Tales of Trader Sam: Brandon Kleyla Interview - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Brandon Kleyla was the Walt Disney Imagineer responsible for set dressing, writing, and giving life to Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel (that opened May 2011) and Trader Sam's Grog Grotto (that opened April 2015) at Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort.


Imagineer Brandon Kleyla gave life to Trader Sam's at the Disneyland Hotel.

A former Jungle Cruise skipper at Disneyland, Kleyla incorporated the same sense of humor and Disney references into both establishments. He is an actor, writer and director among many other accomplishments.

He has five THEA awards for his work on Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, The Walt Disney Family Museum, Shanghai Disneyland, and two for Pandora: The World of Avatar.

He is currently working on the Universal Beijing project as a Props Manager/Art Director, as well as serving as creative director, art director, and media director for one of the lands of the new park.

It can be argued that the success of the two Trader Sam's Tiki Bars helped spark the creation of Magic Kingdom's The Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd Skipper Canteen, Disney Springs' Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar, and Disneyland's Tropical Hideaway. Certainly the success of the bars resulted in eagerly sought-after collectible souvenir mugs for some of the specialty drinks and the annual Mahaloween party that started at Disneyland in October 2014. Mahalo is a traditional island word meaning "thanks."

The character of Trader Sam is a cannibal salesman prominently located near the end of the iconic Jungle Cruise attraction. He is the "head salesman" trying to get ahead by offering two of his shrunken heads for "one of yours" as the Jungle Cruise skippers gleefully informs boat passengers because "his business is shrinking".

In the Florida attraction he looked physically different than his West Coat counterpart and was referred to as "Chief Namee." There are at least two versions of how that latter name came to be used.

In the beginning, a revised script for the WDW attraction was incomplete so a Jungle Cruise skipper read "Chief (name)" in the script as "Chief Nah-Me", which amused everyone so the name stuck. Another story is that there was a contest to come up with a new name for the character and a skipper wrote "Name" in the blank, and "Name" won the vote as the best name.

At WDW, the character's name officially changed back to Trader Sam in 2009 and he is now identified as the cousin of the Disneyland character.

With the opening of Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar, Kleyla expanded on Sam's history by explaining that the jungle businessman decided to apply his experience in mixing potions to mixing exotic drinks.

He also decided that Sam's long, possibly magically immortal, life included being involved with many of Disney's adventure related characters, including members of the well-beloved Adventurers Club, Indiana Jones, Captain Jack Sparrow, Ned Land (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and the Swiss Family Robinson, among others. It is rumored that the character of Trader Sam will make an appearance in the forthcoming new live action Jungle Cruise movie.

Some Disney fans know that various food and beverage locations at the Disney parks have a "secret menu" that is available for those who are knowledgeable enough to order those items.

At Disneyland's Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar, the secret menu includes drinks such as King Kamehameha, Missionaries Downfall, Miehana and Fog Cutter. The real secret drink is the Kungaloosh. Transplanted from the now-closed Adventurer's Club at Walt Disney World, there are two different versions of this drink because it changed over the years at the venue. "Old" is vodka, Malibu rum, Midori, pineapple juice and a splash of cranberry. "New" is a blend of strawberry daiquiri mix, orange juice, Captain Morgan spiced rum and blackberry brandy.

Kleyla, under his nickname Trader Brandon, authored the hundred page 2018 book The Field Guide to Tiki Decorating that is only the first volume of a proposed series of books. It is a do-it-yourself tutorial about tiki bar theming, with illustrations by Tiki Tony, and "How to's" provided by scenic artist Typhoon Tommy.

"Volume One focuses on story, creating a backstory and music and lighting – kind of a big overview," Kleyla explains, "covering everything from thrift shopping for vintage signage to selecting the perfect South Seas soundtrack. And then I brought Tom in to do the tutorials on painting, with a few simple techniques to get you going such as aging objects with artificial rust or turning PVC pipe into bamboo. I want people to shove this in their pocket and take it with them when they go shopping."

Kleyla joined Walt Disney Imagineering in 2009 and left in 2016 to become part of Universal Creative. Kleyla would love to write a book about his work on Trader Sam's but his agreement with Disney does not allow him to do so. However, he was very gracious over the last year to answer some of my questions about himself and the location and the final interview was completed and reviewed by him in November 2019.

Jim Korkis: It is my understanding that you worked for a time as a Jungle Cruise skipper.

