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Disney breaks the mold with Aulani resort

On Monday, Disney's Aulani resort will open on Oahu's Waianae coast, a new complex designed to provide a unique mix of mouse-inspired “imagineering” and Native Hawaiian culture, all without a theme park nearby.
Disney's Aulani, a new resort and spa in Oahu, is shown overlooking a white sand beach and a crystal blue lagoon. AP

Call it a tale of mice and menehune.

On Monday, Disney’s Aulani resort — its first resort in Hawaii — will open on Oahu’s Waianae coast, a built-from-scratch complex designed to provide a unique mix of mouse-inspired "imagineering" and Native Hawaiian culture. There’ll be “hidden Mickeys” in the bed quilts, carved menehune (traditional forest dwellers) around the grounds and enough Native art, amenities and activities to make a malihini (newcomer) feel like ohana (family).

Assuming, that is, that Aulani can overcome the inherent irony involved when the world’s leading purveyor of fantasy and fabricated experiences sets out to showcase a real place with its own culture and stories.

“We’re a storytelling company,” said Disney spokesman John McClintock, “and when we came to Hawaii, we didn’t come to tell our own stories. We came to tell the stories that already exist here.”

And that’s where things get complicated.

New developments, old issues
Located in the Ko Olina resort area, 20 miles west of downtown Honolulu, Aulani sits at the southern end of Oahu’s Waianae or Leeward Coast, which, Ko Olina aside, remains one of the least developed stretches of coastline on the island. The area is also home to a high percentage of Native Hawaiians, some of whom have felt frozen out by previous development projects.

“Over and over again, promises have been made that haven’t been kept,” said Maile Meyer, owner of Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii in Honolulu (and a cultural consultant to Aulani). “Companies have built their developments and burned their bridges and Native Hawaiians have retreated.”

At the same time, many Native Hawaiians feel their culture has been trivialized by a steady parade of stereotypical images. From Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley movies to lei-giving and luaus — the preferred term is “pa’ina” — many feel marketing has taken precedence over meaning.

Consider the act of giving out leis at the airport. Historically the expression of a personal connection between a host and a guest, it’s become a commercialized activity between complete strangers, says Pamela Davis-Lee, project manager with the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association. “You can’t present thousands of leis and express the deep hospitality that the lei represents,” she says.

Hawaiian culture, not clichés
According to cultural-resource specialists who talked with, Disney took a different tack than many of its predecessors, inviting Native Hawaiians into the planning process.

“Disney asked us to review the story they’d put together,” said Ramsay Taum, CEO of LEI of the Pacific LLC and a cultural consultant on the project. “They had their design in place, and we were asked to fit the story into the place. We said it doesn’t work that way — to try and shove the culture into a box does a disservice to the culture and to the box.”

The result was less emphasis on dancing tikis and torch-lighting ceremonies and more emphasis on Native art, the appropriate use of the Hawaiian language and staff training to ensure employees and managers — cast members in Disney parlance — were well-versed in the local culture.

Aulani, of course, will feature the usual array of resort amenities — a beach, pools, restaurants, spa services — but it will also offer activities and amenities that highlight Hawaiian customs and culture. Guests will be able to make poi in an on-site taro patch, participate in fire-pit storytelling sessions and brush up on their language skills in the interactive ‘Olelo Room.

But Mickey and his pals will hardly be persona non grata. In addition to mouse-inspired design elements, Mickey and Minnie will show up for character breakfasts and surprise visits, although they’ll be introduced, not as hosts, but as other guests.

“Is it 100-percent authentic Hawaiian? Of course not,” Meyer said. “But it’s as real as you can get in a visitor experience.”

Thinking beyond theme parks
Beyond its focus on local culture, Aulani represents a new direction for Disney in other ways. As the company’s first mixed-use resort, it features both hotel rooms and Disney Vacation Club timeshare villas. As such, it’s viewed as a test project in the company’s effort to build standalone properties that are not dependent on their proximity to the company’s massive theme parks.

“Disney does well with hotels that surround their parks,” said John Gerner, managing director for Leisure Business Advisors LLC. “The theme parks help them with their bottom line, allowing them to get higher rates and occupancies than standalone hotels. It gets more complicated when you’re talking about non-park projects and timeshares.”

Aulani, in fact, recently saw its first major complication when Disney management discovered that annual dues for the resort’s timeshare units had been set too low to cover expenses. As first reported in the Orlando Sentinel, the company has since suspended timeshare sales and fired three executives.

Timeshare snafu aside, the lack of a nearby theme park may prove to be both a curse and a blessing for Aulani. “As a beach resort, it will have to compete with every other beach resort,” said hospitality consultant Scott Brush. “On the other hand, people don’t want to go to Disneyland every year so the company will get vacations they didn’t get in the past.”

Swim, sunbathe, spread the word
Even without a nearby theme park, Aulani guests won’t lack for things to do. The centerpiece of the 21-acre resort is the Waikolohe Valley complex, an 8,200-square-foot water-play area dominated by a large pool and a two-channel lazy river.

Other amenities include a snorkeling lagoon, a water-play area called Menehune Bridge and a nightly “hui,” a guest event/gathering with entertainment. Four restaurants, two lounges and an 18,000-square-foot spa are also on the property. Standard room rates start at $399 per night; rooms with partial ocean views start at $524.

Those rates put Aulani on a par with some of the priciest hotels on Oahu, not surprising, perhaps, given the breadth of amenities and the drawing power of the Disney brand.

At the same time, local supporters hope the exclusive nature of the resort will draw a clientele looking for more than just sun, surf and umbrella drinks.

“I see the resort as a fish pond and Disney is bringing the fish to us,” said Meyer. “If visitors engage and interact, they’ll take our stories back home with them. Hopefully, they’re not just coming for the Mai Tais.”