The Enchanted Tiki Room 1963

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"Wahine e o keonimana. Ladies and gentlemen, a small reminder before entering the Tiki Room. We ask you to refrain from smoking inside, and please, do not carry any food or drink into the Tiki Room. And, oh yes, no flash bulbs, please! Our performers are temperamental and easily upset. Thank you for your cooperation. And now, ladies and gentlemen, United Airlines invites you to come with us to a world of joyous song and wondrous miracles - Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room."

Walt Disney and his wife Lillian loved going to New Orleans and browsing the antique shops where they picked up several items, including some that ended up at Disneyland including in the Disney apartment over the firehouse, as well as antique mirrors for the Plaza Inn and items in Club 33.

On one of these trips in 1946, Walt Disney discovered an antique mechanical bird in a gilded cage and instantly became fascinated by this little bird sitting on a perch that could turn its head, flap its wings and tail, and open its beak to whistle.

Walt Disney supposedly coined the term "Audio-Animatronics" himself.

As Imagineer Harriet Burns recalled, Walt said, "It's amazing that you can get such interesting movement from a very simple mechanism. He said 'You know, they've done this in Europe for hundreds of years – if they've done this this well, we can do things now much better.'"

He gave the intricate moving bird to his Imagineers including Lee Adams, an electrician at the Burbank studio, Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers and a few others to deconstruct the figure to see how it worked. It is still in working condition today in the Walt Disney Archives.

Charles Cristadoro, a sculptor, modeled some human heads and experiments were made with cams, hydraulics, and other methods of enabling the figures to move realistically.

Walt tried to have his Imagineers duplicate the delicate and coordinated wire system beneath the mechanical bird for his Disneylandia project that would have featured small human figures.

For Disneyland, he had his Imagineers create "electro-mechanical" figures that were "Cam and Lever" figures capable of simple, repetitive motions like the natives and animals on the Jungle Cruise but had to be hidden away in obscure places and at a distance so that the public couldn't scrutinize them too closely.

In 1959, Walt had considered a Chinese restaurant off on Center Street to be sponsored by Chun King, that would include Chinese philosopher Confucius as a full-sized mechanical figure entertaining guests. He would be surrounded by dozens of mechanical singing nightingales in cages, as a reference to the story The Emperor's Nightingale. The dining experience and show were planned to last an hour. While some mockups were done including a working Confucius head, it was all cancelled by June 1960.

Imagineer Rolly Crump recalled one meeting: "Walt called us in one day—this is when we were re-doing Adventureland; Adventureland was getting a whole facelift – and he said 'I wanna do a little tea room, a little Tiki tea room. Just a little thing for sandwiches and tea and coffee.'"

Imagineer John Hench was assigned and came up with concept art he labeled "Tiki Tea Room". It had colorful birds in cages hanging over the diners.

As Crump recalled, "Walt looked at John's drawings and said, 'John, we can't have birds in this restaurant'. John said, 'Why not?' Walt said, 'Because birds will poop in the food!'."

"That pretty much killed that, except that John replied, 'No, no, Walt, those aren't real birds, those are fake birds'. Walt replied, 'Disney doesn't stuff birds, John'. John said, 'No, no they're not stuffed birds! They're little mechanical birds'. And Walt perked up and said, 'Oh, little mechanical birds', and he loved that idea and that's how the whole thing got started!"

A breakthrough came when the U.S. government declassified information about a process that NASA had developed to control the launching of space rockets via sound impulses recorded on magnetic tape. This technology became the basis of what Disney would soon call Audio-Animatronics, whereby the movements of life-size human and animal figures could be manipulated by sound frequencies.

The process worked like this: Tones recorded on magnetic tape would cause a metal reed to vibrate during playback; the vibrating reed would close a circuit causing a relay; and the relay sent a pulse of energy causing a pneumatic valve to operate a simple action such as a bird's beak opening.

Figures had a natural "resting or natural position" like a closed beak when no electronic pulse was present. Basically, when there was a pulse the mouth would open and when the pulse was stopped the mouth would close. The only challenge was to synchronize that action with the soundtrack.

When the final attraction opened, Disney advertised it as "Performed using a tape recorder of the same type used in the Polaris Missile. Space Age electronic wonders of audio-animatronics."

