Minimalist Tiki

Major changes in store for Disney’s Polynesian Resort?

UPDATES: Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto coming to Disney’s Polynesian Village (May 2014)
Refurb schedule announced, but no word on Trader Sam’s (February 2014)
Trader Sam’s could be key part of Polynesian refurbishment (August 2013)
Trader Sam’s one of many changes likely at Polynesian Resort (July 2013)

Rumors have swirled for years about the future of Disney’s Polynesian Resort, the 40-year-old iconic hotel and one of the Magic Kingdom’s two original resorts.

The entrance to the Great Ceremonial House at Disney's Polynesian Resort
The entrance to the Great Ceremonial House at Disney's Polynesian Resort. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2011)

Affectionately known as “The Poly,” this sprawling 39-acre homage to the South Seas was one of the original two hotels built on the monorail line before the Magic Kingdom’s opening on Oct. 1, 1971. It was actually the first to open, beating the flagship Contemporary Resort by hours and hosting the press on opening day.

Like the Magic Kingdom, the Polynesian has remained true to Walt’s original vision (he was a fan of mid-century Tiki culture and explored the Pacific on vacations). Unlike the Contemporary, it has remained essentially the same stylistically, but with many upgrades to infrastructure and amenities over the years to keep it modern and comfortable.

But times are changing. Two major factors may be pushing massive renovations onto the Polynesian, though Disney officially remains tight-lipped on any speculation.

The first is the inevitable expansion of Disney Vacation Club (DVC) timeshare properties. Nearly every one of Disney World’s park-adjacent “deluxe” resorts has a DVC building either completed or under construction. On the monorail line, the Contemporary has the recently opened Bay Lake Tower, and a DVC wing is currently being built at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, right next door to the Polynesian. Also, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, just a short boat ride away, has a Villas section for DVC members.

Modern Caribbean Rum
A view from Seven Seas Lagoon of the beachfront longhouses at Disney's Polynesian Resort
A view from Seven Seas Lagoon of the beachfront longhouses at Disney's Polynesian Resort. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2011)

So it’s hard to believe that the Polynesian won’t be reconfigured to accommodate vacation club members. It’s just a matter of when, where and how. Speculation has ranged from building a new tower to converting as many as half of the resort’s 11 traditional longhouses, which contain nearly 850 rooms. The latter scenario seems most likely.

Inside the Great Ceremonial House at Disney's Polynesian Resort
Inside the Great Ceremonial House at Disney's Polynesian Resort. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2011)

But the most troubling rumor, which has been circulating for several years, is that asbestos used in the original construction of the massive Great Ceremonial House, the centerpiece of the resort, could force it to be demolished and replaced. This would be a great shame since this beautiful two-story structure, an iconic visual element, also serves as the lobby/check-in area of the resort and features a classic Polynesian bar and restaurants, shops, and some of the best classic mid-century Tiki architecture and decor in Florida.

Recently, these rumors have been clarified and fine-tuned by the most authoritative source of news about the Polynesian Resort outside of the Disney company. Steve Seifert, aka Tikiman, reported on his Unofficial Polynesian Resort Site on June 1 that indeed rooms are most likely already being prepared for future DVC members.

Along with normal maintenance, he reports, new rooms are being designed in a test building with all new carpet, lighting and doors. He says he expects the new designs to start appearing in the longhouses next year and spreading to all of them over the course of a few years. But more telling is this quote: “Just in time to start the DVC expansion (yes it is not a rumor). I believe the first major change we will see will be the hot tub addition starting later this year.”

A view of the rear of the Great Ceremonial House at Disney's Polynesian Resort
A view of the rear of the Great Ceremonial House at Disney's Polynesian Resort. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2012)

In that same report, Tikiman says that the longhouse refurbishment has nothing to do with “the major Great Ceremonial House work that will be coming … who knows when. Could be 2013 or could be 2018. Leave it to Disney to not give any good dates, but then again we probably are not supposed to know they are going to gut the GCH.” He concludes his report with: “Soon to come, some big changes for my site and for the resort.”

If that’s not enough of a confirmation that these rumors may be true, Tikiman posted on his Facebook page on May 30 that “we are in for some changes!!! I can’t tell you right now any details but a little Mouse told me what is going to happen to the Polynesian in the next several years. There will be a few different stages and those that want the resort to remain the same and those that want something totally new will get a little bit of both, but Disney has some huge surprises for everyone.”

This all seems to confirm the plans to turn many of the longhouses into DVC rooms, and also major construction on the Great Ceremonial House. But I’m a bit heartened with Tikiman’s caveat that those who want the resort to remain the same will not be too disappointed. This probably means no new buildings, but the total renovation of the Great Ceremonial House. Will it keep the same basic design? Let’s hope so.

The Tambu Lounge on the second floor of the Great Ceremonial House at Disney's Polynesian Resort
The Tambu Lounge on the second floor of the Great Ceremonial House at Disney's Polynesian Resort. The future site of Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar? (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2012)

How this can be accomplished with the resort staying open remains to be seen, but Disney has been known to work wonders. And his reference to changes in different stages points to this happening slowly of the course of several years. But we strongly urge you to visit the Polynesian sooner rather than later to see it while you still can in all its vintage glory.

And if we’re lucky, the renovations will include the addition of an East Coast version of Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, an amazing animatronic lounge recently built at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. We speculated on this back in our report on Disney World’s 40th anniversary, and at the time Disney artist Kevin Kidney told us that the Poly would be the logical spot for such an oasis and that Disney knows this. If that’s the plan, we’re indeed torn between mourning the loss of the classic and welcoming the new and unknown. In true Disney fashion, all we can do now is dream.

Related links
* Disney World’s Polynesian Resort site | Disney Parks Blog: Polynesian Resort history
* Tikiman’s Unofficial Polynesian Resort Site | Critiki review, photos

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Disney's Polynesian Resort map

4 Replies to “Major changes in store for Disney’s Polynesian Resort?”

  1. I can’t recall who it was now, I think it was Randy Avon, telling me about being at the Mai-Kai with his father and discussing plans with some man about a Polynesian place he was building. Turned out it was Walt Disney and the place was up in Orlando…

    1. Wow, great footnote. Walt apparently made many secret reconnaissance missions to Florida while they were scouting locations for Disney World. He and his brother Roy were very close to buying property from John D. MacArthur in northern Palm Beach County (instead of Orlando) but that deal fell through.

      I wouldn’t be surprised they frequented The Mai-Kai during these trips as Walt was a fan of supper clubs. Of course, that was the original plan for the Enchanted Tiki Room.

  2. I just visited the Polynesian resort. My family has made it a tradition to visit it for the last twenty years. I have to say that I was completely disappointed in the lobby changes. There is no longer a wow factor when you enter. How can they have done this to the iconic lobby. Who ever had this idea showed be fired for not understanding the history, the feel, and the love of the place by long standing fans of the hotel.

    1. Our family just returned yesterday, January 19, 2015, and we were totally devastated at the horrible renovations to the Polynesian lobby. The beautiful water features both inside and outside of the lobby are gone. The soothing sounds, wonderful smell, and gorgeous sights of the waterfall and plants have been replaced with bland, boring, and generic furniture. The Polynesian lobby used to be our favorite place to visit since it’s opening. The feeling used to be magical and people had a real sense of being transported to another place. There is now nothing at all special about this hotel. Walt Disney World has completely lost it’s magic to our family with this latest travesty.

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