The grand entrance to the new resort exemplifies the striking lines of Hawaiian architecture.
It’s been nearly three years since Disney architects and cultural experts began creating a destination unlike any other, one that’s deeply rooted in the rich folklore of Hawai`i. As vibrant towers spring up across the lush Ko Olina valley, a 21-acre Hawaiian home-away-from-home is beginning to unfold on the island of O`ahu. Now, with only a few days left to go before its grand opening, it’s the perfect time to take a look inside Disney’s long-awaited paradise as it comes into full bloom.
From the indigenous taro gardens along the driveway leading up to the porte-cochère and the arched cathedral ceilings in the longhouse lobby to Menehune figures—tiny mythological Hawaiian crafts people who build wooden structures for you when you’re not looking—tide pools, lounges and watering holes, Aulani honors the fascinating story of Hawai`i through beautifully crafted details. “[At Imagineering] we are used to being the author, but this place had a story before we got here,” Joe Rhode, senior vice president, Creative, Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), who was born in Hawai`i and recalls hearing many of the stories firsthand as a child, says.
The resort was designed so each time you visit you’re bound to discover something new. “You can’t experience it fully in a day or a week, or even a year or five years,” Jeanette Lomboy, senior show producer, Creative, WDI, says. “We hope that our guests will use Aulani as a starting place to jump off into the culture and further their relationship with Hawai`i.” As guests explore the island on day excursions, they’ll learn more about Hawaiian culture. “We hope they’ll come back and say, ‘Wow, the design on that lamp shade is something I saw at [O`ahu's] Bishop Museum,’” Jeanette says about the hundreds of cultural clues woven into the furnishings at Aulani. “Or that they’ll realize the décor in their room references something they saw on an outrigger canoe in the water.”
Guests navigate through misty caverns and formations of lava rock on a tube along the Waikolohe Stream in the pool area.
At the center of Hawaiian tradition is family. And kids will find a tenderhearted welcome at Aunty’s Beach House. “We wanted to create an Aunty that embodied a sense of warmth and aloha spirit,” Shelby Jiggetts,
Aulani Entertainment and Programming, WDI, says, describing the vision for the character that helps kids learn about Hawaiian culture in a fun way. “And we’ll have Uncle, too,” Shelby adds. “He’s our storyteller.” Uncle leads the daily sunset gathering and the Aulani Starlit Hui, which is the resort’s signature evening gathering of music and dance. “We’ll have Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Stitch, too,” she adds. “But we wanted to make it clear that while our Disney characters love Hawai`i and are ready to jump into the adventures there, they are not Hawaiian.” That’s where Aunty and Uncle can help blend those local stories.
Another place you’ll find families gathering is at Makahiki. This Aulani restaurant, which has character breakfasts in the mornings and then transforms into a bountiful dinner buffet in the evening, celebrates the annual Hawaiian New Year’s and harvest festival. There’s also the `AMA`AMA, a beachside bar and restaurant inspired by fishing settlements along the Wai`anae coast. And if you’re looking for a place to get together with family or friends and learn some Hawaiian, then check out the `Olelo Room. Here, resort guests can learn the language with wooden objects in shadow boxes—the lounge’s answer to flashcards—and a fluent-speaking bartender, who can help with pronunciation.
Aulani guests are treated to an authentic Hawaiian experience during fire pit storytelling and songs.
Outside, whether it’s in the beautifully manicured Aulani lagoons or on an excursion off the resort, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the natural scenic landscape. The Menehune Bridge water play area features three slides and interactive water elements for kids. Over at the Rainbow Reef, guests can get up close and personal to Hawai`i’s marine life, including Angel Fish, Butterfly Fish and Tangs, and enjoy a snorkel experience in the 3,800-square-foot lagoon. Aulani will also encourage guests to take adventures and excursions off property. There are mix-in excursions—not exclusive to Aulani guests—like trips to the Dole plantation and Pearl Harbor. Aulani has its own unique excursions as well. Guests can take a guided tour of the Bishop Museum, learn how to paint with Hawaiian artists or go for a special hike to O`ahu’s breathtaking Waimea Falls.
After an adventurous day exploring the outdoors, the Aulani family invites you back with the familiar greeting, Welcome Home. “Disney is two things,” Joe points out. “It’s the intellectual property that we have created, but it’s also the way in which we do things—the friendliness and warmth—that is also Disney. That’s the Disney experience you’ll find in Hawai`i.” On August 29 the first phase of the resort opens—with 217 hotel rooms and 123 villas. An additional 130 hotel rooms and 178 villas will be added by November, and the final 404 villas will open in 2013. “We are working furiously to put everything together,” Joe adds. “And every day it gets more beautiful.”