The Polynesian Village
Resort Hotel
1971 - present

It's difficult to leave your tropical 'isle of enchantment'
Walt Disney World Pictorial Souvenir, 1972 
Let's Stay at the Polynesian!

The Genesis of River Country
   

     "Difficult to leave" did not mean that guests were physically restricted to the confines of the hotel by Samoans with war clubs.  Rather the phrase referenced a reluctance presumably felt by anyone who had to eventually depart from this South Pacific-themed paradise.  As one of WDW's most popular resorts, the Polynesian Village is unmatched for its blend of tranquility and atmosphere.  There was a period, though, when it was even more "away from it all" - a time before its popularity and the changing tradewinds called for expansion in 1978 and, by the late 1980s, thematic disintegration.

     The timeless appeal of the south seas was not lost on WDW's designers.  Plans for a resort built around this motif were a part of the overall project since at least 1966.  At that time concepts for such a complex included a high-rise hotel in the center of a watery inlet, guest accommodations clustered around small streams, a pool fed by waterfalls and a skin diving lagoon.

     Three years later the master plan for WDW had advanced dramatically and many of the original ideas were either waylaid or furloughed.  The "South Seas" resort, however, remained as an element slated for the opening date of October 1, 1971.  And it was given a more definitive name, the Polynesian.  This new version of the resort was conceived by WED enterprises and the architectural firm of Welton Becket & Associates.  The hotel's position on the southwestern shoreline of the Seven Seas Lagoon had been chosen as well.  A few adjustments had yet to be made, one of which was the introduction of the Great Ceremonial House (today's lobby building) instead of the pyramid-like structure portrayed in early renderings - see image of model below.  By 1970 this substitution had taken place and the resort was well on its way to completion.

 
Early model of the Polynesian (1969) with high-rise tower    Polynesian Aerial 

 


The
Polynesian Village Resort Hotel

Altered WDW Hotel

Located at:
Southwestern shoreline of
Seven Seas Lagoon

Opened:
October 1, 1971

Contributing Personnel:
Welton Becket & Associates

Influences evident in:
Countless "off-property"
accommodations

Related Internal Sites:

The Asian Resort

Related External Sites:
Steve Seifert's
Polynesian Resort Pages


Bibliography:
A Complete Edition About Walt Disney World
, 1969,
Walt Disney World - Preview Edition, 1970

All images copyright
The Walt Disney Company.
 Text copyright 2007
Mike Lee

   WYW acknowledges
the thoughtful assistance of
Dave Ensign,
Mike Hiscano,
Michael Kingsley
and Dave Smith
of the Walt Disney Archives
with its research on
the Polynesian Village Resort Hotel

 

 

     The Polynesian Village opened with its iconic Grand Ceremonial House lobby building and 492 guest rooms divided between eight guest "longhouses." These original buildings were named Bali Hai, Bora Bora, Fiji, Hawaii, Maui, Samoa, Tahiti and Tonga.  Rooms ranged in price from $29 to $44 in 1972.  Between the longhouses were clusters of lush tropical vegetation and meandering pathways paved in what seemed to be volcanic rock, and throughout the grounds could be heard the gentle lull of romantic island music.  White sandy beaches stretched along the north side of the hotel along the lagoon between the Polynesian, the Transportation and Ticket Center and the site of the future Grand Floridian Beach Resort (initially set aside for the Asian Resort). A marina was recessed into the approximate center of the hotel, with a dock extending out into the lagoon for guests wishing to access other parts of Walt Disney World via motor launch.

     A loud and colorful marriage of early 1970's designs and traditional Hawaiian elements dictated the room furnishings, carpet patterns and cast member costumes for the Polynesian's first decade of operation.  This was immediately evident upon entering the Great Ceremonial House, where the green and turquoise tiles of the main lobby competed with the 2.5-story atrium for one's attention.  This atrium is home to a mini-island of rocks, waterfalls and lush vegetation that generates enough atmosphere to hold most guests spellbound for several minutes upon first contact.  Adjoining the Great Ceremonial House was the Outrigger Assembly House, previous home of the Papeete Bay Verandah and several arrangements of shops that have been remodeled consistently over the years.

     The Polynesian's original restaurants were the Papeete Bay Verandah and the Coral Isle Coffee Shop (later the Coral Isle Cafe), supplemented by the Tambu Lounge, Captain Cook's Hideaway Lounge and the Barefoot Snack Bar.  The Papeete Bay Verandah was a French Colonial restaurant that served breakfast, lunch and dinner with nightly floorshows.  It and most of these other locations survived into the early 1990s in one form or another, but subsequent reinventions of the resort led to many new names and shifts in decor with which to close out the 20th century.

 
Ground Floor of Ceremonial House Lobby 1971    Mezzanine of Ceremonial House Lobby 1971    What Rhymes with Paradise?  Drinks with Harvey Keitel served by Claudine Longet 

     Shopping options at the hotel during the earlier years included The Polynesian Princess, Robinson Crusoe, Esq., Village Drugs & Sundries, Trader Jack's Grog Shop (aka Trader Jack's Grog Hut) and News From Civilization. None of these institutions exist in their original state, but some remnants have carried on bravely. Among the services available at the resort have been the Village Florist, the Pretty Wahine Beauty Shop, the Alii Nui Barber Shop and the King Kamehameha Concierge.

