Tales of Trader Sam: Brandon Kleyla Interview - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, Brandon Kleyla talked about how he became an Imagineer and got involved with the Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel. Today he continues that story and talks about WDW's Trader Sam's Grog Grotto.

JK: How did you end up becoming the show writer for the Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar project?

BK: I would email [show writer] Kevin [Rafferty], and he was far too slammed on Carsland by that time. So I eventually said, "Hey I'm going to just write it and you tell me if it works for not."

We did that for a little bit, and then he said he was too busy to even read what I wrote, so then I became the show writer for Sam's and wrote all the bartender spiels and named most of the drink names. When we were doing cast member training, I would install my props during the night, and then would come in and work with the cast during the day, writing material, reworking material.

I was doing about 18 hour days when working on Sam's, and then went every weekend for the first year to make sure it was all working. That the jokes worked and that the cast was having fun. This was way outside of many of their normal ways of doing a job, so if it didn't work, the whole place would suffer.

Kevin and I sat down, took the Jungle Cruise jokes and went through them figuring out which would work for this place. The bartenders have a few pages of spiel to know for each drink, certain props on the wall and the stories that go with them, the Aloha's when you come in the door, all that kind of fun stuff. We knew early on that the cast would be off-duty or retired skippers helping out their pal Trader Sam. Working with Kevin was always so much fun. I miss working with that guy!

Trader Sam's Grog Grotto at Disney's Polynesian Resort.

JK: How influenced were you by Disneyland's The Enchanted Tiki Room attraction?

BK: Well I think that was my first introduction to "Tiki" culture like so many people. So I knew we wanted to incorporate elements of the Tiki Room into Trader Sam's. Originally there was one of the flower boats from the attraction planned to hang over the bar, but I nixed that due to the fact that it would be full of dust all the time, over a food area. Bad idea. But the tiki totems, the planters in the corner, and the drummers, we knew had to go in. Especially since the original Trader Sam's in Anaheim really plays into the 1930s Adventureland time period, as opposed to Orlando's location. And then, of course, if you're recreating elements from the Tiki Room, they have to be perfect.

I remember when had a producer on the project that was adamant about painting the tiki columns just flat brown. And I kicked and screamed, ultimately choosing to bring in Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily to paint them for me. Those had to be right! They also painted the flower pots, and built the new ship in the ship in the bottle. Kevin and Jody are well known for their Disney collectibles, but are also huge tiki experts so I asked them where I needed to go and what I needed to see. They pointed out all the good tiki bars, the little places around town. So we went and they would have some drinks and I would just stare at everything, you know, because I don't drink.

I never looked at Sam's as a tiki bar. It was a place where explorers and adventurers would come and hang out. I went to a few of the L.A. landmarks: Tiki Ti, Don the Beachcomber's, even the horrible Trader Vic's when it was open. But I didn't want to visit too many because I didn't want to copy any of them.

Kevin and Jody were helpful with their knowledge. Sven Kirstin was helpful, as well, but I honestly designed a place where I wanted to spend time. I didn't want it to be based off of anything else. I just wanted it to be a dash of Adventureland, two dashes of Jungle Cruise, a sprinkling of Indiana Jones, and a little Tiki Room icing on top. I didn't want to take from these places exactly because people come to Trader Sam's but they also go to the other bars. Being in Southern California, our clientele know the Tiki bar so we wanted to always go a little bit further in our approach and make both Disney fans and Tiki fans happy. One of my biggest concerns was that we had to make sure people knew that this wasn't The Adventurers Club. A fun fact is that these are the only totems in the world that are three-sided. The ones in the Tiki Room are four-sided.

JK: How did Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort influence you?

BK: The Polynesian never really came up too much when doing Anaheim because it's a different time period. We leaned heavily on the Polynesian obviously for the location in Orlando. In Anaheim, we really just put the Polynesian logo on our doors, and then never talked about it.

JK: How had being a Jungle Cruise skipper influence Trader Sam's?

BK: It was always there, and I think certainly came through when I wrote the spiel books for the cast members, and always thinking of that Skipper sense of humor when purchasing props or creating things.

JK: How influenced were you by the Adventurers Club that was on Pleasure Island in Florida?

BK: I grew up in Florida and was always too young to get into the Adventurers Club. So I actually never got to go in ever! I was there for the night it was closing and didn't get in, so I did not get a chance to experience The Adventurers Club. That being said, I certainly did my homework, talked to some of the original cast, and watched plenty of videos. Certainly there are references to the Club in both locations but we tried hard to differentiate ourselves.

