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September 5, 2011

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Mickey Mouse heads to Hawaii

WALT Disney Co has opened an upscale resort that pushes Mickey and friends slightly off center stage. The Aulani resort puts the spotlight on Hawaiian culture and the island's natural beauty, giving it a much more adult feel, writes Jaymes Song.

Aloha, Disney! The Walt Disney Co's new upscale, beach-side Hawaiian resort Aulani opened last Monday, thousands of kilometers from the nearest Disney theme park. And while Mickey Mouse and friends can be found on the property, Hawaii's culture and natural beauty are the biggest stars.

"The resort is not a replication of any of our theme parks. We know if guests want to go to Disneyland, they'll go to Disneyland," said Djuan Rivers, a Disney vice president who oversees the resort. "Our guests are coming here first and foremost for Hawaii and everything Hawaii has to offer."

Joe Rohde, head of Aulani's creative team, grew up in Honolulu and said "we made a choice early on to really, really focus on Hawaiian culture as a defining element of Aulani."

Aulani is on the west side of Oahu, about an hour's drive from Waikiki. The sprawling 840-unit resort is the first major Disney property to offer a mix of regular hotel rooms and Disney Vacation Club time shares away from a theme park. (Disney's smaller resorts in Hilton Head, Georgia, and Vero Beach, Florida, are time shares.)

The resort is expected to attract many of its visitors from the West Coast of the United States and from Asia. With Japanese guests in mind, time share units are equipped with rice cookers, chopsticks and a tea drawer.

Aulani is a Hawaiian term for messenger of a chief or higher authority. Showcasing the host culture as Aulani's main theme is a departure from other Disney properties where the iconic mouse and other Disney references are visible at every turn. True, visitors will find a surfer Mickey lamp in each Aulani guest room, with his image subtly blended in the bedding design. Mickey, Minnie, Donald and the rest of the crew can also be found strolling around in bright aloha shirts and shorts. But the spotlight here is definitely on Hawaii.

"This story is about this place, that you came to see, experience and want to take away memories from that are different than the memories if you went to Idaho," Rohde said.

Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and the company's former chief financial officer, said Aulani "captures the very best of the rich Hawaiian storytelling and culture with a touch of Disney."

Designers have incorporated historical and contemporary island scenes, artwork, values, designs, textures, colors, language and traditions in nearly every aspect of the place, from taro fields and native foliage in the landscaping, to the Olelo Room lounge, where everything is labeled in the Hawaiian language, including the chairs (noho) and the floor (papahele).

Olelo's staffers, including servers and bartenders, are fluent in Hawaiian and will speak to each other in the island's native tongue while sharing the language with guests. Other employees also have undergone some language and cultural training.

"Here you are in Hawaii. You will meet people who are Hawaiian. You will meet people who speak Hawaiian. I think that's cool," Rohde said.

The resort's two main towers have 359 hotel rooms, 481 time-share condo units, two main restaurants, conference rooms, an 1,672 square meter spa, a fire pit for storytelling and a vast water play area.

Hotel rooms range from US$399 a night for a 39-square-meter room to US$2,449 a night for the Ahu Ulu Suite (two bedrooms, 177 square meters). An ocean view room runs US$549 a night, which rivals prices at Hawaii's most posh resorts.

Disney would not comment on the cost of building Aulani, which has been reported at more than US$800 million. But behind the scenes, the resort has not always been the happiest place on earth.

Disney broke ground on the project in November 2008 during the recession and temporarily suspended sales of time-share units in July amid worries that it had underpriced annual fees, including maintenance costs for the units.

The Orlando Sentinel first reported that Disney fired three executives over the financial mistake including Jim Lewis, president of Disney Vacation Club. Disney said it recalculated the annual fee and was taking nonbinding reservations from prospective buyers.

Besides an 760-square-meter pool, there is a 290-meter-long lazy river where kids can glide along in a tube through forests and caverns; a saltwater snorkel lagoon filled with tropical fish; a rock formation with lava tube slides; and an aquatic jungle gym called Menehune Bridge. Pay an extra US$45 to visit a water preserve where you can feed stingrays and see starfish and anemones. A portion of proceeds will be donated to conservation efforts in Hawaii.

A supervised club for children ages 3 to 12 called Aunty's Beach House was inspired by Rohde's aunt's beach home in Punaluu. With the exception of a fireplace, which most Hawaiian homes do not have, it is designed to look like a traditional home, decorated with old trophies, photos and a garage filled with tools and tins. The high-tech windows are digital portals depicting scenes from around Hawaii.

Children can watch Disney movies, play dress-up or video games, or participate in activities such as learning hula while parents play golf, hit the spa or beach or enjoy a quiet meal. Tweens and teens have a separate hangout where they can listen to music, eat frozen yogurt and surf the Internet.

The landscaping is inspired by an ahupuaa, an ancient Hawaiian land division system that extended from the mountain to the sea. Situated between the towers is a lush tropical forest that serves as a make-believe hideout for Hawaiian trolls, or menehune.

A canoe and maritime theme inspired by the legendary Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokulea is found throughout Aulani, from artwork to handmade lashings on signs and structures. High arches in the architecture evoke traditional Hawaiian canoe houses.

"We return again and again to this canoe idea because of this whole sense of arrival, journey and also because the canoes are this sort of quintessential Hawaiian art form," Rohde said.

Around the corner from the resort, farther up the Waianae Coast, are unspoiled beaches and mountainsides, a stark contrast to the blight from the deep poverty and homelessness that has long plagued this part of Oahu. Some locals have voiced worries about preserving the area's rural character, but with an expected work force of 1,200, Aulani is bringing in much-needed jobs.

Staggs said a crucial component of Disney's business strategy is to figure out where families like to vacation. "Our guests told us that Hawaii is one of their favorite vacation destinations," he said, "and we created Aulani in response to that feedback."


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