Farewell to the Polynesian Village Resort Luauby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Because of the pandemic restrictions, the Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show closed in March 2020 like many other Walt Disney World entertainment offerings. The dinner experience was described by Disney as an "enchanting luau with Polynesian dancing and an all-you-care-to-enjoy, family-style feast."
Unfortunately, on March 15, 2022, it was officially announced that the show would not be returning because the land it was on will be used for a newly-built Disney Vacation Club villa to open in late 2024. Apparently, the profit margin on the show was not high enough for current Disney management and now there are worries about The Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue never returning as well.
The Disney announcement about the luau show also stated, "Since the resort opened in 1971, the rich entertainment this show has represented over the years includes the beautiful sights, incredible sounds and delicious tastes of Polynesia. While we can't share all the details about the expansion yet, we will honor this show as part of the new addition."
Walt Disney had a fascination and love for the South Pacific that he later tapped for attractions at Disneyland, like the Tahitian Terrace and The Enchanted Tiki Room.
He and his family visited the Hawaiian Islands several times. In October 1962, he and his wife took a trip visiting Bora Bora, Papeete, Tahiti, Pago Pago, Nandi, and Fiji, as well as Honolulu, Kahului and Hana in Hawaii.
His last South Pacific trip was when the Disney family went to Kauai in 1965 to check the filming of Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1965).
Tapping into the same love for South Seas culture that would later inspire the Enchanted Tiki Room attraction, the Tahitian Terrace restaurant in Disneyland's Adventureland opened in 1962. It simply reformatted and expanded part of the Plaza Pavilion restaurant that already had a Hawaiian themed patio facing toward the Jungle Cruise attraction known as the Pavilion Lanai.
Until the opening of the Blue Bayou restaurant, the Tahitian Terrace was considered the fanciest dining location at Disneyland. It was primarily just open during the summer and during busy seasons for lunch and dinner. The food and entertainment reflected the islands of Polynesia like Tahiti, Samoa, and Hawaii.
It was an outdoor seating area with tables and chairs and a higher level with a roof all facing the stage and served by waiters and waitresses.
Guests sat beneath an exotic 35-foot-tall concrete tree with 4,075 artificial leaves and colorful faux flowers that were always in bloom. When the waterfall "curtain" opened, a live band began playing island rhythms as dancers emerged wearing sarongs, grass skirts and other traditional garments.
For the finale, men walked barefoot on fire and performed a thrilling fire-knife dance as flames leapt from the water surrounding the stage. Unlike other restaurants, there were set times to dine because of the show. It was an approximate 30-minute experience.
From the back of the menu:
"Walt Disney has opened wide the portals to an enchanting island world across the blue Pacific…a world of romance, beauty, and exciting entertainment!
"Nestled beneath the tumbling waterfall is a matchless stage setting…a stage whose 'curtain' is a cascade of water, and whose 'footlights' are a leaping flame of fire burning on the water itself!
"For your summer evening entertainment, the falls magically draw aside…and out from behind the waters, sarong-clad natives appear to perform the swaying rhythms and amazing rituals of the islands…the hypnotic bare-foot fire walk and thrilling fire-knife dance, and the traditional grass-skirted hula of Samoa, Tahiti and Hawaii."
Men were brought up from the audience to have an embarrassing hula lesson. All the guests were given complimentary artificial leis. One of the highlights on the menu for many was the (non-alcoholic) Planters Punch Tahitian, "a blend of all the exotic fresh fruits of the Islands" in a tall frosted cylindrical glass with a faux flower memento to take home.
The appeal of the restaurant was not just the exotic menu for typical American tastes—including Barbecued Pineapple Ribs, Skewered Chicken (with soy sauce), broiled teriyaki steak, coconut shrimp and coconut pineapple ice cream—but the stage show featuring authentic residents from the islands.
The show was so popular that like many Disneyland traditions including the Candlelight Processional, it was imported to Walt Disney World.
"One of three resorts to have opened with the Walt Disney World Resort in 1971, Disney's Polynesian Resort reflects Walt's love of Polynesian culture and his desire to extend the Magic Kingdom experience beyond the parks," stated Ken Potrock, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Disney Vacation Club and Adventures by Disney.
The Polynesian Village Resort has undergone many significant changes over the last four decades, even before its initial construction actually began. And there were two major expansions to the resort in 1978 and 1985 that transformed it quite a bit from its original design.
The Polynesian Village Resort opened along with the Magic Kingdom and the Contemporary Resort in October 1971, but was renamed Disney's Polynesian Resort in 1985.
Actually, its official grand opening was celebrated on October 24, 1971, and according to The Walt Disney Company that should be considered the official anniversary. The resort opened on time, which was amazing since construction on it began a mere eight months before guests set foot in it.
