Minimalist Tiki

Say aloha to Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort

UPDATES: Disney rushes to finish Polynesian renovations, Trader Sam’s (March 2015)
Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto design, merchandise revealed (October 2014)

At the colorful crossroads where Disneyphiles and Tikiphiles meet, there’s a new date to be honored and celebrated annually with a rum-fueled fervor. May 2 will forever be known as the day that Trader Sam packed up his collection of curios and headed to Disney World.

Bonus cocktail recipe: The Trader’s Polynesian Aloha Grog
Past coverage: See all our updates on the Polynesian refurbishment

A rendering provided by Disney World shows Trader Sam's Grog Grotto as it may appear at Disney World when it opens in 2015
A rendering provided by Disney World shows Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto as it may appear at Disney World when it opens in 2015. Note the tribute to ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’

His final destination: Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, the reimagined flagship hotel that has been rechristened with its original name from 1971’s grand opening, the day Disney World opened its gates in Orlando. More than 42 years later, the vintage South Seas-themed luxury hotel is in the midst of one of its largest refurbishments ever.

And what a name he has chosen for his newest Tiki lounge: Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, which promises to expand on the Adventureland-meets-Adventurer’s Club vibe of his original location, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel. To celebrate Sam’s imminent arrival, we’ve concocted a welcome-to-Florida grog, which you can find below.

After years of speculation and unconfirmed reports, Walt Disney World Resort President George A. Kalogridis made the announcement on Friday, May 2, confirming what everyone could see happening at Disney’s Polynesian Resort and putting all rumors to rest: “This year, we started reimagining the feature pool, and the centerpiece of the iconic resort, the Great Ceremonial House. We’re also adding Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, inspired by the guest favorite at Disneyland. Trader Sam’s will continue the evolution of food and beverage offerings across our parks and resorts.”

Kalogridis continued: “Trader Sam’s will feature a highly themed lounge area with hand-crafted Tiki cocktails served in souvenir mugs complimenting the Polynesian-themed small plates. We’ll complete that work next year, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in its beautiful new form. I’m also pleased to announce that as part of this transformation, the resort is returning to its original name, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.”
* See video of the announcement

Modern Caribbean Rum
A rendering provided by Disney World shows the reimagined Great Ceremonial House at the Polynesian Village Resort, including a scaled-down water feature and large Tiki rising in the middle of the lobby
A rendering provided by Disney World shows the reimagined Great Ceremonial House at the Polynesian Village Resort, including a scaled-down water feature and large Tiki rising in the middle of the lobby.

The Disney Parks Blog followed up with a post that includes four pieces of concept art (see above and below) that give a peek, albeit brief, at what’s to come. To the disappointment of many, this includes a radical downsizing of the resort’s lush tropical garden and waterfall in the center of the Great Ceremonial House. This should have come as no surprise [see our previous report], but it was still unsettling for many to finally see it depicted in the rendering. Disney’s previous report said the lobby “will be reimagined to highlight the cultural elements of Polynesia and provide more expansive views.”

There were likely other reasons for the removal of the huge water feature. We reported back in August that it may be removed due to it being a huge maintenance problem. This and many other news reports that have proven to come true (such as the name change) are courtesy of Steve “Tikiman” Seifert, who posts his authoritative updates on the Unofficial Polynesian Village Resort website and Facebook page. A new comment on the Facebook page citing a Polynesian resort insider indicates that the giant Tiki in the center of the lobby may stand up to 15 feet tall. I think I’ll reserve judgement on how much I miss the old waterfall until I see what could be a very impressive authentic Tiki greeting guests.

After hearing the news on Friday, I immediately looked to Seifert’s Friday update for any additional info, since Disney is notorious for releasing only the sketchiest of details. Tikiman came through with some more Trader Sam’s plans: “Like its west coast version, it will serve food and tropical drinks but will be a little more open than the one at Disneyland,” he wrote. “There will be a lot of interactive features in the grotto to entertain you and surprise you as you enjoy your food and drink.”

One of Disney World's original three resort hotels will return to its original name as part of its refurbishment
One of Disney World’s original three resort hotels will return to its original name as part of its refurbishment. (Rendering provided by Disney World)

Seifert also mentioned an unconfirmed seating capacity of 50 inside and 80 outside overlooking the soon-to-be refurbished pool. “I was told they are trying to have it open by February 2015, although construction across the entire resort is not expected to be completed until late 2015, with the pool area not expected to be done before March 2015,” he wrote. Seifert was the first to post reports of Trader Sam’s coming to the Polynesian back in July [see our follow-up story], despite initial leaked documents that showed it as part of the Downtown Disney expansion, reported here in March 2013.

He said that with the work on the lobby now extending into 2015, “it’s possible that the Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto will also get pushed out.” He also mentioned “some new shops and updating of the current shops along with a rumor of changes to Kona Cafe.” But Seifert said he’s been told that the Great Ceremonial House’s signature restaurant, ‘Ohana, and its adjoining Tambu Lounge, will have some work done but it won’t be changing “in any major way.”

