The Polynesian Resort Hotel
Photo: The Walt Disney Company
To understand the history of The Polynesian Resort one only has to look back at the beginning of the Tiki culture craze.
Don the Beachcomber
Tiki culture in the United States began in 1934 with the opening of Don the Beachcomber, a Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant in Hollywood, California. The restaurant, with flaming torches, rattan furniture, flower leis and brightly colored floral fabrics, featured Cantonese cuisine and exotic rum punches.
After returning from his travels to Cuba and Hawaii in 1937, Victor Bergeron, known as Vic “The Trader,” transformed his Oakland saloon, Hinky Dink’s into a Tiki themed restaurant Trader Vic’s. Two years later at the California’s World Fair the Golden Gate International Exposition celebrated, for the first time, Polynesian culture in the United States. After World War II, returning soldiers brought back with them stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific including an intense desire for all things Polynesian.
Walt and Lillian Disney in Hawaii
Walt Disney and his wife Lillian started visiting Hawaii beginning in 1934 when they vacationed on Oahu. In the mid-1950’s, Walt’s interest in Polynesia continued to grow. He patronized Polynesian supper clubs and tiki bars. He loved the food and atmosphere so much that he wanted to open up his own Polynesian/Tiki restaurant. According to the Tikiman Pages website, “The thing he wanted to add that made it different, but sticking to the true Polynesian design, was to animate the décor. He wanted to make the Tikis, birds and flowers move and talk. This was not only the birth of the idea for the Polynesian resort but Audio Animatronics, which is at the heart and soul of all the Disney parks.” This year the Enchanted Tiki Room is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. It is in the history of this attraction that the culmination of Walt’s fascination with Tiki culture can be found, but that’s another story!
Like The Contemporary, The Polynesian Village Resort was always planned as an opening day hotel on October 1, 1971. And like its sister hotel, this resort did not originally look like it does today. However, unlike The Contemporary Resort Hotel, The Polynesian Village Resort had its grand opening celebration on October 24, 1971, one day before The Contemporary Resort Hotel.
Original concept drawing for The Polynesian Village Resort
Image: The Walt Disney Company
The original plans called for 12-story triangular high-rise structure, similar to Hawaiian resorts built during that time. The main building would have included the lobby, retail shops and dining, meeting space and guest rooms. Similar to The Contemporary Resort’s Top of the World Restaurant, at the top of The Polynesian was to have been a ‘South Seas’ dining room. Surrounding the main building would have been smaller longhouses along rambling streams, a waterfall-fed swimming pool and a lagoon where guests could go skin-diving.
Construction of The Polynesian Village Resort
In 1970, once U.S. Steel came on board, Welton Becket & Associates modified the design of the entire resort. The large, main-building was scaled back into the present-day Grand Ceremonial House. The number of longhouses was increased to include the additional guest rooms that were originally part of the former design of the main building. The Polynesian Village longhouses, The Contemporary Resort, consisted of the same construction method of slotting in completed pre-fabricated rooms. The one difference was that this resort was only three-stories in height. Therefore, the hallways, frames and roof were simply built around the rooms.
Resort map of the original Polynesian Village Resort, 1971
The Polynesian Village Resort, with its Great Ceremonial House, which was modeled after a Tahitian royal assembly lodge, opened with 492 guest rooms in eight longhouse buildings: Bali Hai, Bora Bora, Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and Maui. Resort rates in 1971 were $29, $36 and $44, depending on the floor, view and location.
During the weeks leading up to the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort, The Polynesian Village Resort served as home base for many journalists covering the opening. Some of the press staff worked in offices at The Polynesian Village while others worked in the Magic Kingdom in offices located on the upper floors of City Hall.
