To find out where the idea of the Polynesian came about you have to dig inside Walt Disney's head in the late 50's. Walt was a frequent customer of Polynesian supper clubs and tiki bars. He loved the food and atmosphere. This love came from many visits to Hawaii and because of this he wanted to open his own Tiki restaurant that would be better than any other in the world. The thing he wanted to add that made it different but sticking to the true Polynesian design was to animate the decore. He wanted to make the Tikis, birds and flowers move and talk. This was not only the birth of the idea for the Polynesian resort but Audio Animatronics which is at the heart and soul of all the Disney parks.
The project was to have 225 robotic performers directed by a fourteen-channel magnetic tape feeding 100 separate speakers and controlling 438 separate actions. This was going to be too much to put into a restaurant and still have room for tables and a kitchen so this became the Tiki Room attraction in 1963 at Disneyland.
So what does this have to do with the Polynesian Resort. This is not only when he thought about creating a resort that was themed like the Tiki room but the designs for the Tiki Room worked their way into the original designs of the Polynesian.
One of the people Walt used to design the look that later found its way to the Florida project was artist Rolly Crump who designed the statues.
Another artist who worked on the design was Marc Davis who was an animator for Snow White, Bambi and 101 Dalmations. He had an interest in Paupuan New Guinea art.
All of the signs around the Polynesian were created by Oceanic Arts which was one of the original Tiki carvers in the US and it created Tiki for places like Don the Beachcomber in Hawaii and even Trader Vic's.
You can still to this day find an old reject sign from the construction of the Polynesian Village Resort hanging in Oceanic Arts in Southern California. You don’t get much more authentic than that on the mainland when it comes to carvings.
The birth of the Polynesian starts with a 27,000 acre site in central Florida that would someday become Walt Disney World including a spot specifically selected for its location and views that would be the location for a resort called the Polynesian Resort. Originally called the "Vacation Kingdom" it would become something like none of us had ever seen. The name would not be the only thing to change as time went by.
CONSTRUCTION BEGINS In the late 1960's a 47 square mile area of land in Florida was on the mind of Disney Designers. Part of this land would become some of the best resorts this world has seen. A man-made lake was created with a lagoon to the south of it. Around this lake and lagoon would go a theme park and 5 resort hotels. The 5 original ideas for hotels were the Tempo Bay Resort, the Polynesian Village, the Asian, the Persian, and the Venetian.
The Contemporary (flag ship resort) and the Polynesian were scheduled to open along with the Magic Kingdom in October of 1971. The Asian (below) was to follow shortly after the opening of the Contemporary and Polynesian. The area was already laid out and ready to build. Many would comment on the large rectangular area next to the Polynesian (where the Grand Floridian is today) as they rode by in the monorail.
The Asian was to open in 1974 and was the only one that came close to being constructed until rumors in the 90's about Disney having plans to build the Venetian.
Some say the oil crisis of the 70s is what killed the project to build the other resorts. Here is Wikipedia's description of what the theme of the resort was going to be. "
Inspired by the culture of Thailand, the hotel would have featured Thai furnishings and cuisine. Architectural plans featured a large center building more than 160 feet tall with a restaurant on top comparable to the design of Disney's Contemporary Resort. Guest rooms would have been arranged in a square around the perimeter on three sides leaving the side opposite the Seven Seas Lagoon open. The original plan called for 600 rooms but was scaled down to 500 in later revisions. Two-thirds of the guest rooms would have had garden or lake views. Fifty suites would have been deluxe rooms themed after Thai royalty."
The Tempo Bay Resort later became the Contemporary. The location of the Contemporary and Polynesian Village were not random locations. Walt himself had some say in where he wanted these resorts and why. The Contemporary was to be a backdrop for Tomorrowland and the Polynesian was to be behind Adventureland. Knowing that the Polynesian would be more of a tropical getaway for the guests that stay there more attention was paid to the grounds and the surroundings of the Polynesian. Walt wanted a place that the visitors would want to get out of their rooms and enjoy the scenery and outdoor activities. This is one reason why the Polynesian is located where it is. The Magic Kingdom was to be center stage to all that went on around the Polynesian's beaches.
In a Press Release from 1969 titled "WALT DISNEY UNVEILS NEW CONCEPT FOR DESTINATION VACATION RESORT" there are descriptions of what the Vacation Kingdom was going to be and also mention of the resorts. The mention of the resorts was this:
"The hotel "theme resorts" -- so called because each is being based upon a single theme that represents a culture or architectureal style around the world -- will offer far more than simply convenience of location to the new "Magic Kingdom" and its attractions. In design motif, food specialties, recreation activities, convention facilities and even the type of entertainment to be presented, these major hotels will complement each other and the attractions of the theme park. Walt Disney World, destination to become a complete family "Vacation Kingdom" represents the largest total recreation and entertainment enterprise ever undertaken by a single company.As a place of entertainment, it will be crowned by the new and exciting "Magic Kingdom" theme park. As a place of recreation,abound with land and water sports, and as a place of relaxation, it will cater to the needs not only of guests who visit for the day, but to those who spend part or all of their family vataion in Central Florida."
Information is from Documents copyright of Walt Disney Productions.