Disney Comes Home to Hawaii at its New Aulani Resort

| July 11, 2010 | 5 Replies

Hawaii.  Warm tropical breezes, rich cultural tradition, and that spirit of “ohana” (family) that makes even the most stalwart visitor melt in the warmth of this island paradise.   Walt Disney felt that way too and now, decades later, his company is constructing its third “off-property” resort in the Ko Olina Resort area of Oahu, on the shore of the Kolola Lagoon – Disney’s Aulani Resort and Spa.   Since this new resort will be owned and operated under the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) banner, Disney hosted a sales presentation over the July 4th weekend at the Disneyland Hotel, for DVC members and their guests.

Being a DVC member since 1993 and a frequent Hawaii vacationer, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity and learn more about this new resort.   I don’t want this blog to be a press release for the resort, but I did want to dig a little deeper and give you some information on its location, share a little bit of my Hawaiian knowledge with you, and help you to really appreciate the Aulani resort to its fullest.  That’s why I took some time to tape the interview segments that DVC did with Imagineer Extraordinaire, Joe Rhode, that tell us about the concept and design of the resort.  It was complete genius to put him in charge of this resort development, considering the amazing details he designed into his most famous labor of love – Animal Kingdom…  I definitely recommend that you click below to learn more, before I show you photos, comments, and tips about the resort – and yes, I was generous enough to share a bit of the wonderful hula presentation with you as well – see if you can guess the final dance tune!

Now that you have heard Joe discuss the naming of the resort, the design style of Aulani, and the educational and cultural responsibility that Disney hopes to maintain though the artisans involved in the project,  I want to take a couple steps back to the beginning.

I think it’s important to understand Disney’s roots in why Hawaii was chosen.  It was certainly a favorite vacation spot of Walt, Lillian, and the girls.  In fact, the D23 archives was kind enough to display this family photo of the Disney family on vacation near Diamond Head.

Disney family on vacation near Diamond Head.

Hawaii was also the inspiration and even the film set for many Disney cartoons and features, including Mickey and Minnie in Hawaiian Holiday, Lieutenant Robinson Crusoe, USN – 1965, Castaway Cowboy with a young James Garner – 1974, Last Flight of the Noah’s Ark – 1979, Mighty Joe Young, Six Days Seven Nights, George of the Jungle, and Lost.  Who can forget that the beauty of Kauai was the setting of Lilo and StitchPirates of the Carribean 4 will be the next Disney film to shoot there.

Hawaii was also inspiration for the Disney Theme Parks in the Enchanted Tiki Room and both the Tahitian Terrace dinner show in Adventureland at Disneyland (which ran from 1962 to 1992) and one of the first resorts at Walt Disney World and one of my personal favorites – the Polynesian Resort.

Since it’s now obvious that Disney has a long relationship with Hawaii, let’s look at the one that is developing now.  I want to start off by showing you a map of the completed project.

A map of the new Aulani Resort, currently under construction.

Pretty impressive on paper, but how does it translate to 3D and real life?  Let’s explore this next.

Obviously, it’s currently under construction, and as you can see from the photo, it has a little way to go, before its planned opening date of August 2011.  Looks like they have a pretty decent start on those 360 regular hotel rooms and the 481 2-bedroom Disney Vacation Club units.   Something new in this resort too, is a 14,545 sq-foot conference center.  Not surprising, since there is also an existing wedding chapel right next door and right off the ocean!   Hawaii is a popular spot for company incentive conventions, and since part of this resort is for regular room sales, I can understand why Disney would want in on that part of the market.

Disney’s Aulani Resort, as it looks today.

The white building to the top right is the existing J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa, so it will be easy for folks to hop over to other resorts for dinner.  Since they had a scale model of the resort for us to peruse, so I thought it would be fun to compare the construction photo with a similar angle on the model – to put things in perspective.

A view of the arrival hale, or check-in house.

The window in the center of the hale will be a breathtaking mix of pattern and color, as shown in this artist’s rendering, along with the open, ocean vista breezeway design that is so popular in many of Hawaii’s top resorts.

Inside the Main Hale

I especially love the chandeliers that are designed like poi balls in a fishing net and the tapa cloth pattern in the glass.  All touches that express daily life in Hawaii.