According to Charles Ridgway’s autobiography, “Spinning Disney’s World,” the press itinerary included a day visiting the Magic Kingdom, a tour of the entire property, use of the recreational facilities and a gala evening luau on the beach of the Polynesian Village. Unfortunately, during the six days of press previews it rained every day thereby preventing the cast members from setting up each evening. “So every night we moved our luau inside to an upstairs balcony area overlooking the central atrium lobby,” said Ridgway. “A little less glamorous, but dry.” At each press night inside the Polynesian Village, Hawaiian dancers performed and chefs paraded around the balcony with a large roasted pig, albeit a plastic pig, with an apple in his mouth. Only Ridgway and his staff were tired of seeing that pig night after night, but the journalists had a wonderful time.
According to Ridgway, “For the Grand Opening television special, a real pig was used at the luau and, for the first time in a week, there was no afternoon rain. It turned out to be a sparkling evening when the Electrical Water Pageant sailed across the Seven Seas Lagoon for the first time.”
Clayne Dice, who had been working in the hospitality industry since he was 15 years old, joined the Walt Disney Company in 1970 as the Administrative of Hotel Planning. He worked on developing policies, manuals, rates and systems for the resorts. In January 1971, he was promoted to General Manager of The Polynesian Village Resort. During its construction, like everything else, The Polynesian Village had its own challenges. The Great Ceremonial House appeared to be falling apart. In David Koenig’s book, Realityland, Dice said, “Originally around The Great Ceremonial House they had used bamboo from the Far East, six to eight inches in diameter. “By the time we were getting close to opening, it had split, rot and come apart. They had to tear it all out and do a simulated fiberglass bamboo.”
Surfs Up…Or Not
The Wave Machine
Dick Nunis, Vice-President of Park Operations and an avid surfer, wanted to bring surfing to Walt Disney World and The Polynesian Village Resort provided the perfect backdrop. Nunis thought that waves crashing into the shore of the Polynesian Village’s west beach, which Nunis wanted to rename “Surfrider Beach,” would give guests a more realistic experience. So in mid-1971 a wave machine was installed, reportedly at a cost of $400,000, in the Seven Seas Lagoon on an island adjacent to Beachcombers Island. The wave machine did indeed work – too well as a matter of fact – and the crashing waves caused too much beach erosion. Most people say because of the erosion, the wave machine was abandoned. However, other stories about its demise included the wave machine constantly broke down during the three day grand opening and that it could only be turned on for a couple of hours a day. Others have said the waves were so good they caused problems for the various watercrafts that had to traverse that section of the lagoon. In 1985, Disney tested the wave machine one more time. It was decided that it was best to just remove it in its entirety. Contrary to popular Disney lore, the wave machine was not sunk to create an artificial reef, but it was completely dismantled and removed.
An uncovered Luau Cove
Photo: Therelocatedtourist.com blog
In addition to Walt Disney World becoming a popular vacation resort, it was also becoming a popular convention destination. As a result, the Polynesian Luau became a popular activity for conventioneers. Until 1972, luaus were held outdoors, but because of the frequent rainstorms in Florida, especially during the summer months, many of the corporate luaus were cancelled and money had to be refunded. Therefore Disney decided to build an all-weathered sheltered luau cove. Much of the structure took over the real estate of Beachcombers Island and that all but sealed the fate of the wave machine.
The old pool at The Polynesian
When the resort opened there was one swimming pool, located between the marina and the Hawaii longhouse. On the other side of the Hawaii longhouse, surrounded by the Tonga, Bora Bora and Maui longhouses was a putting green. Today that area is home to the East Pool or the quiet pool. In 2001, the old volcano pool was finally replaced with a new volcano pool.
What’s In A Name?
The Original Polynesian Village Resort sign
Photo: The Walt Disney Company
In the 1980′s, there was a slight name change to the resort and the “Village” part was dropped and now it is known as the Polynesian Resort Hotel. Three more longhouses were added: the Oahu in 1978 (also this year the Maui longhouse was renamed the Maori longhouse) and the Moorea and Pago Pago were added in 1985 bringing the total number of guest rooms to its current 847.
