Ever since Walt Disney introduced an Enchanted Room full of audio-animatronic birds to Anaheim's Adventureland in 1963, Tiki and theme parks have been indelibly intertwined. While the mid-century craze faded into half-forgotten kitsch for a few decades, the Tiki aesthetic has made a surprising comeback in the 21st century, thanks in no small part to its resurgence inside Orlando's resorts. And if you saw my collection of vintage Mai Tai mugs, you'd know I'm among its many fans.
No one understands the impact of Tiki on themed entertainment better than Brandon Kleyla. The former Disney Imagineer spent most of a decade designing decor for Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar, which debuted in 2011 at the Disneyland Hotel, and Trader Sam's Grog Grotto, which opened at Walt Disney World's Polynesian hotel in 2015.
These uber-popular watering holes – which still draw crowds with their collectible cocktail cups and immersive effect-filled environments – helped jump-start a Tiki renaissance that still reverberates from the Magic Kingdom's Jungle Skipper restaurant to Disneyland's upcoming Tropical Hideaway, with unofficial Tiki fan events now held annually in the parks on both coasts.
Since leaving Disney in late 2016, Kleyla has been building props for Universal Creative. There, his colleagues include Tom Allsmiller, one of the skilled scenic artists behind Volcano Bay's beautiful Tiki totems, not to mention the detailed decor inside the Wizarding World and Fast & Furious attractions.
Now, "Trader Brandon" and "Typhoon Tommy" have teamed up with artist "Tiki Tony" Murphy to answer the prayers of Tiki fans who want to create a theme park-worthy paradise in their own backyards. The result is The Field Guide to Tiki Decorating, a self-published tutorial on DIY Tiki theming from inspiration through installation.
Last month, I caught up with Kleyla and Allsmiller during their book release party at downtown Orlando's Aku Aku Tiki Bar. Even though I'd recently outbid him in an auction of Ghostbusters concept art, Brandon was gracious enough to sign my copy of his new Field Guide and fill me in on its genesis.
"It started because a lot of people were asking me to write a Trader Sam's-related book, which obviously I can't," Kleyla says, referring to trademark restrictions on Disney's intellectual property. "So I started putting thoughts together of what I could share."
After over half a year of work, they'd assembled a slim paperback (now available at traderbrandon.com) stocked with suggestions for the budding Tiki bar builder.
"Volume One focuses on story, creating a backstory and music and lighting – kind of a big overview," explains Kleyla, covering everything from thrift shopping for vintage signage to selecting the perfect South Seas soundtrack. "And then I brought Tom in to do the tutorials on painting, with a few simple techniques to get you going," such as aging objects with artificial rust or turning PVC pipe into bamboo. "I want people to shove this in their pocket, take it with you when you go shopping."
Kleyla reports that readers are already responding to the Field Guide, "sending us photos and posting that they got it and they're excited, they're building in their backyard." This first book teaches the basics, but he says more advanced techniques may be next.
"We had a bunch of ideas, but then we thought that might be too complicated right now, if you're just starting. Do we want to get into power tools and hard foam coating and fiberglass? We can, but let's work up to that."
Kleyla wasn't an expert in Tiki culture before joining Imagineering in 2009, so designing Trader Sam's became what he calls "a crash course [that] just snowballed over the seven years of doing both [bars]." But now, he sees his creation as a key instigator in Tiki's ongoing "third wave" revival.
"I don't think that Sam's was fully responsible," he says, "but I think that once somebody like Disney said, 'We're going to build a Tiki bar,' then it made it OK. Then it was like, 'Tiki's not going anywhere.' ... I don't think they're solely responsible, but I think they're a big part of it."
Ironically, while he recommends Fort Lauderdale's Mai-Kai and Sarasota's Bali Hut, the "father of Trader Sam's" rarely hangs out inside his own creations. "It's still kind of crazy to me. I'm sad that I don't really enjoy [Trader Sam's] as a guest, because I've slept in there, I've lived in there. But I get to enjoy going in there and sitting in a corner, just watching everyone else and seeing them react, so I get that side of it."