Brendon Kleyla: I worked at Disneyland in 2005-2006 during the 50th anniversary. Having been an actor in my youth, I had done many commercials and print campaigns. When I moved to California, I realized that I had never worked at Disneyland. So I drove over there one day and applied for a job, telling the casting person I wanted Jungle Cruise.

They informed me that that's not how it works; you can't just pick a role. When I got called back into the office, the casting person had my IMDB page up on his computer, and he was confused as to why I wanted to work at Disneyland. But I told him I really wanted a role that I could do something with beyond just pushing a button if I was going to drive an hour and a half to work everyday from Camarillo.

JK: What was the training like for the role?

BK: Training was four days: two openings and two closings. I got signed off on the first try once I got thrown in a boat with guests. I've always said that the jokes are good but it's the delivery that can make or break a trip. Some skippers like to get every joke in there and just bombard the guests, but I would do one joke per scene and let the delivery do the work for me.

I think my favorite part of the job was interacting with the guests. I used to reload my gun in an area where all the kids waiting in line could see, and I'd play it off very dramatic. I liked playing it off like we may not actually make it back. I miss working Jungle everyday! My least favorite memory was quitting. I loved it there.


Brandon Kleyla was once a skipper on the Jungle Cruise

JK: Did you work in other roles at Disneyland?

BK: When working at Jungle, you also were also given Tiki Room shifts. I think I had three or four in the two years I was there. By the time I actually had a shift, it had been so long since training that I actually forgot. But I will say my Tiki Room claim to fame was that I was the first cast member to wear the current outfit. That great shirt and the salmon color jacket. I also worked at the Indiana Jones Adventure, Fantasmic, as well as the Parade and Fireworks route.

I grew up in Florida, so I was always fond of the Magic Kingdom Jungle Cruise, and still am. I love the temple scene. The layout of the overall ride definitely messes with you once you've worked 70 hours a week for two years in Anaheim. My favorite Jungle Cruise attraction though is actually Hong Kong's. What an amazing ride, the layout, the scenes. Very well done.

My dad's aunt worked at the Aku Tiki in Daytona Beach in Florida. Their marquee has a giant Moai head so that was always fascinating to a little kid, probably my first real tiki memory so I naturally had to put a postcard from Aku Tiki into Trader Sam's Grog Grotto as well.

JK: How did you become an Imagineer in 2009?

BK: It was the perfect story of right place, right time. I was friends with Josh Shipley, who had been there for years, and one day I went over for lunch, and as you do you ask "so whats a guy gotta do to work here?" And literally that night, he texted me and asked for a resume because he was about to go be the show director on Great Moments with Mr Lincoln, and needed someone to cover his current role.

So two days later, I was covering for him in the dimensional design department, and I was in the door. I ran that department for about a year and a half, and then Josh came back and I got laid off, which was always part of the deal. But I stayed on them about doing something and basically said if you need anything, I'm here. And luckily they'd call. I did lighting some weeks; I was a stage manager for play tests some week; I'd come back and help Josh when they'd have a busy month.

And the last call I got was to document props. I went in and met with the manager of the props department, and was given a project rather than documenting. My first project to decorate was two DVC kiosks in Tokyo, one in each park.

JK: What were some of the Imagineering projects you worked on?

BK: During my time there I was always working! When Shanghai Disneyland really took off, I was the only one in the department not working on it, so I oversaw every other park. That was the year I had 14 projects all going at once. And on top of those projects, I was always working in some shape or form on Sam's. I was approving writing for blog posts, designing the Christmas overlay for Anaheim, etc. Here's a list of what I worked on:

Disneyland

  • Fantasy Faire
  • Star Tours
  • Haunted Mansion (Hatbox Ghost)
  • Matterhorn Bobsleds (60th)
  • Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar

DCA

  • Buena Vista Street
  • Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta (assisted)
  • The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure (assisted)
  • Carsland (assisted)
  • Grizzly Peak overall
  • Smokejumpers Café
  • Humphrey's Service and Supplies

HK Disneyland

  • Iron Man Experience
  • Mystic Manor (assisted)
  • Grizzly Gulch (assisted)

Tokyo Disneyland

  • Jungle Cruise updates
  • Star Tours

Disneyland Paris

  • Star Tours

WDW

  • Pandora – World of Avatar
  • Trader Sam's Grog Grotto
  • Star Tours

JK: Why did you leave Imagineering in 2016?