Now, let’s turn our perspective of the model around, and look at the resort from the Kolola Lagoon perspective.  You know, you’ve seen this lagoon before if you have seen the film “Blue Crush.”

Aulani as viewed from the Kolola Lagoon

Looks pretty cozy.  Disney says that there will be a restaurant in those little hut shaped buildings at the lower right, that will give diners spectacular views of the sunset, another benefit of being on the leeward side of the island.  I’m not completely sure where they are putting the other restaurant, which features buffet dining, but I imagine it will probably be close to the central area of the resort.  For dining variety, there are other resorts within a comfortable walking distance, as well as the Ko Olina Station shopping area across the street from the resort, which features a market and a Roy’s – famed for Hawaiian Fusion cusine (a personal favorite in our family).  Somewhere in there is an 18,000 sq-foot spa, too.  Sigh.  I’ve had spa treatments in Hawaii before and I think they are extra special…

Now, back to the photo.  Two important things I need to tell you a little about –  the four lagoons that make up the Ko Olina resort area and the fact that all beaches in Hawaii are public beaches.

First, the lagoons.  They are all man-made, surrounded by a natural rock barrier.  Really.  Any public record info you get from Hawaiian websites will tell you this – I looked. Disney marketing materials seem to reflect differently.  Regardless, this engineering is designed to keep the lagoons calm all year, meaning that fish find this a great area to hang out for your snorkeling pleasure.    Aulani will be located on the most western and largest of the lagoons, name Kolola.   This is also referred to as Lagoon 1 and Disney shares part of the beach with the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa.  With a 1.5 mile jogging tack connecting all 4 lagoons, it is a snorkeler’s dream.  The others (in order heading southeastward) are named Hanu (Lagoon 2), Nai’a (Lagoon 3), and Ulua (Lagoon 4) by the Marina.  Some Hawaiian websites have said that 3 and 4 offer the clearest water for snorkeling.

Second.  About the public beaches.  Hawaiian culture (and its law) dictates that because the beaches are a source of life and prosperity, they are for all citizens and no access can be denied.  Therefore, folks from all over come to enjoy the beauty that the Ko Olina Lagoons have to offer.  You should not expect that only Aulani (and Marriott) guests will be on the beach.  That is part of the beauty and blending of people that makes Hawaii what it is.  It also means that you can go to any resort beach on the island.   Just remember to respect the locals, if it is obviously a local beach.

Now let’s get a good look at what’s tucked in between the towers of the resort.  This is the pool and water park area that Joe spoke of that will be full of theming and surprises.  I love this angle, because you can really see the details of the area.  There’s a tube river, water slides that pass through and around lava rock formations, and the Menehune Trail for the keikis (children)!  (Okay – more on the Hawaiian talk later – you’d better get used to it, if you plan on visiting!)

A view to the Leeward towers.

Now that was looking toward the Leeward Side of the resort (islands have leeward/left and windward/right sides).  The Leeward is usually calmer in weather patterns.  Interestingly enough, traditional Hawaiian thought of Kane/Wahine, or male/female dictates that the right side is masculine and the left, feminine.   This will be applied to the decor of the resort.  The left wings are more Wahine/feminine and the right, Kane/masculine, thus achieving balance in the resort.  Pretty cool, huh?      Now let’s see that balanced resort from another angle…

A view to the windward side of the resort.

I love photographing models, probably because of all the detail they put into them – look at the little beach chairs!  Even the parking structures will match the theming of the resort.

Even the parking structure is themed to blend in with the resort design.

Now that we have pretty much covered the building, lets talk about the details.  This is where I think Disney will really shine.  In the video,  Joe commented on how they were working with Hawaiian craftsmen and artisans to really express the meaning of Hawaii throughout the resort, using the concepts of exploration and discovery.  Like I said before, they couldn’t have gotten a better man to head up this project.  As you heard him discuss the resort, it became very obvious that Disney is being extremely sensitive to Hawaii’s concerns about over comercializing and cartooning up their culture and it shows from the details and artwork that I’m about to share.  It’s exciting because you know it won’t be your Aunt Lucy’s souvenir Hawaiian muumuu style of art!  I’d like to thank DVC , D23, and Disney for allowing me to photograph and video everything that I did, because I think they are key things to really understanding what makes this resort special.

For instance, famed Hawaiian muralist, Martin Charlot, will be doing pieces for the resort as seen below.