Disney used a one-inch wide 14-channel magnetic tape that produced 438 individual actions. While the final Enchanted Tiki Room attraction included over 200 figures, including 12 tiki drummers, 4 totem poles, 54 singing orchards, 24 singing masks, 7 birds of paradise (the floral variety), 8 macaws, 12 toucans, 9 forktails, 6 cockatoos and 20 other assorted tropical birds, only 120 audio-animatronics actually sang and/or spoke.

Walt Disney supposedly coined the term "Audio-Animatronics" himself. In an interview Imagineer Burns recalled being in a meeting with Walt, John Hench, Fred Joerger and herself where Walt was playing around with words to define the new process. They sat around saying Walt's new combination word out loud and thinking how funny it sounded but that it did describe what was happening.

The term was first used commercially by Disney in 1961, filed as a trademark in 1964, and registered in 1967.

Besides the small valving used in rocket motors, an inertial navigation computer used in submarines in the 1960s was also used to control some of the animatronics all before servo valves, analog or digital controls, servo motors, solenoids, air pistons or torque tubes became more common practice.

  • "Audio" referred to the sound tones that triggered the actions of the earliest audio-animatronics. By playing back a sequence of audio tones off a high-speed magnetic tape, the varying frequencies of the tones were transformed into electronic signals, each one triggering a specific piece of animation.
  • "Anima" referred to animation which was not just movement but the subtle extras of how that movement was achieved like using eye blinks, anticipation with movement, etc.
  • "Tronics" referred to electronics. When all three elements (sound, animation and electronics) were finally brought together and synchronized, figures amazingly seemed to spring to realistic life or at least the illusion of life.

With Hawaii becoming a state in 1959 and the surge in popularity of Tiki Bars and military personnel who had been stationed in the South Pacific during World War II returning home with an affection for South Seas culture, a Polynesian-themed restaurant at Disneyland was a natural choice for the 1960s especially since Adventureland needed something more than just the Jungle Cruise to entertain guests.

In addition, starting in 1934, Walt and his family vacationed in Hawaii and continued to visit over the years. In October 1962, Walt and his wife Lily visited Bora Bora, Papeete, Tahiti, Pago Pago, Nandi, and Fiji, as well as Honolulu, Kahului and Hana in Hawaii.

Walt knew that Stouffer's was interested in sponsoring another restaurant in Disneyland so in 1961 he met with Vernon Stouffer in Cleveland. Vernon was the founder and president of Stouffer Hotels, Stouffer Frozen Foods and Stouffer Restaurants that all operated under The Stouffer Corporation.

Stouffer's was set to sponsor the restaurant that became the Enchanted Tiki Room

In the 1960s, "Stouffer's in Disneyland," as the brand was labeled, sponsored three restaurants in Disneyland: Plaza Pavilion, Tahitian Terrace, and French Market Restaurant.

According to the summer 1962 issue of Vacationland magazine published by Disney and distributed to local Orange County hotels and motels, Stouffer's was set to sponsor another dining location:

"Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, one of three new restaurants at 'Stouffer's in Disneyland' and Disney's first 'by reservation only' dining space, may steal the spotlight from the other new attractions. For Walt Disney is bringing together all the talents of his 'imagineers' to create a complete dinner show performed by an exotic collection of birds, flowers and Polynesian Tikis that actually sing, talk and act!

"Many new animation techniques, developed exclusively for Disneyland, will 'bring to life' the birds, idols and flowers. And, lest you should think it's not possible for inanimate objects to sing and act, just remember that this dinner-show is based upon legends and myths treasured for centuries by the natives of the South Pacific.

"Stouffer's, one of America's foremost restaurateurs, will also open European and American Kitchens in its Plaza Pavilion (facing Main Street) and a Tahitian Terrace overlooking Adventureland. The latter will feature nightly dancing and South Seas entertainment."

The Adventureland side of the Plaza Pavilion became the Tahitian Terrace and the Plaza Pavilion, Tahitian Terrace and the Enchanted Tiki Room would all have utilized the same kitchen space since they were all in the same building.

When the restaurant became an attraction, several elements survived. A small bathroom had been built to the left of the front of the entrance door for restaurant patrons making it the only attraction to have such a facility. The original restaurant chairs were welded together into rows and used for the show's seating for the first few decades until someone realized that installing benches would increase capacity.

The Magic Fountain at the room's center was designed as a bussing station and still contained storage compartments for silverware and other items in its base.

