Walt Disney World Chronicles: The Trader Sam Story
This article appeared in the June 2, 2020 (#1081) edition of ALL EARS®
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.
Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort underwent a massive rehab in 2014 including its iconic interior lobby in the Great Ceremonial House. I miss the massive waterfall that was the handiwork of Imagineer Fred Joerger who was also responsible for the Canadian Rockies at Epcot and the rock work for Fort Wilderness’ River Country among many other things.
However, I understand the business reasons behind its removal and I am grateful for the addition of the Pineapple Lanai location just outside the back door where I can get a Dole Whip without having to battle through the Magic Kingdom. However, the little figure of Maui and mini waterfall in the center of the lobby just does not have the same impact.
One of the most welcome additions because of the rehab arrived in April 2015 with the opening of Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto inspired by the Disneyland Hotel’s successful Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar that opened in May 2011.
Both new venues were the work of Imagineer Brandon Kleyla who worked for Disney in that role from 2009 to 2016 when he moved over to Universal Creative. A former Disneyland Jungle Cruise skipper, he incorporated some of that same quirky humor into both locations.
Kleyla told me, “Trader Sam’s are actually what I would call “explorer bars” and that allows for so much imagination. I’ve never thought of them as tiki bars.
It’s still surreal as I was just building a place I wanted to hang out in. I never thought other people would want to, certainly not to the extent it has.”
The character of Trader Sam is a cannibal salesman prominently located near the end of the iconic Jungle Cruise attraction since the early days of Disneyland. He is the “head salesman” of the jungle trying to get ahead by offering two of his shrunken heads for “one of yours” as the Jungle Cruise skippers gleefully informs boat passengers because “his business is shrinking.”
In the Florida attraction he looked physically different than his more realistic and serious west coast counterpart and was referred to as “Chief Namee.” There are at least two versions of how that latter name came to be used.
In the beginning, a revised script for the WDW attraction was incomplete so a Jungle Cruise skipper read “Chief (name)” in the script as “Chief Nah-Me,” which amused everyone so the name stuck. Another story is that there was a contest to come up with a new name for the character and a skipper wrote “Name” in the blank, and “Name” won the vote as the best name.
At Disney World, the character’s name officially changed back to Trader Sam in 2009 and he is now identified as the cousin of the Disneyland character. The Florida character with the bowler hat and umbrella was created by Disney Legend Marc Davis, known for injecting humorous characters into Disney theme park attractions.
As Kleyla told me when I interviewed him in 2019, “Anaheim Trader Sam is the true Trader Sam. This came up several times when we started working on the Florida Trader Sam’s. At one point it came up to remove the Marc Davis Sam from the Jungle Cruise attraction and replace him with Anaheim Sam, which I think the majority of us opposed.
“So, I simply came up with the fact that the Florida Sam is Anaheim Sam’s cousin, and he runs the east coast. Simple and we get the best of both. And I concreted that idea by creating a black and white photo of the two of them standing together and posted it on the wall.”
As Kleyla tells the story, “Sam’s expertise in head-shrinking potions magically grew into an interest in mixology. Bitten by the bartending bug (just one of thousands he’s been bitten by), Sam sailed the Seven Seas. Countless tropical locales were explored for mystical ingredients to mix into his delectable libations.
“Along the way, he picked up many of trinkets and artifacts that you see around here. In the tiki bar business, it’s a jungle out there. But once Trader Sam began serving his exotic elixirs to his guests, the word really spread!”
Kleyla also decided that Sam’s long, possibly magically immortal, life included being involved with many of Disney’s adventure-related characters throughout the decades including members of the well-beloved Adventurers Club, Indiana Jones, Captain Jack Sparrow, Ned Land (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and the Swiss Family Robinson among others.
Kleyla worked closely with Imagineer Kyle Barnes who was the Art Director for the Polynesian rehab and they both agreed that the Florida Trader Sam’s should be different than the Anaheim version.
Kleyla told me, “Enchanted Tiki Bar is set 1930-1950. It plays off of the Adventureland look and stories. Every photo is sepia or black and white; the walls are dark; it’s more of your classic aesthetic. It is really a love letter to Adventureland.
“Grog Grotto picks up as a different adventure and takes us 1950-1970. Kyle and I agreed that each bar should be different and should have a different tagline. So, in Grog Grotto, all photos are in color or colorized. It’s a Technicolor adventure. I hand colored almost every photo in the place. That was fun! There’s much more color in the space, beta tapes, cassettes. It’s a later time.
