Why Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room is the best animatronic show ever made
Written by Robert Niles
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.
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.
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?
Just like the Enchanted Tiki Room.
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