Looking At Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, 40 Years Apart

Just look at these monstrosities
Just look at these monstrosities Disney

Lindsay Ellis, one of my favorite video essay YouTubers, just released a new video discussing why Pocahontas is a bad idea for a movie. I’m not going to even attempt to boil down her thirty-minute beautifully worded piece into a summary, so just watch the thing if you grew up on Disney films and have a half an opinion on cultural appropriation in cinema.

Disney’s had a long history of adapting someone else’s idea or culture into an easily digestible marketing ploy – that’s what they’ve based their entire company philosophy on. Ellis in her piece mentioned something I hadn't thought about in years: The Enchanted Tiki Room. One of Disneyland’s first attractions, opened in 1963, this Polynesian-themed show was the first attraction ever to use audio-animatronics. It featured a host of singing birds, putting on a show that Walt Disney personally wanted added to the park.

Judging by today’s standards, The original Enchanted Tiki Room was a hot mess. Talking tiki statues outside the venue represent different “Polynesian deities” and spoke in broken English, saying things like “Me Rongo, me fly kite.” Still, the attraction held a special part in Disney purists' hearts for being one of the original rides Walt had in his vision for Disneyland. By the late ‘90s, the ride was losing attendees, so the imagineers at Disney had an idea: why not take characters people are familiar with and add them in. That created the unfortunate Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management with Iago from Aladdin and Zazu from the Lion King.

I was five when my parents first brought me to Disney World and one of the first places we went was the Enchanted Tiki Room. My mom had been there when she was a kid and seemed so excited about that attraction. A bunch of birds singing covers didn’t really matter to me, I would have much rather taken a picture with my Toy Story idols. Walking up, my mom notices the marquee with Zazu and Iago painting over the classic Tiki Room sign.

Being a five-year-old and seeing two of my favorite childhood birds singing classic songs delighted me. I can’t remember a single ride, attraction or family moment from that trip, but those two corporate franchise mascots belting out songs was the best thing I’d ever seen. There were bright lights and puppets, two things that continue to entertain me to this very day. If the Muppets ever get desperate enough to appeal to kids with an EDM version of Mahna Mahna, you bet I’ll be there.

My mom has a terrible memory (“the 70s were a hell of a time,” she’d tell me), but still remembered that visit.

“I can’t remember what it was, but something was off” she’d say. “When I was a kid, this dinner theater show with singing birds was something we’d never seen before.” Even though the show’s gone under a commercialized metamorphosis, we both had that same childhood wonder about singing electronic birds, which is actually kind of magical in a way. Still, I’m a cynical millenial who would never admit heartfelt sincerity on the internet, so I’d much rather talk about anything else.

In 2011, The Enchanted Tiki Room went under the rework scalpel again, cutting away Iago and Zazu and returning it to it’s former glory. The Tiki gods no longer speak in caveman English and the corporate mascots have flown the coop. If we ever take that family vacation again, my mom and I will be in the front row, singing “In The Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room.”

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