Disneyland guests even received brochures handed out at the entrance to the park that proclaimed, "Stouffer's fabulous 'Bird Room' will be Disneyland's first 'by reservation only' dining facility, with a complete show that's literally put on by the birds --- for you!"

The original colorful poster for the Enchanted Tiki Room decorated with smiling wooden tiki figures that was displayed at Disneyland proclaimed: "Three Great Adventures in Eating and Entertainment: Stouffer's in Disneyland. Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room. Tiki talk say 'Better Go! Wondrous Food! Wondrous Show!"

WED determined that "Reservations will be spaced at one-hour intervals and guests will be advised to arrive 15 minutes prior to dining time."

The concept was that the show would be "dessert" after the diners had finished their main course. The birds would look just like frozen stuffed figures until the Magic Tiki brought them to life as guests ate their desserts.

Imagineer Marc Davis said, "When the whole room came to life, Walt wanted it to be a surprise, something the audience didn't expect and something they couldn't see anywhere else in the world."

As John Hench wrote;

"We always want the dining experience not only to be entertaining in itself but also to further involve guests in the story environment of the land or attraction. One of our early ideas for how to do this was the dinner show.

"The theory was that if guests were seated and served at the same time, they would finish eating the main course together, allowing us to start a show during dessert at specific times for lunch and dinner. We thought this approach would work best with special cuisines, such as Polynesian food.

"My assignment was to design the Enchanted Tiki Room. My proposed room was cross shaped with four wings and a central open space. I located the service center for the tables in the central area, allowing unobstructed viewing of the show from the tables in the wings.

"My show concept began with a single Audio-Animatronics bird singing to a beat picked up by another bird, then by groups of birds, creating a lively avian jam session. The volume grew as singing flowers joined in, followed by the carved tiki gods that adorned the columns throughout the space.

"More tiki figures intensified the rhythm with drums as they sang of the mountain gods' anger and announced a coming storm. Rain sound effects and strokes of lightning created still more uproar. With a final crescendo, the gods spent their anger and a chandelier full of singing birds descended from the ceiling, introducing the lighter, happier song that closed the show."

Imagineers Marc Davis and Rolly Crump were assigned to design the interior of the space. Davis, in particular, had a great fondness for Oceanic culture.

The entire interior of the new restaurant was mocked up on Stage 3 at the Burbank Disney Studio for testing. During testing, patrons would continually pause, sometimes in mid-forkful, as they were finishing their desserts to watch the show. They even stayed and didn't want to leave hoping to see more so that the next group with reservations couldn't enter on time and be seated.

In addition, it was determined that utilizing the small restaurant space would limit audience capacity too much to cover the costs of the show. When it was transformed into an attraction and the tables were removed, it provided room for an additional 100 seats.

Hench said:

"When we decided to include more guests and eliminate the food service, I took out the service center, added theater-in-the-round seating and set an elaborately carved fountain in the central area, whose central jet of water reached eight feet in the air, touching the birds' chandelier to trigger its descent.

"The engineer who reviewed my detail illustration for the fountain's climatic action told me that it couldn't be done: a small column of water would break in the middle before reaching 8 feet.

"So I asked Roger Broggie if the water could be lifted in a hollow glass tube that would rise from the fountain at the right moment. He said, 'Yes, if we can have a hole deep enough to recess the tube and a lifting machine'. So we did it. The overflowing water hid the glass tube perfectly."

Stouffer's had signed a lucrative contract and Walt had to personally talk the company out of it persuading them that the adjacent Tahitian Terrace would be a much better and more profitable experience for them.

The show was often just called just the "Bird Show" and later "Walt Disney's Legends of the Enchanted Tiki" and "Walt Disney's Legends of the Enchanted Island" before the Sherman Brothers wrote the memorable "Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room" theme song.

Walt even gave a presentation to Coca-Cola for them doing it as a proscenium stage show at their pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

The proposal was for a much more elaborate show written by Wally Boag with a waterfall curtain that parted, a dancing and flaming water lagoon and an erupting volcano in addition to the Audio-Animatronics characters. It took place in the enchanted island regions of Oceania and hosted by a parrot with a Spanish accent. Coca-Cola was not interested.

Walt even offered a discount on the price if the company would agree to sponsor the attraction at Disneyland after the fair. Coca-Cola's representative, Harold Sharp, who was very excited about the show could not convince his company. "The expense of rearranging and changing the building, plus the expense of the show itself was more money that our budget for this enterprise would permit," he wrote to Walt.