The opening celebration featured a spectacular nighttime luau with authentic island delicacies served on the lagoon shore to more than a thousand media and celebrity guests.
The night of October 24 was a celebrity-laden three hour torch lit luau and show on the beach of the Polynesian Resort. More than a thousand invited guests enjoyed a variety of Polynesian dances and ceremonies, climaxed with a spectacular fire knife dance with three dancers flashing their flaming blades in the pitch darkness.
The luau consisted of aloha bowls, egg rolls, fried shrimp, rumaki, Hawaiian poi, fresh coconut, luau pig, chicken with almonds, duck mandarin style with lichee nuts, snow peas and water chestnuts, barbecued pork, fried rice and jasmine teas.
The finale was the debut of the Electrical Water Pageant. Fourteen floats covered in twinkling lights, just like those on a Christmas tree, showcased real and fanciful creatures of the watery deep.
The Pageant was intended originally to serve as a finale backdrop to the empty blackness of the Seven Seas Lagoon behind the luau performance and then was later expanded to tour other resorts and help distract guests who were leaving the Magic Kingdom after the fireworks show.
Kau'ihealani Mahikoa Brandt was born March 13, 1932, and died on January 9, 2020 at the age of 88, but was better known to cast members and guests as Aunty Kau'i. She was responsible for the Polynesian luau that debuted in 1971.
She was an artist, a performer, a teacher, a wife, a mother and an inspiration to everyone she met. She was passionate about sharing her Hawaiian culture and the culture of Polynesia.
I talked with her briefly several times over the years but finally sat down for two hours to talk with her in January 2017 in the lobby of the resort about the earliest days of the Polynesian.
As we talked, she sat and did as she had for so many years, her skillful hands instinctively weaving flowers and Ti Leaves together, creating traditional circlet Leis that were sold or sometimes given on special occasions, like to newlyweds. I was amazed at how her aged hands moved with such swiftness and flexibility.
Kau'i Brandt was born during a Hawaiian thunder and lightning storm in 1932 and was named "Kau'ihealani," which means "thundering voice of heaven." She used the shortened version "Kau'i," but most Disney fans knew her as "Aunty Kau'i," who for years was a fixture at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort.
Kau'i's route to Walt Disney World was an interesting one. Her Hawaiian grandmother showed her the stories of Polynesia told through hulas before she was able to speak. By the time she was seven years old, Kau'i was telling the stories herself at luaus.
She grew up during a time when speaking Hawaiian was forbidden and kahiko-style (traditional) hula was taught only in secret. At the time, hula was considered vulgar because of the swaying hips and so was often used for comedic purposes with performers in cellophane skirts.
"The legends and history of Polynesia have always been passed from one generation to the next in the form of 'meles' or chants accompanied by the acting out of the story through expression of the body," she stated in an interview from 1972 while working at Walt Disney World.
"There are literally hundreds of hulas, which is not hard to understand if you consider the hula as a form of storytelling, because there are hundreds of stories. At the coronation of King Kalakua in 1873, 262 types of hulas were danced in joyful celebration.
"I began to take a serious interest in the poetry of Polynesia almost twenty years ago. The authentic dances of the islands are really so much more exciting than some of the commercial things you see in Hollywood films and nightclubs
"I studied the dances of Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Hawaii and the Maori dances of New Zealand. My teachers were always from the islands where the dances are still performed and knew the legends and traditions told in each dance. I taught and I learned. Many of my teachers were from the Mormon Church College on the island of Oahu in Hawaii."
The Mormon Church College was unique in that its teachers actively sought out students from all the islands of Polynesia and offered them scholarships. These young Samoans, Tongans and Maoris, many of whom had never lived anywhere else except their native islands, were given the opportunity to work at the Mormon-sponsored Polynesian Cultural Center.
Kau'i was approached three different times in the 1960s by Disney representatives (including once by Walt himself) to relocate to Southern California to perform at the Tahitian Terrace at Disneyland, but each time she refused, fearing that once she left she might never come back.
Finally in 1971, though, Kau'i agreed to move to California for only eight months to perform in the show at Disneyland's Tahitian Terrace because it would allow her to bring along some of her talented students.
As Kau'i told me when I interviewed her in January 2017, "When Pono (Kau'i's husband) and I learned that the Disney organization was looking for a company of Polynesian artist to perform at Walt Disney World in 1971, we decided to put together an entire show ourselves that would be both authentic and exciting."
The couple then moved to Florida to open the Kau'i-Pono Polynesian Revue at the Polynesian Village Resort, with Kau'i as the master of ceremonies for the show.
The Grand Opening celebration for the Polynesian Village Resort on October 24, 1971, featured a spectacular night-time luau and show on the shore of the Seven Seas Lagoon for more than a thousand media and celebrity guests. The show was performed on the beach in approximately the same location where the Luau Cove is today. However, the performers all arrived in war canoes from the islands in the Seven Seas Lagoon at the beginning of the show.
