Road Trip: In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room

A slice of theme park history rises from the ashes.

Years ago I traveled to St. Augustine with a friend from Massachusetts. Walking around the oldest city in the U.S., he read a few historical signs, turned to me and exclaimed, "I had no idea Florida had history!"

click to enlarge Trader Sam's Grog Grotto - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Trader Sam's Grog Grotto
Not only do we have History — the formal kind, with a capital “H” and names and dates and Significance (also capitalized), we have fun, lower-case history, too. Take the Walt Disney World Resort, one of my favorite places of all Florida’s built environments.

If you’re picturing a middle-aged soccer mom with stick-people decals bedazzled with mouse ears on the back of her Toyota minivan, heading merrily toward the state’s touristy center to drop a few hundred bucks for lunch at the Be Our Guest restaurant while strategically planning FastPass+ experiences (so I can ride Test Track and Soarin’ and Mission Space before having dinner at Canada), think again. I take a more, ahem, Florida approach to the Mouse. I worked there in college and have had annual passes for several years now, not because I have money to burn but because, done properly, Disney offers not only fun, but a way to blot out the darkness I read in the news and see on the street, so I go there a lot and I’m, at heart, ridiculously frugal. The passes pay for themselves the first two months.

The thing about hanging out at Disney so much, though, is that beyond knowing all the best things (watermelon gin cocktails during the International Food and Wine Fest, anyone?), I also know the worst. And, until a few years ago, the Enchanted Tiki Room fell so far down on my list I would have rather sat through the dolphin show/animal abuse atrocities at SeaWorld before enduring another damn show with animatronic Iago and Zazu, the two most obnoxious exotic birds in the world (and if you’ve owned an exotic, you know that’s quite the achievement), acting like they belonged at this iconic attraction.

See, a long time ago, the Enchanted Tiki Room at the Magic Kingdom had a resplendent show, complete with worthy exotic birds and a South Pacific monsoon that swept across the Tiki Room when the Tiki gods got angry. The Orange Bird — the little guy who made you want to drink more Florida orange juice — proudly served as its mascot. You know those animatronic figures now ubiquitous throughout the House of Mouse? Disney used them first in the Enchanted Tiki Room in California, along with computers to run the whole deal. These were the halcyon days of the Enchanted Tiki Room, my friends. In 1971, Disney opened the same attraction in Florida.

And then Iago and Zazu came. In 1998, the park updated the attraction, and decided adding the birds from Aladdin and The Lion King would draw the crowds. As you may surmise, the voice of Gilbert Gottfried did little to create a soothing South Seas vibe. Diehard Disney fans grumbled; those who had never seen the original show left puzzled and unimpressed.

The change also displeased the Tiki gods, and in 2011, the Enchanted Tiki Room caught fire, damaging Iago beyond repair and also ruining Zazu. A few other items suffered damage, but those asshole Hollywood birds bore the brunt of it. Disney Imagineers, perhaps fearing future wrath from the Tiki gods, restored the Enchanted Tiki Room’s original show, moving some of the artifacts to Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto.

click to enlarge Dive! Dive! Dive! - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Dive! Dive! Dive!
Which leads us to our $60 drink for two, complete with ceramic Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, all in the name of seeking a scrap of theme park history.

It’s there. Disney doesn’t make it obvious, but you can find it if you look hard enough. A deed to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a carved nautilus on a tree near the original 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride... Disney has a sense of its own history, and hides these Easter eggs throughout its park. Inside Trader Sam’s, you’ll find the Tiki goddess Uh-Oa, Rosita’s nametag (one of the “bit players” from the show) and a few other remnants.

click to enlarge Those straws are longer than my dog, and she's a dachshund. Sadly, it's the sugar, not the booze, that will hit you in this drink, but seriously, we were in it for the nautilus. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Those straws are longer than my dog, and she's a dachshund. Sadly, it's the sugar, not the booze, that will hit you in this drink, but seriously, we were in it for the nautilus.
Unlike the theme parks, Trader Sam’s — tucked inside Disney’s Polynesian Resort — costs nothing to enter, although most likely you’ll want a drink once you’re there. We opted for the Nautilus, served in a ceramic submarine and (honestly) too syrupy for our tastes. But that’s OK; we were there for the vessel. You can buy the drink for an only mildly ridiculous price, or you can buy the Nautilus vessel for $60. Hey, man, you can’t put a price tag on history.

And, when the lights go out — as they do when someone orders a certain drink, because every drink has its own mini-show experience — the Tiki goddess from the former Enchanted Tiki Room rears her magical head.

click to enlarge This is about as bright as the Grotto gets. Note the Kraken in the corner. You can't tell, but he's grasping a bottle of rum in one tentacle and periodically drinking. My kind of kraken... - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
This is about as bright as the Grotto gets. Note the Kraken in the corner. You can't tell, but he's grasping a bottle of rum in one tentacle and periodically drinking. My kind of kraken...

Worth every penny. 

Want to hear the entire original soundtrack? Here 'tis:

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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