Tropical Serenade: The Polynesian Resort

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

Feature Article

This article appeared in the September 21, 2004 Issue #261 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Sitting amidst the dense foliage, listening to the gentle splashing of the waterfall, I felt the warm floral-scented breezes of Tahiti caressing my cheeks? what a darn good imagination I have! Because I've never been to Tahiti -- I was just sitting in the lobby of the Great Ceremonial House at Walt Disney World's Polynesian Resort.

But you know what? You don't have to have that good an imagination when you're at the Polynesian. The attention to detail at this 847-room resort is more than enough to convince any visitor that they've been transported to a South Seas paradise. From the myriad palm trees, hibiscus and other tropical plantings scattered around its 39 acres, to the authentic Polynesian music piped in, right down to the tiki torches that line and light the walkways, this resort makes you believe that you are experiencing the ultimate Tropical Serenade -- without the birds of the Enchanted Tiki Room.

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When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, there were only two Disney resorts: the Contemporary and the Polynesian (known as Disney's Polynesian Village Resort at the time). With its coveted location on the monorail and the Seven Seas Lagoon facing Cinderella Castle, the Polynesian was a popular destination. As Walt Disney World grew, so did the demand for accommodations, and in 1978 the Polynesian expanded, adding what is now known as the Tokelau longhouse. In 1985, the resort grew again with the addition of the Tahiti and Rapa Nui longhouses.

Each of the 11 two- and three-story longhouses is named after an actual place in the Pacific, but it wasn't always so. Some of the original building names were made-up words representing imaginary places, so on October 28, 1999, the longhouses were all renamed. If you look at a map of Polynesia today and compare it to a map of the Polynesian Resort, you'll note that all the buildings are roughly in the corresponding geographical position of their namesake islands.

The Great Ceremonial House, where you check in, houses most of the resort's services. Here you'll find restaurants, shops, and the Guest Services desk. With 11 buildings to choose from, you might wonder which one you'd like to try to request. Here's a brief description of the longhouses, just to orient you:

Tonga (formerly Bali Hai) houses all of the Polynesian suites. Located next door to the main Great Ceremonial House, some Tonga rooms have views of Cinderella Castle.

Aotearoa (ow-TAY-a-row-a; formerly Tahiti) is very close to the Great Ceremonial House, especially if you exit through Captain Cook's Snack Company. Some rooms here also face Cinderella Castle and the Grand Floridian, while others look out on the monorail.

Fiji is a short walk from the Great Ceremonial House with rooms that overlook the marina and the volcano, or the gardens and beach.

Tuvalu (two-VA-lu; formerly Samoa) is the furthest building from the Transportation & Ticket Center. Most Tuvalu rooms to the north have views of Cinderella Castle.

Hawaii (formerly Tonga) houses the Polynesian's concierge services and lounge. It has a great central location, with many rooms looking out on the Castle.

Samoa (formerly Hawaii) is located between the two pools. Rooms to the west face the volcano pool, while rooms on the east overlook the gardens and the quiet pool.

Niue (knee-UW-ay; formerly Bora Bora) is the smallest building at the Polynesian. Located next to the Great Ceremonial House, it is just a few steps from either of the pools. There is no elevator in the building, but there is a second floor connecting walkway to Rarotonga, where there is an elevator.

Rarotonga (RA-ro-ton-ga; formerly Maori) is also next to the Great Ceremonial House, and very close to the arcade, laundry facilities, and Neverland Club. Most rooms overlook gardens.

Tokelau (to-KAY-louw; formerly Oahu) is directly next to the quiet pool, the arcade, the laundry, and the Neverland Club. All rooms overlook the gardens, but, though a handful of rooms on the northern end overlook the lagoon, none face Cinderella Castle.

Tahiti (formerly Moorea) is next door to the Transportation & Ticket Center, which means it's a bit of a walk back to the Great Ceremonial House. Because of the trees, some rooms only view the Grand Floridian, Space Mountain, Wilderness Lodge, the Contemporary, or the Transportation & Ticket Center -- only a few face Cinderella Castle. A nice feature is that all floors have balconies.

Rapa Nui (ra-pa-new-E; formerly Pago Pago) is also next door to the Transportation & Ticket Center. Rooms to the north and south overlook the gardens, some looking at the parking lot. Most of the wheelchair-accessible rooms are in this building, and all of the rooms with a roll-in shower are here. There are balconies on all of the floors.

