The Birds of the Enchanted Tiki Room

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"Tropical birds, Tikis and flowers spring to life in the Enchanted Tiki Room, a musical fantasy recalling legends of the South Seas." – Walt Disney's DISNEYLAND a pictorial souvenir and guide (1963)

As the Sherman Brothers song The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room says, "Most little birdies will fly away, but the Tiki Room birds are here every day."

Walt Disney was excited to use the latest technology of Audio-Animatronics to create a new form of animation inspired by the vintage mechanical bird he had purchased in an antique shop in New Orleans.

Walt was excited to use his latest Audio-Animatronics, inspired by a mechanical bird he bought in New Orleans.

"We are using the new type of valves and controls developed for rockets," Walt said. "That way we can create extremely subtle motions. Everything is preprogramed on tape: the bird's movements, lighting effects, and sound. We turn on the tape and the birds do their stuff. At the end, the tape automatically rewinds itself and starts all over again. It is just animation with sound, run by electronics. It's an extension of animated drawings. We take an inanimate object and make it move."

"Just as we had to learn to make our animated cartoons talk, we had to find a way to make these characters talk, too," he said. "Now to accomplish this, we created a new type of animation, so new that we had to invent a new name for it: Audio-Animatronics. The same scientific equipment that guides rockets to the moon is used to make José and his little friends in the Tiki Room sing, talk, move and practically think for themselves!"

Because the process was so new, it had to be simple. It was just "on/off" to open and shut a beak, blink of an eye, twist a head left or right or lift of a wing compared to more sophisticated movements like raising a human arm or having lips match words. Also, the movements couldn't require much force or power and needed to be accomplished easily using air pressure.

The technological breakthroughs of the The Enchanted Tiki Room opened the door to more sophisticated Audio-Animatronics figures. When it came to doing the figures for the 1964 New York World's Fair, changes had to be made in programming and how to provide more power.

Imagineer Rolly Crump drew some concept sketches of the birds but Walt found them a little too extreme. Walt turned the task over to Imagineer Marc Davis who had demonstrated not only the ability to create distinctive characters but to incorporate a sense of humor.

Bob Sewell and Marc Davis researched bird study collections at the Natural History Museum. Briefly, Sewell collected a large number of tropical bird skins but Walt decided to discard them because he didn't want Disneyland to get a reputation of killing wild birds for an attraction.

Davis remembered: "This thing began to develop as a show. One thing kind of after another happened, and I was asked to do some birds. We didn't know what they were going to be sitting on, if they had cages, and so on. And like a lot of things we do; a lot of things just happen."

Davis designed many of the anthropomorphized birds, flowers, and tikis including the singing tiki poles.

Sculptor Blaine Gibson produced the bird shape and the expressive face. "Walt didn't want an absolutely realistic parrot," Gibson remembered, "but one with a little bit of cheek on it, something you could get some expression out of."

Gibson made clay models that looked like real birds but with slightly exaggerated faces so the audience could see their expressions.

Walt told Imagineer Harriet Burns who would feather the figures, "He said, 'I want these birds to be so real you can see them breathe'. He spared no expense in trying to capture a sense of reality to the extent of buying an expensive set of exotic bird skins sent to him from South America. He paid a fortune for them but they just looked like a pile of dead birds. They had no charm at all."

Burns along with Leota Toombs and Glendra Von Kessel, created and attached all of the plumage for the birds. They personally applied thousands of feathers to them.

Burns was having difficulty finding the right material for the birds' chests that would realistically stretch and expand as they "breathed" and return to its original shape. At a planning meeting she noticed Walt wearing his favorite blue cashmere sweater and its movement over his elbows was the perfect solution. Burns created a custom woven fabric that mimicked Walt's sweater.

Walt had Disney Studio composer George Bruns work up a mix of music for the attraction. In May 1962, he conducted a 24 piece orchestra and 15 vocalists through twelve musical cues. After a brief opening arpeggio, the birds whistled through Offenbach's Barcarolle. Then the female birds would do a sing-along of Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing and for the finale every character would join in for the Hawaiian War Chant.

The exit music was Aloha Oe. Later it was changed to an all whistling version of The Colonel Bogey March.

Singer Norma Zimmer was the voice of the orchards and the soprano part in the Hawaiian War Chant. The Barcarolle featured Maurice Marcellino. Marcellino also provided some of the bird calls along with Beverly Ford, Dorothy Lloyd, Clarence Nash (voice of Donald Duck) and A. Purvis Pullen. Singer Bill Lee provided the imitation of Bing Crosby.

