Polynesian Resort History
Before we dive into the history of The Polynesian, let’s lay the groundwork. In the late 1960’s a 47 square mile area of land in Central Florida which we now know as Walt Disney World was beginning to take shape. Part of this land would become some of the best resorts you and I have ever seen. Around this lake and lagoon would go a theme park and at the time five resort hotels. The five original ideas for hotels were the Tempo Bay Resort, the Polynesian Village, the Asian, the Persian, and the Venetian. The Tempo Bay Resort would later become contemporary, and the oil crisis of the 1970s would play a large part in canceling the plans for the Asian, Persian, and Venetian resorts.
The location of the Contemporary and Polynesian Village was not random. Walt had some say in where he wanted these resorts. The Contemporary was to be a backdrop for Tomorrowland, and the Polynesian was to be behind Adventureland. Knowing that the Polynesian would be more of a tropical getaway for the guests, the Imagineers paid more attention to the grounds and the surroundings of the resort. Walt picked the location of the resort so that the visitors would want to get out of their rooms and enjoy the scenery and outdoor activities. The Magic Kingdom was to be center stage to all that went on around the Polynesian’s beaches.
In a Press Release from 1969 titled “WALT DISNEY UNVEILS NEW CONCEPT FOR DESTINATION VACATION RESORT” there are descriptions of what the Vacation Kingdom was going to be:
“The hotel “theme resorts” — so-called because each is being based upon a single theme that represents a culture or architectural style around the world — will offer far more than simply convenience of location to the new “Magic Kingdom” and its attractions. In the design motif, food specialties, recreation activities, convention facilities, and even the type of entertainment to be presented, these major hotels will complement each other and the attractions of the theme park. Walt Disney World, a destination to become a complete family “Vacation Kingdom” represents the largest total recreation and entertainment enterprise ever undertaken by a single company. As a place of entertainment, it will be crowned by the new and exciting “Magic Kingdom” theme park. As a place of recreation, it will abound with land and water sports, and as a place of relaxation, it will cater to the needs not only of guests who visit for the day but to those who spend part or all of their family vacation in Central Florida.”WDW Press Release from 1969
The Polynesian Village was born in 1971. Clearing the land for the project started in 1969 but construction did not begin until February 1971. By August, crews completed the buildings. However, artisans kept working on the finishing touches until the morning of October 1st, 1971, when the resort officially opened. Guests first entered the resort with wet paint on the walls. With a little Disney magic clearly, anything can happen.
Much like The Contemporary, US Steel Corporation came up with the idea to make the rooms lighter and to construct them off-site. The contractor built almost every aspect off-site, including heating and cooling systems, wallpaper, carpet, plumbing, and electrical. The Contemporary’s construction approach had a frame made and then had the rooms slid into the frame. However, in the case of the Polynesian, things are reserved. Construction crews stacked the rooms first and then added additional framing, hallways, and roofs around the stacked rooms. The original plans called for a twelve-story high-rise hotel in the center of a lagoon.
Additional features include a pool fed by waterfalls, a health club, high-ceiling “South Sea” dining room located atop the hotel and a skiing & diving lagoon. As with any Disney project, the design and scope changed with budge and time constraints. Originally, Disney intended to let outside companies manage the resorts. Western International was slated to run the Polynesian while Marriott would do the same for the Contemporary. However, this too changed, and Disney decided to manage their resorts.
Welton Becket, a WED Enterprises employee, designed the resorts to be built by US Steel. (WED is now known as WDI or Walt Disney Imagineering.) There were some new techniques used to create these resorts. The Contemporary designed started with a steel A-frame that housed the elevators. The 14 story A-frame Steel design used a cable suspension system to hoist rooms into the hotel’s structural frame. The original Polynesian Village concept had a similar 12 story framed building surrounded by outer “hut” buildings. By the time work began in 1969, only the “hut” buildings had remained.
Interesting Polynesian Village Facts and Trivia:
- Crews built over one thousand five hundred rooms 3 miles away while other teams were simultaneously doing structural work on the resort.
- Each room weighed 6 tons and was 29 feet long by 14 feet 4 inches wide.
- The process produced seven rooms a day.
- When Disney expanded with more longhouses, they abandoned the modular approach and built everything on-site using traditional methodologies.
- The design of the Polynesian comes from many Pacific Island designs. The Disney designers traveled to Samoa, Tahiti, and Hawaii for design inspirations. For example, The Great Ceremonial House has many similarities to the royal assembly lodges in Tahiti. Imagineers built the longhouses as an homage to authentic Hawaiian longhouses.
- The Seven Seas Lagoon originally had a wave machine installed on Beachcomber Isle. Not only could guests surf in Florida, but guests in Luau Cove also enjoyed the sounds of the ocean. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out as planned. It wasn’t dismantled until 1985 when they tested it again.
