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Sunday
Aug072011

Diana Lai: An Original Enchanted Tiki Room VIP Hostess


By next Monday Walt Disney World will have fixed one of its top-5 blunders (according the the tastes of our blog staff) by removing the "Under New Management" Iago and Zazu duo from its Tropical Serenade. In celebration we bring you one of our favorite Tiki Room-related stories. Enjoy the story of Diana Lai and how she was hired by Walt Disney himself to be one of Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room VIP Hostesses before the Disneyland show opened its doors to the public. Diana's step-son Dano was fortunate enought to convince her to write down her story.

 

"I pestered my stepmother in 2004 to write about her experiences of being the VIP hostess of the Enchanted Tiki Room when it first opened. I did this with the intentions of sharing the story with fellow Tiki Centralites who might find her story interesting. Unfortunately, the email she sent me was saved to a file without ever posting. With her upcoming 65th birthday approaching I have resurrected the saved email and am finally posting."  Dano


Dano,

OK, you win. It is 5:00 a.m., I cannot sleep any longer and don't want to wake the kiddies by working in my scrapping center, so I have time to write some Tiki talk.

In May of 1963, when I was a freshman at Whittier College, I saw a flyer posted that would be outlawed today. It said that Oriental students were needed for a new attraction at Disneyland. I thought that it sounded like glamorous summer work, so I went there to apply. There was a pile of papers to complete first, including written verbal and math tests. I was told that I would be called when to come back for an interview.

A week later, I returned to be interviewed by Walt Disney himself! He told me all about his latest achievement, Audio-Animatronics, and said that he needed a VIP hostess to inform important visitors to the Magic Kingdom about the workings of the Tiki Room, his newest project "baby" in Adventureland. At the conclusion of the long interview, he said he liked two things about me: that I had background experience through hula that gave me understanding of the culture and Hawaiian language of the tikis in the Lanai patio behind the juice bar of the Tiki Room, and that I was educated and articulate enough for him to personally train to introduce his "baby" to special guests at his theme park. I was very flattered that he also thought me a "pretty little miss" suitable for his newest project. The show was originally planned to be walk-through in a restaurant setting, but the adjacent Tahitian Terrace was refurbished, and the Enchanted Tiki Room was developed as a separate attraction.

Needless to say for a 19-year old, I drove home floating on air about getting to talk to Walt Disney in person. I saw him on television every Sunday night. The next day I got a phone call asking me to report to Operations as soon as possible to sign a contract. I had been earning 95¢ an hour as hostess at 5 Lanterns, a Chinese restaurant, so I was thrilled to be offered $2.00 an hour, if I were to pay Teamster dues. That powerful union controlled the ride operators, and even after dues, that was a huge increase in wages for me.

Next came a big surprise. I was sent to Wardrobe to be fitted for a sarong and sandals, the uniform for Tiki Room girls. After passing the customary inspection for costumed park employees, I was directed to the Tiki Room. Walt Disney met me there and took me down to the basement of the building, where I was amazed by the technology behind the show. He told me that the mainframe computer with giant reels of 1" magnetic tapes had 14 audio tracks controlling the sounds and movements of the 225 Audio-Animatronic figures; then we went upstairs into the Tiki Room, where he pointed out the specific birds, flowers, and tikis for each of the 14 tracks. He signaled for the imagineers to begin the show. The precise synchronization of the animation with the catchy songs was truly amazing.

After the 17-minute show, I was asked to enumerate the different sound tracks. They were easy to recall after having just seen the show and with everything still in sight but now silenced. At that point, Mr. Disney insisted that I call him "Uncle Walt," now that I was an official member of the Disney family. I was told when to report for work and issued a security badge and employee parking pass.

My first week on the job in early June was for personal training by Uncle Walt. He told me precisely what to say about the development of The Enchanted Tiki Room. He took me with him as he guided visiting dignitaries and VIP guests through the basement and show, and then he observed me doing the same and gave me suggestions.

My second week on the job, I was joined by new hires. Our lead man, a moonlighting teacher, taught us about crowd control, safety measures, taking tickets, keeping accurate turnstile counts, and directing attention to the talking tikis encircling the entry patio: Koro, Maui, Pele, Rongo, & Tangaroa. We were shown how to move 200 people out of the Tiki Room while simultaneously ushering 200 incoming guests to their seats. We had 3 minutes between shows to do this, so the shows could run as scheduled every 20 minutes. We had to assure awed patrons that every seat was a good seat and keep them from running into the rattan chairs or over each other as their eyes focused on all the birds overhead. When guests were safely seated, we pushed the button to begin the Audio-Animatronics, then walked over to add realism to the show by tapping on the perch of a parrot to awaken him by saying," C'mon, wake up, Jose. People are waiting. It's showtime!" Our timed trial shake-down shows had us completely ready when the attraction held its grand opening on June 23, 1963.

During the shows, we watched carefully for any animation that was not perfectly in sync with the sound track and immediately reported this information to the engineers in the basement. Birds realistically moved their heads, preened themselves, and even puffed their chests in deep breaths while their beaks moved to replicate singing. Giant orchids in ceiling boats and floral birds of paradise in wall baskets had tongues that vibrated while crooning Hawaiian songs. Tiki drummers high over the windows pounded rhythmic native beats. Carved tike poles suddenly came to life to chant the Hawaiian War Chant and roll their eyes at guests. A water fountain danced to the music of Offenbach. Thunder, lightning, and rain in the windows enhanced the tropical experience. I was constantly delighted by the oohs, aahs, open mouths of the guests, and their willing participation as we walked around the central fountain and coaxed them to "sing like the birdies sing” halfway through the show.

