The History of Disney and Tiki Culture's Rise, Fall, and Resurgence

Disney Parks History 

Disney will typically respond to major cultural trends in their output. Specifically, the Disney Parks have a long history of responding to the rise and fall and resurgence of US Tiki Culture.

Welcome to Disney Parks History where this week we are doing something a little different. This week we are exploring the long history of Disney and Tiki Culture, a trend that stretches from the 1960s all the way to the present day. Be sure to check out the rest of this series here.

Tiki culture emerged in the 1930s as travel from the west coast United States to Hawaii and other pacific islands grew more prevalent. People who made the journey fell in love with the culture of the islands and wanted to recreate an idealized version of it to experience back at home. It had a small but extended spread into mainland American life.

Then came World War II.

During the second world war, thousands of Americans went to the Pacific, mainly Hawaii. This proved to be a major catalyst to the tiki culture movement, as elements of Polynesian and Hawaiian culture became more mainstream as soldiers returned home. This would grow with the advent of widespread numbers of tiki bars and Polynesian inspired design elements throughout the United States.

This movement appropriated elements of Hawaiian culture to create escapism from the mundaneness of everyday life. Tiki bars created tropical paradises that were close enough to being authentic for someone who only had a basic knowledge of the culture, or provided a budget version of an actual vacation to Hawaii.

The movement became more widespread with the statehood of Hawaii and increased travel to the islands from the US.

Disney would begin developing a pavilion in Disneyland dedicated entirely to this movement. Smartly Disney would not place this on a specific island local but aboard, ashore, or wherever you are in a tropical hideaway.

The Enchanted Tiki Room opened in 1963 alongside a previous nod to tiki culture, the Tahitian Terrace dinner theater show. This formed a whole mini section of Disneyland's Adventureland based around tiki culture.

Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room opened at the height of tiki culture, as a show that tried to transport you into a tropical paradise through Disney magic, featuring the height of Imagineering technology at the time.

It featured all the classic elements of tiki culture, except alcohol because this is Disneyland. It featured the tropical plants, architecture, and of course tikis that were the main elements of the trend.

In Disneyland it would be sponsored by United Airways, who hoped the exotic setting would encourage travel to the actual locations that inspired the attraction, before eventually being replaced by Dole as sponsor, the company partially famous for a sizable pineapple plantation on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

This was Disney's first major foyer into tiki culture but it would not be the last.

Tiki culture would still be popular enough when Disney World was getting built for the same attraction to be renamed Tropical Seranade in the new park. In fact, an entire section of land initially revolved around tiki culture, although it would eventually be replaced by an Arabian theming with the adventure of the Aladdin themed magic carpets spinner.

Disney World would see another tiki culture-inspired area on opening day, the Polynesian Village Resort, which would feature Polynesian style designs throughout and a Hawaiian style show nightly.

While the Tiki Room would come to Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, this would mark the end of Disney's flirtation with Tiki Culture. The World War II veteran's generation had grown out of the trend and their children were uninterested in it, leading to its decline around the country.

The tributes to tiki culture would remain in the Disney Parks even during this decline. The escapism offered by tiki culture really only fit in a theme park, where one goes to try and find an escape from everyday life.

But even still, tiki culture would eventually see a decline in the parks, with a replacement coming to the Magic Kingdom's Tiki Room that made fun of the tiki culture elements in an attempt to be more hip with the day's youth, in a way that never really worked. The tiki theming would decline in favor of Aladdin theming in the Magic Kingdom, and Tahitian Terrace would also close to give way to an Aladdin experience.

But eventually, there would be a resurgence in tiki culture, with young adults nostalgically recreating the tiki culture of yesteryear as part of a larger trend of creating transportive experiences in everyday spaces.

This time there would be some accusations of cultural appropriation applied to the trend. The trend of tiki culture definitely began as cultural appropriation, but the resurgence was more a tribute to the original tiki culture movement than actual Polynesian culture. Different aspects of the fad certainly range the gambit from respectful interpreting the culture into experiences, to exploitative.

Disney would once again hop onto the tiki culture train, with notable more respect than the first time. Disney's Aulani would be built with respect to Hawaiian culture as a main goal.

Trader Sam's would open in both US Disney Parks, finally giving the parks a tiki bar in the style of the ones that started the fad at the beginning.

The Tiki Room itself would be restored in the Magic Kingdom, and while the Tahitian Terrace would not return, a new tiki-inspired restaurant would come to the location extending the theme of the Enchanted Tiki Room into an all-new Tropical Hideaway.

Tiki culture created one of the most iconic Disney attractions of all time, and survived long enough to see itself be a tribute to it amid its cultural resurgence, something few Disney attractions that result out of fads get to say.


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