- Disney originally had a 40-foot war canoe that you could take out to the lagoons islands and circular bob-around boats that had surround sound in them. It cost $8 an hour to take one of these out for a spin. Another extinct feature of the resort is the 65 foot Chinese Boat docked called the Eastern Winds, which was also a cocktail lounge. It offered three nightly cruises to view three shows from the lagoon: a water skiing show, the Electrical Water Pageant and finally to see the fireworks.
- On opening day, park visitors had two choices for staying on-property: the modern elegance of the Contemporary or the Tropical getaway of the Polynesian. The Polynesian staff and creators worked hard to make you feel that you were no longer on the mainland but off on some secluded island.
- The white sand on the beaches near The Polynesian and The Grand Floridian along the Seven Seas Lagoon came from the bottom of Bay Lake, located directly behind The Contemporary.
- Trader Sam’s is one of the most popular bars on WDW property. It opens every day at 4 PM, and if you want a seat, you better get there early because the places go quickly. Trader Sam’s is a bar that blends the funny jokes of The Jungle Cruise with Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
A lot has changed since 1971.
The Polynesian was much more isolated than it is now. It did have the Transportation and Ticket Center next to it, but there was a stretch of land between the longhouses on the eastern side and the Ferry boat dock at the Transportation and Ticket Center. On the other side were nothing but a beach and a patch of land made for the Asian Resort. Luau Cove did not exist at first either.
Prices in 1971 were in 3 categories depending on floor, view, and location. They were the same for the Contemporary and Polynesian. You would make reservations and check a box on a postcard for which hotel was your first choice and which was your second choice. Then you would select the price category you wanted. The higher the price, the better the view. They would put you in the next best room under that price at either resort. The prices were $29, $36 and $44. If a room under that price were not available, they would put you in the next category. There was a $4 per person per night charge for the 3rd and fourth person over 17 years old. Disney World offered a World Cruise Tour aboard an excursion steamer called “The Ports O’Call.” This vessel provided tours around the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake. Prices were $1 for adults and an extra fifty cents for children.
So here are the numbers:
- Opening Date: October 1st, 1971, one day before The Contemporary
- 484 Guest Rooms with 6 being suites
- 39 Acres
- Eight long Houses – Bali Hai, Bora Bora, Fiji, Hawaii, Maui, Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga
- The Grand Opening Celebration took place on October 24th, 1971
- The Luau cove structure was constructed in 1972 and seated 550 people
- In the early days, the Polynesian was more adult-themed. At the time, guests considered the Polynesian as a place for adults to relax after letting the kids play all day.
Key Events in the Polynesian Resort Timeline
On December 29th, 1974 John Lennon received the paperwork at his room to sign signaling the end of The Beatles. He was staying in what is now the Hawaii Longhouse.
1978 saw its first expansion with the addition of Tokelau which added 144 rooms. Imagineers added the East Pool alongside the longhouse. Other additions that year included Tangaroa Terrace along with Snack Isle and Moana Mickey’s.
In 1985 the word Village was removed from the Resorts name, and it would not return until 2015 during the DVC transition. 1985 also brought significant changes to the way you saw the resort. The resort was refreshed to remove the 1970’s decor, and the new changes brought in more traditional patterns and colors.
- A remodel required six days to complete and cost $7,000 each. Crews worked on 28 rooms at a time. Of interest to DVC members, 1985 is also the year when Disney constructed the Pago Pago and Morea buildings.
- Other significant additions were the parking lot by Pago Pago, more beach walkways and finally a connection to the TTC.
- The original longhouse Maui changed its name to Maori before being renamed again to Rarotonga.
In 1988, the children’s activity center opened as Peter Pans Club. Later on, it became Lilo’s Playhouse.
The 1990s was a decade of change to the resort and its philosophy. General Manager Clyde Min served from 1995-1999. He brought a more authentic in Polynesian style. They transitioned to the Disney management style by Values-the Magic of Polynesia. With Dr. George Kanahele as a mentor, they would change the behavior of those who worked at the Polynesian and focused on guest interactions. Ultimately, this shift in philosophy became the final ingredient to the Polynesian that would make it the jewel of Walt Disney World. The resort embodies the aloha spirit that we now know and love now.
In 1992, the resort added environmental surround sound enhance immersion and allow our minds to drift away to our island destinations.
On April 12th, 1995, the heavens bestowed a culinary blessing for WDW guests when ‘Ohana opened. If you want to hang out with Mickey and the Gang along with Lilo & Stitch or partake in the nightly feast, this fan-favorite restaurant requires an advance dining reservation at the 180-day mark.
1996 started the beginning of the next room refurbishment, which added more color and more Polynesian culture to the resort.
On April 25th, 1997 the Kukui tree was planted with a time capsule buried at the base of it.
Since 1959, the Candlenut tree, known more commonly as “kukui,” has been the state tree of Hawai’i. This tree has many incredible uses and the distinct beauty of the silvery-green foliage. It is often mentioned in Hawai’ian literature and is a cherished, and valued tree found flourishing on the islands in Polynesia.