JK: How did you envision the character of Trader Sam?

BK: Well in the Trader Sam's bar story, Anaheim Trader Sam is the true Trader Sam. This came up several times when we started working on the Florida Trader Sam's. At one point it came up to remove the Marc Davis Sam from the Jungle Cruise attraction and replace him with Anaheim Sam, which I think the majority of us opposed. So I simply came up with the fact that the Florida Sam is Anaheim Sam's cousin, and he runs the east coast. Simple and we get the best of both. And I concreted that idea by creating a photo of the two of them standing together.

There's certainly a lot of mystery around who Sam is. I would certainly think he's a cannibal but he has some sort of arrangement with the Jungle Navigational Company. It's probably too dark for us to get into. We had to establish "Who is Trader Sam?" Well, he's a trader and he's on the Jungle Cruise obviously. And then we asked, "What if he knew Indiana Jones? What if he knew Jack Sparrow, or Swiss Family Robinson?" You know, all those types of characters. Basically what it came down to is that he can know anyone live-action from pretty much anywhere in Disney's "Adventure" history.

There's the picture of Sam with Jack Sparrow on the wall; there's the note from Ned Land to Sam; there's even a reference from Castaway Cowboy, the James Garner film that takes place in Hawaii. There's a lot of live-action film references and Disney park references as well including obviously Jungle Cruise, Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, Indiana Jones, and Adventurers Club.

JK: How was working with Kyle Barnes, who was the art director for the overall rehab of the Polynesian Village Resort, on the Grog Grotto?

BK: Kyle was a great partner and trusted me to do what I did. We would often share the same outlook on most decisions and we had a great time working together on Sam's in Florida. You can't ask for a better partner than that! I do miss the days of running into his office to name a drink or share thoughts on an upcoming mug design. Those are great memories!! We were a great team!

JK: Imagineer Rolly Crump used the reference book Voices on the Wind by Katharine Luomala for his work on the original Enchanted Tiki Room.

BK: I certainly read that same book during my research phase, and have a copy here at home. Rolly is great, and if I had to pick any of his work that inspired Sam's the most, it would actually be the South Seas Traders in Disneyland, a small store in Adventureland that has stuff all over, nets hanging from the ceiling, mismatched doors, I really loved that space at the time when we were putting Sam's together. And someone told me that Rolly designed that space. It's since changed from the original design sadly, but just such a cool place.

JK: What are the differences between the two Trader Sam's tiki bars?

BK: Enchanted Tiki Bar is set 1930-1950, it plays off of the Adventureland look and stories. Every photo is sepia or black and white; the walls are dark; it's more of your classic aesthetic. It is really a love letter to Adventureland.

Grog Grotto picks up as a different adventure and takes us 1950-1970. Kyle and I agreed that each bar should be different and should have a different tagline. So in Grog Grotto, all photos are in color or colorized. It's a Technicolor adventure. I hand colored almost every photo in the place. That was fun! There's much more color in the space, beta tapes, cassettes. It's a later time.

One of the truly unique elements about Sam's is everything he's collected is one-of-a-kind discoveries, so you won't find two props that match on either coast. That was certainly challenging, but very exciting to accomplish. Even the drinks/mugs are different.

JK: I am especially fond of the sinking ship in a bottle at the Enchanted Tiki Bar because it came from Florida's Adventurers Club.

BK: The Ship in the Bottle was actually designed by Yale Gracey for the Haunted Mansion but never used there. But there are drawings for it in the WDI Art Library that I showed at the first Mahaloween show in Anaheim. It was later dusted off and finally built for the Adventurers Club. It's a beautifully simple effect and I'm certainly honored to have a Yale Gracey effect in Sam's.

That bottle is the original bottle. We built a new ship for it. I had Kevin and Jody build us an amazing one-of-a-kind Wicked Wench for the bottle. The Wicked Wench of course being the ship that is attacking the fort in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Very few other things came from the Adventurers Club: a couple framed images. Zeus' fishing pole is in Anaheim. When it came to salvage the Club, most of the stuff was in such bad shape from just being in there so long, that you really couldn't get much more use out of it. That and the fact that people were stealing things right off the walls before the club closed. A lot of the stuff from the Club actually got picked over and taken to Mystic Manor in Hong Kong.