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This is where it begins -- where you realize you've been transported to another, tropical world. Yes, there are the palm trees and other plantings in the two-and-a-half story atrium -- in fact, the Polynesian is home to the largest and most diverse garden of interior plants at Walt Disney World. And yes, there's the indoor waterfall, whose echoing splashes promise a cool and inviting respite from the Florida heat. But there's so much more that makes you feel like you really are in a tropical vacation spot, far from the hubbub of Central Florida.

You're greeted with a hearty "Aloha" as soon as you set foot at the resort, and Cast Members drape a lei around your neck as they welcome you. While the grown-ups wait to check in, children are often entertained by a ukulele-strumming Cast Member who regales them with authentic Polynesian tunes, not to mention corny jokes. There's also a children's waiting area with a television tuned in to Disney programming, as there is in all Disney resorts.

Opposite the main registration desk, near the entrance, is the small Island Guide desk. The guides can not only answer your questions about the resort, but are experts on the cultures of South Pacific island people. Their service is just an extra touch that helps to enhance your visit to this resort. A mainstay at the Island Guide desk is Aunti Kaui, who has been with the resort since it opened -- you'll know her if you see her by her smile as bright as sunshine. If you do see her, be sure to tell her we said, "Aloha!"

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As you might expect in a resort called "The Polynesian," bamboo abounds here. The room furnishings include bamboo bed frames with woven rattan mat canopies above, a bamboo daybed, bamboo nightstand? - you get the idea. The walls are a natural beige, so that the tropical themed bedding (think lots of palm trees and greenery) and upholstery contrast nicely. (If you're a Hidden Mickey lover, be sure to take a close look at the daybed cover.)

The standard guest rooms, which run slightly over 400-square-feet, all include the standard furnishings and amenities: two queen-sized beds, a nightstand with telephone, table with two chairs, armoire with television, in-room safe, iron and ironing board, and hair dryer in the bathroom. In addition, each room can accommodate five, since it features a daybed. The bathrooms are fairly spacious, with two sinks of green marble outside the green marbled shower/tub area, and the toilet tucked modestly in a nook behind the sinks.

The Polynesian's been undergoing a building-by-building renovation over the last several years, so most of the rooms are freshly painted and have relatively new furniture and furnishings. I'm sad to report, though, that the Hawaii room I stayed in most recently was already showing signs of wear. There was torn wallpaper in the bathroom, and the lock on the outside of the door was coming unscrewed. I also noticed that there were no Braille numbers on the outside of the door, as I've seen in other WDW resorts.

With all this refurbishing, you would think that the rooms would have been equipped with high-speed Internet dataports. Sadly, that's not the case. The Polynesian is not yet equipped with high-speed Internet service capability, although Cast Members indicate that it probably will eventually happen. Until then, if you want high-speed or wi-fi access, you'll have to head over to the Grand Floridian's business center.

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OK, I admit it. I haven't "stayed concierge" at many Walt Disney World resorts (yet), so maybe I'm not the best judge. But I recently had the chance to stay on the concierge level at the Polynesian and, of the resort concierge levels I've experienced, I have to say that the Polynesian's was, by far, the best.

From the moment we were greeted with the customary "Aloha!" by the wonderful concierge Cast Member Jeffrey, right up until the moment it was time for me to drag my sad little self back home, the Polynesian concierge staff was just amazing. No request was too large, nor too small -- nothing was too much trouble. Jeffrey and the other Cast Members I encountered here distinguished themselves.

So just what does "staying concierge" at the Polynesian get you? Like other concierge services, you can skip check-in at the main lobby, for one thing. When you arrive and tell Bell Services that you're staying concierge, they call in to see where you're staying, then transport you and your belongings on a little golf cart to your home away from home.

Access to the Hawaii building, which houses the Polynesian concierge services, is by room key only -- you can only gain access by inserting your card key into the reader. In the lobby of the building are several concierge desks, staffed by Cast Members who not only make you feel welcome and explain the resort and theme parks to you, but are there to take care of any little detail you can think of. Need Priority Seating arrangements for dinner? They'll take care of it. Need tickets for Cirque du Soleil? They'll call for you. Need to arrange a special birthday surprise at a restaurant? Not a problem. (Thanks again, Jeffrey!)

The concierge lounge is located on the second floor, and opens up to the third floor, with a beautiful floor-to-ceiling window looking out directly onto Seven Seas Lagoon, Cinderella Castle shimmering in the distance. This is THE place to watch the fireworks from. Tables and chairs, as well as comfy sofas, are scattered around the second floor, which features a television in one corner. Along one wall you'll find an assortment of beverages throughout the day -- not only cans of soda, but coffee, tea, bottled water, and pitchers of lemonade, iced tea and fruit juices. On the quieter third floor, you'll find more comfortable seating, as well as board games and books.

