We are traveling to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Inside the Great Ceremonial House you’ll find shopping and dining with a South Seas flavor.
These words are heard by guests aboard the Monorail’s resort line as it rounds the curve toward Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. For anyone who has disembarked and tread across the elevated walkway into the Great Ceremonial House, it is not an experience that will soon be forgotten. While it has undergone many changes throughout its five decades of existence, it still stands as an iconic piece of Walt Disney World history, which is why the third entry in this series takes a look at 10 facts about the Great Ceremonial House.
1. The Great Ceremonial House was originally divided into several areas. The main floor was referred to as the Lobby Sea Level and the second story was known as the Bay View Terrace. The back northwest portion of the building (where ‘Ohana, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, and Captain Cook’s are today) was called The Outrigger Assembly House.
2. The central sculpture in the Great Ceremonial House is meant to depict Maui. Throughout the history of the resort, the Maui tiki has been seen across property on everything from in-room lamps to print media and more. According to the opening manual for Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Maui, the mischievous, sun-lassoing demigod, was chosen as the resort’s mascot because he “slows the sun down to make the days longer so that our guests may enjoy the slower-paced, more casual atmosphere of this delightful South Seas resort.”
3. Today, guests entering the Great Ceremonial House find that it vastly differs from what was present there from 1971 until 2014. During the resort’s first 43 years, the cavernous interior was home to what was referred to as simply the “atrium”. This central feature was a beautiful combination of volcanic rockwork, waterfalls, small ponds, and numerous tropical plant life. The sound of cascading water, the smell of the various flora, and the interplay of color and light made for a multisensory experience unlike that of any other of Walt Disney World’s resort hotels. Sadly, time took its toll on the defining characteristic of the Great Ceremonial House and changes were necessary when the resort was renovated in 2014.
4. For many years, the Great Ceremonial House was home to actual wildlife. There were both red and blue macaws that lived amidst the central water feature. Their perches could be found on the south (main entrance) side of the waterfall, and they could often be heard throughout the lobby.
5. Before it was closed off to make room for the Pineapple Lanai, there was an area at the back of the Great Ceremonial House that served as a small shopping location. Over the years, it was known as both News from Civilization and News from Polynesia. Fittingly it sold newspapers and magazines, but it also offered resort-specific merchandise. Also, in later years, it stocked a number of souvenir items from the Pacific islands such as leis, gourds, Poi balls, and more. The last tenant of that location was Wyland Galleries which sold paintings, prints, and sculptures from several artists including Wyland, Dan Mackin, James Coleman, and many others.
6. For over three decades, men and women could make purchases from a selection of resort wear available at the Polynesian Princess and Robinson Crusoe, Esq. (later called Crusoe and Sons), both of which were located in The Outrigger Assembly House. Continuing out toward the exit on the northwest corner (Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto today) was Kanaka Kids. This shop overlooked the marina and featured children’s apparel, mostly of the Disney themed variety. Notably, patrons who took the time to look up in Kanaka Kids were pleased to find a motorized display of Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, riding the waves.
7. Once upon a time, the Harmony Barber Shop on Main Street, U.S.A was not the only place on property to get a haircut. The Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort was home to the Alii Nui Barber Shop which, according to early WDW travel guides, offered “men’s hair stylings, razor cuts, shampoos, shaves, and facials” and the Pretty Wahine Beauty Shop specializing in “style cuts, shampoos, coloring, manicures, and wig setting.”
8. There are a number of patterns and carvings found through the Great Ceremonial House. One example can be found on perimeter ceilings of both the first and second floors, which were designed to mimic traditional tapa cloth. Tapa is not cloth in the typical woven sense. Instead, it is made from bark which has been pounded, softened, and carved. While the materials and process differ somewhat depending the island of origin, tapa is traditionally made by the women of the island.
9. The Lobby Sea Level of the Great Ceremonial House is home to a very large hidden Mickey. Upon entering through the front sliding doors, guests can quite literally stand on the classic Mickey silhouette as it is depicted in the organically laid stone flooring. Another classic hidden Mickey can be found on the top of the mosaic counter at the Kona Island Coffee and Sushi Bar on the second level.
10. The round glass lights hanging from the ceiling in the Great Ceremonial House are made from glass fishing floats. Floats such as these were used throughout much of the early to mid-1900s to keep fishing nets afloat. Fishing floats were often lost at sea and have been known to wash up on the shores of the western United States, western Canada, Taiwan, and many islands across Micronesia. Over the years, these floats have been collected by beachcombers who have turned them into everything from lights to tchotchkes and more.
Hidden Mickey photo from the personal collection of Vanessa Prince. Lead image and all other photos from the author’s personal collection.