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Why Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room is the best animatronic show ever made

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Published: November 6, 2009 at 10:54 AM

As gentle as the Hawaiian air, and refreshing like a trip to Ka'anapali Beach, Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room was the first Audio-Animatronic show ever built, debuting in 1961. Nearly 50 years later, it remains the best, a under-rated attraction that plays to the strength of the animatronic medium.

Jose and the singing flowers in Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room

The Tiki Room gets a bad rap from folks who want their theme parks to provide all action, all the time. Disney did tweak the show many years back, removing an Offenbach number that, frankly, did burden the show's pace. A poorly-received revamp of the show at Walt Disney World further hurt the Tiki Room's reputation.

But at Disneyland, when properly maintained and without the Offenbach slowing it, the Enchanted Tiki Room shines.

The Tiki Room's Birdmobile

Unlike later animatronic shows such as the Country Bear Jamboree and the Hall of Presidents, the Tiki Room plays in an intimate, and truly immersive, theater. There's no stage upon which the action is trapped. The Tiki Room shows happens all around you, with birds, flowers and totems animating the ceiling and the walls. I sold my nine-year-old son on the Tiki Room be telling him that the Tiki Room is to a theater what the Transformers are to cars and trucks - it makes an inanimate object come alive.

Walt Disney developed Audio-Animatronic not simply as a theme park attraction, but as a film special effect. (Remember the scene in Mary Poppins where Mary sings to the bird outside the Banks' window?) Advances in computer-generated imagery have rendered the animatronic almost extinct as a movie effect, and CGI-driven 4-D movies have crowded animatronic shows from theme parks, too.

But animatronics retain one great advantage over CGI - tactility. Even 3D CGI images exist only in the mind's eye, a trick of optics that create the illusion of substance. Animatronics exist is real space, however. They invite your touch. But that advantage diminishes, then disappears, with distance. An animatronic show, to be most effective, must play in an intimate theater, where the characters and other animatronics work not too far from arms' reach.

Alone among animatronic shows, the Tiki Room satisfies that need. You sit immersed in a garden of singing flowers, talking birds and chanting totems. Children can get up, then dance, in front of the center fountain. More than a few visitors have leaned against the corner totems, only to be startled when they come to life.

The Sherman Brothers' songs delight, as well - pleasing you with a sweet bite of musical sugar. The rhythm quickens and the tempo swells to a thunderous climax, before a gentle rain washes the moment away, refreshing the scene for a winsome finale.

Now, "best" does not mean "perfect." The cliched ethnic accents of the four host birds grate on 21st-century ears. And when the show's run too long between needed maintenance breaks, too much of the charming detail in sound and motion is lost.

Other attractions have used animatronics to impressive effect, as well. The American Adventure at Epcot raises a lump in my throat every time, but much of its power derives from its effective use of film, in addition to its animatronics. Expedition Everest's Yeti awed riders of the Animal Kingdom roller coaster, but how important is that animatronic to the overall experience of that attraction, really, given that Disney continue to operate the ride even though the Yeti hasn't worked properly for years?

The Tiki Room relies on its animatronics alone. If the animatronic show ever returns as a theme park staple, it will have to employ the Tiki Room's template - a small, immersive theater where visitors can feel engaged with the performers. And the action should not be limited to identifiable characters. The walls and the ceiling, heck, even the chairs and the floors must come to life. Like a truck transforming into Optimus Prime, an animatronic show theater must transform into a living, giving performance, as well.

Just like the Enchanted Tiki Room.

Related: Why 'Impressions de France' is the best movie ever made for a theme park

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Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on November 6, 2009 at 12:06 PM
I hope stuff like this changes the MK Tiki Room back the way it is. Seriously, I have never heard anybody ever say anything good about MK's show (even Cast Members)
From 64.140.238.130 on November 6, 2009 at 1:15 PM
couldn't agree more. Hopefully Disney doesn't take away the Tiki room. It is great because of the fact that it is so unique and that's what makes Disney so great.

Although I will admit I actually don't mind the "under new management" show.

From 75.148.234.89 on November 6, 2009 at 1:19 PM
I have fond childhood memories of Disneylands Tiki Room, though I haven't been to California in over 20 years. While vacationing in Florida this past summer, I wanted to share those memories with my family, so I convinced them to see the Tiki Room show with me to relive the past. Needless to say...OMG! The new show was horrible! Please, please Disneyworld, bring the old show back!
Kim A. Texas
From 173.8.135.205 on November 6, 2009 at 1:23 PM
My husband and I adore the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland. It is one of our must-do attractions on every trip. The birds and music are so sweet and charming they beckon us to sing along and feel immersed in their magical world. In fact, it is the "happy place" I go to in my mind when I need a respite from the stress of daily life. Thank you for this post. I hope Disneyland never "revamp" this classic attraction like the versions at other parks. Walt's original Enchanted Tiki Room is the best!
From Andy Guinigundo on November 6, 2009 at 1:31 PM
I miss the "old management" too.