It was surprising, Seifert said, that no further details were announced on the Disney Vacation Club construction at the resort. The bungalows that are rising over the Seven Seas Lagoon that separates the Polynesian from the Magic Kingdom are hard to ignore. Seifert has reported that a third guest longhouse (Tokelau) will join the two others (Rapa Nui and Tahiti) that are being converted from standard rooms into timeshares. That will leave just eight longhouses containing fewer than 500 rooms for non-DVC guests, around the same as when the resort opened in 1971. There is speculation that this reduced supply may cause prices to rise to the highest of all of Disney World’s luxury hotels.

A rendering provided by Disney World shows Trader Sam's Grog Grotto and what perhaps will be a new interactive drink experience
A rendering provided by Disney World shows Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto and what perhaps will be a new interactive drink experience.

Seifert also dispelled rumors that Disney planned to make the lobby and other updates reflect the style of Aulani, its DVC resort in Hawaii. “If anything, they say they are trying to add things to the Polynesian to make it feel more like Adventureland (as it was originally intended),” he wrote. “You can see some of the lobby changes do exactly that. I am told other things that will be added around the resort will continue with this theme.”

And Trader Sam’s, based on the beloved character in the Jungle Cruise attraction, fits perfectly with this theme. The Disneyland Hotel’s Tiki bar opened on May 30, 2011, and was an immediate success. It was designed by Disney’s famed Imagineers with artistic input from other craftsmen with close ties to the mid-century Tiki revival, such as Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily. It also contains work from Oceanic Arts, the revered California design house that had a hand in the Polynesian Village Resort’s original South Seas artifacts and Tikis.

What’s interesting is that Trader Sam’s almost never came to be. The original plan for the Disneyland Hotel renovation was for a generic, Caribbean-themed tropical poolside bar. But, according to an insider, Walt Disney Imagineering convinced the resort’s management that a Tiki theme would be a smart move, due in large part to the resurgence of Polynesian Pop culture and the popularity of Tiki merchandise by Kevin & Jody, Shag, and others.
* Past coverage: Tiki Room celebrates 50 years | Artists shine at Disney World’s 40th
Disney World is still cool at 40 thanks to retro artists Shag, Kevin & Jody

Of course, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar and the adjoining Tangaroa Terrace succeeded expectations, not only stylistically but financially. This led to a similar concept being added to the plans for the expansion of the Polynesian, and the eventual development of Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto. The Atomic Grog speculated on this potential development way back in October 2011, just four months after the Disneyland bar’s debut, and again in June 2012. Unbeknownst to us, the wheels may have already been in motion.

The wallpaper at Trader Sam's in Disneyland is based on a vintage pattern from the Polynesian Village Resort at Disney World
The wallpaper at Trader Sam’s in Disneyland is based on a vintage pattern from the Polynesian Village Resort at Disney World.

In addition to Adventureland and the Adventurer’s Club, the Polynesian Resort was also an influence on the Imagineers who worked on the Trader Sam’s design. They even reached back to an old 1970s Polynesian bedspread pattern (originally in green/blue tones) for the inspiration for the custom wallpaper in the Trader Sam’s men’s room (see photo at right).

The bar is chock full of not only great vintage design, but also animatronics that are triggered by ordering certain drinks. The Uh Oa! sparks a thunderstorm and floating island of fire, while drinking the Shipwreck On The Rocks causes a ship in a bottle to sink. The bartenders and staff also play a key role in the fun, entertaining guests similar to the skippers on the Jungle Cruise.

It will be interesting to see how Disney and the Imagineers take what they’ve learned at Trader Sam’s in Disneyland and apply it to the Grog Grotto. The legions of Disneyphiles and Tikiphiles expect nothing short of brilliance. The Disney creative team is on a roll (see Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure, New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom), so its very likely those expectations will be met.

Also on a roll is the food and beverage team at the massive Disney World complex, which encompasses more than 200 restaurants and bars along with the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. Will Disney World’s chefs and mixologists design a new tropical drink menu in-house, or will they again turn to outside consultants as they did for the launch of Trader Sam’s in Disneyland? [Click here for the firm’s Case Study]

Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar

The Tiki afficionados who frequent the Critiki website give Trader Sam’s an overall 9.0 rating (out of 10), which as of this writing places it just outside the top 10 Tiki sites worldwide. However, not unexpectedly, the drink quality (7.8) and drink selection (7.5) are the bar’s weak spots. The challenge facing Disney World’s food and beverage experts is how to create an engaging menu that pleases both the Tiki purists and the mainstream visitors who may not have as sophisticated a cocktail palate.

To celebrate the upcoming arrival of Trader Sam’s in the swampy jungle of Central Florida, I put together a special welcome drink. It attempts to honor the Polynesian Resort’s past, and point forward to its hand-crafted Tiki cocktail future. Featuring a flavor profile that’s fairly accessible to the average Disney World guest, and ingredients that are relatively easy to find, it’s designed to be easily enjoyed at your next luau (or headhunting expedition).