Imagineer John Hench hated the Offenbach Number, stating that he felt it was "boring and slowed down the entire show". He claimed that he witnessed audience members losing interest at that point and leaving the attraction. While it did entertain and intrigue guests when the attraction first opened, it was later removed over two decades later.

The lovely white cockatoos including Collette, Suzette, Mimi, Gigi, Fifi, and Josephine were voiced by Sue Allen, Sue Lewis, Sally Sweetland, Betty Wand and Bruns' wife Jeanne (Gayle). Walt insisted that the cockatoos on the Birdmobile not sing with bird chirps but try to imitate multi-octaved Peruvian singer Yma Sumac.

Apparently, Rosita is missing, but decades later found a permanent home at Disneyland's Tropical Hideaway in 2018. She is perched atop a box of bird seed and entertains guests with her comments. Some items next to her seem reminiscent of Juan the Barker Bird.

Imagineer Crump recalled:

"Walt told me he wanted me to design a bird mobile that came out of the ceiling with about a hundred birds on it. I did some sketches and found there was no way you could put a hundred birds on that thing.

"The system we would be using to lower the mobile into the room and power all the birds ran off of compressed air. There wouldn't be enough room for all those power lines in the mobile itself, so I had to cut it back to thirty birds. It turned out just fine, though.

"I made the birds into showgirls. I designed them with white feathers and added little sequins to their breasts so when the whole Tiki Room lit up, they would sparkle. I managed to put a little touch of Las Vegas on those girls. I sculpted a good bit of the interior of the Tiki Room as well."

The Sherman Brothers were invited to attend one of the early full mock-up presentations for the show.

Richard Sherman later recalled:

"Walt said 'OK, start it,' and the next thing we know, the birds were coming down singing Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing, the orchids were singing… and then the Tiki torches were chanting. When it was all over, nobody knew what it was…

"We asked what it was we'd just witnessed, and Walt replied, 'That's what you're gonna tell us. You're gonna write a song that explains it and Larry [Clemmons], you're gonna write some gags to go with the song, 'cause I wanna have fun with this thing'.

"We had to think fast. Luckily we remembered that about two years earlier we had written a lengthy calypso to cover a lot of boring footage showing how the Disney crew had carted tons and tons of equipment to Tobago to film Swiss Family Robinson (1960).

"We suggested that an articulate parrot could sing a song to set up the show. In fact, we continued, he could even act as the emcee! The song could be done in a calypso beat—'The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room.' It had a sound you could remember. And Walt bought the idea, just like that, adding: 'Instead of one parrot emcee, we'll have four, with French, Spanish, German, and Irish accents.' He always had a way of plusing a good idea."

The Sherman Brothers had suggested a parrot because an audience would accept the fact that a parrot could "talk". Larry Clemons was an animator and a writer at the presentation and made the mistake of asking Walt, "Walt, what is it?"

Wally Boag, the performer at the Golden Horseshoe Revue, had done specialty comedy writing for Disneyland so was brought in to punch up the script. The writing team also included Fulton Burley who also performed at the Golden Horseshoe Revue, and Marty Sklar, Bill Cottrell (then the head of WED) along with Clemmons.

The four parrot hosts evolved into macaws, amusingly dubbed by the Imagineers as "the MacAudios." The primary host was named José, a Spanish-accented fowl fellow, voiced by Wally Boag.

Michael was the done in an Irish brogue by Fulton Burley. Pierre with the French accent was the voice of Ernie Newton who provided the thick German accent for the decapitated knight later in the Haunted Mansion attraction. His appearance by the opera ghosts was a visual gag based on the expression "A night at the opera".

Fritz, who had a German accent, was voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft, who also supplied voices for the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Country Bear Jamboree.

They were recorded February 1963. "They all fell into it and had a great time. We always had a ball with these guys." recalled Richard Sherman.

Originally in 1963, each bird's plumage matched the flags of their implied countries of origin. José was red, white, and green for the Mexican flag, Michael was white and green, Pierre was blue, white, and red and Fritz was red, black and white. These main birds have changed the color of their plummage over the years.

Imagineer Wathel Rogers developed a control system that used a joy stick.

