In a move that sends either shivers of delight or shudders of loathing among fans of Hawaii, Disney is set to open its first resort in Oahu next year.
The 800-plus-unit property, dubbed “Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa,” is designed as a Polynesian village (albeit one with high-rise towers) that will include hotel rooms and two-bedroom Disney Vacation Club Villas.
The 21-acre resort is being built in Ko Olina, a golf and vacation development that already has a Marriott resort and a man-made beach carved out of the rocky coastline.
Aulani is a different kind of development for Disney,
the first that isn’t linked to a theme park or its cruise line. The
hotel will be far from the famous tourist areas and beaches of Waikiki, which is on the other side of Honolulu, to the east, near Diamond Head. Ko Olina is the kind of self-contained environment Disney likes for many of its developments.
In a video presentation posted on YouTube, Joe Rohde, Disney’s “executive designer and vice president, creative,” explained the thinking behind the new resort.
“Now the word ‘aulani’ specifically means a
messenger of a chief … but when you use it to apply to a place like
we are making, it means the place is going to speak, to speak on behalf
of something greater than itself. In this case, that greater thing is
The YouTube video is typical of the buzz-building word-of-mouth campaign Disney has put together for Aulani. Members of D23, the Disney super fan club, were invited to preview the project at a presentation June 30 in Anaheim, Calif.
Word was released through a Disney blog that it would begin accepting reservations for the as-yet-unfinished hotel beginning Aug. 2.
Customers will have to wait awhile to actually visit — the resort isn’t going to open its doors until Aug. 29, 2011. I have to wonder why a family-oriented product like a Disney resort would open just as the school year is resuming.
The images and video show a resort that will include an A-frame entryway that echoes the Polynesian resort at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. A centerpiece of the Hawaii project will be a large fake volcano designed by Disney’s
“imagineers” to be embedded with subtle images of culturally
significant Hawaiian animals and legends. It’s the centerpiece of the
water park portion of the property.
There will representations of menehune, the mythical
small people of Hawaiian culture who were said to come out at night to
build structures (the Menehune Ditch on Kauai
is the most famous example). The menehune will be the Hawaiian resort’s
version of “hidden Mickeys” — tucked away in spots around the property
where children can find them in a kind of hide-and-seek visual treasure
hunt. The hotel will have a pool and water play area, a “lazy river”
for tubing, a snorkeling lagoon, a children’s club, restaurants and
perhaps the key — a convention center.
The Hawaii property also makes sense because the islands are popular vacation destinations for two of Disney’s most loyal clienteles — the West Coast of the United States, and Japan (which has two Disney theme parks). The Aulani website has pages in English and Japanese.
Disney is reliably
sure-footed with its plans, though its success is usually in building a
fantasy world removed from reality. An African adventure park in Florida or a lodge in Anaheim that looks like it was teleported from Yellowstone National Park. Its one certifiable dud — the original version of Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim — represented California culture to a California audience.
Much of Rohde’s Imagineering work has been in Disney’s Florida properties, where over-the-top design is a welcome part of building fantasy worlds. He grew up in Hawaii, so he knows Oahu isn’t Orlando.
A resort that incorporates Polynesian design is a welcome addition to
the soulless tower blocks that have marked much of hotel development in
But Rohde is upping the stakes, and Disney could be in danger of overreach by, as Rohde put it, speaking “on behalf of something greater than itself.”
An overblown, pretentious presentation of Hawaiian culture would attract a lot of criticism. Disney has shown its ability to go the extra mile for authenticity when dealing with Hawaii, sending a team of artists to research the plantation-era buildings in Hanapepe on Kauai to use as a model for the town in its “Lilo & Stitch” movies and series.
The danger here is that Disney will create a cartoonish version of Hawaii — in Hawaii. We’ll stay tuned to see how the property shapes up. Will it be creative or kitschy? Disney is hoping for big things. In the video, Rohde says Aulani will be a place where “people will come back again and again.”
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