Tiki bars exist on a spectrum. On one end lies Disneyland, where intricate design work and cool effects turn a night at the bar into an interactive experience. On the opposite end you’ve got dives—grungy, old-fashioned neighborhood bars with tropical drinks served in awesome mugs in dark rooms whose theming might consist of just a few colored lights and some bamboo. Every tiki bar falls somewhere on that spectrum, and as long as you’ve got the right drinks, there’s absolutely no wrong or right way to do it; elaborate bars like Disney’s own Trader Sam’s are amazing, of course, but I’ve had just as great of a time at quaint, out-of-the-way dives without a national rep. The whole Disney-to-dive spectrum can be summed up by Las Vegas’s two best tiki bars, the Golden Tiki and Frankie’s Tiki Room; the Golden Tiki is heavily themed and full of fun surprises and gimmicks, whereas Frankie’s is laid back and comfortable—a bar for regulars. One is an experience you plan for, the other is a bar you hang out in, and both are excellent. If I had to pick only one, I’d go with Frankie’s, but that all comes down to your own personal tastes.
You can also find both ends of the spectrum in Orlando. Try to get a reservation at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort if you want the fancy stuff. If you’d rather post up at a welcoming dive with a deep selection of tiki drinks and ample, if less interactive, decoration, you should head to Aku Aku in Downtown Orlando. Enamored with the glitz and charm of mid century Vegas (it’s connected to a restaurant called the Stardust, named after the legendary old-school Vegas resort), Aku Aku intentionally feels like a bar that has aged out of its glory days, and become something more charming and lived-in along the way. With a long list of both classic and original tiki cocktails (try their own creation, the Tiger Fucker, while you’re there), Aku Aku is a place I could very easily lose track of time in—as I did during a recent visit a few weeks ago.
Aku Aku has the trappings you’d expect from a tiki bar. Puffer fish lamps hang from the ceiling, while strings of colored lights outline the bar. Thatching and bamboo accents abound, and a giant Easter Island Moai stares out from a corner. Rum-heavy drinks come in mugs adorned with hula dancers, tiki figures, and tropical birds. A shrine to Disney’s beloved Orange Bird adds a bit of local flavor, with what looks like a velvet painting of a drunken Orange Bird totally smashed on a tiki drink sitting next to an Orange Bird figurine inside a Mystery Science Theater 3000 mug. It’s unmistakably a tiki bar, but with the kind of low-key, relaxed atmosphere you felt at your favorite bar in college.
Perhaps the most important part of a tiki bar, of course, are the cocktails, and guess what: Aku Aku’s got ‘em. I might’ve gone a little too hard during my time there, starting with a classic Mai Tai in the Trader Vic’s mold (tart and delicious) and ultimately trying a half-dozen drinks before the night was done. The Beachcomber’s Booty combines three types of rum with orgeat, lime, and absinthe for an interesting twist on tiki classics, while the Jet Pilot sticks with the absinthe, rum and lime but swaps out the orgeat with falernum and adds in Don’s Mix and grapefruit for a little touch of bitterness. The Aku Aku is a bit like a pineapple and mango mojito, and the Blackbeard’s Ghost (named after a Disney movie from the ‘60s, once again showing how much influence mid century Disney has over the modern tiki scene) is a cousin to the Mai Tai, but with apricot and guava instead of orange liqueur.
If you come to Aku Aku, though, you’ll probably want to try out its most famous (infamous?) drink. The bar heavily touts its own original cocktail, the Tiger Fucker, despite not listing it on its menu. It’s one of those “if you know, you know” type deals, only it’s almost impossible to not know about the Tiger Fucker, given how much has been written and said about it. Don’t let the fact that there’s no rum in this one dissuade you from trying it out. The combo of vodka and Aku Aku’s own homemade jalapeno blueberry syrup hits the sweet spot between spiciness, fruitiness, and booziness, with the three wrestling for control but splitting a three-way tie in the end. And its presentation is classic tiki showmanship, with each glass arriving with a flaming sugarcube atop a lemon slice next to a flower. If you just want a taste of the Tiger Fucker while sticking to your classic tiki regimen, you can also get it as a shot. I, um, maybe got a couple of those in-between all of those other drinks.
The most surprising thing about Aku Aku—and the element that really sets it apart from most tiki bars, and squarely near the dive end of the spectrum—is its soundtrack. I didn’t hear any exotica chestnuts or surf rock while I was there. It was pretty much exclusively punk and underground rock, the kind of stuff you’d hear on college radio, including a few songs from Atlanta’s own Black Lips. There was even a lengthy jam from psychedelic noise band Wooden Shjips, one of the last groups I’d expect to hear at a tiki bar. (What’s next, Oneida? Les Rallizes Denudes?!?) The soundtrack can be a crucial part of the tiki experience, and normally I’d hope to hear stuff that reinforces that breezy, mid century vibe. Aku Aku’s playlist worked perfectly for it, though, signaling that it’s a little younger, scrappier, and scuzzier than a lot of modern day tiki bars. It reinforced that this is a bar people hang out and live in, and not just a bit of themed escapism for people who yearn for a mythical polynesia of their grandparents’ time. Of course, they might stick to the expected sounds on busier nights, or when different bartenders are working; the night I was there, though, it sounded like I was hanging out at a friend’s house.
That’s the appeal of Aku Aku, and other tiki bars closer to the dive end of the spectrum. They’re comfortable. You can slip right into feeling like a regular. They’re like the corner bar you used to be able to find in most neighborhoods, only with the warmth and charm of the tiki aesthetic. Aku Aku isn’t necessarily a bar you rave about to friends or strangers, like Disney’s Trader Sam’s, but it’s a bar you go back to whenever you’re in town, knowing that you’re going to have a really good time. And if that’s not a sign of a great bar, I don’t know what is.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.