BK: I left during the building of Pandora. I had met my wife working on Trader Sam's and we had gotten married, so I was going to stay in Florida. And the powers that be informed me they didn't have a place for me in Florida. So I picked up the phone and was at Universal Creative two weeks later. It was bittersweet to leave WDI, but I was ready for a break. One of the reasons I wanted to stay in Florida was that everyone here seemed to be focused on doing the work! I'm totally a field guy. I love being in the dirt and making things come to life.

JK: How did you get assigned to the Disneyland Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar?

BK: I had been in the props department for about two weeks, maybe, and the Disney Parks Blog had announced a new bar coming to the Disneyland Hotel that was going to be Jungle Cruise themed. So I printed out the blog post, took it to my boss, threw it on his desk and said "I have to do this." He got me a meeting with the hotel team, and I listened to what they were presenting, and at the end what was originally designed for Sam's was not even close to what it ended up being.

The image I saw was white walls, three masks on them, and a hula girl clock. My skipper brain about exploded. So I asked if I could do a pass at the design, I took a couple of days, took my 4x4 board in and presented it to Tom Fitzgerald, and that's what we built in Anaheim. The vision shifted from a posh Caribbean style bar to a fun, quirky, crazy Tiki bar, which was fun for me because I could buy a ton of things and have a lot of fun with coming up with things that you couldn't do in a nice classy Tiki bar. So it sort of became Adventurers Club meets Jungle Cruise meets Tiki Room.

When we started, Ray Spencer was the art director and Kevin Rafferty was the show writer. They are both great guys that I loved working with, and we worked together on multiple shows!! Ray became so busy getting Buena Vista Street developed at DCA that he basically handed Trader Sam's off to me, seeing that I was doing the right thing. So more or less I became the field Art Director.

Then Kevin and I would work on spiels and the story for the bar. I remember that I needed the backstory for the bar so I could start buying props. I shopped for about a year on this. Swap meets, eBay, flea markets, antique stores, anything and everywhere. With a project like this you really can't plan it that much. You just go "I need an anchor. I don't know what size anchor and I don't know what it'll look like." There's one outside chained to the palm tree at Anaheim. It was so big but so great looking.

Things were mix and matched and then we brainstormed gags. A lot of bars have house rules, so why wouldn't Trader Sam's have house rules? We came up with forty house rules and they were all great.

JK: The seven rules I saw posted were: (1) Blow Dart guns are not to be used as drinking straws. (2) Cannibals may not serve people!! (3) Rule three crossed out so it is completely illegible. (4) Do not provide alcohol to on duty Jungle Cruise Skippers. No Exceptions!!! (5) Call Bartender if Schweitzer falls (6) No poison dart games (7) Management is not responsible (crossed out) under any circumstances!

BK: Three is painted out and, to be honest, I don't remember rule No. 3. And it was always intended to be scratched out. That was part of the gag. And, of course, we did different rules for Grog Grotto. There are over 1,600 individual items in the Enchanted Tiki Bar and about 1,400 in Grog Grotto. That was how I could make the space feel lived-in and look like it had always been there.

Nothing is hung straight; nothing is perfect, it's a real breathing environment, with real genuine artifacts. Very little was fabricated. Almost everything is a found item from the real world.

I did a documentary called Indy Fans and the Quest for Fortune and Glory (2008) that focused on the fan base and culture of Indiana Jones. Through that I met Tony Baxter and other folks at Imagineering so I knew I wanted some Indiana Jones references in the bar. I remember one executive saying he wanted to see Indy's fedora hanging on the wall "because it's iconic." But I said "no" and explained that the reason it's iconic is because it's always with him. I'm always a stickler for story and staying true to the properties.

I knew I wanted to do the map from the Indiana Jones Adventure attraction. I went to the files of the Art Library at Imagineering and found that the map wasn't there at all! Turns out, the original map had been sitting in Indy's office on his desk in the queue for the last 16 years, having been spit on, trash on top of it, you name it.

When I realized that I took the map, had it scanned by the Art Library team and made two copies. One came to Trader Sam's and the other went back into the queue. The original is now in the art library to be restored. But I always wanted the map in there because I was always a fan of that piece and you never get to really look at it in the Indy queue. So here you can really sit down and study the map.

Over on a wall there is a postcard from Marcus Brody asking if Sam has seen Indy. There's also the seltzer bottle from Marion's bar, picture of Trader Sam in front of the Mara temple in Tokyo and the one in Anaheim.

Next Week: Kleyla talks more about Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar, as well as Trader Sam's Grog Grotto.