Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Jayme vs. Trader Sam's

Last month we took our annual family vacation. After going way over budget with the trip to Oregon last year, we were more budget-conscious this year and road tripped to Florida. One stop was DisneyWorld. We've been twice before, but that was before we'd gotten into tiki. I'd learned that Disney had its very own tiki bar, Trader Sam's Grog Grotto, and it was a priority for me to try it out. First, though, we were going to do the amusement park thing with the kids.

The park was hot and crowded. Even with the "Fast Pass" option, wait times for rides were long. And it was hot. So we sought out rides that didn't have long waits, and the first of these we came across was "It's a Small World." On previous visits, I hadn't really paid attention to the Polynesian/Hawaiian/tiki aspect. You can bet I did this time. Old Walt had a soft spot for tiki, and if you know what to look for, it shows.

Next up: Adventureland with the Enchanted Tiki Room. I'd visited the DisneyLand Tiki Room back in 1992 and was impressed, though I felt it somewhat dates. When we visited DisneyWorld with the kids a while back, the Tiki Room had undergone its awful "Under New Management" makeover with Iago and Zazu. I cannot conceive of anyone willingly listening to Gilbert Godfried's shrill voice as entertainment. It was terrible. Fortunately, since our last visit the Tiki Room has been returned to normal.

Fat old man about to go into the Enchanted Tiki Room.

There were plenty of bamboo-and-tapa lamps about.

Disney's famous Pele figure greeted us in the entry garden.

The tiki figure emerging from the waterfall was impressive. I don't remember this from my previous visits, although clearly it's been part of the show for decades.

Inside, the animatronic tiki sculpts were nicely detailed. Supposedly, Walt had intended for the Tiki Room to be a working restaurant originally. As is animatronic ambitions grew, however, it became impossible to balance a functioning attraction with a functioning restaurant, and the attraction won out. There was a massive computer control room underneath the Tiki Room to run all the birds, flowers and special effects--nobody had ever attempted animated characters like this before. Today I'm sure the room still exists, but everything's likely operated off a simple laptop.

Afterwards, I got myself one of the ubiquitous Dole Whips. Never had one before. It's pineapple soft-serve ice cream. It's pretty good, especially when it's sweltering out.

Late in the afternoon, we caught the monorail (monorail!) over to the Polynesian Village resort, which neither Lisa nor I had ever visited before. We hadn't realized until this point that one could visit resort areas one wasn't staying at. And this is where Trader Sam's Grog Grotto could be found. Right away we were impressed by the architecture and interior design. This is one of the oldest areas of DisneyWorld, having opened in 1971, but didn't look its age. I assume they've refreshed and renovated several times over the decades. We were quite impressed with the detail throughout, and would love to stay here in the future if we could afford it. Alas, the room rates are too steep for our blood, so we'll have to be content as visitors.

The hall leading to Trader Sam's had display cases full of Disney-related tropical ephemera. I thought I'd seen every Disney live-action movie made in the 70s, but Castaway Cowboy was a new one on me. James Garner and Robert Culp? Gonna have to track this one down.

The entrance to Trader Sam's was somewhat nondescript--no big neon signs or other garish indicators. If you didn't know to look for it, it'd be easy to miss. Which, considering its relatively small space, is a good thing. The interior was appropriately dim. As our eyes adjusted, we took in the classic tiki clutter adorning the walls and ceiling. The squid tentacle hanging over the bar was a striking touch. The place was full. As we got our bearings (entering an unfamiliar tiki bar often evokes this feeling of being adrift, initially) a large party at the center surfboard table got up, so we took our seats there. We started puzzling our way through the menu (dim tiki bar interiors make reading the menu a struggle, and Trader Sam's is no exception). One of the side tables then got up and left, and we relocated there, just so the four of us wouldn't be taking up space meant for a dozen.

After eating park food all day, Sam's menu was definitely a step up. The Kálua Pork Tacos, Roasted Chicken and Pork Pâte Bánh Mì Sliders and Thai Chicken and Vegetable Flatbread were excellent. This came as a surprise. I know there are some good restaurants squirreled away in various pockets of DisneyWorld (the Wolfgang Puck place at what used to be Downtown Disney was amazing) but I didn't expect to find one in a tiki bar. Which is all fine and dandy, but what about the cocktails? Lisa ordered Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum, which is essentially a variant of the Painkiller. It presents well, with a dusting of ground cinnamon and nutmeg. It tasted properly made, if somewhat on the sweet side.

Fairy Girl ordered the Schweitzer Falls non-alcoholic drink. She liked it, but didn't love it, saying it was too heavy on the pineapple. I can't recall what Bug ordered, as he gulped his down and gobbled the garnish the instant it arrived, before we could get a photo. Trader Sam's non-alcoholic menu is small, but it's suitably tropical. Anyone wanting to forgo the booze but not look like an obvious designated driver has some choices here.

