Nuclear Secrets of the Tiki Room

So, summer NAMM was cancelled and it’s unclear if the winter show in 2021 will proceed or in what form. This could put a stop to a show tradition for me visiting Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar for some Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki (five Tikis) Rum cocktails. You may ask what this has to do with this column, but if we follow a few connections, we can uncover a story of audio visual technology that has some interesting twists.

Trader Sam’s is a tiki bar near the pool at the Disneyland Hotel. It used to be a bit of a hidden gem, but has become much more popular in recent years as word got around. The bar has various features that reference attractions in the Disneyland Park including some animatronics and acting performances from the bar staff. The aforementioned tiki rum is a variant of the Virgin Islands Painkiller cocktail, and the five tikis in the name are a nod to one of the songs in the Enchanted Tiki Room, an attraction in the Adventureland area of the Disneyland park.

“The birds all sing, and the flowers bloom
in the tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki room”

This attraction is sponsored by the Dole Food Company and themed around Hawaii, the Polynesian islands, and pineapple which is a popular Dole product. The Trader Sam’s rum cocktail features pineapple as an ingredient.

Anyway, the Enchanted Tiki Room is worth a visit. It’s an animatronics presentation that features some very impressive sound effects. There are several hundred separate animatronics characters, many of them with their own sound tracks and a large number of highly directional speakers. It’s a small theater and the effects are very convincing, especially the storm and drum effects. From the beginning, a convincing life like appearance for the characters was a major design goal for this attraction.

First opening in 1963, a significant amount of equipment was required to operate the animated tiki room characters. Housed underneath the building are the networks of electrical, compressed air and water systems needed to operate the show. Driving these in synchronization with the audio to provide the desired realistic impression of the characters speaking and singing was a considerable engineering problem at the time. The original system utilized around one hundred separate speakers and 14 separate audio channels with hundreds of individual animatronic models.

The technology used to resolve the challenge required some interesting sourcing. Walt Disney already had a relationship with Wernher von Braun, the German aerospace engineer who came to the US after the war and famously worked on the US Army Jupiter missile system before becoming instrumental in what developed into the NASA space program.

Following on from Jupiter was the US Navy’s UGM-27 Polaris project, the first submarine launched nuclear ballistic missile system. One of the challenges this program faced was the constantly changing conditions that might impact a successful launch such as ocean currents, temperatures, hull movement, and vibrations. To resolve this, an audio based launch control system was developed that used pre-recorded audio cues to precisely time a missile launch based on the current conditions. This audio synchronization technology was a perfect fit for Disney’s attraction.

Polaris operations began in 1960 and by 1963 much of this technology developed for use on the submarines was installed in a large basement under the floor of the Enchanted Tiki Room.

Key to the system was the data storage on tape using PS200 tape drives manufactured by Precision Instrument in San Carlos, California. With 10 ½” reels of 1” tape providing up to 14 tracks in conjunction with racks of tube based computer switching and large banks of mechanical relays, the system precisely synchronized the audio with the mechanical movement of the characters creating a lifelike effect that was something to behold in its day. The installation generated so much heat, that the Enchanted Tiki Room became the first fully air conditioned attraction in Disneyland.

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