I first visited Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room when I was 6 years old. The catchy songs, the magical, leaping fountains, the singing flowers, the drumming idols, the bursts of fire; one visit was all it took to have me hooked. The tiki room was a must-visit for every trip. I had to wait a significant amount of time to taste my first Mai Tai, and a few years later to taste my first real Mai Tai, but after I did, I knew I loved tiki culture, and I began to explore it in earnest. I visited bars across the nation — sipping exotic cocktails, relaxing to the hypnotic strains of exotica, and, in the back of my mind, always thinking, the Enchanted Tiki Room would be an amazing place to serve cocktails (were it not for Disneyland‘s dry campus policy, excepting Club 33).
How does that saying go: When you wish upon a bar, dreams do come true? Five years ago, Disneyland Hotel opened Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar. It didn’t take long for this little piece of pop-Polynesian paradise to become a classic. Just like the Enchanted Tiki Room, it’s a must-visit for me on every Disneyland trip, and if it’s not for you yet, it will be. I had the opportunity to speak with one of Trader Sam’s lead bartenders, Kelly Merrell, about why this bar is a must-visit.
For me, the Enchanted Tiki Room is what started my obsession with tiki culture, so when Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar opened, it was my dream bar. What is it like to be part of Trader Sam’s? How does it fit into tiki culture?
I think that a lot of people’s obsession with tiki — and not even just tiki drinks, but tiki itself — started with just that. Walt was huge into tiki, and being here in southern California, we were kind of the birthplace, the epicenter of tiki culture. Walt was going right along with that. I think that everyone growing up with the tiki room kind of felt the same way.
I started getting into tiki culture a couple years before Trader Sam’s opened. It just fell in line with my love of midcentury aesthetics and cocktails and whatnot. I was actually already working here at the Disneyland Hotel and it was just my dumb luck that there was a tiki bar opening where I already worked! I made sure I was a part of that; I couldn’t wait.
The way that Trader Sam’s has been running, and the way that it was built — between Walt Disney Imagineering and the food and beverage team — it is, in my opinion, a perfect meld between the sentimentality we have for the tiki room and actual tiki culture. We have thrown together the perfect mix of family between historic tiki culture and Disney magic. There’s the things that make a tiki bar a real tiki bar: beachcomber aesthetic, everything looks very thrown-together and a little shabby, but on purpose. But there’s also the sense of magic. Even Don the Beachcomber, he had his place back in the 1930s, he had fake waterfalls, he had fake rainfall.
Here at Trader Sam’s, we’ve got our volcanoes, and we’ve got our storms. But of course, being Disney, we take that a step further. In that sense, it all melds together, very, very perfectly, and it’s pretty special to be a part of.
When you and Disney are curating a cocktail menu, how do you decide what makes the cut?
Being a resort hotel bar — and we’re a standalone bar, we’re not attached to a lobby or restaurant or anything — that is 100 percent part of the Disneyland resort, you’ve got to find the fine line between your “friendly,” if you will, drinks, and your drinks that are going to appeal to a more seasoned drinker. You can’t have a bunch of really hardcore craft cocktails; they’re going to turn off people that might not be exposed to that where they’re from. But you can’t have everything be, you know, seem like it just came out of a bottle you could buy at the grocery store, because then you’re going to turn off the other side of the base that wants to have a real cocktail. You have to find a fine line. The core drinks on our menu, almost all of them are based on classic tiki drinks: things like the Mai Tai, we have the Hippopotomaitai. Drinks like the Zombie, we have the Shrunken Zombie Head. The Shipwreck on the Rocks is a classic Whiskey Smash. Our Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum is based on the classic Painkiller. We take these classic drinks and we put them into the “show” of Disney, because everything has a show, and it plays into our story. The story of course being, Trader Sam’s — and for those who aren’t familiar, Trader Sam is the “head salesman at the Jungle Cruise,” he’s at the very end of the Jungle Cruise, where he’s selling two heads for one of yours — he is, of course, our proprietor. We all work for him.
So developing these drinks, we have to find a common line. And I think we did a great job. Two of our most popular drinks, the Hippopotomaitai and the Shrunken Zombie Head, are very, very close to the classic Mai Tai from the 1940s and the classic Zombie from the 1930s.
I agree. When I was able to visit Trader Sam’s, I felt the drinks were very solid representations of tiki cocktails. They were real tiki drinks, and I really enjoyed them.
Oh yeah! Absolutely! And that’s what we strive for! It almost seemed like an experiment at the time — but of course, now it just seems very basic — that if you bring in high-quality drinks and real cocktails into a place like the Disneyland Resort, where a lot of people don’t think you can get a quality adult beverage, but if you bring the product forward, people are going to enjoy it. It’s a different culture now. I think with drinking, and with having an adult beverage at a place like the Disneyland Resort, it’s no longer “taboo.” It’s no longer something that has to be snuck into a hotel lobby or the back of a restaurant or whatnot. In fact, in the past several years, the resort has cultivated, along with its annual Food and Wine celebration, quite a following of cocktail enthusiasts. We deliver not just the drinks on our menu, but we can also serve you almost any classic tiki drink you can think of, along with traditional classics; the old fashioned, the sazerac, we cater to everybody. Those that aren’t already in the know are actually really surprised when they visit our location and can get a quality cocktail.
