Cover Story

Disney’s Hawai‘i-themed resort awakens local hopes and dreams


Cover image for Oct 12, 2011

Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawaii, opened its doors to guests on Aug. 29, signalling a new, synergistic relationship between two of the biggest brands in the tourism industry: Disney and Hawaii.

It’s a relationship that seems ripe with potential, especially in light of Disney’s stated intent to give visitors an “authentic” Native Hawaiian experience.

“From the very beginning we’ve committed ourselves to ensuring that Aulani is respectful and appreciative of the unique Hawaiian culture and traditions,” said Bob Iger, Disney president and CEO, during the opening celebration. Mickey, dressed in an aloha shirt, performed a mock hula as a barefoot Iger addressed an enthusiastic crowd at the Sept. 22 grand opening.

Upon first learning of Disney’s cultural quest, however, some locals had pointed out the contrast with a very different Native Hawaiian experience just up Farrington Highway along the Waianae Coast, where so many live in poverty and homelessness is widespread. Yet leaders in the Hawaiian community seem to have embraced Disney’s presence, lauding the corporation for reaching out.

“I believe that [Aulani is] an asset to our community, simply because it’s created a lot of job opportunities for our Leeward Coast residents,” says Roberta Searle, a member of the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board. “From the way the community has actually embraced it, there doesn’t seem to be–as we speak–any criticism.”

Aulani is still not running at full tilt, as evidenced by scaffolding here and there, but upon completion, Disney estimates it will be providing an estimated 2,400 full-time jobs on Oahu, about half of which will be based at the resort. Since the spring of this year, Aulani has hired and trained over 800 local residents to work full-time in areas from guest services to maintenance and management.

Among local residents employed by Aulani is former City Council Leeward Oahu Rep. Todd Apo, who resigned before the end of his term to become Aulani’s head of public affairs.

“Our focus,” said Apo, “has been obviously on the West Oahu community; [we’ve] been really looking at the Leeward Coast, recognizing the Native Hawaiian population.”

Disney has donated over $300,000 in the last year to groups like the Nanakuli and Waianae Chapters of the Boys and Girls Club Hawaii as well as the ‘Ukulele Guild of Hawaii, which provides local kids with free instruments and music lessons. The company funds children’s field trips to the Bishop Museum, and built a playground at the Ka Waihona O Ka Naauau Charter School. Disney is also working with the nonprofit group Awaiaulu to translate and make available online newspapers printed in the Hawaiian language between 1834 and the 1940s.

While these expenditures, arguably, amount to a drop in a very large bucket for Disney, which also owns ESPN and ABC, they still add up to a lot of good deeds for Hawaii.

Hawaiian style

It’s easy to see what is “Hawaiian” about Aulani. With the thatched-style roofs and lashings on crossbeams, the architecture seems to embrace Hawaiian themes and construction techniques. The staff is friendly and exudes aloha. And the art is just another extension of the culture. Disney has filled the airy, cathedral-vaulted lobby and other public spaces with vibrant work of contemporary Hawaiian artists. Murals paying tribute to Hawaiian history and lifestyle–one by Martin Charlot and another by Solomon Enos–are layered with multiple stories and meanings. Enos, who can remember holding a sign in protest of Ko Olina development as a young child, has been recruited 25 years later to contribute to the Aulani art. His contribution, the ceterpiece in the in the Makahiki restaurant, depicts Hawaiians planting and harvesting, in colors that ebb and flow from warm to cool. Exterior panels, 15 stories high, based on the drawings of Harinani Orme, depict the demigod Maui and the goddess Hina. Lustrous and beautiful wood sculptures by Rocky Jensen and Mark Chai are also on display alongside Dalani Tanahy’s radiant, geometric patterned kapa cloth.

But where’s Disney?

While Mickey and friends do make live appearances, and there are subtle details like surfing Mickeys on the lampshades, Aulani is not about immersing visitors in the culture of Disney’s fantasy kingdom. Instead, a more generic, upscale tourist experience is being put in place. The resort includes Disney Vacation Club timeshare units–460 of which were sold at prices deemed unprofitable, resulting in the firing of three top executives. And Disney’s presence will soon be felt not just by land, but also by sea: The company intends to offer cruises to Hawaii in 2012.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming feeling at Aulani is the culture of Hawaii, thanks to the community’s input.

Cultural navigators

About five years ago, during the pre-development stage, Disney executives gathered prominent business and cultural leaders to seek their opinions about the company’s ideas for its new resort.

“It was so wrong that it was entertaining,” said Maile Meyer of Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii who was among those in attendance. “We laughed,” she says.

But Disney was not discouraged. “They spent a lot of money and they just said ‘Oops, we got it wrong,’” Meyer recalls. Not only that, “They hired us. They started over,” Meyer says. As cultural consultants, she and others “moved [Disney] into a mindset of working with people who are from the [Waianae] coast because…the Hawaiians talking should be the people from that place.”