Polynesian Village Resort Hotel Map – 1980
Image: The Walt Disney Company
The Polynesian Resort Hotel Map – 1990s
Image: The Walt Disney Company
In 1999, most of the Resort’s longhouses were renamed to better represent the Polynesian islands. With the exception of Fiji, the other 10 longhouses were renamed: Bali Hai became Tonga; Bora Bora became Niue; Hawaii became Samoa; Maori changed again to Rarotonga; Moorea became Tahiti; Oahu became Tokelau; Pago Pago became Rapa Nui; Samoa became Tuvalu; Tahiti became Aotearoa, and Tonga became Hawaii.
The Polynesian Resort Hotel Map – Current
Image: The Walt Disney Company
As you can see, some of the longhouse names didn’t disappear but transferred to another building to better reflect a more accurate geographic location to their real island counterparts.
Loli, ho’olilo (Hawaiian for ‘change’)
The original Great Ceremonial House
Excluding the three-story rock and waterfall rainforest, much of the Great Ceremonial House has undergone dramatic changes including the replacement of the green & blue tiled floor in 1996 (now earth-toned rock slabs), and new or re-themed dining and retail outlets.
The Polynesian Resort’s original restaurants were the Papeete Bay Verandah, Coral Isle Coffee Shop, Tambu Lounge, Captain Cook’s Hideaway Lounge and the Barefoot Snack Bar.
Image: Mike Solava / Flickr
The Papeete Bay Verandah was a French Colonial restaurant that served breakfast, lunch and dinner with nightly floor shows – a Polynesian Review. It was closed in the latter half of 1994 and reopened in 1995 as ‘Ohana’s. The Coral Island Cafe became the Coral Island Coffee Shop and today is known as the Kona Cafe. The South Seas Dining Room featured a Polynesian buffet, after it closed it was used as a space to conduct focus groups for various Disney programs including the Capture the Magic photography program. It was eventually remodeled and today is BouTiki Shop. Other dining outlets currently at The Polynesian Resort are the Barefoot Pool Bar, Captain Cook’s Snack Co., Kona Island and the Tambu Lounge.
Shopping options at the hotel during the earlier years included The Polynesian Princess, Robinson Crusoe, Esq., Village Drugs & Sundries, Trader Jack’s Grog Shop (aka Trader Jack’s Grog Hut) and News From Civilization. Later on came Kanaka Kids, Maui Mickey’s News from Polynesia and Outrigger’s Cove outlets. None of these retail outlets exist in their original state, but some remnants have survived. News from Civilizationion which became News from Polynesia is now home to the Wyland Galleries. (as a side note Wyland galleries was previously in the room at the front of the GCH that use to be the club level lounge, now part of Boutiki) Crusoe and Sons and Polynesian Princess were removed in 2005 when the food court was expanded. Today, on the upper floor of the Great Ceremonial House are Trader Jack’s and Samoa Snacks.
Trader Jack’s at The Polynesian Resort Hotel
Photo: guitarob / Disboards.com
In 1978 the resort saw a number of changes and expansions. The East Pool (known as the quiet pool) and Oahu (now Tokelau) replaced the putting green. The Tangaroa Terrace, located in the center of the resort, was also added. In addition to being the home to the Snack Isle and the arcade, Moana Mickey’s Fun Hut, the Terrace offered guests a tropical getaway to get something to eat and drink. Also, this was where the infamous (and delicious) Tonga Toast made its debut. The Terrace closed in October 1991, but reopened in 1992 and then in 1997 it closed and became a conference and meeting facility. The Neverland Club and laundry facilities are also currently in this building.
A Proposed Rendering for a remodel of The Polynesian Resort Hotel
Image: Progress City U.S.A.
