It’s been evident for about a year that The Walt Disney Co. is building an oceanfront vacation resort in West Oahu. But it’s also building an elaborate story about Hawaii’s people, culture, water and land.
The company gave the media a preview yesterday of what it says will be an experience unlike any for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
Aulani, as the project at Ko Olina Resort and Marina was named in January, is on schedule to open Aug. 29, 2011. Construction began on the 21-acre site in March 2009.
"This is a pretty exciting time for us; we have Aulani taking shape around us," said Thomas Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
Contrary to what many people might expect, the visitor experience Disney is producing won’t be centered around the company’s vast trove of movies and cartoon characters as it is at other Disney resorts.
"We are interested in telling stories," and Aulani is a story about Hawaii, said Joe Rohde, a 30-year Disney veteran who grew up in Makiki, attended Maryknoll School and became Aulani’s chief designer after rising through Disney’s creative "imagineering" division.
Though Rohde, 55, moved to the mainland after the fifth grade, he returned to work on Aulani.
The physical layout of the hotel and time-share complex was designed to create an impression of an ahupuaa, or mountain-to-sea land division. The project’s two towers represent mountain ridges on either side of a valley filled with water flowing from make-believe springs and rivers into fishponds and pools, and seemingly into the Pacific Ocean.
In Aulani’s fictional Waikolohe Valley, mischievous water springs will squirt, spray and perhaps barrel over unsuspecting guests.
A kid’s club dubbed Aunty’s Beach House has been designed to look like a typical home in Punaluu, and will show movies while artificial mountain showers rain down outside. Inside, kids may see representations of geckos race along the wall, or familiar images in a fireplace.
The resort’s beachfront restaurant called Ama Ama will be housed in four buildings built to resemble structures that could have been on the site since the 1880s and occupied by a family who left imprints on the property.
Glossary for Disney’s Hawaii resort "story"
» Aulani: resort name. Literally means messenger of a chief, or as Disney likes to say, "one who speaks on behalf of a higher power."
A buffet restaurant named Makahiki will include a section called the Olelo Lounge in which everything in sight will be labeled in Hawaiian to teach visitors names of objects in the restaurant as well as places outside. Staff at the lounge will speak Hawaiian.
"When you walk out of here, you will be able to say Kalanianaole Highway," Rohde said of visitors. "Instead of saying like like (Likelike) Highway or Banzai pee-pay-lee-nay (Pipeline), you will learn to pronounce Hawaiian words."
Of course Disney will have a bit of its usual fare. Characters such as Mickey Mouse will make daytime appearances at the Makahiki restaurant. Mickey is also featured as the base of carved wooden lamps inside rooms, as he leans up against a surfboard and strums an ukulele.
Like other Hawaii resorts, Aulani will have a nice ocean view, upscale room furnishings, a spa, pools with slides, a snorkel lagoon and conference center.
Disney has announced it will begin accepting hotel reservations at Aulani starting Aug. 2. Introductory room rates start at $399 per night.
Three weeks ago Disney began selling Aulani’s time-share product. Disney sells time at its vacation ownership property in "points." About $26,000 will buy enough points for a weeklong stay annually in one of Aulani’s one-bedroom units. Weeklong annual stays at Aulani’s biggest time-share unit, a 2,300-square-foot suite, run close to $100,000.
Jim Lewis, president of Disney Vacation Club, declined to say how many time-share points Disney has sold for Aulani, but said the company is off to a "very solid start" prior to major marketing.
Aulani will have 359 hotel rooms and 481 time-share units.
As part of the media tour, Disney presented a study estimating Aulani’s economic impact in Hawaii. The study prepared by CBRE Consulting, with assistance from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said construction work on Aulani will contribute $634 million in local economic activity, including indirect work and 3,000 direct jobs.
After completion, Aulani will generate $271 million in annual economic activity, including 1,200 jobs at the resort plus other direct and indirect impacts.