If you were going to suggest a cocktail to someone as an “initiation” into tiki drinks, which one on the menu would you point them towards?
Almost definitely the Hippopotomaitai or the Shrunken Zombie Head, depending on how brave they are, because the zombie has a lot more “ooomph” to it, traditionally, and at Trader Sam’s as well. I think our Mai Tai is the perfect blend for people that say they don’t want too sweet, people that say they don’t want too much booze. It’s just one of the most perfectly constructed cocktails, that unfortunately we really lost in the ’70s and ’80s. We kind of joke that the cruise lines got ahold of it; we call them “Maui Mai Tais,” the ones that are full of grenadine and pineapple juice. Here, for a lot of people, this might be the first place they’ve ever had a real Mai Tai — lime juice, orgeat syrup, high quality rum — and they’re surprised! They think it’s supposed to have a big pineapple stuck on top of it, when it’s actually a very nice cocktail, and a very nice gateway.
Our Shrunken Zombie Head would be a number two, if they’re a little more brave, because like I said, it’s got a little more oomph. And again, we strive to use the best ingredients, high quality spirits, high quality demerara 151 rum, and people are surprised. A lot of people think that tiki drinks are just going to be a lot of fluff, but when they have one of our Zombies, they might change their minds.
I’ve never had a boring night at Trader Sam’s. I’ve been enveloped in the magic, because of the bartenders. You guys really make the experience special and different every time. One night I went and we played “the floor is lava.” I’d love to hear what it’s like to be a bartender at Trader Sam’s, and engaging your guests.
It’s pretty awesome. I’ve been a bartender for almost 15 years, and for the past five years I’ve been at Trader Sam’s. It’s easily been the best place I’ve ever worked entirely. I’ve been with the Disneyland Resort since 1994; Disney definitely got its hooks into me a long time ago, and I’m happy they did, and this is the best place I’ve worked within the resort. It’s a lot of work. We ride that fine line between high volume and craft; our bar is open over 14 hours a day and we pump out a bajillion drinks every single day.
Luckily, we have a great team that puts it all together. Not only do we have a team that is very qualified and very tenured bartenders, we also have the right personalities. It’s a lot of fun, it’s very engaging. Disney has given us a lot of leeway; we get to engage our guests more than just about anybody does. Being at a hotel, we’re lucky enough to see these same guests three or four days a week. We also have a lot of regulars. It’s fun to be able to see them come in and bring their friends, and then they bring in their friends. We have to keep you on your toes though, because if you see the same schtick every single night it gets a little old. We have to get creative!
Well, you guys are pulling it off. Every time I’ve gone to Trader Sam’s, something’s been different. And that leads me into another great thing about the bar, which you touched upon earlier; magic happens when you order different drinks. What hidden magic should we keep an eye out for — especially for people who have visited a few times? Are there any hidden secrets we might have missed?
I think that even if you come into our bar 100 times, and look around 100 times, you’re still going to come the next time and find that 101st secret. Depending on how big of a “Disney nerd” you are, or how big of an Indiana Jones nerd you are, or whatnot, you’re always going to find something. The main magic that a lot of people know about are our special effects that come along with certain drinks that are ordered. [Author’s note: order the Uh Oa Bowl. You won’t be sorry]. I think that if you take the time to look around the walls, you will find inside jokes all over the place. One of my favorites is Sam’s family tree. I don’t want to give away the joke, so you guys will just have to come and look for it. And if anybody was ever fans of the old Adventurer’s Club in Florida in the Orlando Resort, there are a lot of nods and inside jokes to it; it’s been closed for years, and still has a cult following.
I’m still a fan!
Oh yeah! In fact, their signature drink, the Kungaloosh, we can make you any time you come in. It’s not on our menu, but there’s still so many fans, and we’ll make it.
So come in and just look around. Different things might move and wink and wiggle that you might never have noticed before. You can always ask the bartenders, and we’ll probably give you a little song and dance before we actually point things out to you, well make you work for it, but eventually we’ll let you in on some of it!
One last question: which is your favorite drink?
My favorite drink on the menu right now is probably the Murky Mojito. It’s a drink that’s based halfway between a 151 Swizzle and a Queen’s Park Swizzle, which are two very traditional, very classic tiki drinks. Queen’s Park Swizzle is actually pre-tiki, but that right now is probably my favorite drink. It uses a really nice demerara 151 rum, lime juice, and mint and is traditionally swizzled by hand. It’s got a really nice layer of bitters on top. Beautiful, beautiful drink; it’s strong, it’s potent, but I love it.
As far as something in the exotic world that’s not on our menu, the classic Navy Grog is probably one of my go-to benchmarks. Which we can also make! That’s probably one of our most popular drinks that’s not on our menu, the Navy Grog. And of course, we kinda tweak it, we’ve made it our own, over the past few years. It’s very popular, very traditional, and very delicious.