The following is a short excerpt from Los Angeles resident historian Chris Nichols’ new book Walt Disney’s Disneyland, a meticulously researched and photo-rich visual history out today from Taschen.
Just steps away from the Main Street Central Plaza, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room stood apart as Adventureland’s most technically advanced attraction at the time. The “tropical hideaway” opened in 1963 as the first Audio-Animatronics attraction. John Hench designed the space, originally imagined as a Polynesian restaurant as a cross-shaped room with four wings for seated dining and a central open space for the show. He made “a beautiful drawing with all these birds sitting over the tables in their cages, chirping down to people eating,” recalled [Disneyland designer Rolly] Crump. “Walt turned to [designer John Hench] and said, ‘We can’t have birds in there…they will poop on the food.’”
Hench knew how to reassure Walt; they would be realistic-looking mechanical birds—that sang songs.
The room where guests “all warble like nightingales” and “tikis play the drums” was quickly changed from a restaurant to an attraction when it became clear that the show was so dynamic that no diner would ever choose to leave. Waiting visitors assembled in a forecourt for a preshow. Walt assigned the design for this area to Crump who came across the book Voices on the Wind: Polynesian Myths and Chants written by missionary Katherine Luomala. He used this resource for his sketches of the gods, many of which were grounded on traditional island stories like that of Tangaroa, the Māori god of the sea from which all things were created, who proudly says “from my limbs let new life fall.” But a few of the concepts were just interesting ideas Crump was toying with.
When Hench showed Crump’s drawings to Walt, he “looked at the one without a name and asked, “What does this one do?” Hench responded quickly: “‘It’s the god of tapa cloth beating.’ Walt just kind of looked at it and said ‘Clock?’ Not missing a beat, John [Hench] shook his head [in agreement] and said, ‘It’s the guy that tells the time.’” Walt approved it, and the Māori trickster god Maui suddenly became the keeper of “Tropic Standard Time.”
With head sculptor Blaine Gibson unavailable, Crump had to learn how to sculpt in the WED parking lot, which was hot enough to keep Plasticine malleable. “You know what I sculpted with? A plastic fork! One I got right out of the studio cafeteria,” he remembered.
The preshow tikis were captivating, but the show inside had to be spectacular. Walt wanted 100 birds for the mobile that lowered from the ceiling above Hench’s fountain in the center of the room, but Crump had to cut it down to 30 to fit in the hidden mechanical equipment. He “put a little bit of Las Vegas on those girls,” dressing some of them in sequins. He also added sparkling reflectors to the eyes of the drummers so the vibrations of the drum would make them twinkle during the rainstorm, an effect created by Yale Gracey with thin strips of Mylar hidden behind bamboo. When Imagineers attempted to replicate a rainstorm using real water at Walt Disney World in Florida nearly a decade later, they discovered it didn’t look as good as the Mylar, so they replaced their rain-making system with the original technique used at Disneyland.
Guests have continued to love Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room and its cast of 225 birds, singing flowers, and chanting tiki gods. The iconic attraction was restored as part of the 50th anniversary of Disneyland in 2005, and is still a magnificent production. As the Sherman Brothers song says, “Most little birdies will fly away, but the Tiki Room birds are here every day.”
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