Love Letter to Imperialism or, How I Learned to Love Trader Sam's at the Disneyland Hotel
by Anthony Pignataro
Soft, instrumental Hawaiian music, the kind you hear when you struggle to stow your luggage into the overhead compartment before you settle in for a five-hour flight to Maui, is playing in the background when the bartender places the drink in front of the woman. Maybe it was the Krakatoa Punch (Sailor Jerry spiced rum, Pyrat XO reserve rum, orgeat syrup, Sam’s Gorilla Grog and hibiscus grenadine) or quite possibly the Uh-Oa! (Bacardi Superior rum, Cutwater Bali Hai dark rum, falernum, cinnamon and orange, passion fruit, guava, pineapple, grapefruit and lime juice)—I forget which. What I do remember is what the bartender said next:
“The tiki gods are angry!” he yelled as thunder crackled and lights above the bar flickered, simulating an apocalyptic storm. “Why would you order that drink?” he then asked in mock fear as one of his colleagues sprayed water on the other customers with a plastic aerosol bottle.
A moment passed. “Okay, none of you are reacting,” the first bartender said as the other barkeep continued spraying the crowd. “This is Trader Sam’s, not a library—you’re allowed to be loud,” he added, as everyone at the bar began cheering.
Welcome to Trader Sam’s, located poolside at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California. Open since May 2011, the tiny bar holds just 50 seats but a reported 1,600 photos, signs, taxidermied insects, fishing nets, glass floats, weapons and idols purportedly from all over the world adorn the walls (including the restrooms, because, why the hell not). It’s eternally dark and cool inside, and even includes “windows” that are just backlit paintings offering stunning tropical views.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic the place was pretty much always crowded, but now, you’re lucky if you only have to wait 30 minutes outside before getting a seat. The bar is cozy but can be loud and raucous (especially if someone orders a drink that triggers special effects and yelling bartenders) and, if you don’t mind sitting inside a literal love letter to imperialism, can actually be rather fun.
According to the Disney corporation, Trader Sam’s was inspired by Disneyland’s famous Jungle Cruise ride. In fact, Trader Sam himself was seen at the end of the ride, billed as the “head” salesman of the Jungle Cruise Navigation Company. In fact, the story of Trader Sam is told through letters and photos plastered on the walls of the bar.
“Many years ago, legendary explorer Trader Sam was bitten by the bartending bug many years ago (initially we thought it was just a big mosquito),” states a letter from “Skip, Head Mechanic & Drink Slinger” of the Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. that could have benefitted from a bit of editing but is instead tacked up near the front door. “Ever since then, Sam searches the Amazon, Congo, Mystic Point, Polynesia, and every exotic locale in-between for ingredients to mix into these magical libations.”
The letter also notes, in case you were wondering, that all the idols and trinkets on the walls are “souvenirs and gifts” he picked up “from all over the globe.”
Trader Sam’s connection to Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride is unmistakable. But in April 2021, after George Floyd and the nation’s (very) brief racial reckoning, Disney yanked Trader Sam from the ride. “As part of the changes we previously announced, we are addressing negative depictions of natives in the attraction,” Walt Disney Imagineers Susana Tubert and Kevin Lively told Attractions Magazine at the time.
This is fascinating because at the same time Imagineers said they wouldn’t touch Trader Sam’s bar, and so far, they haven’t, even though, as the opening anecdote about the supposed wrath of the “tiki gods” makes clear, “negative depictions of natives” remains the establishment’s bread and butter.
But hey, that’s tiki, right?
Tiki, real tiki, is the God of Creation for Polynesian islanders, according to Hawaiian history professor Sydney Iaukea of Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu. Within Hawai‘i, kanaka maoli (the actual name of native Hawaiians) used the word “ki‘i” to refer to the carved images of the major gods Kane and Ku. Kanaka placed ki‘i at religious heaiu (temples) throughout the islands until the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1820, which coincided with the end of the old Kapu system that had long governed pre-contact Hawai‘i.