Walt explained and demonstrated the system to host Fletcher Markle on the September 25, 1963 episode of the Telescope television show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

"This is a little Audio-Animatronics set-up. Now these are not working from tape. These are manually controlled. This little gizmo, kind of like a joy stick on the old type airplanes, is what gives us a chance to program the birds and as we work this and get all the little movements that we want in the bird out, we record it on the tape and from then on the tape will do everything that we've done here.

"Now this is one of the characters from the Tiki Room. He's actually a substitute for one of our master of ceremonies. We have four macaws who act as the master of ceremonies. And along with them are other birds who sing and things and flowers that sing. Then the Tikis, you know. They sing and they drum and we have quite a show.

"After we get the movements, we get it programmed. It's like rehearsing a show when you go through it and rehearse it and rehearse it and you finally say, 'That's it. All right. Let's go for a take'. All the things we do here are recorded, and then when we play the tape back he will do everything he is doing here. Only it is all part of a programmed show, you know.

"For show purposes…because now you take Disneyland down there, we operate fifteen hours a day. And these shows have to go on every hour. My Tiki bird show goes on three times an hour and we don't have to stop for coffee breaks and all that kind of stuff.

"That's the whole idea of it. It's just another dimension we have been doing all our life. It's a new toy for us and we are having a lot of fun and we hope we can really do some exciting things in the future."

United Airlines took over sponsorship in 1964 to market their new flights to Hawaii.

Unlike most of the attractions at Disneyland at that time, the Tiki Room was owned and operated by Walt Disney himself through his WED Enterprises (Imagineering) organization. That meant admission was not included as a ticket in the Disneyland ticket books.

Guests had to purchase a separate seventy-five cent ticket (fifty cent for children) during the first year of operation until sponsorship of the attraction changed over to United Airlines in 1964 who wanted to use it to market their new flights to Hawaii.

At that time the Enchanted Tiki Room became an "E ticket" attraction that at the time cost only $0.60 cents for an adult. United Airlines maintained sponsorship until 1973. Dole took over sponsorship in 1976.

However, because this was innovative technology, guests did not understand what the attraction was and often just walked by it. Even cast members had difficulty explaining it since nothing like it had been done previously with which to compare it.

Boardwalk barkers have always been a mainstay of carnivals to encourage guests to visit their attraction. A "barker bird" was placed on a bamboo perch by the attraction marquee near the Adventureland entrance.

It was to give guests a brief demonstration of what was happening inside the theater and to get them to come in to see the show. It was originally known as the Tiki Room Ballyhoo Parrot but is most commonly referred to as the Barker Bird. It was Juan, the cousin of Jose, and the figure used the same mold as Jose so it was another macaw and not a parrot.

Boag wrote the dialog and voiced the character in a similar comical accent as Jose in several different spiels: "Amigos, Romans, and Disneylanders! Stop walking while I'm squawking. Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room . . . is Disney entertainment at its most exciting, best kind. The show is on the inside, not the outside—that would be silly. In the Enchanted Tiki Room you sit down on your feather dusters inside an air conditioned theater."

The figure appeared in three different versions over the short time it was at the attraction. One figure had red and yellow feathers. Another had red feathers wearing a straw hat and cane and both items occasionally fell off. The third version was blue and yellow feathers with hat and cane.

The bird had to be removed because large amounts of guests were stopping to watch its spiel and they were clogging the pathway into Adventureland and to the entrance of the attraction itself. The weather also took its toll on the unprotected figure. However, thanks to the Barker Bird enough guests saw the attraction so that word-of-mouth made it a success.

For a while, the red and yellow feathered barker bird was in a display case inside The Walt Disney Story in the Disneyland Opera House on Main Street. A replica exists today at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, programmable by guests with a joy stick.

Despite its limited appearance at the park, the Barker Bird became a nostalgic figure for Disney fans. In 2005, Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily created a limited edition Barker Bird figurine sitting on a perch. It was released in an edition of 1,500 pieces. They decided to go with the blue and green coloring that became the standard coloring for the character on other merchandise pieces.

Crump said, "Well, that was the mode of operation in those days. We were doing things that had never been done before. We didn't think anything about it if Walt got with us and he wanted us to design something, we just did whatever he asked and did it by the seat of our pants. You know, none of us had done anything like this before, so we kind of just made it up as we went. And it seemed to work out fine!"

Because of his love of the latest technology and how it could be used to tell stories, Walt Disney created a three-dimensional, immersive experience with memorable music, characters and charm and ushered in a new concept for Disney theme park attractions. The Enchanted Tiki Room is historically significant and a timeless Disney theme park treasure.