“One of the truly unique elements about Sam’s is everything he’s collected is one-of-a-kind discoveries, so you won’t find two props that match on either coast. That was certainly challenging, but very exciting to accomplish. Even the drinks and mugs are different.”
For instance, the Grog Grotto has several elements from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (including a good looking specialty mug) that don’t exist in the west coast version because being in Florida it references the extinct Magic Kingdom attraction with the Captain Nemo submarines.
Kleyla said, “I just wanted the bars to be a dash of Adventureland, two dashes of Jungle Cruise, a sprinkling of Indiana Jones, and a little Tiki Room icing on top. One of my biggest concerns was that we had to make sure people knew that this wasn’t The Adventurers Club even though there are interactive elements.
“I grew up in Florida and was always too young to get into the Adventurers Club. So I actually never got to go in ever! I was there for the night it was closing and didn’t get in so I did not get a chance to experience The Adventurers Club.
“That being said, I certainly did my homework, talked to some of the original cast, and watched plenty of videos. Certainly there are references to the Club in both locations but we tried hard to differentiate ourselves.
“In California, I put The Ship in the Bottle that was actually designed by Yale Gracey for the Haunted Mansion but never used there! It was later dusted off and finally built for the Adventurers Club.
“Very few other things came from the Adventurers Club: a couple framed images. Zeus’ fishing pole is in Anaheim. When it came to salvage the Club, most of the stuff was in such bad shape from just being in there so long, that you really couldn’t get much more use out of it. That and the fact that people were stealing things right off the walls before the club closed. A lot of the stuff from the Club actually got picked over and taken to Mystic Manor in Hong Kong.”
However, Kleyla made sure to include some special Walt Disney World elements into the Grog Grotto. “There’s a life ring from Maelstrom at Epcot for instance,” he told me.
“I actually found the statue of UhOa from WDW’s Enchanted Tiki Room Under New Management in the Animation building in Glendale one day. She was leaning up against the wall, some months after the fire in the attraction. And I freaked out, ran down to Kyle and said we have to get this. The animation department let us have her, so then we had to redesign the wall where she sits now, because it was never planned to have her there.
“I like a lot of the effects we did just for the Grog Grotto, because we had a budget to really have fun. I love the Shrunken Zombie Head effect in Orlando. The drink doesn’t have any effect in Anaheim. As a non-drinker, I usually have an off-menu Gorilla Grog.”
Yes, both Trader Sam locations have secret drink menus including a Kungaloosh from the extinct Adventurers Club. Both the original version of the book and the revised updated one that existed in the club’s final years are available by request.
I mentioned that many Disney fans, myself included, were disappointed that the Trader Sam locations are so small.
Kleyla responded, “I think this complaint falls into an overall thought that we as Disney were introducing people to Tiki Bars. The majority of people who came through Sam’s doors had never been in a tiki bar in their life, and they’ve told me this. So I think the complaint of size comes from the fact that nobody is used to Disney building a tiny space.
“We did that because we had no choice. The space in Anaheim came out of a corner of Hook’s Pointe, the restaurant there before. We didn’t build a new space; it was repurposed.
“Same thing in Orlando. I was there one day and noticed an empty arcade, so I took photos and sent it to Kyle and said here’s the Florida location. So again, we didn’t build something new; we repurposed the Arcade space.
“On the flip side of that, Tiki Bars are supposed to be small; they always have been. Even some of the more recent “big” locations are still small and tight. It is an intimate experience and that is what we created. Part of the magic is that it literally looks like a tucked away, hole-in-the-wall Tiki bar. The size I think is fun and when you’re in, the camaraderie and inclusion is a lot like Adventurers Club and everyone belongs.”
Kleyla also shared with me one final secret about Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto. It was the reason he quit Imagineering. While working on the tiki bar, he met his wife and they decided they preferred staying in Florida where both had grown up. They had a tiki wedding and built a tiki themed backyard with a lagoon pool and bar.
Kleyla, under his nickname Trader Brandon, authored the hundred page 2018 book The Field Guide to Tiki Decorating (https://www.traderbrandon.com/collections/new-items/products/the-field-guide-to-tiki-decorating ) that is only the first volume of a proposed series of books. It is a do-it-yourself tutorial about tiki bar theming. He has almost finished the second volume.