When the attraction was built at Disneyland, massive rows of sensitive electronic equipment were installed under the building to run the show. In order to keep this equipment from overheating, air conditioning had to be used making the Enchanted Tiki Room the first air-conditioned building at Disneyland.

Walt decided he wanted a pre-show forecourt area to get the guests in the mood for the show and to help alleviate the wait time for the next show. He assigned Crump to design the area. Crump found the book Voices on the Wind: Polynesian Myths and Chants written by missionary Katherine Luomala.

He used the myths and legends in it as his primary resource for his sketches of the various gods, many of which came from 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."

However, as Crump admitted, he often just played around with some ideas that amused him.

Crump said:

"In Japan, they have where the water will drip into a bamboo tube and when it fills, the back end of it tips and it hits a log to make a sound to keep the deer and the rabbits out of the gardens. So I thought, 'Well, I'm going to that idea into one of my tikis'.

"I was looking up in the books about Polynesian art, I found this one beautiful little drawing, actually it was a sculpture of a tiki and he had a little weenie laying on top of someone else's head that was between his legs. And I found out later that was his wife.

"But anyways, I went ahead and built this little tiki like that and John Hench saw it and said, 'We can't put something like that in Disneyland, Rolly!'. And I said, 'No, no John, I won't have anything that looks like a weenie, I'll just have a bamboo tube', so I built the thing and that's the first piece of sculpture I did for the Tiki Room. But I never gave it a name.

"Walt looked at the one without a name and asked, 'What does this one do?' Thankfully, John who was also there 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 shook his head [in agreement] and said, 'It's the guy that tells the time.' When the meeting was over, John said, 'Rolly, you better go find out who the hell the god is that tells the time!' I did, and it was Maui. It was just a happy accident that worked out well."

Walt approved it, and the Māori trickster god Maui suddenly became the keeper of "Tropic Standard Time." Crump designed all the others including Hina, the goddess of mist and rain who has water come out from underneath the brim of her hat and Pele the goddess of volcanoes and fire whose has little flames shoot out of her that surprises waiting guests.

WED sculptor Blaine Gibson was already overwhelmed with other projects, so Crump had to learn how to sculpt in the WED parking lot, which was hot enough to keep the Plasticine malleable.

"You know what I sculpted with? A plastic fork! One I got right out of the studio cafeteria," Crump joked.

Once sculpted, molds were made from the figures and then they were cast in fiberglass. Crump ended up painting the finished versions himself and then helped bolt them to the ground at Disneyland.

Crump said:

"I did the drummers in the Tiki Room, up at the top there. When the attraction opened, I went in there and watched it. I saw the drummers up there beating the drums. They really looked dead. What the drummers were saying was 'Rolly, do a little something more to make us come to life'.

"So I got those little Sparkletts truck shiny things like we used in some dark rides, and I put them in the eyes of the drummers. So all of a sudden, when the drummers were beating their eyes were flashing because of the vibrations. All of a sudden, it really brought them to life. It really enhanced the entire show".

The rain effect at the end of the show was the creation of Imagineer Yale Gracey who used thin ribbon strips of Mylar attached to a little motor at the top so when it vibrated it looked like it was raining.

Invited press saw the finished production on the Disney Studio lot in Burbank in April 1963. The official press preview was held at Disneyland on June 29. Officially, the attraction opened to the public on June 23, 1963.

Crump recalled in his book, "We all had a great time working on it, and Walt loved the Tiki Room. It was one of the most popular attractions back then, and still is today. It's great to see how timeless it has become."

NEXT WEEK: An entire column devoted to the Tiki Birds in the Enchanted Tiki Room



  1. By Pammer

    The Enchanted Tiki Room was a favorite of my father's when we went as a family back in the 60s after it opened...he was in awe of Walt's audio-animatronic technology because it was so innovative for that time. Now I love to go in honor of my father and enjoy it whenever I can! (The motorboats were another attraction we shared together!)

  2. By AutoMatters

    Thanks for the very informative article. I did not know that The Enchanted Tiki Room used to be a restaurant.
    I have three 1:24 scale Hot Wheels animated cars from about 20 years ago that each use an audio cassette to trigger certain actions in the cars, including lights, sounds and a variety of movements. It sounds like it is similar to how the Tiki Room figures were (still are?) animated.

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