney cultivates in that part of the park. Colonialism, exploration, and whimsical wit define the terrain of Sam’s as much as Adventureland flourishes under these familiar stylistic and thematic choices.
The familiarity that Sam’s creates is vital. Not only does it welcome visitors, but it also is a method that breeds and fosters a feeling of acceptance in this new environment. Sam’s placemaking puts guests into the role of the everyman adventurer and relates your experiences to a shared commonality of narrative that first, is supported by the nature of this supposed long, lost outpost, and second, by the shared knowledge of what Disney’s Adventurelands are. While this might imply that Sam’s works best with visitors that are familiar with Disney lore, I think that Sam’s is an organic enough piece of themed design to captivate those unfamiliar with Disney. Sam’s reliance on the historical functionality of mid-century bars insures that.
Art of the Artifact
Perhaps the most personal way that Trader Sam’s connects with its patrons and deepens the impact of its “show” is also the simplest- Tiki mugs! Like any good tiki bar, Trader Sam’s has a unique collection of mugs and vessels for the drinks they serve. And, of course, for a fee, you can take them home. While an inherently basic component of the experience, deeper scrutiny to the process reveals what makes taking home a tiki mug overtly satisfying. Simply, it’s the concept of ownership and personal involvement. You, as placed into the role of the adventuring everyman, get to take an artifact home from the experience. Considering that the artifact in question is aesthetically tied to Trader Sam’s, it’s not hard to feel like you’re taking home a piece of the place. The mugs that Sam’s uses are especially aesthetically pleasing in that they tie into most of Disney’s attractions. The mug for the Krakatoa Punch is something straight out of the Enchanted Tiki Room, Shipwreck on the Rocks is served in a Jungle Cruise-esque barrel, and oddly enough, the Shrunken Zombie head mimics the design of the Hat Box Ghost from Haunted Mansion lore. Getting to keep this little bit of Trader Sam’s speaks to the exploratory ethos of Adventureland that defines the Trader Sam’s experience. You, the brave explorer, ventured into the unknown, and came home with fairly “real” souvenir from your travels. This isn’t a postcard or a pin- it’s a part of the place.
Observatory of the Future
When I began writing this essay a few weeks ago, Florida’s Trader Sam’s was not yet announced, although it was heavily rumored and hoped for. As of this writing, the Polynesian Village (as it will soon be renamed!) will include Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, a new iteration of California’s bar. There are several directions Grog Grotto can take, and in my view, most of them are favorable. If the imagineers working on Grog Grotto apply the same level of scrutiny and care that the original Sam’s received to their new venture, there is no reason why Grog Grotto can’t be as original, organic, and detailed as the original. Never the less, there will obviously be some changes from the formula I have attempted to outline in this essay. With this in mind, indulge me in some predictions and observations in how Grog Grotto can make a unique impact in Walt Disney World while staying true to the Disneyland original:
Location, location, location.
Grog Grotto won’t have the disjunction that Trader Sam’s has in California. The traditional mid-century island respite will be placed squarely in the Polynesian Village, and all the more power to it for having this extended environment to exist in. That said, though, Grog Grotto just can’t go anywhere. So far, there seems to be two possibilities: Inside the Grand Ceremonial House or in a totally new (old?) location. The latter would be ideal, I think. ‘Grog Grotto’ implies that water should play a leading role in setting up the environment for the bar, and with both the pool and the Seven Seas Lagoon within sight, why not pick out a location that plays up this angle? Of course, there’s always the oft-overlooked Tangaroa Terrace restaurant, which has sat empty for nearly two decades now. Utilizing that old space (and the lovely Oceanic Arts pieces inside of it!) would revitalize a long lost part of the Polynesian and provide for a proper venue for Grog Grotto, despite being quite large and clashing with Sam’s need for intimacy in a small venue. However, that, too, can be reconciled:
Grog Grotto will need to replicate Sam’s small, relatable, human scale. Given that Grog Grotto is being built in Walt Disney World, where the Floridian blessing of size dictates grandness and a much larger scale, this proves an issue. Of course, there are ways around these things: Multiple rooms! One central bar area (similar to the original Sam’s) and several small, intimate rooms separated from one another that each boast a different theme and effects would quickly solve the problem. Different lighting and effects in each room would go a long way in preserving the feelings of isolation and escapism that Sam’s excels with. And of course, those different themes and effects tie into:
With Grog Grotto making its home in Florida and just a mile from the Magic Kingdom, different emphasis can be placed on Adventureland attractions that sit closer to home. Fortunately, it seems that the Imagineers have this in mind, already. Just based on the concept art that has been released, it seems that Uh-Oa, the Polynesian goddess that dominated the maligned ‘Under New Management’ version of the Walt Disney World Tropical Serenade will have a place of prominence in the bar, and not just on the menu.
While Uh-Oa might not have been right for a classic WED attraction, her physical placement in a tiki bar seems appropriate and fitting. It seems almost certain that, just like in Disneyland, when one orders an Uh-Oa off of the menu, SOMETHING is going to happen. The figure in the art might even be the audio animatronic. Time will tell. Also discernable from the art is a large Nautilus cup, along with a massive squid arm that is draped over the rafters of the bar. These less than subtle references to Florida’s long lost 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea attraction reinforce the connection that Grog Grotto will have with Adventureland lore and bolster the Floridian version of the bar as something separate but similar to the original California Sam’s.
And now, we have a vunderbah magic-trick for YOU! Face da door!
In all honesty, I never though I would write this MUCH about a bar. But, sometimes, it’s less about the bar and more about the art and the history found behind it, which I hope that this essay illustrates. Yes, Trader Sam’s might be just another place to get booze after a long, hot day at Disneyland, but for all intents and purposes, Trader Sam’s could be IN Disneyland. It is just as much of an experience in a themed environment as is the Tiki Room or the Jungle Cruise. The only true differences are the methods that take you to that oft-imagined “place” that themed environments transport you to. Some experiences make you get in a boat or listen to audio animatronic birds. Others give you a drink, sit you down, and let your imagination wander like wind and rain across the southern seas.
Yet another reason to hope I can get back to WDW soon! One more tiny note I’d like to add is that another factor in the mid-century Tiki craze was the 1947 voyage of the Kon-Tiki and the publicity that the expedition and the documentary made about it received.