Updated February 2024
While California may still be king of the hill with its abundance of classic and modern Tiki bars, constant events and confluence of Polynesian Pop’s movers and shakers, another sunny state on the opposite side of the country is quickly becoming a must-visit destination for more than its beaches and theme parks.
This weekend’s return of Tiki Fever in Sarasota reminds us of all the things that make Florida a hot spot for seekers of a vintage experience. The event takes place at a classic retro resort and the state’s oldest Tiki bar (Bahi Hut). It includes four days of revelry featuring top bands, presenters, vendors, and more. It’s a relatively new event, celebrating its third gathering Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 5-8.
But next year is when it really heats up. A promising new weekender, Tiki-a-Go-Go, will debut in April in Orlando. The state’s vanguard Tiki event, The Hukilau, will return to southeast Florida in June.
Early 2024 should also mark the return of perhaps the state’s No. 1 destination for fans of classic Tiki, the revered Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show. If that’s not enough, Florida is ground zero for the resurrection of the Don the Beachcomber restaurant brand. The Florida-based parent company plans to open at least two new locations in the state between now and the end of 2025.
Sure, we’re still home to the ubiquitous “Florida Man,” often oppressive humidity, and increasingly questionable politics. But for all the reasons above, and more outlined below, Florida deserves to become a must-visit destination for fans of classic Tiki as well as the modern revival.
Here’s a preview of the state’s three major weekenders, plus a roundup of other events of interest. (Florida-based artists, musicians and businesses are highlighted throughout the rest of this story with links.)
Tiki Fever: West coast weekender is just what the doctor ordered (Oct. 5-8, 2023)
Billed as “an exotic Tiki festival where artists, bands, and enthusiasts unite for a weekend of tropical bliss,” this intimate event delivers with four days on non-stop activities at the recently renovated 1950s-era Golden Host Resort in Sarasota on the state’s southwest gulf coast. Festivities are centered around the 50-foot saltwater pool and include live music, a cocktail seminar, a fashion show, room crawl, plus a marketplace with more than a dozen vendors selling their wares.
Scheduled performers include Florida’s The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, Stolen Idols, and MeduSirena. Out-of-state guests include The Mystery Men (Georgia) and The Martini Kings (California). A special event mug was created by a noted Florida artist, John Mulder of Eekum Bookum.
Crafted Tiki cocktails will be available from The Honu (from nearby Dunedin) as well as Tonga Hut, the oldest Tiki bar in Los Angeles (est. 1958). Another historic bar is just steps away. Guests can enjoy the vintage atmosphere of the Bahi Hut, which has been operating adjacent to the resort since 1954, making it the oldest operating Tiki bar in Florida.
The first two Tiki Fever weekends were held in late September and early October of 2019 and 2021, shortly after an extensive renovation of Bahi Hut. The event has had its ups and downs with a change in leadership this year, plus cancellations due to COVID (2020) and Hurricane Ian (2022). But there’s no reason to believe that this year’s event won’t be a roaring success, paving the way for a return in 2024 when things really get interesting around the state.
Tiki-a-Go-Go: A new twist on retro culture unites Florida’s past, present and future (April 5-7, 2024)
Central Florida gets its first major Tiki event next year with the debut of Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando. The three-day weekender will be hosted by the Caribe Royale Resort and will feature two days of seminars, cocktails, music, vendors, and more. On day three, the event joins forces with the established Magical Tiki Meet Up for a Disney World adventure.
The focus is clearly Tiki, but the event organizers hope to fill a gap in the market with a deeper emphasis on the history of old Florida Tiki establishments and roadside kitsch. The proximity to the Disney World resort and Orlando’s other attractions also gives Tiki-a-Go-Go a distinctive identity.
The organizers are relatively new to the major event game, but collectively they have vast experience as attendees and organizers of smaller events. We have no doubt that they can manage a successful weekender, especially considering the stellar entertainment lineup:
Bars and bartenders: Skull & Crown Trading Co, The Golden Tiki, Sorrow Drowner, High Roller Tiki Lounge, Marie King, Desert Oasis Room, Luau Lads, The Honu, Suffering Bastard, Aku Aku, and Otto’s High Dive.