JK: Grog Grotto has some unique items from extinct attractions, as well.

BK: Yes, Grog Grotto has a couple of extinct attraction items, like a life ring from Maelstrom at Epcot for instance. I actually found the statue of UhOa from WDW's Enchanted Tiki Room Under New Management in the Animation building in Glendale one day. She was leaning up against the wall, some months after the fire in the attraction. And I freaked out, ran down to Kyle and said we have to get this. The animation department let us have her, so then we had to redesign the wall where she sits now, because it was never planned to have her there.

JK: Who came up with the idea or ordering a particular drink triggering an effect?

BK: I believe that was a Kyle idea, and a great one. I did name a good portion of the drinks, but some of them just wrote themselves like HippopotoMai-Tai.

I like a lot of the effects we did at Grog Grotto, because we had a budget to really have fun. I love the Shrunken Zombie Head effect in Orlando. The drink doesn't have any effect in Anaheim. As a non-drinker, I usually have an off-menu Gorilla Grog.

JK: The only complaint I have heard is that the locations seem too small to accommodate everyone who wants to go there.

BK: I think this complaint falls into an overall thought that we as Disney were introducing people to Tiki Bars. The majority of people who came through Sam's doors had never been in a tiki bar in their life, and they've told me this. So I think the complaint of size comes from the fact that nobody is used to Disney building a tiny space.

We did that because we had no choice. The space in Anaheim came out of a corner of Hook's Pointe, the restaurant there before. We didn't build a new space; it was repurposed. Same thing in Orlando. I was there one day and noticed an empty arcade, so I took photos and sent it to Kyle and said here's the Florida location. So again, we didn't build something new; we repurposed the Arcade space.

On the flip side of that, Tiki Bars are small; they always have been. Look at Tiki Ti in Los Angeles. Even some of the more recent "big" locations are still small and tight. It is an intimate experience and that is what we created. Part of the magic is that it literally looks like a tucked away, hole-in-the-wall Tiki bar. The size I think is fun and when you're in, the camaraderie and inclusion is a lot like Adventurers Club and everyone belongs.

JK: Did working on these two tiki bars change your life?

BK: Well the biggest change was I met my wife working on Grog Grotto, My wife and I had Tiki Tony carve our wedding cake topper; we had custom mugs for everyone at the reception, and we've built a Tiki backyard with a lagoon (pool) and bar. Aside from that, yeah, tiki had certainly become a part of my life. I love going to tiki events and talking about Sam's and hearing peoples stories about their experiences there. It's still surreal as I was just building a place I wanted to hang out in. I never thought other people would want to certainly not to the extent it has.

I can echo George Lucas when he says he's sad he never got to see Star Wars as the audience. There's a part of me that's sad that I never got to experience Sam's by just opening the door and discovering it. But I do love going there and just sitting and watching people's reactions, listening to their conversations, watching what they take photos of. And it's nice because nobody knows who I am. Occasionally someone will recognize me, but for the most part, I can get their genuine responses.

JK: Why did you write a book about tiki decorating?

BK: The book all started because I would get so many people wanting me to write a book about Sam's, which obviously I can't do, as much as I'd love to. So I thought about it and we ended up writing a "How to" book on how to make your own home tiki bar. So it's full of ideas of how to build things, things to think about while you're out shopping, etc. The reactions have been great. We've sold over 3,000 copies. Volume two is roughly outlined, but it's so hard to find time in the schedules to actually do it. In the second volume, we wanted to take it a step further, some of the next steps, so things like foam carving, hard-coating, more things with power tools.

JK: I'm surprised Tokyo DisneySea hasn't asked for a Trader Sam's.

BK: We offered one to the Explorers Hotel in Hong Kong, but they said "no," and, having been to Hong Kong now, I understand why. The locals don't seem to sit and enjoy themselves, they drink and leave. I went to a few local tiki bars that were gorgeous, and I was the only person in there that was sitting and enjoying himself.

Designing bars is a really great time! I would love to design more tiki bars, but with a full time job, that's hard to do now! You need to walk in and immediately be right at home and never want to leave. It needs to be fun. As a designer, I always appreciate the décor, especially the traditional designs. Trader Sam's are actually what I would call "explorer bars" and that allows for so much imagination. I've never thought of them as tiki bars.

JK: Mahalo! Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. I know people will enjoy your insights just as they enjoy the bars themselves.