In the 1980s, according to a post by Michael Crawford on Progress City U.S.A., Tiki Talk posted artwork, that he produced, for a Houston architectural firm of a possible remodel of The Polynesian Resort Hotel. At the time, Disney was soliciting bids from various architectural firms for a refurbishment of The Polynesian. Clearly this firm did not receive the contract.
Most people think The Polynesian Resort Hotel never really changed, but that is far from the truth. The resort, which was on an every 10-year (approx.) refurbishment schedule, has seen its rooms redesigned and refurbished on a consistent schedule.
“Tahitian Landscape” painting
When the hotel opened the guest rooms were decorated in shades of yellow, turquoise and light green and in each room was a painting, “Tahitian Landscape,” by Gauguin. During the 1980s, the guest rooms changed once again. Gone were colors from the 70’s and in were bolder colors like royal blue, darker greens and shades of brown and towards the end of the 80′s those colors gave way to a softer pastel pallet.
Present Room Decor
Photo: Corey Martin / DIS Unplugged
The current remodel, which began in January 2013 with the Hawaii longhouse, was scheduled for completion with the Rapa Nui longhouse this August. The rooms will have a more modern, upscale Hawaiian feel to the rooms.
Newly Remodeled Bedroom at The Polynesian Resort
Photo: Corey Martin / DIS Unplugged
Describing the current room renovations, Steve Seifert at Tikimanpages.com, reports, “To start, they lightened up the color of the walls above the bamboo chair rail. Also the bamboo rail itself looks like it went back to the lighter bamboo look that it had in the 90s instead of the darker stained version found in the rooms now. Also the chairs and daybed will be recovered with lighter fabrics…The headboards will get a lighter tan insert instead of the dark brown woven insert. The beds are white with new pillows stacked along the back and a tubular shaped pillow (white with dark brown ends or piping depending on which sample they go with from the different rooms). Written on the pillows in the same text font that the Polynesian sign uses it said “Mana ‘O Nani” in one of the rooms and “Sweet Dreams” in the other room. At the foot of the bed in one of the rooms was a floral print blanket. The carpet was new with an outlined brick pattern raised up out of a low pile carpet.
New Bathrooms at The Polynesian Resort
Photo: Steve Seifert / Tikimanpages.com
The bathrooms, which are a little more modern and have a spa look to them, have been reconfigured, to allow for additional room, new lighting, more counter space and double sinks. Looking at the plans for the resort it actually looks like there are 5 or 6 different bathroom layouts. Most of them are all similar… (but) with slightly different locations for the toilet and different layouts in the tub area… Also it looks like the club level room bathrooms have a few different amenities. The original longhouses and the Tokelau longhouse all have a single sink now but they will all get a double sink and a much larger counter. All new tile, wallpaper and fixtures will go into the bathrooms. It is a much more modern look and brighter than the old green stone.”
Previous reports have stated that the Great Ceremonial House needs to be repaired and brought up to ADA code. It was rumored that it contains asbestos. When some of the longhouses were being remodeled asbestos was found in those buildings so it’s not inconceivable that it would also be found in the Great Ceremonial House. There have been discussions that the Great Ceremonial House might be completely torn down, the interior would be gutted or it would be remodeled in sections. Other reports talked about the possible removal of the atrium’s tropical rain forest water feature with over 75 tropical plants and then other reports say it will remain. Clearly no one really knows what Disney will do until they ultimately reveal the plans. Personally, I hope they keep the atrium’s water feature. To me, sitting in the lobby, listening to the waterfall and just relaxing was one of the highlights of staying at or visiting the Polynesian.
Completing the DVC Trifecta
On the April 2, 2013 DIS Unplugged podcast, Pete Werner said, “We have it on pretty decent authority…let me put it to you that way…we are hearing that twenty beach bungalows are planned to be built on the beach at the Polynesian. And it may be that they are built out on the water along the style that you’ve seen, if you’ve seen pictures of the Four Seasons in Bora Bora. These will be one and two family units. We’re thinking that they may be DVC. And the bungalows will be connected via a bridge and walkway over the water. And we’re hearing that they are going to start building that this year.” Well, those rumors and Pete’s prediction seem to be true. According to Steve Seifert at Tikimanpages.com that is part of a bigger plan to bring the Polynesian Resort into the DVC family.
