Behind the Tiki Room: The Origins of Tiki Culture (feat. Disney Dan!)

Between the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Polynesian Village Resort, Disney is no stranger to Tiki Culture, otherwise known by many as Polynesian Pop. How did this trend begin, where did it go, and why is it just so perfect for Disney?

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In 1962 the craze would finally make its way to Disneyland with the opening of The Tahitian Terrace, a Polynesian style restaurant, and just a year after that the classic and now famous Enchanted Tiki Room would open to the public, featuring the very first audio-animatronics. I have a whole other video about the origins of that attraction if you’re interested.

In a way, it was a perfect match for Disney. To put it simply, Tiki Culture was never an accurate portrayal of Polynesian culture. From the very beginning with Don the Beachcombers it was a mashup of different elements of different islands into one singular “idea” of what that Polynesian lifestyle was like. Even the name, Tiki, was generalized. Tiki was originally a specific figure in Maori mythology who was represented by wooden carvings. By the height of the craze, it was just a catch-all word that embodied the lifestyle as a whole. Exotica music was less a recreation of actual Polynesian music and more of an original attempt to create music that might be considered tropical. Tiki Culture was about taking all of the idealized and romanticized aspects of multiple cultures and leaving out the rest, which was exactly what Walt was doing over at Disneyland. Between Frontierland, Adventureland, and Main Street USA, Disney’s approach to the past was to focus on the iconic and beloved aspects that were looked upon fondly, and to leave aside the rest, all in the name of creating a magical sense of escapism. So Tiki Culture was perfect for Disney.

So what happened to Tiki Culture? Well, the short answer is that like many other pop culture trends, it eventually just faded away. As the 1960s came to a close the baby boomers were coming of age, and like virtually every generation of young people, they rejected a lot of the cultural norms of their parents. They were a generation that desired more authenticity that Tiki Culture just couldn’t provide. With a socially conscious eye many saw Tiki Culture to be, at best, tacky and at worst offensive. And as the country became involved with the Vietnam conflict many young people, facing the prospects of being shipped off to to the conflict, found it hard to look at the tropical settings as an escape. Sure Vietnam wasn’t technically in Polynesia, but the visuals were close enough to push people away.

Today Tiki Culture is kitschy and while it originally fell out of favor for that very reason, that’s part of what’s given it a second wind today. It came into existence at a time before Disneyland, and yet it still managed to share much of the same DNA that Walt’s idyllic kingdom was built upon. It is a small but interesting slice of American pop culture history and while it’s not something you can find today as easily as you could in the 1960s, you’ll have no problem spotting it at Disney.

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