A week later, Barbara Phillips and I were selected by Uncle Walt to appear on the Tiki Room postcard. We signed release forms and were photographed singing around the fountain. 30 years later in 1993, I bought that same postcard in Adventureland. For 25 years the Tiki Room was our family resting place at the end of our annual day at Disneyland.

Having seen the identical show over 5,000 times has not diminished my appreciation for the artistic beauty, music, animation, and technology of Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room.

Uncle Walt was a perfectionist and taskmaster in his domain. He noticed details and was reputed to fire employees on the spot for not meeting his lofty standards for appearance, cleanliness, or making Disneyland the happiest place on earth. Word flew fast when he was in the park, and lead men of each attraction did extra inspections for clean costumes and shoes, grooming from hair to fingernails, cheerful attitude, and big smiles. There could not be a speck of litter in sight. At the Tiki Room, we had to sweep the stone patio between shows to clear away natural sheddings from the colorful but messy jacaranda trees surrounding the Tiki garden.

On a personal note, Uncle Walt impressed me with his eye for details and his great memory. On my second week of work, when he was still protectively hovering over his "baby,” I reported to the Tiki Room with my right jaw swollen from the extraction of a wisdom tooth. Uncle Walt asked me about it and sympathized with my discomfort. I had bled too much, so the oral surgeon did not remove a second wisdom tooth until the following week. When Uncle Walt saw me again, he asked, " Wasn't the other side of your face swollen the last time I saw you?" I had to explain, but was surprised that he would notice and comment on such a minor detail. It made tolerable being called Li’l Darlin' and Sweetheart by my world famous big boss. Upon his death in 1965, I was pictured with Uncle Walt on the front page of the Orange County Register. Unfortunately, that article about the Enchanted Tiki Room being his last accomplishment has vanished from my box of treasured mementos. Soon after, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride opened in Adventureland, adding to the Audio-Animatronic attractions at Disneyland.

Before the park opened each day in the summer, canoe races around Tom Sawyer's Island were held for employees of each Land within the park. Adventureland challenged Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland and Main Street and usually won the races because of more male muscle. Although "Indians" guided the canoes, other employees provided the oar power. There was also a lot of employee camaraderie in the break areas and a few after-hours parties at some outdoor dance areas. The happiest place on earth was largely a happy place for most employees as well. A fringe benefit was being able to accompany a free guest anytime during off hours.

As they passed through the turnstiles into the patio, many people asked me to pose for a picture with them and questioned my racial background. I was claimed by every Pacific Rim ethnic group as looking like one of them! This Hawaiian Chinese student was the universal Oriental.

One day a very persistent guy in a trim Air Force uniform sat on a bench across the entrance to Adventureland and watched me for hours, whenever I rotated to outdoor crowd control duties. My co-workers teased me about it, and my lead man asked him to leave for causing the distraction. Instead, he came over to introduce himself with a phony line about being the twist champion of New Jersey now stationed at Vandenburg Air Force Base. So I introduced myself as Aloha, a Polynesian dancer now stationed at the Enchanted Tiki Room. When he returned to see me the following week, I was inside directing the show, and he asked my lead man to see Aloha. Again, giggles and excitement circulated among us, as I went outside to accept a first date from the Airman whom I married three years later. When we divorced in 1976, he claimed that from our first meeting in the Magic Kingdom until our final parting three sons later in Valencia, our relationship was for him "nothing more than a combination of fantasy and adventure," but now he had found his ideal blonde beauty and had to pursue his own dream. Imagine blaming the Magic Kingdom for not being able to cope with the realities of daily life!

However, he freed me to meet and marry my own Prince Charming, and we are living happily ever after . . .

Diana Lai Thayer

 

A big thanks to Diana, Dano for allowing us to post this story. We also thank Tiki Central Forums where Dano first shared this story. 

 

For fun.
We leave you with these pics from the personal collections of our blog staff.

 


 

Related posts:

Swiss Family Treehouse Model
THEN AND NOW: MK Adventureland [Part 1]
Vintage-izing Your Park Pics
Jungle Cruise Commercials

 

References (2)

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Reader Comments (9)

Interviewed and trained by Walt, hokey smoke!

I cant wait for the Tiki room to open back up. I saw the "New Management" version once and that was enough for me.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonnie

WOW!!! THAT WAS INCREDIBLE!!!!! Thank you so much for sharing this. I am totally blown away!!!!

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterConnie

Excellent photos.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I know that Walt Disney insisted on first names, including employees and colleagues calling him Walt, but I never heard of anyone calling him Uncle Walt in a professional context. He was certainly known as Uncle Walt in a broader cultural sense, especially once he had become the conservative, avuncular figure that entered American homes via his Disneyland television show each week, but I wonder how often he specifically asked employees to call him "Uncle Walt," as opposed to just plain "Walt." Was it reserved only for pretty young women?

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterUncle Roy

@ Uncle Roy- You know I didn't think about that. I figured the Mouseketeers and other child actors used it because he was more of an uncle type than a typical boss type. I didn't know Walt ever asked his employees to use the "Uncle" title.

August 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdmin

This is so wonderful, thank you so much for sharing. What an incredible experience!!

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJo

I watched the original Tiki Room on Youtube, and I must confess: I find the attraction to be very heavily dated. It made sense that it was popular in the early '60s, seeing as Hawaii had become the 50th state mere years before.

The only one I've seen in person was "Under New Management", and while I must confess that the Tiki Room did indeed need updates....this wasn't the way to go.

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuss

Yuk! The old one made me barf! I can't believe I'm saying this, but the fire was the best thing thathas ever happened in Walt Disney World History! We went to Disney in March and I was wondering why it closed. When we got back home, I googled it and was shocked. Until I read this, I was sure they were just going to redo the New Management, but you just made my day!

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily Oriotis

What a share!

July 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertikiroomfan

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