The current plans to add DVC accommodations to The Polynesian Resort Hotel, a AAA Four Diamond resort, are extensive and will bring a dramatic look and feel to the resort. Originally, Steve Seifert reported that on the west side of the property one of two T-shaped, five-story buildings would be added and the Luau Cove would have been demolished and on the east side of the resort a second T-shaped, five-story building would have been added. The Spirit of Aloha show would have been relocated to an indoor venue. To make room for this building the Rapa Nui longhouse and the parking lot would have been removed. A potential new parking area may be in the area where Disney has cleared an area between the Wedding Pavilion and Luau Cove. The Tahiti longhouse would remain and be converted into DVC accommodations. The Tangaroa Terrace and a section of the gardens were to have been removed to make way for a large pool area and possibly an Aulani-style lazy river. The laundry facilities and the Neverland Club, which are currently located in The Tangaroa Terrace, would be temporarily relocated and then eventually get a new home.
However, as of July 22, 2013, Steve is now reporting that the two, five-story T-shaped DVC buildings will not be constructed and that the only DVC rooms will be located in the converted Tahiti longhouse. The Tahiti longhouse is one of the newer longhouses that was built during the 1985 expansion.
The Tahiti Longhouse
Photo: SolGrundy / Flickr
The Great Ceremonial House is still scheduled for a complete remodel and as of now, the atrium’s tropical rain forest will be removed. There is no word if there will be a scaled back version of the water feature or that it will end up being a part of Disney history. Want to show your support for the tropical rain forest water feature? Click here.
UPDATE: Steve Seifert at Tikimanpages.com informed me that the latest info he has received about The Great Ceremonial House (GCH) is that construction will occur on the building, but it is not clear if it will be done all at once or in stages. Also, the atrium’s current tropical rain forest is expected to be removed and a smaller version will be built in another location in the GCH. The current plan now is for the center of the main lobby to be clear with unobstructed views from the front lobby doors to the back lobby doors. (7.30.13)
So, with this news other questions arise. Will Luau Cove and The Spirit of Aloha remain where they are, get remodeled or move to a new location? Will the Rapi Nui longhouse remain and be the last to get a remodel or will it be torn down? Will The Tangaroa Terrace also remain and get remodeled or will that be torn down? Will anything happen to the parking lot? Answers to these questions, and others, might hold the key to the future of the proposed new pool and Aluani-styled lazy river.
UPDATE: “The other major work looks like it is coming to the pool area,” says Steve Seifert. “Word is that they do not like the look of the volcano and it will be altered to look different. …I don’t know if this will include any changes to the size of the pool, change to the bar, addition of the proposed fence or addition of the hot tub but all those things could be possible or Disney change their mind again.”
One new addition to The Polynesian renovations that Steve is reporting is, just like at the Disneyland Hotel, the property is now expected to get a Trader Sam’s. Could it be located in The Tangaroa Terrace, inside the remodeled Grand Ceremonial House or in another location? Right now that location remains unknown.
Rendering of possible DVC Grand Villas
Image: Steve Seifert / Tikimanpages.com
Going back to Pete’s statement on April 2 about how Disney is planning on building beach bungalows, with private docks that will jut out into the Seven Seas Lagoon, for The Polynesian, that appears to be true, however the exact number of grand villas is yet unknown.
UPDATE: Steve Seifert also reported that on Mouseowners.com, one of the board posters SEDCrocket found some filings made on July 26, 2013 by Reedy Creek Improvement District and The Walt Disney Company to the South Florida Water Management District website about construction permits and plans for The Polynesian Resort.