In 1972, the Kau'i-Pono company had 28 young dancers and musicians and more than 100 dances in their repertory. At that time, the company appeared three times nightly in the Papeete Bay Verandah restaurant and at the evening luaus on the beach. Part of the group performed during the summer season and Christmas holidays at Disneyland. The luau was important from an operational standpoint because the restaurants got overwhelmed at the resort so having another location provided the opportunity for more guests to enjoy the Polynesian hospitality.
The Luau Cove structure with a canopy (in case of rain) was built in May 1972. Too many luaus had had to be cancelled because of weather. It seated 550 guests and had a portable kitchen brought from the resort's Great Ceremonial House.
As mentioned, by using the outside facilities, it helped alleviate the food service challenges inside the resort. Dressing rooms were added in October 1972 and more modifications were made in June 1975. Restrooms were finally added in 1979. Luau Cove is the name of the structure, not the actual cove. The actual name of the cove is Beachcomber Cove.
In those early years at the resort, the lead dancer was Lauwaeomakana, who not only performed dances of Tahiti and Hawaii, but was one of the few women capable of doing the dangerous and difficult Samoan Knife Dance. Long hours were spent rehearsing for the entire company in order to build strength and flexibility for the energetic dances as well as learning new dances.
Kau'i told me: "It was natural that we would select some of our young dancers and musicians from among the students at Church College. We wanted the best performers, of course, but we also wanted eager, happy, young people who would best express the spirit of aloha – generosity, joy, and good will toward everyone.
"I believe our group of artists was unique among most Polynesian companies. Each performer is familiar not only with the culture and tradition of his own islands but with the other islands of the South Seas as well. We learned from each other, and, because of our enthusiasm and pride in our heritage, we hoped to give our audiences at Walt Disney World and Disneyland the very best of Polynesia.
"Hours were spent making authentic costumes, but no one complained. For example, our Ti-leaf skirts had to be replaced with new Ti leaves from Hawaii every two weeks. It takes 50 leaves and one person two hours to make one skirt.
"The men string kukui nuts for necklaces which were replaced regularly. Hundreds of shells must be sewn on skirts and elaborate headdresses. But always there is 'aloha nui' or big aloha."
Even after she left the Polynesian's luau show, Kau'i remained as a cultural representative at the resort for decades. Anyone who has met her in person discovered that she was warm and happy and ageless. She would sit in the lobby and create authentic leis from real flowers to give to couples celebrating honeymoons or anniversaries, among other things. She occasionally gave children Hawaiian cookies and hula lessons.
While she remained at Walt Disney World, she did return occasionally to Hawaii. On April 20, 2007, she returned briefly to receive the prestigious Duke's Ho'okahiko award presented by Duke's Waikiki restaurant to an individual who exemplifies the finest traditions of Hawaii. She was able to spend time reuniting with people she had not seen in 50 years.
"I can't express how much it meant to me. It was fabulous," she recalled once she had settled back in at the Polynesian Village Resort. "To be over there and receive the award was really special. It is supposed to be about spreading the culture and I didn't think I was doing anything but teaching aloha. I think I have the greatest job on Earth. It is a lot of sharing, and that is what it is about."
Another Disney cast member, Rose Monahan, accompanied the elderly treasure. Monahan danced with Kau'i at the nonprofit organization Kau'i started called "Na'o piopio I Orlando" (Children of Orlando) that teaches children for free how to dance the hula and raises money for competitions and costumes.
Monahan stated, "She is an inspiration to everyone. She is truly the definition of aloha, and when you meet her, you fall in love with her. She is welcoming to everyone and teaches everyone to love one another."
The approximately two hour Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show performed at the resort in the last years was different than Kau'i's original show, but the spirit of aloha in it remained the same. Disney described it as: "Celebrate the spirit of aloha with spellbinding dancers, drummers and a show-stopping fire-knife performer.
"Auntie Wini is hosting a fun-filled luau to say goodbye to one of the local girls who's headed to the 'mainland' for college—and you're invited! In the open-air theater in Luau Cove, delight in enthralling traditions from Polynesia, including dances from Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Hawaii."
It was more of a series of entertainment acts rather than an immersive storyline but it served its purpose for an all-you-can-eat family feast.
One of the things that makes a Disney theme park so distinctive is its entertainment, which is why it is so troubling that because of current cash flow concerns WDW eliminated so much entertainment, including groups that had been at the park for decades.
The elimination of the Polynesian Luau show in all its many forms over the years will be greatly missed, even though the Polynesian Village Resort has seen so many changes that it barely resembles the resort that first opened in October 1971.