Presenters include Sven Kirsten, Tim “Swanky” Glazner, Ed Hamilton, David “Dr. Skipper” Marley, Mike Skinner, Tom Duncan, Jim “Hurricane” Hayward, “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, Jon Bortles, Adrian Eustaquio, How Bowers, and Tiki Tom-Tom.
The Hukilau poised to reunite with The Mai-Kai in 2024 (June 6-9, 2024)
The grand dame of Tiki events in Florida (and second oldest worldwide after California’s Tiki Oasis) just announced its 2024 dates, returning to a traditional early June weekend. This timeframe coincides with the end of tourist season and start of more affordable hotel rates in pricey southeast Florida.
The Hukilau is back at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach for a fourth straight year, following a 2020 pause due to COVID. This mid-sized, family-owned oceanfront hotel is just west of Fort Lauderdale, offering a true tropical environment that no other Tiki event can. Many of the weekend events take place poolside and other locations outdoors on the sprawling grounds of the picturesque resort.
Thousands of guests, affectionately known as “villagers,” have flocked to The Hukilau from around the world since the event launched in 2002. Last June, the 21st live event featured four days of music, symposiums, cocktails, a Tiki marketplace, and more.
Performers and presenters included The Hula Girls, The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts, The Swingin’ Palms, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, David Wondrich, Matt Pietrek, Garret Richard, Spike Marble, Tiki Tom-Tom, and Doc Parks.
The Hukilau 2023: The Atomic Grog’s highlights, photos and memories
* Live coverage, photos and video from social media
Next years’ lineup is still in the planning stages. But the real excitement for 2024 is the likely return of The Hukilau’s home away from home from 2003 through 2019, the historic Mai-Kai restaurant in nearby Oakland Park.
Closed since October 2020 after the loss of the kitchen and back-of-house infrastructure in a catastrophic roof collapse, the 66-year-old historic landmark is nearing the final stages of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar renovation and restoration project. The current timeline points to an early 2024 reopening, which means there’s a good chance the beloved Polynesian palace will once again be part of The Hukilau festivities.
In past years, The Mai-Kai has hosted opening and closing parties, plus an epic main event featuring live bands and exclusive seatings for The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue, the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii). The sight of the vintage mid-century restaurant filled to the rafters with 600-plus enthusiasts in their vintage aloha-wear was always a highlight of the year.
If all goes according to plan in 2024, The Hukilau’s villagers will have reason to celebrate in all their vintage finest once again.
Exclusive photos: The Mai-Kai through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers
Other notable events: Rum, cocktails and Disney
While Florida may not yet have a constant flow of regional and local Tiki events to rival California, there are enough regular happenings to interest fans of vintage culture, rum, and exotic cocktails.
The state’s two major rum fests always include a touch of Tiki and tropical cocktails. Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, set for its 14th year on Nov. 11-12 in Coral Gables, is one of the world’s longest running spirits festivals dedicated to cane spirits. It will be back next year on Nov. 8-10. Much earlier in 2024, Miami Rum Congress will return to Miami Beach on Feb. 9-11 for its fifth gathering of spirits experts, brands and enthusiasts. The Florida Rum Society is a great resource for smaller events and news, particularly on its active Facebook group.
* Pioneering Miami Rum Festival foreshadowed spirit’s renaissance
* Modern rum revolution hits the beach for Miami Rum Congress
In under-represented northeast Florida, a dynamic duo of veteran bartenders has raised the Tiki flag with a rousing one-day event called Castaway with the Luau Lads. The second annual bash was held in August in Jacksonville, featuring live music, cocktails, a luau, vendors, seminars, and more. Expect the Lads to bring back their island paradise next summer.
Florida is home to other rum and cocktail events, though none with a true vintage Tiki focus. Orlando Tiki Fest was held for a second time this summer, catering to the Latin American tropical cocktail community. It features rum tastings, master classes, and a prestigious cocktail competition. Food festivals also abound, many with a Latin or Caribbean focus and plenty of rum cocktails.
The internationally recognized South Beach Wine & Food Festival is a massive event that draws thousands of visitors and countless celebrity chefs. Check the schedule for special mixology classes along with the long-running Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown.
