The Polynesian Resort (affectionately known as the Poly) was an opening day hotel at Walt Disney World (October 1, 1971). Like everything at Disney, it has its own history. The following is a brief timeline of this tropical resort and a rundown of some of its offerings.
When planning began for Walt Disney World, the Imagineers were confident that they could build and run a second Disneyland-type park. After all, they already had ten years of experience doing just that in Anaheim. But when it came to building and running hotels, Disney management knew nothing. Even the Disneyland Hotel, which bore Walt’s name, was owned and operated by the Wrather Corporation. So they decided to hire an outside firm to manage the Poly and Contemporary until they could learn the ropes.
The Imagineers scrutinized the hospitality industry and eventually agreed that Western International would oversee the Poly and Marriott would manage the Contemporary. However, during this search, a deal was struck with US Steel to build the hotels and the contract stipulated that Disney would manage the resorts themselves. Realizing that they still had a learning curve ahead of them, another solution was needed.
In the following months, executives discovered that a new 140-room hotel was being built on the then fledgling International Drive. Disney offered the owner their services and proposed to manage the hotel until Disney World opened. This would allow Disney managers to learn the ropes and at the same time, create and write operational manuals that emphasized the Disney way of doing things. This would be a win-win situation for Disney and the hotel’s owner, Finley Hamilton. Until Disney World opened, Hamilton’s new hotel would sit virtually empty until the tourist started to arrive. But now that Disney had a stake in its success, it became the gathering place for Burbank executives when staying in Orlando. Thus, Disney cast members would master the hotel industry while catering to fellow employees.
Early plans for the Poly called for a twelve story central building and a number of smaller structures situated nearby. This design would complement the Contemporary’s height and its North and South Wings. However, the idea for a twelve story structure was eventually abandoned for the less imposing Great Ceremonial House.
Many are aware that the Contemporary was built using modular construction, but are unaware that the original Poly longhouses were also erected in this same manner. For both hotels, the rooms were built at a manufacturing plant three miles away then trucked to the construction site and lifted into place by a crane. The rooms were designed so they could be stacked three high without additional support. This is why the longhouses at the Poly are three stories high. Contrary to popular belief, the rooms were never designed to be removed once they were set in place. This construction method was used for economic reasons, not so the rooms could be swapped out for remodeling purposes.
The Polynesian Village, as it was known in 1971, opened with eight longhouses featuring 492 rooms, a central swimming pool, a putting green, and the Great Ceremonial House which held most of the guest facilities. In 1978, an additional longhouse was added along with a second pool and the Tangaroa Terrace Restaurant. A second expansion in 1985 added two more longhouses bringing the resort’s room total to 847. In addition, the name “Polynesian Village” was changed to Disney’s Polynesian Resort.
In the early years, a wave machine was installed and tested on Beachcomber Isle. The idea was to create artificial waves that guests could actually use to surf. Unfortunately, the waves eroded the beaches (among other problems) and the idea was eventually abandoned. For many years you could see the remains of the machine, but it has since been removed and now only a rock wall marks the spot of this failed attraction.
Other Poly attractions that came and went in the early years were the 40 foot war canoes (which required 8 guests to paddle) and the bob-a-round boats (which boasted their own stereo system). Both of these could be rented for a spin around Seven Seas Lagoon. The Eastern Winds was a 65-foot Chinese junk complete with cocktail lounges and a stateroom. This floating salon offered an exotic spot to relax and imbibe when docked and could also be rented for private excursions.
Some of you longtime visitors might remember the green tiles that once graced the floor of the Great Ceremonial House. These were replaced years ago with a natural stone. (Thank goodness.)
On October 28, 1999, the longhouses were renamed. The new names are those of Polynesian islands. The longhouse positions roughly represent island locations in respect to one another if viewed on a map.
Tonga (formerly Bali Hai)
Aotearoa (formerly Tahiti)
Fiji (no name change)
Tuvalu (formerly Samoa)
Hawaii (formerly Tonga)
Samoa (formerly Hawaii)
Niue (formerly Bora Bora)
Rarotonga (formerly Maui)
Tokelau (formerly Oahu)
Tahiti (formerly Moorea)
Rapa Nui (formerly Pago Pago)
A Polynesian stage show was created for the resort’s opening ceremonies (October 26, 1971). As “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” would be premiering during the upcoming Christmas season, Disney wanted to promote the movie. To do this, they had King Leonidas kick off the ceremonies by arriving at Luau Cove via a barge. The tie-in was weak, but it could be argued that King Leonidas lived in a tropical paradise, the Isle of Naboombu. If you look closely at the next picture, you can see him sitting on his throne for the opening ceremonies.
