The Story Behind Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, Trader Sam’s

How did a kooky testament to the Tiki Bars of the 1950’s and 1960’s end up in two of Disney’s most revered resorts after being originally planned for Walt Disney’s Gleaming city of the Future — EPCOT?

Trader Sam would be a living legend in the cocktail world — that is if he were live and not merely an animatronic at the end of the World Famous Jungle Cruise. The bar that owes him a namesake is actually what’s responsible for the endless notoriety of Trader Sam’s, a special effect cocktail haven whose two locations both stake claims as Disney’s only Imagineering designed bars in the U.S.

Located first in the Disneyland Resort within the mid-century edifices of the Disneyland Hotel and now as a recent addition to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Trader Sam’s is not your average tiki bar. Some may say, these intimate locations serve up more fun than the God’s will tolerate.

What makes these bars so special? There’s no other way to say it — Trader Sam’s could be just yards away inside Disneyland. It offers just as much of a themed environment and fun as the Tiki Room or the Jungle Cruise — without the price of admission.

The Original Trader Sam’s at the Disneyland Hotel (Photo Credit: Matt Valeriote)

So let’s take a deep dive into the origins of Trader Sam’s and how this testament to the Tiki Bars of the 1950’s and 1960’s ended up in two of Disney’s most revered resorts after being originally planned for Walt Disney’s Gleaming city of the Future — EPCOT.

Trader Sam’s owes its heritage to a long history of tiki bars and tiki culture that was birthed just thirty miles north of what became the Disneyland Resort.

In 1934, Don the Beachcomber, the founding father of Polynesian inspired bars and entertainment venues, opened his original restaurant in Hollywood, California as a lush tropical paradise. His real name was Ernest Gantt and he was just back from his travels in the South Pacific and couldn’t get the memory of palm trees, women and exotic carvings out of his head — so he opened a bar called Don the Beachcomber. Trader Vic’s, his archival, opened in Oakland California a few years later.

The Original Don the Beachcomber bar in 1947 (Photo Credit: Food Republic)

World War II served to only exacerbated the Polynesian trend. Veterans returning home from the Pacific were taken with the landscapes and cultures they had encountered and sought to recreate the more lighthearted side of their ventures. A post-war economic boom allowed greater ease of travel to both California and Hawaii. Hawaii’s admission to the United States in 1959 also raised interest in the culture of the new island state. The newly strengthened middle class took advantage of their new affluence with recreation that centered on travel, escapism, and this new exotic local.

On a smaller scale, the tiki bar contained all of this and appealed to the economics of the era. Despite the fact that more and more people were able to travel, the luxuries of a quick getaway to the tropics by way of a drink or two in the recesses of a dim and lushly decorated bar appealed to the throngs of people joining the hectic workforce in the late 50s and 60s.

“If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you,” Gantt told his customers.

Trader Sam’s HippopotoMai-Tai in 2016 (Photo Credit: Disney Food Blog)

Trader Sam’s incorporates elements from these little bastions of escapism, including the mai-tai. Don the Beachcomber, in particular, popularized rum-based drinks as a standard of the tiki dining establishment. Gantt did this as rum was the least expensive of the spirits, and he had sampled a variety in his travels. When Don the Beachcomber opened, he put together an exotic menu of rum-based drinks that complemented his theme and scratched the names on a board behind the bar.

The mai-tai in particular was an icon of the tiki-craze that swept the United States in the post-war era and its invention was hotly contested by Gantt and Trader Vic, who also opened a line of tiki bars around the nation, after Gantt’s original bar flourished. Gantt and Vic also popularized cocktails such as the Scorpion and the Zombie, another of Trader Sam’s signature beverages.

The original E.P.C.O.T prototype

However, the idea of putting Trader Sam’s in the Disney resorts was likely drawn from the inclusion of a Tiki Bar in Walt Disney’s gleaming city of the future, the E.P.C.O.T prototype. The original plans called for an A-frame tiki bar on the outskirts of the residential green belt.

But how did a forgotten idea for a Disney tiki bar, likely from Walt Disney himself, come to fruition forty years later at the Disneyland Hotel?

The Disneyland Hotel Then (Left) and Now (Right)

The Disneyland Hotel, in its newest incarnation, is dedicated to the rich history of Disneyland itself, with most of that history dwelling in the resort’s formative years of the 1950s and 60s. Notably, a copy of the original Disneyland sign resides above the hotel’s pool.

In determining a new bar and restaurant combination to add to the Disneyland Hotel, the idea of a tiki bar likely came about in Imagineering as a way to pay tribute to California’s own slice of Tiki history — easily the most popular style of bar during this era.

Ironically though, the idea of the bar being connected to the stories of Adventureland and descendent from the Walt Disney World’s defunct Adventurer’s Club came about much later in the project. In order to fulfill its purpose as a complementary bar option to The Grand Californian Hotel’s Hearthstone Lounge, it was originally imagined as a “posh tiki bar.” A couple of months later and into construction of the complex, it was decided to name the restaurant after the infamous jungle salesmen — Trader Sam’s.

Now, this was all well and good, until a Lead Set Decorated and former Jungle Cruise cast member was put on the project — okay, begged to be on the project. Brandon Kleyla helped convince the team to go in a theming direction that benefited the quirkiness and craziness of nearby Jungle Cruise (the location is under a mile away). As he describes it, “it became Adventurer’s Club meets Jungle Cruise meets Tiki Room.”

The stepping off point was really: Who is Trader Sam?” And, apparently, the madness spiraled from there….

Trader Sam as he appears in the Jungle Cruise attraction in Magic Kingdom (left) and Disneyland (right)

Next, the team of Imagineers asked themselves, “what if Trader Sam knew Indiana Jones, what if he knew Jack Sparrow, or Swiss Family Robinson?” Then, they reached a breath through. What if Trader Sam knows live-action from pretty much anywhere in Disney’s “Adventure” history? And so, that was the story they set off to tell.

On the walls surrounding the dual locations, there’s a picture of Sam with Jack Sparrow on the wall, a note from Ned Land to Sam, a harpoon from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and even a reference from the Castaway Cowboy. In addition, there are numerous references to theJungle Cruise, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Indiana Jones, and Walt Disney World’s Adventurer’s Club.

A photo of Trader Sam with Jack Sparrow hangs in the Disneyland location (Photo Credit: The Disney Wiki)

You see, Brandon shopped for decorations for about a year at swap meets, eBay, flea markets, and antique stores. At the end of his thrifting adventures, he is said to have a collection that equated to about 1600 individual pieces.

According to Brandon, the original Trader Sam’s even more props than the Little Mermaid — although if he was referring to the ride or the hoarding sea creature we don’t know.

Will you be visiting Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s on your next visit?

Learn more about Theme Park History today by listening to Fastpass to the Past: The Theme Park History Podcast.

Hello! My name is Austin & I am a product manager, career coach, and podcast host.

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