The Magical Tiki Meet Up is now part of Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando (see above), but other meet-up events have sprung up at Disney World. The first Adventureland Day was held last March, while upcoming fall and spring Dapper Day events should appeal to retro-minded Tikiphiles.
THE TIKI TIMES: Preview all of the top 2024 events
FLORIDA TIKI BARS AND RESTAURANTS
Florida was home to many classic Polynesian restaurants during the mid-century heyday, from Tiki Gardens in Indian Rocks Beach to the Luau in Miami Beach. While only The Mai-Kai survives from that era, there are a wide variety of exotic cocktail experiences across the state. With the revival of the Don the Beachcomber brand, the options will increase exponentially.
Don the Beachcomber: Florida is ground zero for revival of iconic brand
When Ernest Raymond Gantt (aka Donn Beach) opened the original Don’s Beachcomber Cafe in Hollywood, Calif., in the early 1930s, the Polynesian-inspired wonderland was a sensation. It sparked a bar and restaurant craze that lasted nearly half a century and inspired hundreds of imitators, including Victor (“Trader Vic”) Bergeron in San Francisco.
Like Trader Vic’s and others, the Don the Beachcomber name became an international brand. Beach went off to fight in World War II, leaving to the business to his wife, Sunny Sund. When he returned a decorated veteran, Beach concentrated his efforts in his beloved South Pacific, where he operated his namesake restaurants until his death in 1989.
In the years since, Beach has become a legend in the Tiki and cocktail communities as the godfather of the movement. His groundbreaking drinks were given new life by author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and others who revived the secret recipes.
While Trader Vic’s retained a presence worldwide, the Don the Beachcomber brand was relegated to a hotel bar in Hawaii, plus a restaurant in Huntington Beach, Calif., operated by an old acquaintance of Beach who acquired the mainland U.S. rights. Even after that venue’s closing in 2018 after nine years, the Donn Beach legend continued to grow.
Today, there are both a movie (The Donn of Tik,) and a book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) in the works on Beach’s life. His cocktails are served at the most acclaimed Tiki bars around the world. Most significantly, the Don the Beachcomber brand was acquired by a restaurant group with deep pockets and aspirations to open new locations nationwide.
Here’s where it gets interesting for Florida. The parent company, 23 Restaurant Services, is not based in Beach’s old stomping grounds of Southern California or Hawaii, but in tropical Tampa, Fla. Known for its chain of Ford’s Garage restaurants (and local Tiki Docks concept), the company is taking its responsibility seriously in reviving such a historic and iconic name.
The rollout of new restaurants will happen fairly quickly, but plans call for a regional approach at first. As the company president, Marc Brown, has explained, the restaurateurs know the Florida market and feel most comfortable launching here to minimize risk and maximize potential success. This will better ensure the viability of the brand in the long run than a scattershot approach.
Also ensuring not only the success but also the integrity of the brand, Brown assembled an elite group to bring the project to life. The new director of beverage for 23 Restaurant Services is Marie King, former general manager of the venerable Tonga Hut in Los Angeles. A key member of the crew that ran the Huntington Beach location, she’s no stranger to the Don the Beachcomber brand.
Noted Tiki bar builder Danny “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo is heading up the design group, bringing the new locations to life. Many are expected to be built from the ground up, not retrofitted into existing buildings. The Tiki Docks brand remain a local “Florida-style” bar and eatery, but with enhanced cocktails.
Helping guide his staff and keep the authenticity of Don the Beachcomber intact, Brown has assembled an advisory board that includes many movers and shakers from the Tiki community, including Florida mug designer and artist John Mulder (Eekum Bookum), veteran Tiki bar owner and author Martin Cate, and Tim “Swanky” Glazner, author of the upcoming book Searching for Don the Beachcomber.
Brown and his team revealed their plans in August at Tiki Oasis in San Diego, winning over the hundreds packed into their sold-out presentation with a sneak preview and announcement of the initial locations in Florida. Gallardo’s renderings and the new brand artwork by creative director Justin Peterson were equally impressive. As were King’s cocktails, the new Don the Beachcomber mug (designed by Mulder), and other merchandise. We hope to soon post a full report on the Tiki Oasis seminar, plus more news on the rollout of new restaurants.
