UPDATES: Get the latest news on Trader Sam’s and the Polynesian refurbishment
Bonus cocktail recipe: The Backscratcher at the Polynesian Resort’s Tambu Lounge
Reports have recently surfaced that indicate the eventual Orlando location of Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar may not be the revamped Downtown Disney complex, as indicated earlier this year, but rather Walt Disney World’s iconic 39-acre Polynesian Resort near the Magic Kingdom theme park.
In March, Disney Springs was officially announced as the successor to Downtown Disney, the massive shopping and entertainment district on Disney World property but outside its theme parks. The 120-acre lakefront site is expected to expand from 75 to more than 150 stores, restaurants, bars and more. Slated for completion in 2016, the refurb will create a replica of a 19th century Florida waterfront town. [See The Atomic Grog’s full report here]
Disney released elaborate conceptual artwork and many details on the theming of Disney Springs, but little info on what retailers or restaurants would be part of the new development. This is understandable since many deals are likely still being negotiated, and the exact locations of various businesses are still being fleshed out. But this didn’t keep the rumor mill from churning, especially when images leaked out online that show dozens of logos of potential venues.
On this list was the distinctive logo of Trader Sam’s, already a must-see destination for Disney and Tiki fans after only two years at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. The bar features classic Polynesian decor, cocktails and food plus an extra helping of Disney Imagineering magic. The theming evokes both classic attractions (Jungle Cruise, Enchanted Tiki Room) and a beloved, defunct Downtown Disney cabaret (the Adventurer’s Club). So this potential location made some sense. But was it really a good fit considering the overall theme?
I originally speculated back in October 2011 during the Magic Kingdom’s 40th anniversary celebration that Trader Sam’s should find a home in the Polynesian, built in 1971 on the shore of Seven Seas Lagoon and still arguably Disney World’s most popular themed resort. In June 2012, when news leaked out about planned changes to the Polynesian that would add timeshare properties and revamp the bar and restaurants, the prospect of the Disneyland Tiki bar coming to the resort was again a topic of discussion. [See story]
The recent Disney Springs announcement may have confused matters for Disney World’s planning gurus, but now it appears they may have decided that the Polynesian could be a better fit for Trader Sam’s after all.
On July 10, a mysterious comment appeared on The Atomic Grog’s Disney Springs story from “Mr. X” stating simply “~trader sams going to poynesian~”. I didn’t give this rumor much credence until I found it mentioned in a much larger update on the Polynesian renovations by longtime resort insider Steve “Tikiman” Seifert.
On July 22, Seifert posted a news report on his Unofficial Polynesian Resort Site that includes authoritative updates on the planned addition of the timeshares – aka Disney Vacation Club (DVC) villas – to the resort. Included is this nugget: “An addition to the property will be a Trader Sam’s, but where it will go is unknown.”
Before you dismiss Seifert as just another Internet rumor-monger, take a look at the depth and breadth of his site. He has been chronicling the updates to the resort’s rooms and grounds for many years with both reverence and accuracy. His information on the DVC developments comes with enough authority that he was recently featured on the WDW Today podcast with Len Testa, co-author of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and one of the creators of the essential TouringPlans.com vacation planning site. “I appreciate those that trust I am sharing good information from reliable sources,” he wrote on his site. “I … only share the info I know comes directly from someone who is involved with the process.”
Seifert apparently has some reliable inside contacts, and he was privy to many of the DVC plans for years. But he kept them under wraps until May 1, when he “got the green light.” His May 1 report includes ambitious plans to tear down one of the resort’s 11 three-story longhouses (the buildings that contain the approximately 850 guest rooms) and build two new five-story DVC buildings at either end of the property. Also planned are DVC bungalows on stilts over Seven Seas Lagoon that emulate traditional Tahitian huts. This plan would unfortunately necessitate the removal of Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show from its longtime location on Luau Cove. Also in this version of the plan is a new pool area with a lazy river, modeled after one at the Aulani DVC resort in Hawaii. It would also include the complete renovation of the Great Ceremonial House, the lavish lobby area that contains the resort’s shops and restaurants. The many changes would occur in stages, some as early as later this year.
