I had never heard of Trader Sam's, not until my robust-goateed podcast brother Bart Scott mentioned it to me. I'm not sure if it was on his weekly podcast Ears of Steel, or rather in the midst of one of our dueling text message battles.
No matter, I had never heard of Trader Sam's, a fact that flooded me with quite a bit of shame. I had been to Disneyland upwards of 75 times and engaged in all manner of activity which mixed up a typical outing. I was engaged there. I once went real life ghost hunting there. I counted the cats almost every time upon leaving there. We even spent an entire day running around in an attempt to get in every attraction in a day.
Point is friend, I knew Disneyland.
Nonetheless, I wasn't aware of the mythical and ominous presence that was Trader Sam's.
And so it was that on a particularly hot April Monday, Mrs. Geek & I celebrated our two year anniversary with a trip to Disneyland, with the centerpiece of this excursion from regular life being a visit to the actual real Trader Sam's. What follows is my account…
Disneyland was packed, that much I could tell before we even set foot onto Disney soil. Traffic was especially gnarled up the I-5, despite it being half past noon. The parking structure confirmed my intuitions, and we ascended higher up the platforms into Donald Duck territory (level 5 for you Disney aficionados). It took three trams to finally send us on our way to Disneyland, zipping through undercurrents of magic and excitement all the while.
I was bemused, intoxicated by what the day meant and what it would bring. Mrs. Geek and I smiled, the kind of smiles married couples still in love do upon visiting a place which brings about so much joy and nostalgic love. A place that can only be described as-
HOLY HELL THE LINES TO GET IN ARE INSANE!
For those of you unaware, Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure border each other, and rotating through the turnstiles to either park is achieved within clear eyesight of the other. The lines were so long and so backed up that the ends nearly touched each other, creating some sort of weird Human Centipede-esque theme park line of horror.
Seriously, I had never seen such a thing, save for the one time I stupidly went on Christmas.
It was on a day like this that I was thrilled to be a season pass holder, ecstatic that I felt no pressure to ride Star Tours or Space Mountain, knowing I could easily ride such attractions next week if I were so inclined. Honestly, these were the kind of lines that made me empathize with those who loathe Disneyland and Disney theme parks in general. If I had one day to take my family to a theme park, and I was smacked across the chest with unbearable pressure to 'SEE IT ALL!!!', I'd shake at the thought of going back myself. Compounding matters, a slew of major attractions were closed- Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Grizzly River Run, Indiana Jones, and Splash Mountain.
Thankfully, we were there to just take in the atmosphere, enjoy each other's company, and of course… visit Trader Sam's.
After a quick and predictable Midway Mania slaughtering by Mrs. Geek, we headed toward Trader Sam's (which I'll now mostly refer to as TS). TS is a tiki-themed bar located at the Disneyland Resort. I'm sure there are some Disney experts out there screaming about the intricacies of TS and the fact that calling it a tiki bar doesn't do it justice. You're right. But I'm not about to rewrite the entire official description here, so if you're so inclined, CLICK HERE. I'll wait. Really.
Did you get that? Right, like I said, a tiki-themed bar.
I'll admit to being apprehensive about TS, as the notion of Disney doing a bar didn't exactly sit right with me. To be clear, I love Disney and think by and large it's one of the greatest companies of all times. The amount of vision and imagination they've collectively given the world is astounding. But I'm also a bar guy. A fairly real bar guy.
I like the history of a bar, the edgy denizens and lost souls that inhabit bars, the variety of aesthetics involved, and the stories that waft through the front doors when opened. A bar is a bar. Could Disney really provide that? Ignorantly, I imagined a bright, color-laden restaurant posing as a bar, something like Buffalo Wild Wings. Look, nothing against those places, they're just not for me. Given the choice between obnoxious bright yellow signage announcing something edible called Buffalitos and a nondescript hole in the wall which features a shady guy named Cliff who may or may not shank you in the bathroom? I'll take Cliff. I bet his place has a jukebox where you can blast early Stones.
NOTE: I take it back. I do have something against those places. Have you been to their website? I get a headache just by looking at it.
What I'm trying to say, what I'm trying to get across to you people reading this is that I like my interests separate. I like rain forests. I like cafes. I like animatronics. I just don't like The Rainforest Cafe. It's fake in a place where I want authenticity. I like fake where fake belongs. And since a bar is there to serve me good times, serve my sorrows and get me properly shit-faced, I don't want cutesy singsongs and rotating parrots. I want bourbon.
This should go well.
The walk from Disneyland to TS is long, though not too long. Disneyland Hotel sits at the opposite end of the parks, its classic font jutting into the air and letting you know just where to go to find it. We walk past the glittering shops and well-marketed guises for "different" forms of Disney merchandise. I bristle with frustration at the lack of Marvel vinylmations available, but smile at the Marvel and Star Wars items on sale at D-Street, a geek-chic shop that remains a favorite of mine.