Aulani Murals by Martin Charlot

Other artists will be carving details into other features of the hotel such as this archway…

Detailed carvings, such those planned for as this archway, highlight the rich culture of Hawaiian craftsmanship

and these chandeliers that feature the ancient use of the kukui nut.

Kukui nuts, or candle nuts, used by ancient Hawaiians for both food and light, are the inspiration for chandeliers.
By the way, kukui nuts are very tasty – somewhere between a macadamia and a cashew in flavor, but they have the highest oil content of any nut.  That’s why the nut can literally be lit on fire on skewers and will give off light for several hours, if linked.  The oil is often found in Hawaiian health and beauty products, as it is extremely beneficial to sun-exposed skin.   Just be cautious if you eat one, as it can lead to a bit of a digestive issue!

Speaking of mischievous issues, let’s talk about how Hawaiian lore had been brought into the resort.  Enter the Menehune….

The Hawaiian legend of the menehune, or mischievous and playful little people, will inspire visiting children of all ages.

The menehune (May-nay-hoo-nay) were believed to inhabit Hawaii long before the Polynesians settled into the islands. They are a mischevious race of hard workers and traces of their work and culture still remain on many of the islands, including the Fish Pond on Kauai.  Imagineers have hidden them all over the resort, for keiki (the Hawaiian word for children – get familiar with it, because it is used everywhere on the island) to discover.   The Menehune Trail will be a great delight of exploration and they will decorate the water play area.

Some inspirations and designs for art throughout the resort

Children will also have their own club at the resort.  In the tradition of the Neverland Club, Pinnochio’s Workshop, Simba’s Clubhouse and the Oceaneer’s Club on the Disney Cruise Line, the keiki will have their own place to learn, play, and grow.  Parents can then go off and enjoy that sunset dinner or a walk on the beach and reconnect, with their children in the hands of the menehune!   I am also willing to bet that the Kid’s Club will have a lot of character!

Disney characters will find themselves imortalized in tiki form, like Pleakley!

Before I leave the subject of children, I thought one of the coolest projects for the resort was the Colors of Hawaii mural that Joe talks about in the video.  Children from all over Hawaii are in the process of photographing colorful details that represent Hawaii.  As you visit, explore,  and return, you will be able to identify more and more details in the mural and really come to know and personally relate to it, like a long lost scrap album of memories.    I am willing to put money on the fact that more than one mother will shed some tears over the sentimental nature of this artwork!

I guess the one thing I really haven’t talked about are the rooms.  You had the best glimpse of them in Joe’s discussion on the video.  Frankly, the publicity photos don’t do them justice, but I’ll show them to you anyway.  I’ll be interested to see if Joe’s comments about the rooms coming to life and telling their story through the artwork really does come true, but til then, it’s probably some of the best decor I’ve seen in a Disney Vacation Club resort.  If you skipped the video, go back when you are done reading.  Just saying….

Villa furnishings reflect the colors, textures and artistic style of native Hawaii.

Each villa will boast a roomy lanai (balcony or porch) that will provide beautiful views of Ko Olina.

See – I told you the photos don’t do it justice.  Unfortunately, no model rooms have been put up on the West Coast.

So, I’ve told you about the resort, the design, how about the island?   Oahu is the main seat of government for the state of Hawaii.  It is filled with historical buildings, the amazing Bishop Museum of Hawaiian/Polynesian history and culture, Hanauma Bay State Park – which hosts the most beautiful snorkeling on the island, the North Shore with its massive waves and surfing competitions, and Pearl Harbor, where we honor our service men and women.  You can hike Diamond Head – a dormant volocano, learn to windsurf on the windward side or quilt at the Iolani Palace (the home of King David Kalakaua and his sister Queen Lili’uokalani), or immerse yourself at the Polynesian Cultural Center.  The Paradise Cove Luau is right next door to the Aulani Resort, for some traditional celebration.   If you want to feel like a local and get some of the best food around, go find some poke at Ono Seafood, get fresh malasadas at Leonard’s,  stop at any shop that says they sell Plate Lunch or Local Grinds!   You will be guaranteed to have the vacation experience of your life!

By the way, did y’all figure out where the last hula song was from?  That’s right – The TIKI ROOM!!!!   Aloha everyone!

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Disneyland Podcaster for the DIS Unplugged