KAPOLEI, Hawaii – Aloha, Disney!
The Walt Disney Co.'s new upscale, beachside Hawaiian resort Aulani opens Monday, thousands of miles from the nearest Disney theme park. And while Mickey Mouse and friends can be found on the property, Hawaii's culture, history and natural beauty are the biggest stars.
"The resort is not a replication of any of our theme parks. We know if guests want to go to Disneyland, they'll go to Disneyland," said Djuan Rivers, a Disney vice president who oversees the resort. "Our guests are coming here first and foremost for Hawaii and everything Hawaii has to offer."
Joe Rohde, head of Aulani's creative team, grew up in Honolulu and said "we made a choice early on to really, really focus on Hawaiian culture as a defining element of Aulani."
Aulani is located on the west side of Oahu, about an hour's drive from Waikiki. The sprawling 840-unit resort is the first major Disney property to offer a mix of regular hotel rooms and Disney Vacation Club time shares away from a theme park. (Disney's smaller resorts in Hilton Head, Ga., and Vero Beach, Fla., are time shares.)
Aulani is a Hawaiian term for messenger of a chief or higher authority. Showcasing the host culture as Aulani's main theme is a departure from other Disney properties where the iconic mouse and other Disney references are visible at every turn. True, visitors will find a surfer Mickey lamp in each Aulani guest room, with his image subtly blended in the bedding design, and Disney cast members portraying Mickey, Minnie, Donald and the rest of the crew can be found strolling around in bright aloha shirts and shorts. But the spotlight here is definitely on Hawaii.
"This story is about this place, that you came to see, experience and want to take away memories from that are different than the memories if you went to Idaho," Rohde said.
Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and the company's former chief financial officer, said Aulani "captures the very best of the rich Hawaiian storytelling and culture with a touch of Disney."
Designers have incorporated historical and contemporary island scenes, artwork, values, designs, textures, colors, language and traditions in nearly every aspect of the place, from taro fields and native foliage in the landscaping, to the Olelo Room lounge, where everything is labeled in the Hawaiian language, including the chairs (noho) and the floor (papahele). Olelo's staff, including servers and bartenders, is fluent in Hawaiian and will speak to each other in the island's native tongue while sharing the language with guests. Other employees have also undergone some language and cultural training.
"Here you are in Hawaii. You will meet people who are Hawaiian. You will meet people who speak Hawaiian. I think that's cool," Rohde said.
The resort's two main towers have 359 hotel rooms, 481 time-share condo units, two main restaurants, conference rooms, an 18,000-square-foot spa, a fire pit for storytelling and a vast water play area.
Hotel rooms range from $399 a night for a 420-square-foot room to $2,449 a night for the Ahu Ulu Suite (two bedrooms, 1,910 square feet). An ocean view room runs $549 a night, which rivals prices at Hawaii's most posh resorts.
Disney would not comment on the cost of building Aulani, which has been reported at more than $800 million. But behind the scenes, the resort has not always been the happiest place on earth. Disney broke ground on the project in November 2008 during the recession and temporarily suspended sales of time-share units in July amid concerns that it underpriced annual fees, including maintenance costs for the units. The Orlando Sentinel first reported that Disney fired three executives over the financial mistake including Jim Lewis, president of Disney Vacation Club. Disney said it recalculated the annual fee and was taking deposit reservations from prospective buyers, but not executing contracts until modifications are made in the registration materials.
Besides an 8,200-square-foot pool, there is a 950-foot-long lazy river where kids can glide along in a tube through forests and caverns, a saltwater snorkel lagoon filled with tropical fish, a rock formation with lava tube slides and an aquatic jungle gym called Menehune Bridge. Pay an extra $45 to visit a water preserve where you can feed stingrays and see starfish and anemones. A portion of proceeds will be donated to conservation efforts in Hawaii.
A supervised kid's club for children ages 3 to 12 called Aunty's Beach House was inspired by Rohde's aunt's beach home in Punaluu. With the exception of a fireplace, which most Hawaiian homes don't have, it's designed to look like a traditional home, decorated with old trophies, photos and a garage filled with tools and tins. The high-tech windows are digital portals depicting scenes from around Hawaii.
Kids can watch Disney movies, play dress-up or video games, or participate in activities such as learning hula while parents play golf, hit the spa or beach or enjoy a quiet meal. Tweens and teens have a separate hangout where they can listen to music, eat frozen yogurt and surf the Internet.
The landscaping is inspired by an ahupuaa, an ancient Hawaiian land division system that extended from the mountain to the sea. Situated between the towers is a lush tropical forest that serves as a make-believe hideout for Hawaiian trolls, or menehune. Closer to the ocean, coconut trees sway in the Pacific breeze.
A canoe and maritime theme inspired by the legendary Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokulea is found throughout Aulani, from artwork to handmade lashings on signs and structures. High arches in the architecture evoke traditional Hawaiian canoe houses.
"We return again and again to this canoe idea because of this whole sense of arrival, journey and also because the canoes are this sort of this quintessential Hawaiian art form," Rohde said.
Aulani is expected to attract many of its visitors from the West Coast and Asia. With Japanese guests in mind, time share units are equipped with rice cookers, chopsticks and a tea drawer.
Around the corner from the resort, farther up the Waianae Coast are unspoiled beaches and mountainsides, a stark contrast to the blight from the deep poverty and homelessness that has long plagued this part of Oahu. Some locals have voiced concern about preserving the area's rural character, but with an expected workforce of 1,200, Aulani is bringing in much-needed jobs.
Aulani sits on 21 acres of a larger property, the Ko Olina Resort, which also houses a golf course with waterfalls, luxury homes, a public beach park, and the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa. The Marriott resort houses the NFL's Pro Bowlers and for years was the biggest building in the area, but it's now dwarfed by Aulani.
Staggs said a key component of Disney's business strategy is to figure out where families like to vacation. "Our guests told us that Hawaii is one of their favorite vacation destinations," he said, "and we created Aulani in response to that feedback."