Of course, I couldn't make up my mind, trying to figure out from the descriptions which were merely renamed versions of classic cocktails. I finally asked our skipper what I should order "that I can't get at any other tiki bar." He thoughtfully suggested the Tahitian Torch, which is made with ByeJoe Dragon Fire Spirit. So that's what I went for. I liked it, as it had an undercurrent of capsaicin that balanced the heat of the syrups and juices. My opinion of the bar staff went up a few notches. I wouldn't say Tahitian Torch is a great drink, but it was solid. I think it was my favorite from Trader Sam's. It's one that wasn't too sweet (although it was definitely sweet) and had several things going on at the same time. It had layered flavors, as the best tiki cocktails do.

After that, we caught the monorail back to Magic Kingdom, because the kids weren't interesting in hanging around a tiki bar all evening. The next day, after a long, hot sojourn through EPCOT, the kids crashed in the hotel room. Lisa and I headed back to Trader Sam's. Here's something useful to know: If you're not staying at a Disney Resort, you're allowed to park for free at the Polynesian Village--just tell the guard booth you're there for Trader Sam's and show your ID! In the evening, Trader Sam's is 21-and-up, so no kids this time. Lisa ordered a HippopotoMai-Tai with the souvenir mug. She judges all tiki bars on their mai tai. The skippers all shouted "With TWO SHOTS OF RUM!" And delivered it trailing a little toy hippo behind them. This one was good. Not great. Again, the cocktail was on the sweet side.

I ordered what I'd had my eye on since the day before--the Nautilus. Lisa helped drink some of it. The Nautilus was sweet and fruity, kinda in the same ballpark as a Lapu Lapu, but not much in the way of tartness. Trying to make conversation, I mentioned to the skipper serving us that the falernum gave the Nautilus drink "spicy" notes. The skipper (bartender) was utterly baffled. He had no concept of "spicy" meaning anything other than "hot" and thought the drink had been made incorrectly. To add injury to insult, they also told us they were out of Nautilus bowls, so we couldn't take one home! Darn the luck! You'd think that a company as big as Disney could keep their most popular items in stock, because damn, that Nautilus bowl is awesome.

Trader Sam's was full the entire time we were there, with tourists having a great time. For many of them, it was apparent this was their first tiki bar experience. The theatrics of the crew kept everyone entertained. For example, whenever a Nautilus was ordered, a skipper donned a snorkel and inflatable duck float and "swam" to deliver the cocktail while other skippers showered the crowd with water from squirt guns. The patrons would join in on the swimming motion. One older gentleman, however, seemed to have no clue how to swim. He waved his arms in a way that looked like he was scratching records in a DJ booth. If the Jungle Cruise ever ran into trouble, this dude would've gone down with the ship.

Another popular cocktail experience was the Krakatoa. We didn't order it, but plenty of other patrons did. The lights flicker and dim, and the animated island scene through the faux windows take a dramatic turn, with the volcanic peaks erupting and spewing forth lava. It's quite the spectacle, worthy of the Disney name.

Later that evening, we mentioned to yet another skipper that we were heading to the Mai Kai the next day. She had absolutely no clue what we were talking about. A little incredulous, I thought she'd misunderstood me. The bar was noisy, but not that noisy. So I explained the Mai Kai to her. Still no comprehension. That's when it really hit us--all of the skippers at Grog Grotto, funny and witty as they are, are not tiki people. Most aren't even bartenders--at least, not bartenders in the wider world. It's all a performance. They don't understand rum or tiki culture or craft cocktails. They're actors trained by Disney to perform a role. They do a very good job and create an enjoyable experience, but ultimately Grog Grotto is a scaled-down, grown-up version of the Enchanted Tiki Room or Jungle Cruise, only with cocktails. There's nothing wrong with that, but once one sees through the illusion, a little of the magic is lost. I was disappointed I'd spoiled that illusion with my question about the Mai Kai, but really, if you're in a tiki bar in Florida, the Mai Kai should be a safe topic of conversation.

I compensated for this let-down by picking up a souvenir mug from the Polynesian Village gift shop. This is the standard tourist tiki mug, but darn if I don't love that PNG-style sculpt. Curiously, this one's not available in Trader Sam's down the hall. Go figure.

So, the long and short of it is that Trader Sam's Grog Grotto is legit tiki. It's not the best tiki I've experienced. The drinks are on the sweet side. This makes sense, since most visitors aren't part of tiki culture or the craft cocktail scene. They're vacationers looking to imbibe in what they believe to be a typical tropical drink--that means cold, sweet and fruity. Trader Sam's delivers on those expectations. Boat drinks? I'd rank Trader Sam's cocktails a few notches higher than that. They pale in comparison to something from Lei Low, Hale Pele or the Mai Kai, but I've had cocktails that were far worse. Where Trader Sam's excels is the experience. The Imagineers who designed the place understood the immersion and escapist elements of a tiki bar, and really went to town on that front. And it works. There are better tiki bars in the world, but you better believe that any time I'm visiting a Disney park in the future, Trader Sam's is going to be part of my itinerary.

Now Playing: Earth, Wind and Fire The Eternal Dance
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