* Live at Tiki Oasis: Justin Peterson with Adrian Eustaquio on the Inside the Desert Oasis Room podcast
Here’s the latest information on the new Don the Beachcomber locations:
Madeira Beach (near St. Petersburg and Clearwater on the gulf coast) – Opening on the first floor of the Cambria Hotel in early 2024.
Hamlin (just north of Disney World in Winter Garden’s Horizon West) – Opening in the Hamlin Town Center in fall 2025.
During a YouTube interview Oct. 8 for an episode of 13 Nights of Tiki Frights, King revealed that a yet-to-be-announced smaller location may open in downtown Tampa in 2024. She indicated it may be a “Don’s Dagger Bar” concept with no food but a more extensive cocktail menu.
By the end of 2025, there should plenty of Don the Beachcomber to go around. Here’s the latest update as of February 2024:
NEW: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida
The historic Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar concept re-launches in Madeira Beach, the first of several locations planned for Florida over the next several years.
>>> PREVIEW THE MENU, MORE INFO ON THE OPENING
The Mai-Kai: Excitement builds for return in 2024
Patience has been a virtue for fans of The Mai-Kai, the historic Polynesian restaurant that celebrates its 67th anniversary on Dec. 28. Unfortunately, the indoor dining rooms and bar have been closed to guests since October 2020 following a tragic roof collapse over the kitchen.
But what could have been the end of the road for the national historic landmark became a cause for celebration in September 2021, when a new ownership team took over the massive 26,000-square-foot building and its 2.7-acre property. Historic preservationist Bill Fuller and his Barlington Group vowed to not only keep The Mai-Kai’s history intact, but also shore up the infrastructure and reimagine the property to ensure it survives for future generations to enjoy.
The ambitious project will be completed in two phases. Most of the restoration will come in phase one, which includes a reimagined parking lot and entry experience, new outdoor bar, rehab of The Molokai bar and all the indoor dining areas, plus a new back service bar and provisional kitchen. Phase two will see the addition of a new 3,500-foot event space and full kitchen.
The time spent on the renovation project may seem drawn-out to those anxiously waiting to return to The Mai-Kai for a Barrel O’ Rum, but work did not officially begin on the $8.5 million renovation until all the necessary permits were approved in March.
The latest timeline points to an opening in mid 2024, though no date has been announced yet. The massive parking lot project, estimated to take at least three months, did not begin until late September.
In the meantime, “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller is hitting it out of the park with his restoration efforts. The attention to detail of the creative director and his crew, along with the guidance of longtime manager Kern Mattei, should allay any fears of the new Mai-Kai not living up to its previous standards.
It won’t be long before a pilgrimage to the historic Polynesian palace once again becomes No. 1 on every Tikiphile’s bucket list.
EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai Restoration Guide
Check out all the latest news, photos, video and deep details on the refurbishment and reopening of South Florida’s Polynesian Palace.
>>> COMPLETE COVERAGE FROM THE ATOMIC GROG
Other notable bars and restaurants
If you’re looking for a vintage experience beyond The Mai-Kai, you can’t go wrong with The Wreck Bar at the B Ocean Resort. Located in a prime location on Fort Lauderdale Beach, this refurbished hotel was originally the Yankee Clipper (est. 1955) and popularized in classic films, including Where the Boys Are. The distinctive hotel hosted The Hukilau in 2006-2008 and 2013. What makes the well-preserved bar special, however, is not the decor or cocktails. It’s the live mermaid shows that can be seen via large windows that peek into the resort pool. Revived by MeduSirena (aka Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid) in 2006, the vintage shows featuring fellow mermaids have expanded to include burlesque and even “merman” cohorts. Check MeduSirena’s schedule of the latest shows.
* Past coverage: A deep dive into the history of porthole cocktail lounges and their mysterious mermaids
A few other vintage Tiki experiences can still be found. As discussed in the Tiki Fever section above, Bahi Hut dates back to 1954 (two years before The Mai-Kai) and retains much of its original charm. The Secret Tiki Temple in Jacksonville is relatively new, but its location has a long history with the Tam family and their 50-year-old Chinese restaurant, Pagoda.
