Monday, June 07, 2010

Buena Vista Obscura: Captain Cook's Hideaway

One aspect of the Walt Disney World Vacation Kingdom in her earliest days which is least likely to translate appropriately to our modern experience is how the entire resort was constructed as a multitude of experiences of which the Magic Kingdom was only the centerpiece. While it's true that this is still the case and the most remarkable things you can do at Walt Disney World are oftentimes the ones you don't even set foot in a theme park to experience, it takes the repeat visitor oftentimes to finally wrestle herself free of the lure of the parks and really get to exploring the intricate backwaters of Walt Disney World. Now those who have explored the pages of an old issue of Walt Disney World Vacationland may be surprised that, yes, there are indeed articles about the Magic Kingdom, but the bulk of the issue is devoted to all the other things you could do at Walt Disney World, even in those early days.

There's good reason for this. For the first ten years of the resort's existence, the Magic Kingdom ran very short operating hours unless it was a holiday season or the summer rush. Open at 10 am and close at 6 pm. That's an eight hour operating day for the centerpiece of Walt Disney World for most of the year.

To put this in perspective, the absolutely shortest regularly scheduled operating day at the Magic Kingdom today is one of those days when the park closes early for a hard ticket event - 9 am to 7 pm, a ten hour operating day. Closing at 6 pm is pretty extraordinary. None of the sit down restaurants would even make it into the dinner rush! There were two very simple parades daily - various entertainers and characters would pile onto the Main Street Vehicles and proceed in haphazard fashion through the park - and there were no fireworks unless the park was open past midnight.

Given these circumstances even the day tripper would be likely to maximize their effort and retreat to one of the Disney hotels on the monorail to take in dinner or a show such as the Electrical Water Pageant, and this is just how Disney wanted it. Although the Magic Kingdom may have closed at 6 pm, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was open every day until 10 or later, and every resort had at least one bar or night club open until 2 am, complete with live entertainment - the Trophy Room at the Golf Resort, the Village Restaurant at Lake Buena Vista, The Top of the World at the Contemporary. So the oft repeated canard that Walt Disney World was once a place with less emphasis on the Magic Kingdom may be rephrased to emphasize that Walt Disney World was once a place *designed* to make you take advantage of the offerings outside the gates of the Magic Kingdom.

This was the time period in the resort's history when it was most markedly different than what we have today. With the park's closing designed to force most guests out of the theme park and into Walt Disney World's other areas, Disney was coming up with ingenious night time entertainment offerings such as the Eastern Winds and Moonlight Cruises. It was a time when tourists and cast members alike flocked to the new modern hotels being built on property along SR 535 near the Preview Center, which offered the newest night life and dining, such as Howard Johnson's "Place For Rib". It was a time when the campfire sing-along on the beaches of Fort Wilderness was as important a part of your day as riding Space Mountain or Pirates of the Caribbean, and the sounds of a Dixieland quartette echoed across the Seven Seas Lagoon from a dimly lit sidewheeler, pacing the waters on a romantic moonlight "showboat" cruise.

Great Ceremonial House, looking south on the second level, 1972 or 1973

I provide all this set up because by itself, Captain Cook's Hideaway isn't much to talk about. It was, in fact, a single room, dimly lit, located on the ground floor of the Polynesian Village's Great Ceremonial House. Across from the South Seas Dining Room, a simple buffet, these two establishments occupied a small side hallway on the ground level where currently the large open "BouTiki" shop is located. In those early days before the various Gift Shops and Eateries were modified in such a way to open up into the Polynesian's dramatic atrium, the Great Ceremonial House mostly resembled an open box with two levels and fairly featureless bamboo walls.

But Captain Cook's was the very original Cast Member hangout, long before the Adventurer's Club or the Big Bamboo was a glimmer in anyone's eye, and as such maybe deserves more attention than it would otherwise receive. On pages 125 and 126 of Realityland, author David Koenig relates Disney World's efforts to get SR 535 modernized to handle the large amounts of employee traffic currently traveling on it - a problem they had, of course, created, the road itself predating Walt Disney World by many years. Disney was unwilling to contribute the needed funds for adding shoulders, lanes and such, but they were willing to launch a massive PR campaign which included a song by Captain Cook's resident musical duo, the improbably named Salt Water Express - 'Can You Arrive Alive on 535?' The song was submitted to local radio stations and even plastered on billboards. Disney got their road widened on the government's dime, and such is the lot of obscure facets of Walt Disney World that they are often mixed up in stories bigger than their actual profile may suggest. One wonders how many Disney guests those many summer nights ago were confounded by talk of "Arriving alive on 535".

Disney described their creation in more romantic terms in a 1973 Vacationland:

"For guests desirous for a dark rendezvous and the strains of a haunting guitar, Captain Cooks Hideaway provides both, as well as an outside patio romantically bathed in soft candlelight."

There are very few photos of the inside of the place, which probably indicates that it wasn't much to look at. Salt Water Express began their sets at 9 pm and went until 2:30 pm, except on Monday, either seated in a corner romantically lit with a soft purple light or amongst the patrons. The real attraction, of course, was a cozy getaway from the bustle of what was already one of America's busiest fun centers, with the comfort of a potent tropical cocktail.