I thought the new Tiki was funny maybe the first time I saw it - i.e. when those birds' movies were newer. What year did Aladdin come out anyway?

Now, I always hate the "tease" when the birds break into the Tiki original theme only to be stopped by the new management.

I distinctly remember as a child being a real brat complaining about having to see a show rather than more riding more rides. Then, the show started, and each progressive set of animatronics came to life. That wonder and amazement shut this brat up!!!

From David Graham on November 6, 2009 at 2:41 PM
I've never seen the one in Disneyland to compare to MK show, but I will say I love the tiki room show. Granted I haven't been to MK in a while to see what the show is like now, but I do agree it is VERY under rated considering how Walt's birds really did change the face of theme park, again my own opinion. From the pre-show til the very end to now talking about it, the little catchy song "in the tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki room.." is in my head (thanks Robert lol) I agree it is one show that needs much love, as a FL native and going to Disney since 1974 (1973 if you count my mom's preg time lol) I've seen Disney grow and change over the years. It is one of the last great "shows" in my opinion there.
And from my Cast Member days, Robert, the bird from Mary Poppins I learned during my training is in the C.O.Progress at MK, or was... I believe it was a the kitchen window (I think) just one of those useless pieces of knowlegde I'll never get $$ for trapped in my head lol.

Also my thoughts and prayers to the families of not only Fort Hood, but today's shooting in Orlando.

From 98.85.2.7 on November 6, 2009 at 7:46 PM
One of my most cherished memories...

...my then three year old son, almost asleep, smiling, sitting on his Daddy's shoulders. Waiting for the bus in front of Disneyland at closing.

And singing, "Tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki room..."

From 94.192.190.139 on November 7, 2009 at 5:53 AM
Hi there
I loved this Tiki room, the little childrens faces, when it started, it was magic, i loved it.
a break from queues at the heat of the day, hope it does close, needs a revamp, but pure magic.
From Michelle Pilling on November 7, 2009 at 6:03 AM
hi there
i love the tiki room, pure magic, i hope they dont closed it, to see little kids face and adults is magic.
love it loads.
From James Rao on November 7, 2009 at 7:15 AM
Having not seen the Disneyland version of Tiki in over 20 years, I cannot really comment on its merits, but I do agree that the show at the Magic Kingdom is lame at best. Furthermore, I would put Carousel of Progress up against anything animatronic Disney has ever provided. To me it perfectly captures the magic, nostalgia, humor, and sentimentality Walt himself always wanted people to associate with his work.

As for the statement that Expedition Everest's Yeti animatronic is somehow less important to the overall ride experience just because WDI is too lazy/cheap/foolish/short-sighted to properly fix the thing, I have to disagree. The lunging Yeti is to Everest what frosting is to cake, or what a big toe is to a foot: one is insufficient without the other. You simply cannot produce an astonishing exclamation without the use of an exclamation point! The Yeti's final lunge as your car passes just out of its reach was Everest's exclamation point and the ride is somehow diminished without that moment. I guarantee you Mr. Joe Rohde, distended earlobes and all, is horrified at the current state of his baby.

Sorry to bloviate on just one point in your article, but I refuse to let Disney off the hook for the current state of the Yeti. Once you have experienced Expedition Everest with an A-Mode lunging Yeti, all other modes of operation (B-Mode, Show-Mode, and/or Dance Club Mode) just aren't good enough. In fact, they are (as Rob P wrote in another thread) abominable. ;)

From Andy Guinigundo on November 7, 2009 at 7:23 PM
I agree with James' Yeti rant!

I've been on Everest each of the last two years - Yeti has been frozen each time I've seen it.

I likewise agree with the the thumbs up to Carousel of Progress. One thing - Will they just redo that last room? - pretty please!!! Geez, the clothes alone in that scene appear a decade or so past...

From Sylvain Comeau on November 7, 2009 at 11:21 PM
Nice article about the Tiki Room, Robert (the real one, not that bastardization at WDW). DL's Tiki is an underrated and very charming attraction and show. Although newer AAs are more advanced and fully articulated in their movements, the technology lends itself very well to a bird show. Thanks for recognizing one of my fave Disneyland attractions.

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