     In keeping with one of the very first concepts for the hotel, the first (and for years the only) swimming pool was constructed as a hidden grotto with waterfalls and a slide built into the surrounding rockwork.  While certainly not the first such pool in the world, it definitely served as an inspiration for many more like it in the Central Florida area.  It was so appealing to kids that the slide into the unheated pool remains in use even during the colder months of January and February.  The original pool was demolished and rebuilt for a reopening in 2000, with a larger body of water and larger volcanic rock focal point.

     The resort's first signature entertainment production, the South Seas Luau, was initially presented on a small open-air stage right on the beach.  This left the affair subject to the unpredictable Central Florida weather.  In 1973, the fully sheltered Luau Cove opened with a 500-guest seating capacity and enabled the show to go on nightly year-round, regardless of mild winds and rain (a hurricane still shuts it down).  One luau photo below shows King Leonidas from Bedknobs and Broomsticks sitting in an elevated wicker chair.  This was a one-time-only bit of weirdness from WDW's opening and dedication ceremonies.  On October 24, 1971, the King rode in on a pontoon barge and presided over a mind-blowing, torch-lit orgy* that led to the debut of the Electrical Water Pageant on the lagoon.  The EWP is still going strong in 2007, as are the nightly luaus, but King Leonidas is pretty scarce.

     A more exotic water element never made it to a regular operational state.  The "wave machine," a subject of intense cast member interest in the early seventies, was actually built off the southern shore of Beachcomber Isle in the Seven Seas Lagoon.  This mechanism, championed at length by then-WDW Operations chief Dick Nunis, was intended to provide breakers capable of sustaining surfers.  And that's exactly what it did when completed after several delays.  Unfortunately, the waves eroded the shoreline near Luau Cove and the machine was permanently shut down.  It later became an artificial reef.

   Another aspect of the resort that has seen much change is the range of watercraft made available to guests over the years.  Gone are the days when as many as eight people piled into a 40-foot Polynesian War Canoe and took off across the Seven Seas Lagoon toward real islands. And before those craft sailed into the sunset, the circular Bob-A-Round boats (each with an independent stereo system!) had already long since been retired.

    Neither of those vessels could hold a candle to the Eastern Winds, the Polynesian's very own floating cocktail lounge that came in the form of a 65-foot long Chinese junk.   While it was normally tethered dockside at the hotel's marina, it was a real boat.  It included deck and cabin lounge areas, staterooms and "lovely serving hostesses."  If Jack Lord and Nancy Kwan had ever conceived a love child, it would have been on this boat.  Sadly, the Eastern Winds didn't manage to float its way into the 1980s.

 
King Leonidas Waits Patiently For The Roast Pig's Cameo    The Polynesian -Or- Banquet Room 2C At Howard Johnsons?  No, It's The Polynesian      "Great Place To Sit, Honey.  Crazy View Of This Tree And This Rock.  No, It's Fine.  Really.  I Was Hoping Before We Left That We'd Have Time To Sit On The Grass Next To The Sidewalk."
 

     The first encroachment on the resort's territorial boundaries - and hence its intimacy - came in 1978, when 144 rooms opened in the new longhouse of Oahu.  The Tangaroa Terrace restaurant was also added, along with a snack bar, Moana Mickey's Fun Hut (read: game room) and a second swimming pool. This east-side expansion added a little more traffic to the hotel, but it was an arguably pragmatic response to the growing demand for higher occupancy and a greater range of services. And there was still a feeling of solitude - with long unhampered (and mostly uneroded) stretches of white, sandy shoreline stretching away from the hotel in two directions.

     217 more rooms were added in 1985 in what was most likely the hotel's final growth spurt, with the longhouses of Moorea and Pago Pago added east of all the existing structures.  This addition reduced the amount of beach space between the resort and the Transportation and Ticket Center.  A few years later the construction of the Grand Floridian Beach Resort caused the Polynesian's territory to be more clearly staked out. The more recent Wedding Pavilion, just past Luau Cove to the northwest, set an even more tactile boundary.

     Since the mid-1980s several rehabs have served to update the hotel's general appearance, with new shops and restaurants replacing many of the originals.  The Neverland Club, a Peter Pan-themed child care facility, was also added to the south end of the Tangaroa Terrace building.  The old tile and carpet designs have been removed, the rooms remodeled, and cast member costumes are now a few shades less extravagant, altogether more unisex and hence less wonderful. The lobby remains impressive, but has a more busy feel to it than in the early years - with promotional setups for things such as the Disney Vacation Club occupying previously open floor space.

     Today the Polynesian is less a remote hideout and more a connected part of the growing WDW resort.  It remains extremely popular and, no matter what has changed, comparatively engaging.  The warm breezes that flow through its palms now carry echoes of earlier years off into the distance, where ghosts from luaus past congregate regularly by torchlight and drink Mai Tais to the memories of old outriggers and ankle-length flower print skirts.    

 
Unbelievable.  Simply Unbelievable.    Polynesian's Eastern Shoreline Before 1978 Expansion - photo courtesy R B Glasson   
Wave Machine Off Beachcomber Isle    I've Had Enough Of This Stupid Page And I'm Going Back To My Room 

 

See Some of the Polynesian in an Early WDW Promotional Film
wmv file, 3.8mb, 1:04, silent
excerpt from WDW Vacation Kingdom Super 8 Film Reel c. 1973, but it looks like it was shot in the 1940s

* Imagine a more subdued definition of orgy than, say, one associated with Caligula.