Among the locations launched during the Tiki revival, the most notable for their authentic decor and cocktails are Aku Aku (Orlando), Esotico Miami (and its hidden speakeasy Kaona Room), The Honu (Dunedin), Permanent Vacation (Maitland), Suffering Bastard (Sanford), and Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto (in the Polynesian Village Resort at Disney World).
Other establishments worth seeking out for their cocktails and/or tropical atmosphere include Bar Tiki (Clearwater Beach), Broken Shaker (Miami Beach), Cafe La Trova (Miami), Casa Tiki (Miami), Driftwood (Boynton Beach), Flask and Cannon (Jacksonville Beach), Jungle Bird (Cape Coral), Otto’s High Dive (Orlando), Saigon Blonde (St. Petersburg), Swizzle Rum Bar & Drinkery (Miami Beach), Tiki Docks (Riverview and St. Petersburg), Tiki House (Key West), Tropics (Cocoa Beach), The Tipsy Skipper (Ocala), Tropics (Melbourne), and Waterworks (Tallahassee).
There are plenty of other worthy destinations for the discerning Tikiphile, so apologies to those we missed. If you have any suggestions, please add to the comments below.
You can also get advice and information in the many Facebook groups dedicated to Tiki in Florida. These include: Florida Tiki, Central Florida Tiki Society, South Florida Tiki Enthusiasts, Brevard Tiki, Tiki Ohana Jax, and Tamiami Tiki Society.
MORE THINGS TO DO
Florida’s signature draw remains theme parks, beaches and other attractions
If you’re planning a Tiki trip to the Sunshine State in 2024 and beyond, you would be remiss if you didn’t look for other activities to fill your calendar. Florida has something for everyone, from the quaint charm of Key West, to the numerous pristine beaches along both coasts, to the non-stop action of Orlando’s theme parks.
Disney World’s Polynesian Village is a destination unto itself, an original 1971 resort that remains a classic for both Disney and Tiki fans. Other theme parks feature tropical- and retro-themed entertainment and lodging, most notably Universal’s Volcano Bay water park and Cabana Bay Beach Resort. In addition, Daytona Beach’s Hawaiian Inn is still clinging to some of its vintage South Seas theme.
Look beyond the popular resorts and check out the selection of unique B&B options, especially Tahiti Gil’s Mananui in Kissimmee, designed and built by “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and inspired by Disney and the Polynesian Village. Campgrounds and RV parks abound, as well as world-class boating and cruise ship ports. The 10-day Rum Renaissance Caribbean Cruise departs from Fort Lauderdale on March 4.
You can also still find some of the vintage, old-time Florida attractions celebrated by Tiki-a-Go-Go. These include the underwater mermaid shows at Weeki Wachee Springs and the historic Silver Springs, the state’s first tourist attraction (est. 1888). Of course, there are also many weird and wacky destinations, from the Coral Castle in Homestead to Dinosaur World in Plant City.
* Past coverage: Mermaids are alive and well after 65 years at Weeki Wachee Springs
St. Augustine, home of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, is an underrated historic destination. It also offers contemporary dining and nightlife (including the acclaimed rum bar Boat Drinks). All of the major cities have a wide selection of galleries and museums, plus a wide variety of cultural activities. We’re fans of the unique and unusual, such as the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg and Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach.
* Past coverage: Dalí Museum stretches the limits of the imagination
If you’re into rum, there are many craft distilleries across the state – from Wicked Dolphin in Cape Coral, to Siesta Key in Sarasota, to the Papa’s Pilar distillery in Key West. Many feature tours and tasting rooms. Florida is one of the top rum markets in the country, so be sure to keep an eye out for local rum bars and liquor stores. Their selection often includes rums that are extremely hard to find outside of the Caribbean.
Of course, Florida is much closer to the equally exotic Caribbean than the South Pacific, so there are countless ways to have a tropical vacation experience in that style, from Captiva Island to Punta Gorda and beyond. Just don’t expect a full-on Tiki vibe. In many places, “Tiki bar” simply means a thatched hut on the beach, more Jimmy Buffett than Martin Denny.
But as the major events and bars mentioned above continue to influence new generations, I’m sure we’ll find an eclectic mix of tropical culture that only Florida can provide. Sunshine and cool tropical vibes simply come with the territory.
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