If you've been around here for a while, you know that for years, Theme Park Tourist has been building up a library of Lost Legends – in-depth features where we’ve told the complete stories behind beloved-and-lost classics like Journey Into Imagination, Horizons, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Maelstrom, Alien Encounter, and dozens more. If it's a closed fan favorite, chances are it's gotten its own standalone entry with everything you'd ever hope to know!
And while those lost masterpieces have a special place in our hearts, they really only tell half the story. Now it’s time to face the facts: not all attractions go on to be legends. That brings us here, to our Disaster Files series, where we dissect the before, during, and after of some truly unfortunate missteps. While it may be the legends that are remembered, our favorite parks have also hosted rides like SeaWorld's Journey to Atlantis, Cedar Point's aptly-named Disaster Transport, Disney's embarassing Superstar Limo, and the abysmal misfire of Rocket Rods – failures, flops, and outright disasters. Embarrassing overlays, broken technologies, and tone-deaf “upgrades” can lead to some seriously regrettable rides. And today, we'll deal with a doozy.
An attraction with crude jokes, regrettable humor, and dated 90s style already spells disaster. Now imagine that these unfortunate ingredients were forced into a beloved classic dating back to Walt himself – one of the few Walt Disney World attractions he sincerely oversaw. It may sound unlikely, but just ask those who experienced The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management, the too-long-lived overlay of a timeless classic. Why did this happen? How? Today, we’ll find out.
Whenever we take an in-depth look at a legendary tale, we always try to start at the beginning. And the story of one of Disney’s most fine-feathered disasters really begins a continent away in a tropical paradise. Though, truthfully, it’s more semi-arid than tropical. It begins with Disneyland’s opening in 1955. As we know well by now, Disneyland was downright groundbreaking for audiences of the era. No other park had a single entrance blocked by gates. No other park had been master-planned with a maddeningly simple hub-and-spokes format. No other park had been built by filmmakers, adorned with thoughtful details and cinematic styling.
Within its five themed lands, Walt and his Imagineers had crafted almost-literary worlds of starring genres: a land of tomorrow, fantasy, frontier, adventure, and nostalgia all wrapped in idealized Americana, romantic wonder, and the optimistic perspective of the time. Put simply, Disneyland’s themed lands represented the perfected, imagined realms that fascinated audiences of 1955.
Take Frontierland. At the time of Disneyland’s opening, Americans were practically obsessed with the Old West, as kids spent summer days playing Cowboys and Indians outside, returning home to watch The Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett on living room televisions. (Sure, years later Disney would recognize that the Old West was no longer compelling or interesting to modern audiences. To counter the West's decline, Imagineers designed seaside steampunk San Francisco expansion for Frontierland would’ve fixed that once and for all, making Frontierland again attractive to contemporary audiences. But that’s a tale you can catch up on in our Possibilityland: Discovery Bay feature).
Frontierland was a response to the wants of a 1950s audience. Adventureland was the same. Of all the "adventures" out there, why was Disneyland's Adventureland set in a distant remote jungle? In the 1950s, audiences were enamored with the “mysterious” wonders that might’ve been hiding in the misty jungles of Africa. Films like The African Queen, Congo Crossing, Disney’s own True-Life Adventure series, and never-ending Tarzan films had shaped pop culture. To Disneyland’s earliest visitors, those jungles represented adventure brought to life.
That changed just a few years after Disneyland’s opening when, in 1959, Hawaii was added as the country's 50th state. Suddenly, the “exotic” wonders of the South Pacific became all the rage as entertainment, architecture, art, and food on the mainland went Polynesian. The ensuing Tiki Craze spread across the country as Polynesian gods, floral leis, tropical patterns, rattan furniture, rum cocktails, surfing, tiki torches, and hula skirts swept the mainland. People wanted a piece of paradise, and exotic Hawaii made it feel attainable.
Just like that, the definition of “adventure” changed, and Adventureland needed to change with it. Disneyland’s Polynesian coup would be the Enchanted Tiki Room.
First, Walt had envisioned the attraction as a full-service restaurant with guests dining beneath perched tropical birds and exotic tropical plants to the sounds of the South Pacific. His Imagineers finally approached him to express their dissatisfaction, noting that the birds would “poop in the food!” Walt explained that he never intended for the birds to be real, and instead hoped to craft mechanical macaws using the same technology as the land’s headlining Jungle Cruise.