NOTE: Disney fans know this... much like Winter, the Star Wars and Marvel invasion is coming… brace yourselves. I'm personally thrilled.
We finally get to the hub of the Disney hotels and look around aimlessly for TS. I had no idea where it was, but somehow figured it resided inside the hotel like some sort of Snow White dark & gloomy cavern. Instead, it's simply a bungalow just outside the hotel, near the lagoon-esque swimming pool. It's adorned with tiki-torches and straw-like material. To be honest, it looked like any other bar I'd seen and entered in my time spent at tourist bars in Hawaii. It was also smaller, more like a shack than a proper bar.
I was worried.
We strolled up and entered, not sure what awaited us. It was roughly 2:00 and the sun was in full-force. Again, I don't want sunshine with my bar experience unless I'm specifically outside. I want darkness, as the very idea of a good bar is escapism, much like a well put together theme park. Hmmm. Maybe this will turn out ok after all…
I open the doors and am immediately intrigued. By the time they close, it becomes clear to me that it is indeed dark and ominous inside. Windows are nonexistent, and the crowd is much thinner than one would expect. This is good.
We sidle up to the bar because really, who takes a table when perfectly good stools beckon you with openness? TS is smaller than I expected, and although they serve food, it definitely is a bar first. Dare I say even, a real bar? The decor is kitschy, but fun, and flows with the entire theme in a subtle, not overly bright way. You could get lost in the details that surround you, and I find myself growing comfortable. I especially enjoy the spotting of what I believe are Enchanted Tiki Room Drummer Gods in the top crevasses of TS. I love those dudes.
I get so comfortable that I don't notice Mrs. Geek casually floating to the floor. Yes, her bar stool is lowering, an apparently legendary trick of TS. It's not offensive or annoying, it's quite endearing actually. So are the low-lights of the bar, they truly enhance the reds and greens glowing about. It almost looks like it could be a bar inside Pirates of the Caribbean, albeit a different them.
We open the TS official drink menu and marvel at the sheer amount of speciality drink choices. Mrs. Geek and I decide to have two drinks each, both different than the other, for a total of four unique cocktails. I figure this won't break my time honored code of never drinking to intoxication at Disneyland, a code I adhere to so much that I never drink at any Disney park, ever. Personal perogative aside, it's our anniversary. We have to. Or so I say…
I order a piranha pool. Mrs. Geek gets a shipwreck on the rocks.
The bartender is nice, not overly friendly, and not overly rude. Just right. Again, I expected this guy…
I am happy to say that is not who I got.
Once setting our cocktails down, the room darkens and the bartenders bellow out "SHIPWRECK, MAN OVERBOARD!" and other assorted crash-inducing screams. What seems like lightning and thunder omits from the sides of the bar, and a handy spray bottle with water is utilized by the head bartender, letting us know that we're "taking on water".
It's very, very charming, much like in the way that The Jungle Cruise is. I smile.
Now here's the truly wonderful thing about TS, they find a way to entertain you without bombarding you with their unique approach. They, dare I say, deftly and subtly interject fun only when it's expected. In fact, when speciality drinks aren't being ordered (try the Krakatoa Punch for the best effects), the bar gives off a very laid-back vibe, one that I could easily see myself getting lost in. The music is soft, the ambiance alluring, and you might not even know it's a Disney bar if I didn't tell you.
Quite honestly, it's not that far off from being the legendary Los Angeles dive bar the Tiki-Ti. True, you aren't surrounded by the scoundrels and villainy that the Tiki-Ti brings, but I also didn't feel like the people within the walls of TS were all tourists either. I know for a fact that there were several regulars abounding about, and the sign of a real bar if nothing else is the population of regulars. You weren't going to get shanked by Cliff, but that doesn't mean a smidgen of dreariness and depression doesn't exist here either. Again to be clear, this is a good thing.
Mrs. Geek and I ordered our second round. Then another. Then another. Then one more for me. Maybe two.
I had so much fun at TS that I clearly broke my aforementioned rule, and think you will too. Luckily, there are hotels and trams just outside the doors of TS awaiting your sloppy arrival. By the time we opened said doors, it was pitch black and glowing lights dotted the increasingly far away destination known as Disneyland. Like Vegas, it seems TS was much closer and more exciting while heading there, not so much going back.
In closing, I loved TS. I loved the ways they blended fun with tradition. The barkeeps and patrons were fantastic, and another important bonus was the price, as every drink roughly translated to $10. If you think that's a lot, you haven't drank speciality drinks in Los Angeles. Hell, I'm still paying off a late 1990's tab at Miyagi's. The TS bill was more than reasonable, and as much as I cringed when the final amount came, I equally breathed relief when I laid my blurry eyes on it. I'll definitely be going to Trader Sam's again.
I'll just cap the drinks at two.
I don't know, maybe four if we start early.