As a guest staying concierge, one of the main advantages is the daylong snackfest you'll find in the lounge -- and we're not just talking your average, everyday snacks. In the morning there's Kakahiaka, or continental breakfast with everything from healthy fresh fruit to sinfully sweet danish; Auinala is the afternoon assortment of fruit and snacks; Ahiahi, the evening's cocktail hour, is graced with skillful fruit and veggie art displays, featuring hot and cold hors d'oeuvres (including a huge bowl of plump fresh strawberries, as well as Smucker's Uncrustables for the kids), beer or wine; and during Aumoe from 8 to 10 p.m. you can splurge on miniature eclairs, cream puffs and other desserts, with a variety of cordials while you sit back and watch Wishes or the Electrical Water Pageant.

Oh, and there's one more perk of staying concierge -- nightly turn-down service. It's so nice to come back to a room at night where someone's left the light on for you, not to mention chocolates on your pillow. (If you read about my less-than-stellar stay at Fort Wilderness earlier this year, you'll understand how important this was to me -- I love my creature comforts!)

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You can't possibly go hungry when you're at the Polynesian -- they won't let you! First, there's the 24-hour Captain Cook's Snack Company on the first floor of the Great Ceremonial House. The grill only operates until 11 p.m., but there's a wide variety of prepackaged foods -- sandwiches, salads, snacks -- available around the clock.

Then there's the unique 'Ohana, a family-style restaurant located on the second floor of the Great Ceremonial House. As Lilo and Stitch have recently taught us, 'ohana means family, and family is definitely the focus here. In the mornings, 'Ohana hosts a lively character breakfast with Tropical Mickey, Goofy, and Chip and Dale circulating while servers bring plates of breakfast fare to your table -- all you care to eat. At night, 'Ohana presents a different type of all you can eat dinner -- a variety of skewered meats and fish grilled in the restaurant's signature 18-foot semi-circular fire pit, then brought 'round to hungry diners. The meal, which comes with salad, appetizers, and flavorful pineapple bread, is finished with juicy fresh pineapple dipped in warm caramel sauce. It's a real family-pleaser, with the added bonus of periodic games, singing, dancing and other entertainment provided for the amusement of the children and adults alike. The restaurant affords some views of Cinderella Castle and can be a nice spot to watch fireworks.

If you're looking for a more sedate dining experience, Kona Café is just a few yards away on the opposite end of the second floor. Featuring Asian-inspired dishes such as Coconut Almond Chicken and Beef Teriyaki, not to mention outrageous desserts like KoKo Puffs, the menu here is fresh and inventive. If you're eating vegetarian or vegan, by the way, the chefs here are great about catering to your dietary choices.

If you want to really immerse yourself in the Polynesian atmosphere, take a stroll down the tiki-torch lit pathway to the Luau Cove, where you can enjoy the Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show. This show, new in 2003, replaced the Polynesian Luau previously held here, yet retains some of the same elements, most notably the Polynesian fire dancer. Most impressive. Even though, from most reports, the food at this show hasn't improved from the original, it still might be the ticket if you want to capture just another small taste of the South Seas.

Next door to the Kona Café is the Kona Island Coffee Bar, serving up some of the best fresh-brewed coffee on Disney property. (I know what you're thinking: since so many places at Disney now serve that awful Nescafe, anything would have to be better -- I hear ya. But really, this place serves the real deal.) And of course, since the Polynesian is a deluxe resort, you don't even have to venture out of your room to dine -- there's room service, which offers a wide selection of dishes for both the early riser and the late nighter.

Did I forget to mention the lounge? How could I? The comfy Tambu Lounge, located between 'Ohana and Kona Café, serves some of the finest sweet-and-sticky drinks you'll find this side of Hawaii. Their Lapu Lapu, served in a hollowed out pineapple with the inevitable little umbrella, is legendary. Hanging out here, looking down on the beach and watching the Electrical Water Pageant pass by, is a great way to "Ho'Onanea," or "pass the time in ease, pleasure and peace."

Shopping at the Polynesian affords you the chance to indulge in your tropical fantasies a little further. There's a shop featuring resort wear just for men (Robin Crusoe's), and one just for women (Polynesian Princess) -- though you'll only find the grass skirts (perfect for when you're dancing the hula at the luau!) in the latter, and perhaps in Trader Jack's, which sells kids' clothing and toys. Trader Jack's is also the spot for gifts and character merchandise, while next door at Samoa Snacks you can pick up sundries and assorted grocery items. Back downstairs there's also News from Polynesia, with resort logo merchandise and other sundries.