The evening featured hula dancers, fire eaters, and Hawaiian music and was presented on an open-air stage. Tables and chairs were situated in the sand.
In the early years, the Magic Kingdom often closed at 6pm. This left vacationers with little to do once the sun set. So it was decided to keep this Polynesian show, minus King Leonidas, and present it to guests on a nightly basis. However, the unpredictable Florida weather coupled with the need for better facilities necessitated a permanent stage and seating area. So in 1973, these came to Luau Cove with a 500 guest capacity. The show is still going strong today. During the years, this presentation has seen a number of revisions and name changes. These include: Polynesian Revue, Kaui-Pono Polynesian Revue, South Seas Luau, Polynesian Luau, and Mickey's Tropical Revue. Today, Spirit of Aloha is shown at 5:15pm and 8:00pm, Tuesday through Saturday and runs just shy of two hours.
Also debuting at the Poly’s opening ceremonies was the Electric Water Pageant. This precursor to the Main Street Electrical parade consisted of two strings of barges, each carrying a 25 foot tall screen featuring King Neptune and members of his dominion. The pageant concluded with an inspirational salute to the United States with flags and stars. The show can still be seen today and can be viewed at the Poly from the shores of Seven Seas Lagoon at 9pm nightly.
The Poly has seen other changes over the years. Tangaroa Terrace, a casual restaurant located in a longhouse near the Great Ceremonial House, closed in June 1996. It now serves as a banquet facility for weddings and other special functions.
The stores and restaurants in the Great Ceremonial House have also seen name changes, remodeling, and even relocation over the years. Once, many of the shops were relegated to a back passageway off of the main lobby. Stores like Robinson Crusoe Esquire, Polynesian Princess, and News From Civilization have faded into history to be replaced by Boutiki. Boutiki, located on the first floor, sells men’s and women’s Disney and Polynesian fashions, swimwear, and other tropical souvenirs. While browsing here, be sure to check out the two Tiki gods – one hiding behind the curtain as his outside friend peers in the window.
Nearby Boutiki is Wyland Gallery. Here you’ll find artwork and jewelry with an ocean or Polynesian theme. Artist Robert Wyland occasionally stops by for personal appearances. Call the gallery at 407-824-9635 for times and details. If you need a break from Disney gift items, this shop is a great respite.
On the second floor of the Great Ceremonial House, Trader Jack’s and Samoa Snacks offer character merchandise, toys, newspapers, food items, and other “necessitates.” Between these two shops is a tropical hut. On it is a sign that reads either, “Out to lunch, back in February” or “Out to lunch, back in August” (depending on the time of year). This sentiment reflects the laid back feeling of the resort.
Restaurants have also seen name changes and remodeling. Coral Isle Café was the predecessor to Kona Café. This second story eatery offers breakfast, lunch and dinner and features American cuisine with accents of Asian flavors. The Kona Café is also famous for its Tonga Toast. This huge slice of French toast is stuffed with bananas and encrusted in cinnamon sugar. This is an awesome breakfast, but you’ll probably want to skip lunch you’ll be so full.
Near Kona Café is Kona Island. During the morning, this walk-up facility is the perfect spot to buy a cup of coffee, espresso, cappuccino, mocha, and pastries. In the evening, this location is transformed into a sushi bar and offers a wonderful selection of this popular treat. No reservations are needed.
On April 12, 1995 'Ohana opened, replacing the Papeete Bay Varandah. 'Ohana means “family” in the Hawaiian language and the meals here are served family-style. This is an extremely popular restaurant and advance reservations are an absolute necessity. I wrote a complete review of this restaurant in October 2009. To read it, click here.
Capt. Cook's, located on the first floor, is the spot for a quick bite to eat. Open from 6am to 11pm, a wide variety of selections are available here. In addition, many of the items are cooked to order, insuring the food is fresh and hot. And to the delight of many, Dole Whips, a Magic Kingdom favorite, can be purchased here.
Capt. Cook's, features two indoor seating areas and a lovely outdoor spot that is perfect for an alfresco meal.
While staying at the Poly on this most recent trip, I enjoyed two meals at Capt. Cook's. For breakfast one day I had the Tonga Toast, the same treat that is served in the Kona Café. Delicious! On another occasion I had the Aloha Pork Sandwich and my friend Donald had a freshly cooked 1/3 pound Angus Bacon Cheeseburger and fries. The burger was satisfactory – nothing outstanding, but no complaints either. However, the pork sandwich was definitely above average. The bun was crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. In addition, a pineapple slaw topped the pork. The sandwich had a lot of flavor and the pineapple accents were perfect for the tropical surroundings.
That’s it for Part One. Check back tomorrow for Part Two.
The previous post in this blog was Casey’s Corner.
The next post in this blog is Polynesian Resort -- Part Two.