But as happens often at Disney World, plans are always in flux. According to Seifert’s July 22 post, the DVC plans at the Polynesian are being scaled back significantly. The plans to remove the Rapa Nui longhouse and build two new DVC buildings at either end of the resort have apparently been scrapped. Seifert reports that the only DVC rooms on the existing property will be in a redesigned beachfront Tahiti longhouse on the east side of the property (near the Monorail station and Magic Kingdom’s Transportation and Ticket Center). The bungalows over the water also remain in the plans in the same area of the resort.
What this means for the Spirit of Aloha and the west side of the property is unclear. Seifert maintained in a May 23 update that plans have been in the works for years to move the show indoors. But his latest update (see below) speculates that “the luau building will not be affected,” at least in the latest iteration of the plans. However, one likely casualty of the DVC upgrade may be the volcano-themed pool, which dates back to 2001 (see photo above). Seifert reports a potential January 2014 closing date with an undetermined upgrade.
Also still in the works is the redesign of the entire interior of the Great Ceremonial House, including the lobby, shops and restaurants. Issues with asbestos in the building have been reported for years, and rumors circulated that it would be either removed or totally gutted. But Seifert is reporting that Disney is leaning toward renovating the building in stages. While this appears to be good news for those who have hopes that some of the existing features will remain, Seifert wrote in May that it’s “not unlikely that some stores or restaurants will change as they have in past rehabs.”
Sadly, one feature that may not survive is the grand atrium’s giant waterfall and koi pond (see photo above). For many, this lush tropical garden that greets you when you enter the building is one of the resort’s most iconic elements. Seifert has created “Save the Waterfall” T-shirts, which you can purchase online.
Seifert’s most recent post from Monday (July 29) says the most updated plan calls for most of the work to be done in the next two years and be completed by late 2015 or early 2016. This will involve several major projects:
* The conversion of the Tahiti longhouse to DVC, taking 143 rooms out of the resort’s normal inventory.
* A redesigned pool with something other than a volcano slide. If/when the pool closes, Seifert expects guests to be given access to one of the nearby Grand Floridian Resort’s pools.
* The renovation of the Great Ceremonial House, including removal of the existing skylights and waterfall. Seifert elaborates on the reasoning for the waterfall’s removal with new and somewhat encouraging information. In addition to maintenance and safety issues, Disney apparently may be seeking a lobby design that more closely resembles Aulani. This means an unencumbered view of the beach and beyond when you walk into the lobby. To do this, they must remove or drastically scale back the water feature. “Some new water feature will go in somewhere in the lobby but allow the view from the front to look out the back toward the pool and beach without being obstructed,” he writes. He maintains his earlier prediction that these renovations will occur in stages.
* The construction of the over-the-water bungalows, most likely on the beach side of Tahiti longhouse (see photo above). Seifert’s July 29 update cites permits and plans posted on South Florida Water Management District website, first revealed on Mouseowners.com, a forum for DVC members. These permits seem to show up to 20 bungalows plus new parking, pedestrian pathways, landscaping and entry areas. DVCNews.com picked up the story Tuesday, suggesting that work on DVC villas at the Polynesian is “imminent.”
Where Trader Sam’s fits into the plans is anyone’s guess, but let me speculate on that and other possible changes. Pure educated guesswork, but when it comes to Disney World a little bit of dreaming goes a long way:
* The DVC additions, including the bungalows: The scaled-back plans are not surprising considering Disney’s history of designing big, then taking plans down a notch. But this won’t preclude the company from circling back and perhaps revisiting the construction of additional DVC buildings. Especially if the bungalows are a hit, which should be a given. But with many other costly projects in the works at the resort, from Disney Springs to “Avatar Land” at Animal Kingdom to a rumored “Star Wars Land” at Hollywood Studios, a conservative approach at the Polynesian is prudent.
* The pool and Great Ceremonial House: Upgrades will go hand-in-hand with the DVC additions. Judging by prior DVC upgrades at other resorts such as the recent addition of villas to the Grand Floridian, Disney will make a concerted effort to enhance its restaurant and pool offerings for potential DVC buyers. In this case, this is not only a wise business move but also a way to upgrade two areas that have been targeted as both outdated and structurally unsound. Another no-brainer. Expect the more ambitious projects – such as an additional pool and lazy river, and the relocation of the Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show – to be acted upon only if/when new DVC buildings are added. In the meantime, the existing remodeled facilities can handle the new DVC units.
