KAPOLEI, Hawaii – More than 80 years after Mickey Mouse piloted "Steamboat Willie" and whistled his way into the hearts of children across the world, he has finally reached the shores of Hawaii.
The Walt Disney Co. on Friday gave a peek of its sprawling, beachside Hawaiian resort that is under construction and scheduled to open next year.
"Aulani" is Disney's first major standalone resort away from a theme park and could serve as a model for future projects as the company diversifies and expands its vacation offerings.
"This is a very special project for us," said Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "It's unlike anything that Disney has done before; at the same time, it's very like many of the things we do."
Aulani will have 359 hotel rooms, 481 time-share units, restaurants, a convention center, a 15,000-square-foot spa and a massive water play area that includes a volcano tube slide and snorkel lagoon.
It sits on 21 acres on Oahu's Leeward Coast in the Ko Olina development, known for its white sand lagoons, scenic golf course and colorful sunsets. Ko Olina is about an hour west of Waikiki, where most of the hotels and tourists are.
Jim Lewis, president of Disney's time-share component, said Hawaii makes "perfect sense" with its rich culture, traditions, warm greetings, family values, friendships and storytelling.
"Those are also terms synonymous with Disney," he said. "And by the way, Hawaii also happens to be one of the most popular vacation destinations on the planet, and that's the business that we're in."
Most of the resort is currently a jungle of concrete, steel, wires and pipes with no Mickey and Minnie in sight. Aulani is scheduled to open Aug. 29, 2011, with hotel reservations to begin next month. Time-share sales started three weeks ago.
With the construction phase alone costing more than $600 million, Aulani represents a huge investment for Disney amid a sharp tourism downturn.
Staggs, who previously served as Disney's chief financial officer, wouldn't comment on the final cost.
"Are we nervous about this investment right now given this economy? The answer is we really aren't," he said. "We really do have a fundamental belief in this location and Hawaii in general."
Staggs called the project "a tremendous opportunity," giving Disney a permanent presence in the islands. He wouldn't say what other areas Disney was considering because "right now, our focus is right here and making sure we get this right."
According to an economic impact study commissioned by Disney, Aulani is expected to generate 4,800 jobs during construction. When completed, 2,400 jobs will be created, with about half working at the resort. More than $271 million annually in economic activity will be generated.
The largest units at Aulani are 3-bedroom "Grand Villas" - 2,300-square-foot timeshare units that are larger than most Hawaii homes, sleep 12 and have sweeping views of the Pacific.
All the hotel and timeshare units have more of a traditional Hawaiian flair with touches of Disney that generally are subtle - other than the surfer Mickey lamp in each room.
David Uchiyama, of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said Disney's arrrival is a "validator" of the Aloha state as a family destination. He was impressed by Disney's efforts in trying to connect with Hawaiian culture.
"(Others) usually lay out a structure, put pictures up and put a canoe here. These guys went way beyond that," Uchiyama said. "The extent that they took to connect with the host culture should be commended."
While this may be Disney's first big push into Hawaii, the company has had a long and growing relationship with Hawaii. One of the most notable is the animated film "Lilo & Stitch," the centerpiece of a $1.7 million marketing deal between Hawaii and Disney.
Other projects have included the 2001 film "Pearl Harbor" and ABC's castaway drama "Lost," which filmed here for six seasons. ABC is owned by Disney. In addition, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" began shooting here this summer.
"We couldn't find a more perfect place in putting a resort like this," Staggs said.