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What's the first thing you think of when you think "tropical paradise?" For me, it's deep blue, cool, calm, inviting water. (OK, maybe sometimes I think of palm trees first, but humor me here.) When you're at the Polynesian, there's no shortage of the blue wet stuff. The main themed Nanea (or "tranquil") volcano pool was renovated just a few years ago and features both a giant volcano and a gorgeous waterfall. In addition, there's a winding slide set back in a grotto and a fun and kid-friendly play area. The pool is also what they call "zero-entry," perfect for those who have trouble stepping down into a traditional pool. The edge of the zero-entry pool resembles a real beach shore -- it's basically a ramp that slopes gently into the water. There's also another, traditional pool at the Polynesian, not to mention the Polynesian's gorgeous white sand beach that hugs Seven Seas Lagoon. You can't swim in the Lagoon, but oh, is it fabulous to listen to the waves lap on the beach while you're swinging in one of the many hammocks that surround the shore.

Speaking of water, the Polynesian also has a marina, with all the attendant rental equipment. You can try your hand at a zippy Sea Raycer (the new replacement for jet ski-like Water Mice), or maybe a sedate pontoon boat is more your speed. There are also sailboats for rent, or you can arrange a fishing excursion or fireworks cruise.

If you prefer to soak in the South Pacific atmosphere by land, there are surrey bikes for rent, or perhaps you'd rather jog the 1.5 mile trail. And if you can't break your fitness routine even when you're staying in paradise, you can take advantage of the health club and spa over at the nearby Grand Floridian Resort and Spa -- can you believe the Polynesian doesn't have its own?

In addition to the Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show, the Polynesian hosts a number of other activities that will acquaint you with some Polynesian rituals. Several nights a week at dusk they hold a special torch-lighting ceremony, while on Saturday mornings they teach hula dancing. Special activities for the kids take place every day, some poolside, some in Keiki Korner in the Great Ceremonial House, and still others in Moana Mickey's Fun Hut, the resort's game arcade. The Neverland Club, the Polynesian's special child-care center, also holds some special activities, as well as providing babysitting when the adults want a night out alone.

Finally, not related in any way to the tropical theme of this resort, but still not-to-be-missed, is the nightly Electrical Water Pageant. This series of lit-up floats, a sort of Spectromagic Parade on the water, makes its way past the Polynesian, weather permitting, around 9 p.m.

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The fact that the Polynesian is on the monorail is one of its biggest attractions. Families with young children, who spend much of their theme park time at the Magic Kingdom, will appreciate the ability to just hop on the monorail and be back in their room quickly. The monorail station is on the second floor of the resort, and getting to other resorts on the line, the Grand Floridian and the Contemporary, is as easy as getting to the Magic Kingdom. Getting to Epcot is convenient as well -- you can either take the monorail directly from the resort and transfer to the Epcot line at the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC), or just walk over to the TTC, which is just a few minutes away. You can also get to the Magic Kingdom (via the Grand Floridian) on one of the launches that leaves from the marina area. To travel to other parts of Walt Disney World, there's a bus stop near the Neverland Club.

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In case you haven't guessed by now, the Polynesian is my very favorite Walt Disney World resort. (So far? - I haven't stayed at the Grand Floridian yet!) I think it has something for everyone -- it's romantic for couples without children, and yet it's very family-friendly with the Neverland Club and convenient monorail access. You can relax in a hammock or you can speed around Seven Seas Lagoon in a Sea Raycer. You can stay by the pool and truly feel that you've been transported to a completely different place -- or you can hop on the monorail and be in the middle of the Magic Kingdom in five minutes. It has almost every amenity you could ask for, so that you could spend your entire vacation at the resort, without ever setting foot in a theme park. Unless you wanted to, of course.

The biggest and most obvious drawback, I must admit, is the cost. The Polynesian is a deluxe resort and those deluxe rates can set you back quite a bit, especially if you're on a tight budget. On the other hand, there are Annual Passholder discounts available from time to time that bring the rates back down into the realistic zone. When you factor in the convenience of this resort -- it's on the monorail line, plus the Transportation and Ticket Center is close by -- you realize you probably won't need a car if you stay here. Add to that the wonderful atmosphere, the friendly Cast Members, all the things there are to do, not forgetting the Lapu Lapus? - I'd say the Polynesian is worth the splurge. Aloha.


Related Links:

Polynesian Resort Fact Sheet:

Polynesian Concierge Service:

Polynesian Resort Photo Gallery:


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.