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The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room: The Full-Feathered Story Behind Walt Disney's Tropical Serenade

The Enchanted Tiki… Restaurant

In the essential book Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show, author, Disney Legend, and original Imagineer John Hench recalled that food giant Stouffer’s was looking to sponsor a second restaurant at the still-young Disneyland.

Image: Disney

To Hench’s thinking, this presented the perfect opportunity for the park’s Adventureland to segue to the new Tiki Craze sweeping the country, and that a Tiki restaurant populated by singing tropical birds could be a coup. When he presented Walt with a few sketches he’d composed of the birds perched over tables, Walt reportedly said, “I’m not too sure about this idea, John. The birds will be pooping on the food.”

Of course, Hench quickly explained that the birds he planned to roost in “The Enchanted Tiki and Bird Room” wouldn’t be real birds – or, worse to Walt’s thinking, “dead birds” –but animated ones that would utilize that technology Disney was exploring…

Image: Disney

That’s why construction got underway on the new Polynesian-inspired section of Adventureland at the realm’s entrance, cleverly creating a Tiki Room built off the back of Stouffer’s Plaza Pavilion restaurant on Main Street. That way, the new Hawaiian diner could share its kitchen. In a bit of well-loved Disney Parks trivia, the central fountain constructed in the Tiki Room was even outfitted with the storage needed to use it as a coffee bar (which it apparently retains today), and – if you ask Cast Members – you may even be permitted to use the public bathrooms built inside for diners.

While ultimately Disney squashed the attraction’s restaurant format (fearing diners would linger too long in awe of the birds), Stouffer’s did get their second sponsorship by way of the adjacent Tahitian Terrace, which offered tastes of Polynesian cuisine and real live luaus, further tipping Adventureland toward Oceania.

Image: Disney

Disney Legend Marc Davis (co-creator of fellow Modern Marvels: Country Bear Jamboree and Carousel of Progress) was tasked with creating artwork for the new Tiki Room characters, while Imagineers Harriet Burns and Blaine Gibson created mock-ups that would eventually come to life. But how would they come to life? Well, the Tiki Room’s avian stars would more than make up for the absent appetizers.

Audio-Animatronics

Merging sound, animation, and electronics, Audio-Animatronics (trademarked in 1964 and registered in 1967) were born. And like the mechanical automatons that adorned the throne room of Constantinople a millennium earlier, this almost-unthinkable technology took the unassuming shape of a bird.

“Electronically animated by sound,” the birds created for the Tiki Room attraction were still relatively simple, using pneumatic (air-powered) pressure enough to move the small figures’ lightweight limbs and beaks, but still far too insignificant to animate a larger, human-sized figure. What’s more, the tone system that controlled the avian figures was digital, meaning that each pneumatic joint was either “on” or “off;” eyes open or closed, head left or right, wings at rest or lifted, chest flat or puffed with no gradients between.

In fact, the simple motions of the Tiki Birds were controlled by way of massive (and, of course, rudimentary by today’s standards) computer mainframes, magnetic tapes, and pneumatic tubing housed in a sleek and temperature-controlled chamber more in line with a Space Age NASA control room than the cleverly-dressed Polynesian pavilion directly over it. As you can see in the rare behind-the-scenes video above, the systems that powered Walt’s first Audio-Animatronics were practically jaw dropping. And in fact, the need to keep those systems cool made the Enchanted Tiki Room the first spot in Disneyland to feature air conditioning.

As for the figures themselves, over 150 Audio-Animatronics figure populate the Polynesian serenade, including 8 macaws, 12 toucans, 9 forktails, 6 cockatoos, 4 living totem poles, 12 tiki drummers, 24 singing masks, 54 musical orchids, and 74 birds of paradise (some feathered, some floral). This feathered choir remains one of the largest Audio-Animatronic casts ever, and earned a place in our must-read Countdown: 25 Best Audio-Animatronics on Earth.

Image: Disney

Disney Imagineer Harriet Burns (known for her masterful work on Pirates of the Caribbean) personally oversaw the birds’ feathered design, solving the long-fraught mystery of how to make them appear to “breathe” naturally. (The answer? She saw how Walt’s cashmere sweater moved on his elbows the way she wanted the bird’s body to move when they “breathed,” and thus wrapped them with custom-woven cashmere.)

The birds appeared ready for showtime. Now, they just needed a show.

“The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room”

Image: Disney

There are perhaps no songwriters as legendary in the history of Disney Parks as Robert and Richard Sherman. The brother songwriting duo is perhaps immediately recognized for writing the songs for 1964’s Mary Poppins (including “Jolly Holiday,” “Feed the Birds,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Step in Time,” and of course “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to name just a few).

Throughout their careers, they’d also write earworm Disney Parks standards like “Miracles from Molecules” (the theme of Disneyland’s Lost Legend: Adventure Thru Inner Space), the unforgettable “it’s a small world,” “One Little Spark” from EPCOT Center’s Lost Legend: Journey into Imagination, the infectious “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” from Walt Disney’s Modern Marvel: Carousel of Progress, and so many more.

But before them all, the brothers were called in to view a mockup of the in-production Tiki Room. Richard later recalled, “Walt said ‘Okay, start it,’ and the next thing we know, the birds were coming down singing “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing,” the orchids were singing… and then the Tiki torches were chanting. When it was all over, nobody knew what it was…”

Image: Disney

Naturally, they asked what it was they’d just witnessed, and Walt replied, “That’s what you’re gonna tell us. You’re gonna write a song that explains it and Larry [Clemmons], you’re gonna write some gags to go with the song, ‘cause I wanna have fun with this thing.”

The result was one of the Brothers’ most legendary and beloved songs of all time: “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room.”

Image: Disney

Script writers Wally Boag and Fulton Burley also lent their voices to two of the four macaws who would act as the show’s emcees – the Irish Michael and Spanish José, respectively – while the other two lead macaws Pierre (a French “rascal,” voiced by Ernie Newton) and Fritz (German, voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft of the Haunted Mansion’s singing busts) finished out the attraction’s stars.

On the next page, we'll step into the Enchanted Tiki Room to see how Disney's designers blended culture, characters, and some very catchy songs to create this Modern Marvel. Ready to take flight?

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