The namesake of the establishment, Captain James Cook, was killed by Hawaiians after trying to take hostage of the King of Hawaii in 1779. Although probably nobody was killed by the Polynesian Village resort staff in Captain Cook's Hideaway during the watering hole's run, the notion of the white man gradually succumbing to intoxication via one of the bar's potent tropical cocktails while the folk strains of Salt Water Express ring through the room makes for a strangely appropriate connection. In later years, as the resort became more of a family centered enterprise, Captain Cook lent his name to the new food court which, albeit many renovations later, still bears his name.

In a way it's hard to be too excited about these sort of places at Walt Disney World on an individual basis, and indeed it's not Captain Cook's Hideaway but what it represented in its time which fascinates today. There is very little at Walt Disney World today which resembles it, and even the darkest of dark bars is likely to serve lemonade and punch in light-up cups along with their adult-only concoctions. It's simply hard to reconcile the child-centric wonderland of Walt Disney World today with a place that used to promote restaurants serving "Gallic fair in a high timbered room smelling of cedar" (the Lake Buena Vista Club) or "nightly floor shows featuring top name performers" (the Top of the World).

In a way, then, perhaps Captain Cook's Hideaway is of interest. The Polynesian Resort is, of course, today quite notable for her lack of a real tiki bar, a truly dark and adult escape into a world of imagined exotic pleasures. Captain Cook's may have been Disney's concession to the "Trader Vic's" crowd, an establishment which is itself today as endangered and rare as early Walt Disney World. So next time you're in line waiting to buy your massive Dole Whip or pulled pork flatbread, raise a refillable mug to the original Captain Cook's Hideaway and the Salt Water Express - now just a hazy, rum soaked memory flitting elusively across time, dancing off the waters of the Seven Seas Lagoon, the waves from the phantom wave machine, the ghost boat on a moonlight cruise to nowhere.


Previous Buena Vista Obscura entries:
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four
The Golf Resort


mfeige said...


I'd say you did it again, but this was above and beyond your normal spectacular work. Well that Haunted Mansion, Liberty Square piece was classic as well. I don't know. Point is, you blew me away.

My dad had to have unexpected surgery on Monday when this was posted. While trying to both pass the time and keep his mind off of his surgery, I read him this. It was both spectacular and moving. You managed to evoke and make us long for a Walt Disney World neither of us had been to. Your mastery of writing and knowledge of Walt Disney World are near unsurpassed on these here internets. Thanks for a great article.


*My dad actually visited WDW in '79 but he doesn't remember much about it I don't think. In fact he often says 81 was his first trip.

Citizen Carroll said...

Wow. Great article. Clearly and without parallel, the finest disney writing on the web. We starving hordes of fanboys/fangirls need more!

Eric said...

I'm still trying to figure out if this is the place I remember from when I was a kid. I remember going to the rear of the Grand Ceremonial house, bearing left, and finding a clothing store, and one had to go thru the clothing store to enter a snack bar where one could get hamburgers, cereal, coffee, etc. The place I remember was located where Captain Cook's Hideaway is today but at the time seemed much more secluded and less conspicuous. Was this coffee shop indeed Captain Cook's Hideaway?

Ann Witherspoon said...

Loved this article! And I was so excited to see the pictures. I worked at Disney during the summers of '73, '74, and '75 and especially that first summer, Captain Cooks was our favorite spot and we LOVED Salt Water Express. I can still taste those Chi Chi's, our favorite drink. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

FoxxFur said...


Don't suppose you have any stuff left over from Captain Cooks or anything else obscure from the early years of WDW that you'd like to share? Photos, menus, anything good like that?
- FoxxFur

Ann Witherspoon said...

No, not really. I may have some pictures taken in the park, but that's about it. In '73 one of my roommates became the first Mary Poppins and I have a picture of that first float, but it wasn't very good. I took lots of pictures because I bought a camera at the Kodak shop on Main St. across from the Emporium, but it was one of those slim cameras that took horrible pictures!

patdi said...


I love your "Buena Vista Obscura" posts. You are obsessed with the same sort of early WDW topics as I am, and your writing is beautifully envocative.

I have a 1971 Polynesian handbook from Disney University, and copies of information for those working in the Coral Isle area of operation. This included Captain Cook's Hideaway. Interestingly enough, these early documents do not include the phrase "cast member".

The beverage hostess instructions for Captain Cook's include making sure that ashtray, matches, candle, and salted snacks are placed in the center of each table.

The guests are to be greeted with "Aloha Ahiahi. I'm ______ and I'll be your hostess. (pause) May I bring you a cocktail or would you care to see a menu of our Polynesian Specialties?"

As the guest leaves, the hostess should say "Mahalo, kipa hou mai" - (Thank you, come visit again.)

Keep writing your wonderful articles!


Tim T. said...

I actually worked in the Men's Clothing shop right outside of Captain Cook's Hideaway. The clothing shop was called Robinson Crusoe's. I worked there for about six years from 1982 on. John Charles was the featured singer at that time. He was pretty popular. His wife was Hawaiian and danced upstairs in the restaurant. John and his wife left Disney and toured the U.S. doing their own show. Disney brought in a horrible singer when he left. I have no idea how the new singer ever passed an audition at Disney. He was aweful. John later came back and sang on the riverboat at what was then known as the Walt Disney World Shopping Village. And, yes, Eric, there was a small refreshment place right beside Captain Cook's. Captain Cook's was to the left and the small refreshement place was to the right.

Eric said...

Tim, thanks for confirming that for me! I now realize it wasn't Captain Cook's Hideaway that I remember, but a little snack bar.