Enos, who grew up in Makaha, also participated. “I guess the more involved you are in these kinds of developments, the more opportunities we have to create dialogue,” he says, adding that Disney did not tell him what to paint for the mural they commissioned from him. “If you’re not at the table you’re on the menu,” he adds.

Getting it right

So did Disney get it right?

“They may not get it 100 percent, but they’ve gone further than anyone else has ever gone in Hawaii to try to get this thing right,” says Ramsay Taum, president of Life Enhancement Institute of the Pacific and another member of Disney’s cultural resource team. “Will all Hawaiians be happy with it? Probably not, but that’s what culture is: every island has its theme, every kupuna has [their] principles and practices, and so (if) you have 10 Hawaiians in a room, you have 20 opinions.”

At the very least, Aulani seems to be a step in the right direction for Hawaii tourism, having integrated an impressive and unprecedented amount of Hawaiian art, culture and language into its décor and philosophy. If one were to criticize Disney for exploiting Hawaiian culture, they’d might as well criticize every resort in the state, most of which are capitalizing on Polynesian generalities rather than just the Hawaiian culture. “Aulani’s just the most recent addition to the business model,” continues Taum. “To pick on Aulani at this point in time kind of misses the overall point. You have a visitor industry that is inviting and attracting strangers to the Islands; and at the same time, you have the host community that continues to experience suffering both in health and welfare,” he concludes.

A model for others

Although Aulani may not, price-wise at least, be local-friendly for most Island families, it seems to be doing wonders to promote all things Hawaiian. Disney has the power to serve as a catalyst in reforming the way Hawaii’s resorts relate to their host culture, and the consensus is that they’re channeling that power responsibly.

No green hu-hu

Asked whether they had any coastal preservation concerns, both the Sierra Club and Earthjustice had no comment, and KAHEA did not return calls before press time. Perhaps Hawaii’s watchdog environmental groups see the Ko Olina area as a lost cause. Initially dubbed West Beach Resort, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was originally filed in 1980, with supplemental EIS filings in 1985, for an expansion of the resort area, and in about 1989, for the golf course. This reporter’s review of these documents finds that everything seems to be in accord for now, but there is still a lot of open space in the area, and any further development should trigger a new EIS.

On the outside looking in

Long before Mickey welcomed the first guests to Aulani, this writer was feeling apprehensive about Disney’s opening a resort on Oahu. But almost everyone I talked to seemed to have only good things to say about the place. That may be because O’ahu is simply prone to accept the fanfare and foofaraw that accompany huge resorts. Or it may be that everyone simply has a soft spot in their hearts for Disney.

Naturally, I just had to check it out.

From a distance, Aulani is nothing spectacular. Where once were sugar cane fields, now sprawls the Ko Olina Resort Community and Marina. Aulani sits unassumingly between the Marriot’s towering Ihilani and the Beach Villas at Ko Olina. Disney came to town competing to be the next top family resort; a squeaky clean hideaway, far-removed from Waikiki’s problems with homelessness and crime.

But with rates starting at $399 a night, only well-heeled families are likely to stay at Aulani. Even a quoted kamaaina rate of 25 percent off, based on availability, would seem out of reach for many local residents, including me. My only affordable option was a day trip.

“The public is welcome to come on property,” one of Aulani’s customer service representatives informed me over the phone before I made the trek out to Ko Olina from town.

After spending the better part of an hour cruising the area’s tiny public beach access free parking lots for a spot (guests get free self-parking; non-guests can do valet and self-parking for $35 per day, validation with dining), I finally found a space outside the Ko Olina Beach Villas and made the long hot walk to Aulani. Coming in from the public beach is tricky. You can follow a path on the ‘Ewa side around to the lobby front door–or, if you’re like me, you can sneak in off the sand behind some paying guests using their key card in the gate. Either way you go, it is unlikely you will feel all that welcome.

I found myself in the Waikolohe Valley, a fictional ahupuaa bordered by the “ridges” of Aulani’s two main towers, where lush, harlequin-green palms swayed above dark lava formations. It is a water park of sorts, with a lazy river snaking through, waterslides, several swimming pools, whirlpool spas, the scent of chlorine mixed with plumeria, and an interactive play area for the keiki called the Menehune Bridge. There is also an enclosed salt water fish habitat that paying guests can pay another $20 ($15 for kids) to snorkel in.

Coming on property is about all the public is allowed to do, unless they want to eat at one of the pricy eateries (to be fair, the poolside dining options are on par with what most resorts charge). Those who aren’t paying guests can walk around and observe all the fun, but that is pretty much it.

Be forewarned: If you try to sneak onto the waterslide, or take a dip in the pool, you will be prevented by one of the many lifeguards strolling around keeping tabs on the premises. I already tried. Without a wristband, it’s no go.