As a graphic designer I'm always interested in where ideas for design come from. I like to think that a good designer understands their client's dilemma and combines disparate ideas from the warehouse of visual images sucked up and stored in their brain over the course of their life to create a unique solution that solves the problem. But sometimes a single source will do.
In the early '90s I spent every other weekend at WDW to try to shake off the pressures of my advertising job and ended up parking at the Polynesian Resort in order to avoid the long, hot tram ride from the Goofy parking lot to the Transportation and Ticket Center. That's when I started to take a shine to Disney's Polynesian Resort logo and especially to the little tiki character included in the system. The little guy showed up in just about every sign I passed in a variety of configurations: alone, stacked and inverted as a double, and even as a quad facing into each other. How can you not have a good time on vacation with the little guy smiling at you everywhere?
Which takes us back to question of inspiration. How did the anonymous designer come up with the idea for Mr. Smiling Tiki? After 35 years, I may have the answer.
The carving on the left is a decoration on the second floor of the hotel's lobby, "The Great Ceremonial House." It's probably a reproduction of a spirit board from the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, bought for the resort from Oceanic Arts in California, who also carved the wayfinding signs for the Polynesian and provided props for Disneyland's Adventureland years before. When placed side-by-side with the resort's logo, it's easy to see how the designer took the overall shape and pose from the carving's character but made him "friendlier," which maybe not so coincidentally seems to be Disney's overriding ethic from their film plots to their theme park architecture: take the original source material and make it more accessible and enjoyable to the public.
Overall, Walt Disney World's graphic design during the resort's early years was exceptionally strong. In the research I've done on the company and the countless websites and magazines I've read, there's little mention of their graphic designers, which is a shame. Anyone who can make the totally "out of the box" decision to use the then brand new Blippo Black, a thick, dark sans serif typeface to represent a south seas island-style resort (and pull it off) deserves recognition.