Long before tiki was a resounding trend, Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room gathered popularity back in 1963 with its Polynesian-themed animatronic show in the wildly popular theme park. Amazingly, KCET has now uncovered the unbelievable early machinations behind the Tiki Room’s most important showpieces: the room’s singing parrots, dancing flowers and other robot performers. According to their research, the marvelous movements were developed with secure technology from the 1950s U.S. nuclear weapons program.
Before the theme park opened in 1955, Walt Disney read a series of Wernher von Braun’s articles detailing the challenges and benefits of a space program. After suggesting a collaboration with the father of rocket technology, Disney signed on Von Braun as a technical advisor to help oversee some of the mechanics of the park. Von Braun would later go on to expand his role with Disney, even hosting three episodes for ABC of a show called “Walt Disney’s Disneyland.”
The TV special was a deft PR move at the time, as the ABC special helped finance the future theme park. The partnership also allowed Von Braun to familiarize the public with space travel, while working with the U.S. military to create ballistic missiles.
What followed was a 1950s battle for spaceflight and intercontinental weapons systems capability between then Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union and the United States. While the arms race kept moving forward so did Disneyland, opening in 1955. It wasn’t until the successful 1960 launch of the Polaris missile from a submarine that Walt Disney’s vision for a moving, speaking animal kingdom inside the Enchanted Tiki Room became possible.
Eventually, scientists figured out certain methods to control the environment and built an audio control system as the submarine shifted through waters. KCET says:
“This new technology, invented to deliver nuclear destruction, proved exactly what Disney needed for his wonderland developed for children.”
Disney’s team used the Polaris magnetic tape system to allow the singing birds to remain in tune with one another, while also directing the lights and music. All of this was controlled by massive computers beneath the floor, which in turn generated enormous heat. As a result, the Tiki Room became the first air-conditioned attraction at the park.
To have been a kid in Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room in the '60s...— Mood:Vintage (@moodvintage) April 26, 2018
(Disney TV Special, 1969). pic.twitter.com/R4fPenDK04
Since its inception in 1963, the Enchanted Tiki Room remains a popular attraction. The technology is far advanced from its early days, and according to KCET is now run by the equivalent of a MacBook computer. Walt Disney even used animatronics in the feature film Mary Poppins, and at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where he made an animatronic figure of Abraham Lincoln. But the beginnings of it all were much, much simpler.