And indeed, the Tiki Room was poised for meal service. Today, it still has an attached kitchen (used for adjacent Tahitian Terrance restaurant, now called Aladdin’s Oasis), its own restrooms (unadvertised, but available to guests), and (in a bit of well-publicized trivia), the enchanted fountain at the room’s center is apparently equipped with storage lending itself to its original intent: a coffee station.
Whatever the case, Walt ultimately must’ve agreed that there was something inherently unappetizing about dining beneath birds in bamboo perches (even mechanical ones) and the restaurant idea was scrapped.
Luckily, The Enchanted Tiki Room that opened was perhaps even more impressive. That’s because the attraction served as a first-ever use of an emerging technology that Imagineers patented: Audio-Animatronics. While Disney’s animatronic creations (and their predecessors, “electro-mechanicals”) were impressive and lifelike in their way, Audio-Animatronics would be different.
As their name implies, these new figures didn’t just look alive, they sounded it. Every one of the birds, plants, and tiki totems in the theatre independently breathes, flaps, clicks, shuffles, and dances to rhythmic serenades fit for the Big Island. Each figure moves in tandem with audio to give the impression that the birds are sincerely singing along. How could the technology of the 1963 produce such sophisticated figures? We took an in-depth look into the story behind animatronics technology that's worth a read, but suffice it to say that these figures were controlled by a massive computer room buried under the attraction where reels of magnetic tape acted as "brains," triggering sounds and moving pneumatic pistons that powered wings, beaks, eyes, and chests.
So advanced and unthinkable was this Audio-Animatronic technology to audiences of the 1960s that a single “barker bird” positioned outside the Tiki Room at the entrance to Adventureland stopped guests in their tracks. Indeed, so many guests crowded around the seemingly “brilliant” bird, massive groups blocked Adventureland’s entrance day and night, entranced by the impossible figure. It wasn't long before the barker bird was removed simply to unclog the path at Adventureland's entrance!
Even today, more than fifty years later, the groundbreaking choir of creatures in the Enchanted Tiki Room is wild enough to make our must-read countdown of the Best Animatronics on Earth. The feathered figures perform in perfect harmony, leaving young-at-heart guests with the distinct and unshakable impression that they’ve seen truly magical (or at least very well-trained) living birds.
The Enchanted Tiki Room was a bona fide hit and, like so many of the original ideas imagined by Walt and his cast in the early years, it’s timeless. Like Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, or Carousel of Progress, the Enchanted Tiki Room would stand the test of time and remain an invaluable piece of Disneyland; the kind of storied, unshakable, good-hearted family aside that sets Disney Parks apart.
While its sing-along-friendly songs (like “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing”) were a blast, there’s no forgetting the show’s headlining hit: “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room.” Written by the venerated Sherman Brothers (the duo responsible for… well… just about every Disney Parks hit you can imagine from “it’s a small world” and "World of Color" to “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" and the "One Little Spark" headliner that featured in another Lost Legend: Journey into Imagination. The two even wrote Mary Poppins’ “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”!), the infectious and joyful "Tiki Room" song is easily one of the strongest in the Disney Parks songbook and a sing-along masterpiece.
Of course, when Imagineers set to work designing Disneyland’s younger sister to be built in Florida, it was obvious that the enchanted chorus of the Tiki Room would have a place of honor in a ready-made, grand theatre. Opening alongside Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971, the transplanted copy of the attraction was called Tropical Serenade – a fitting way to describe the leisurely, relaxing, and magical show that awaited within.
Like most attractions duplicated from Disneyland to the larger, grander, master-planned Magic Kingdom, the transplanted Tiki Birds in their new Tropical Serenade would take on a larger-than-life presence. The towering Sunshine Pavilion would rise above the jungles of this larger Adventureland as the land's "weenie" - the visual landmark to draw guests in from Magic Kingdom's hub. Disneyland's version had guests queue in an enchanted volcanic grotto where magical tiki totems of Polynesian gods told their tales. Magic Kingdom's was a bit different, featuring two comical birds revealed from behind a waterfall, explaining how they'd found the Sunshine Pavilion while escaping from some hungry Jungle Cruise predators. Then, guests would be ushered inward where an exact copy of the Disneyland original would delight young and old in simple, sing-along wonder.
A beautiful work of Imagineering and a living testament to Walt Disney’s imagination, both Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room and Magic Kingdom’s identical Tropical Serenade stood among Disney's best ever attractions. So how and why would Disney do something to turn a revered Walt original into a disaster? What happens next may be too painful for Disney Parks fans to relive… Read on…