(An original concoction by The Atomic Grog)

The Trader's Polynesian Aloha Grog
The Trader’s Polynesian Aloha Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2014)

Designed as a welcoming drink to Trader Sam, this traditional Tiki bowl is filled with classic ingredients, homages to the Polynesian Resort, and is served in the Polynesian Luau Bowl created for Disney World by Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily.

* 2 ounces POG juice
   (passion fruit/orange/guava)
* 1/2 ounce strong Kona coffee, chilled
* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce honey mix (equal parts honey, water)
* 1 1/2 ounces silver/light rum
* 3/4 ounce dark Jamaican rum (Myers’s preferred)
* 3/4 ounce Demerara rum (El Dorado preferred)
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice for 5-8 seconds. Pour into a Polynesian Luau Bowl or other specialty Tiki bowl or mug. Serves one or two.

The Trader’s Polynesian Aloha Grog is a refreshing, well-balanced Tiki cocktail with hints of bitters and coffee that help offset the sweetness of the POG and honey. The trio of rums blend nicely, with the dark Jamaican and Demerara flavors subtly reminding you that this is indeed a rum drink. The lemon and lime bring further balance, providing a sour backbone that holds everything together. Hopefully the Trader would approve.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* POG, of course, is a fixture at the Polynesian resort and is served at breakfast at Kona Cafe and ‘Ohana. It’s also a key element in The Backscratcher, one of the iconic drinks served at the Tambu Lounge. See our Backscratcher recipe for the full story and background on POG (passion fruit, orange and guava) juice. It’s very hard to find outside of Hawaii and the west coast of the U.S. Disney World uses a Minute Maid product that’s not available to the public, so I recommend making your own. My recipe: Equal parts of 100 percent natural orange juice, Goya Passion Fruit Cocktail and Kern’s Guava Nectar. You may use other brands, just make sure they’re concentrated nectars to bring out the full flavor and sweetness you’ll find in POG. If you must have authentic POG at any price, you should be able to find the Hawaiian Sun and Aloha Maid brands on Amazon.

A vintage matchbook from the early days of the resort
A vintage matchbook from the early days of the resort.

* Kona coffee may seem like an odd ingredient in a cocktail, but it works perfectly here. Of course, some of the best coffee at Disney World is served at the Polynesian’s Kona Cafe. Pick up a bag there, or check your local grocery and specialty stores. Brew it strong, approximately 1 to 2 times normal strength. (If you’re looking for more recipes containing chilled coffee in cocktails, check out the Black Magic, Mutiny and The Hukilau from The Mai-Kai.)

* Don’t skimp on the citrus. Always squeeze the lemons and limes fresh. The honey mix is a nice alternative to simple syrup or other sweeteners. I like to make the flavor even more intense with a 2:1 ratio of honey to water. Just shake it up in a bottle, and it will keep in the fridge for weeks.

* I’ve purposely made this drink flexible with the rums, but please stick to the white, dark Jamaican and Demerara styles if possible. Any light rum will do, but I advise using a premium brand from Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. Flor de Caña from Nicaragua is also a great rum for the price. Myers’s Original Dark is the brand of dark Jamaican rum used throughout Disney World, and you’ll find it in both The Backscratcher and the Lapu Lapu at the Tambu Lounge. The Coruba or Appleton brands would also be fine choices. Demerara rum is a crucial ingredient in many classic Tiki drinks, and it adds a nice smoky flavor. You’ll find many fine Demerara-style mixing rums from El Dorado, such as the 5-year and 8-year. I’d recommend the latter for its more robust flavor, or you could also upgrade to the 12- or 15-year-old rums that pack even more punch.

* The Polynesian Luau Bowl was created by Kevin & Jody and released by Disney as part of the merchandise blitz for the 50th anniversary of Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. But we suspect that this ode to the Polynesian Village Resort was originally intended for Disney World’s 40th anniversary. This drink fits the bowl perfectly, but if you haven’t picked one up in the park or online, just use another festive bowl or mug, perhaps one featuring a shrunken head in honor of Sam.

I hope you enjoy this ode to the Polynesian and celebration of Trader Sam’s. Aloha!

More drink recipes from The Atomic Grog
* Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum at Trader Sam’s
* The Backscratcher at the Tambu Lounge


Official sites
Disney Parks Blog report | Polynesian Resort | Trader Sam’s

Other news reports on the Web
* Tikiman’s Unofficial Polynesian Resort Site | Inside the Magic | Orlando Sentinel
* Video: Disney vacation Club vice president talks about the Polynesian
* Disney Food Blog | Touring Plans blog
* 5 (or more) reasons to love Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort

Past Atomic Grog coverage
* Disney World announces refurbishment schedule for Polynesian Resort
* Trader Sam’s could be key part of Disney World’s Polynesian Resort refurbishment
* Trader Sam’s one of many changes likely coming to Polynesian Resort
* 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?

More on Trader Sam’s
* Official site | Virtual tour | Drinking Disney | Disney designer Kevin Kidney’s blog
* Critiki reviews | Tiki Central reviews | Disney Food Blog | Disney Tourist Blog
Mouse Steps | The ART(ifacts) of Trader Sam’s | Facebook fan page

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