Among the plans and applications is a form entitled, “Environmental Resource Permit Notice of Receipt of Application” Questions 4 and 5 specifically point to the planned construction:
4. Briefly describe the proposed project (such as “construct a deck with boatshelter”, “replace two existing culverts”, “construct surface water management system to serve 150 acre residential development:):
THE WORK TO BE CONDUCTED ON THIS SITE INCLUDES NEW PARKING, VEHICULAR CIRCULATION, PEDESTRIAN PATHWAYS, UTILITIES, AND FIRE ACCESS. IT ALSO INCLUDES THE INSTALLATION OF PILINGS ALONG THE NEIGHBORING LAGOON THAT WILL SUPPORT FUTURE STRUCTURES, REDESIGNED LANDSCAPING, AND NEW AMENITY AREAS TO SERVE THE BUILDING EXPANSION FOR THIS RESORT HOTEL.
5. Specify the acreage of wetlands or other surface waters, if any, that are proposed to be disturbed, filled, excavated, or otherwise impacted by the proposed activity:
CONSTRUCTION WILL BE IN OR OVER A TOTAL OF 6.69 ACRES OF OTHER SURFACE WATERS (WATER BODIES) AS SHOWN ON THE CONSTRUCTION PLANS. SPECIFIC ACTIVITIES INCLUDE SHORELINE PROTECTION (RIP-RAP PLACEMENT), BEACH EXPANSION, IMPROVEMENT, FLOODPLAIN COMPENSATIONAL VOLUME EXCAVATION, AND INSTALLATION OF PILINGS TO SUPPORT OVER-WATER STRUCTURES.
Sailing the Seven Seas
The Eastern Winds
Shortly after the resort had opened and until 1978, guests would have found a Chinese Junk docked at the hotel. Originally known as the “Outrider,” the ship’s name was changed to the Eastern Winds. According to the March 20, 1979 edition of The Virgin Island Daily News, the 65-foot Chinese Junk was built in Hong Kong in 1964 and then went through a number of owners including a Texas oil tycoon and football legend Joe Namath. Disney used the vessel as a floating nightclub, lounge, private charters and a backdrop for promotional materials. Its last known location was St. Thomas where the ship was used for pleasure cruises. Other watercraft that were once available were a 40-foot Polynesian War Canoe and Bob-A-Round boats.
Not to be outdone by Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech at The Contemporary Resort, The Polynesian Resort has its own piece of American history.
In May Pang’s book, “Instamatic Karma: Photographs of John Lennon,” she writes, “At the end of 1974, after three years of court battles and acrimony, the final dissolution of The Beatles was about to happen. The meeting was scheduled for December 19 at New York’s Plaza Hotel – ironically, this was the first place the group stayed in America in 1964. George Harrison was in New York on his Dark Horse tour. Paul and Linda McCartney came in, and of course, John and I were already in the city. Only Ringo was missing, but he had signed the documents in England.”
“George, Paul, assorted lawyers and family members were at The Plaza and waiting on John to arrive,” she continues. “George said out loud what everyone was thinking: ‘Where’s John?’… I was with John and it was up to me to tell Harold he decided not to attend the meeting. Although John was concerned with shouldering a major tax burden because he lived in the United States… His official reason for not showing was ‘the stars aren’t right.’”
“John, Julien, and I left New York the following day to spend Christmas in Florida. On December 29, 1974, the voluminous documents were brought down to John in Florida by one of Apple’s lawyers. Take out your camera, he joked to me… He finally picked up his pen and, in the unlikely backdrop of the Polynesian Village Hotel at Disney World, ended the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in history by simply scrawling John Lennon at the bottom of the page.”
Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World Preview Edition, 1970
Widen Your World http://www.omniluxe.net/wyw/wyw.htm
Walt Dated World http://waltdatedworld.bravepages.com/index.htm
DVC News www.dvcnews.com
Guitarob / Disboards.com