An old Hawai’ian belief was that a person should not plant a kukui tree near his house, but it was all right for a stranger to plant it for him. That stranger could plant it in the back of the house or “hale” but not in the front.
At Disney’s Polynesian Resort, once can find the kukui tree behind the Great Ceremonial House. Following Hawaiin culture, a hotel guest planted the kukui tree. The leadership team also wears a lei of black kukui nuts symbolizing our privilege and responsibility of lighting the way for our cast members in sharing the magic of Polynesia and the spirit of aloha with our guests and lifelong friends.
Kona Café opens in 1998 the restaurant has changed its name a few times, but there is one thing that has stayed the same since the beginning: Tonga Toast.
On October 28th, 1999, almost all of the longhouses changed names:
- Tahiti became Aotearoa
- Fiji stayed the same
- Samoa became Tuvalu
- Bali Hai became Tonga
- Maui which had already been changed recently to Maori became Rarotonga
- Bora Bora became Niue
- Hawaii became Samoa
- Tonga became Hawaii
- Oahu became Tokelau
- Pago-Pago became Rapa Nui
- Moorea became Tahiti
So why did all of the names change? The original names of the longhouses included words that were imaginary and words that did not represent actual places.
- The new names all represent real Polynesian islands.
- The names changed to closer match the geographical location of the Polynesian islands. If you take a map of Polynesia and a map of the Polynesian Resort, all the islands are roughly in their correct geographical position.
The New Volcano Pool opened in 2001
2002 saw the replacement of the foundations of the original longhouses.
In 2005 the Tonga Longhouse added a Honeymoon Suite with a Jacuzzi. It is a corner room, and it sits next to the King Kamehameha Suite.
2007 brought us the H20 bath products that we all love to take home with us on each trip.
In February of 2007, The Polynesian joined The Yacht & Beach Club and the Grand Floridian as a 4 Diamond Resort although later that year the Beach Club would lose a Diamond.
Auntie Kaui turned 75 on Tuesday, March 13th, 2007, and got an award from the state of Hawaii for her preserving and teaching people the history of the islands. She is still there to this day. Walt personally hired Auntie Kaui. You can see her making handmade Lei in the Grand Ceremonial House.
2011 brought a change to the East Pool since it opened in 1978. It received a complete makeover and became what we know today as the Quiet Pool.
2013 brought on the talks of what DVC would do at the Polynesian. Check out these ideas.
The original design called for two phases. A five-story building over near Luau Cove with bungalows and the second phase bring another five-story building, a new pool, and a lazy river. However, plans changed, and the project was significantly scaled back. Initially, Rapa Nui and Tahiti were converting to DVC, and the bungalows would start to be built later in the year.
2014 Rapa Nui and Tahiti closed the end of February to be converted over to Disney Vacation Club rooms. We had yet another name change where the buildings reverted to being called Moorea and Pago Pago.
Tokelau closed in March and was also converted over to the DVC studios.
In May the Polynesian Resort reverted to its original name Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
Later that month the beloved lobby waterfall was removed.
2015 saw the opening of the new Villas and Bungalows on the Seven Seas Lagoon.
The resort was meant to pay homage to popular culture’s infatuation with the Tiki Culture. The American interpretation of Polynesian culture reflected in West Coast restaurants like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s. These started to appear after World War II to help rekindle fond memories for that military personnel who had served in the South Pacific.
An opening day postcard read:
A tropical island adventure awaits guests at the Polynesian Village Resort. Entertainment, food, décor, and shopping all blend into a South Seas vacation atmosphere. Palm-lined sandy beaches are just a barefoot stroll away, while the “rest of the World” is reached by outrigger, sailboats, old-fashioned side-wheel steamboats and fast monorail trains.
Let’s Talk About Hidden Mickeys!
For starters, there is a Hidden Mickey right in the stone floor of the Great Ceremonial House. The bamboo artwork located in the east stairwell of the Great Ceremonial House also contains a hidden Mickey. Also, be on the lookout for Mickeys in the waiting laundry area and outside of the arcade. Look for the Hidden Mickey in the touch screen ordering system in Captain Cook’s.
Helpful Polynesian Phrases to Know When Visiting
Aloha – Used for Hello, good-bye, and love.
- Aita Peatea – “There will be another day tomorrow, just like today.” The Polynesian’s motto.
- ‘Ohana – Family.
- Moana – Ocean.
- Mele Kalikimaka – Merry Christmas!
- Mahalo – Thank you. Note – you will hear mahalo for “thank you” a lot while you stay there. There is no word for “you’re welcome.” In Hawaii, mahalo, or thanks, is given without expecting anything in return.
Mahalo! – Brian Reed from The Main Street Chronicles Podcast
Today's episode was produced by Chad Pennycuff. Audio editing by Kenny Kingsborough from Harbor Red Studios. Show notes by Chad Pennycuff. Facebook admins and moderators of the My DVC Points Community Group: Andrew Darden, Valerie Fairnington, Donna Bickert, and Jeremy Murray.
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