Aloha, Disney! The Walt Disney Co’s new upscale, beach-side Hawaiian resort Aulani opens tomorrow, thousands of kilometers from the nearest Disney theme park. And while Mickey Mouse and friends can be found on the property, Hawaii’s culture 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 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, South Carolina and Vero Beach, Florida, are time shares.)
The resort is expected to attract many of its visitors from the west coast of the US and from Asia. With Japanese guests in mind, time share units are equipped with rice cookers, chopsticks and a tea drawer.
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. However, 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 staffers, including servers and bartenders, are 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 1,670m2 spa, a fire pit for storytelling and a vast water play area.
Hotel rooms range from US$399 a night for a 39m2 room to US$2,449 a night for the Ahu Ulu Suite (two bedrooms, 177m2). An ocean view room runs US$549 a night, which rivals prices at -Hawaii’s most posh resorts.