* Trader Sam’s location: I’m assuming this decision will be driven by the resort’s food and beverage execs and will be closely tied to what goes down with the Great Ceremonial House shops and restaurants. Seifert speculates that it may go in the old Tangaroa Terrace building, which now contains meeting space and the Neverland Club child-care facility. This would be ironic since Trader Sam’s in Disneyland is adjacent to a counter service restaurant called Tangaroa Terrace. But my guess is that Trader Sam’s will actually end up in the Great Ceremonial House, perhaps in a redesigned ground-floor area. Keeping all food and beverage in one building would make more logistical sense. Perhaps Trader Sam’s could share space with a redesigned casual eatery to replace the popular but small and limited Captain Cook’s Snack Co. On the second floor, my hope is that Kona Cafe and ‘Ohana will remain in some form or another, perhaps tied together by a redesigned Tambu Lounge (see photo, menu above). This iconic Tiki bar, which dates back to the Polynesian’s 1971 launch, deserves a bigger and better space than the small area outside ‘Ohana.
After all this news, rumor and speculation, it’s time to relax with a cool tropical libation. And what better drink to help us kick back and ponder the future of the Polynesian Resort than one of the Tambu Lounge’s signature cocktails, the Backscratcher.
(From the Tambu Lounge at Disney’s Polynesian Resort)
* 5 ounces POG (passion fruit/orange/guava) juice
* 1 ounce silver Puerto Rican rum
* 1 ounce Myers’s Original Dark rum
* 1/2 ounce Jack Daniel’s black label (Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey)
Shake the juice and rum with a heaping cup of ice cubes. Pour unstrained into a Hurricane glass containing a bamboo backscratcher. Float the Jack Daniel’s on top. Garnish with an orange slice or wedge, plus a maraschino cherry.
Tiki cocktail nerds will recognize this drink as the Tropical Itch, which was created by Harry Yee of the Hawaiian Village hotel in Waikiki in the late 1950s. It also featured passion fruit juice or nectar, rum, and bourbon. It was also served in a hurricane glass with the signature garnish of a wooden backscratcher. You’ll find the recipe in Beachbum Berry’s Remixed. FYI, Yee is the man credited (for better or worse) with the idea of garnishing tropical drinks with paper parasols.
Notes and tips for home mixologists
* The juice: The menu says simply “passion fruit juice” but fans of the Polynesian Resort will recognize the flavor of POG, the addictive juice served at Kona Cafe and ‘Ohana restaurant. It’s also a staple in Hawaii, where it’s ubiquitous at restaurants and grocery stores. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more difficult to find on the mainland. Disney World uses a Minute Maid product, but according to a company official it isn’t available for retail purchase. I sidestepped this problem by making my own POG by combining equal parts 100 percent natural orange juice with passion fruit cocktail and guava nectar. The rich, concentrated cocktail/nectar combo adds extra sweetness and consistent flavor to the unconcentrated OJ, keeping the mix from becoming too bitter. This brings it very close to what you’ll taste at the Polynesian. In South Florida, we’re lucky to have easy access to many juices and nectars in our grocery stores. My preferred OJ is Indian River Select Valencia Orange Juice. I used Goya Passion Fruit Cocktail and Kern’s Guava Nectar to complete the POG juice mix. Keep a bottle handy for whenever you crave a taste of the Polynesian. Beyond Hawaii, you may also find authentic POG juice in California or other western states. If you don’t mind paying a premium, you also should be able to find the Hawaiian Sun or Aloha Maid brands available on Amazon.com.
* The liquors: Disney World bars typically use Bacardi Superior silver rum, but feel free to take a step up to a better white Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum. I went with Don Q Cristal. Myers’s, the standard dark rum at Disney World, works just fine in this recipe. The distinctive Jamaican rum adds rich flavor but doesn’t overpower the other ingredients. Jack Daniel’s may seem like an odd booze to float on a tropical drink, but it works perfectly in the Backscratcher, balancing the sweetness and adding a distinctive kick. Older Tambu Lounge menus referred to it as a “secret ingredient.” Be sure to use Old No. 7, not Tennessee Honey or one of the other blends.
* The backscratcher: I have a large supply from my many visits to the Tambu Lounge, but they’re also readily available online.
Related Atomic Grog posts
* Walt Disney’s Tiki Room celebrates 50 years of enchantment
* Is Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar in the mix for the re-imagined Downtown Disney?
* Major changes in store for Disney’s Polynesian Resort?