“Ki‘i are sacred to the akua [gods] they represent and are often striking symbols of Hawaiian cosmology,” said Iaukea.
Though based on Hawaiian and Polynesian idols and culture, tiki is the creation of white people. Born in 1907 in Louisiana, Ernest Raymond Gantt opened the first “tiki” bar in Hollywood in 1933. Don’s Beachcomber sold fruity rum drinks and was decorated with old shipyard items, meant to give the place a South Seas feel.
By the late 1930s, Gantt (who really got into the act and legally changed his name to Donn Beach) was married to Cora Sund, a woman who shared his love for Hawaiiana, rum cocktails and entrepreneurship. Together they turned his little bar into a nationwide restaurant empire with exotic-sounding drinks (Mai Tai, Zombie, et al), Cantonese food repackaged as South Pacific fare and lots of bamboo kitsch, including idols and carvings from all over the Polynesian world.
“If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you,” Beach famously said. Their restaurants were insanely popular during and after World War II and spawned myriad copycats that continue to present day, though it was and remains rare for the largely white clientele to question the meaning behind the elaborate iconography that adorned these new “tiki” bars.
“It’s akin to having Jesus images in bars as far as taking culture and ignoring the symbol of that religion,” Iaukea told me. To be clear, that all-important—and still astonishingly lucrative—“paradise” that makes up the symbolic heart of both tiki culture and the entire Hawaii tourism industry is itself just public relations marketing.
“The idealized and fake tiki stripped all sacred meaning of the religious aspects of tiki and ki‘i, and invented an idealized exotic/erotic native and place that never existed, except in the minds of Donn and the thousands of tourists that would drink and eat under the watchful gazes of gaudy and outlandish tikis,” Iaukea said.
Even though Trader Sam’s is still operating as it did a decade ago, you have only to peruse the walls for a few minutes to see just how sensitive Disney is to the troubles of tiki. In fact, on the wall near the door to the back of the house, there’s what appears to be an African carving of a face or a mask. Below it, in all caps, is a framed slip of paper that reads, “GIFT FROM THE PEOPLE OF GHANA.”
I’m sorry—a gift? From the people? Of Ghana?
How was this gift arranged—was there a national plebiscite asking the populace to vote on whether to gift Mr. Sam a sacred idol to hang over his bar, or did the president simply sign an act of parliament? And was the particular idol a national heirloom or something manufactured especially for him? I know Disney is famous for selling middle-America WASPy fantasies as reality, but this makes Mr. Toad’s Ride look like a Ken Burns documentary.
Look long enough at the walls of Trader Sam’s, though, and the truth comes out. Near the entrance is a small sepia-toned photograph of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in his Rough Rider regalia. The yellowed caption lists him as a “former member of the Adventurer’s Club, and regular at Trader Sam’s.” Roosevelt was also, as any good historian will tell you, a committed white supremacist and imperialist who glorified wars against indigenous peoples and uttered words like “savages” and worse with uncomfortable ferocity. “The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian,” Roosevelt said in 1886. A decade later, Roosevelt wrote that “The world would have halted had it not been for the Teutonic conquests in alien lands.”
It was like Kipling had written “Thin Red Line” specifically for old TR. “I am a believer in the fact that it is for the good of the world that the English-speaking race in all its branches should hold as much of the world’s surface as possible,” Roosevelt had said, throwing all subtlety in the trash bin.
Though it’s unquestionable that Roosevelt’s views on race, especially towards Africa and African Americans, mellowed considerably in his final decade of life, he spent far too much of his previous five decades as a committed white supremacist and imperialist who never paid for the incalculable damage he helped unleash on the world.
But at Trader Sam’s, all such “adventurers” are welcome—even if they anger the “tiki gods,” whatever they are.
Title Image: By Sam Howzit - Trader Sam's, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52564391
Anthony Pignataro is a freelance journalist. He wrote for OC Weekly in its earliest years, and in its final months. He also somehow wrote three trashy detective novels about Maui. He lives in Long Beach with his girlfriend Angie and their cat Gromit.