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Joe Rohde explains how Aulani Resort & Spa blends authentic Hawaiian culture with Disney showmanship

Joe Rohde explains how Aulani Resort & Spa blends authentic Hawaiian culture with Disney showmanship

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You know everything that you think you know about Hawaii? That island paradise with the luaus and the tiki torches (not to mention the concrete canyons of Honolulu) ?

Well, you can forget about all that when you visit at Aulani, Disney's new resort and spa which just opened at Ko Olina, Oahu. According to veteran Imagineer Joe Rohde, the whole point of this $800 million project is to celebrate the real Hawaii.

"There's this image of Hawaii, this rambling grass-shacky, beachy thing that is really not very Hawaiian. The actual culture of Hawaii is tremendously elegant and has this deep sense of tradition," Rohde explained in a June 2011 interview with JHM. "And we wanted our Guests to have that impression from the very moment that they arrive at Aulani."


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Which is why - as you roll up to the entrance of this combination hotel / Disney Vacation Club destination - you won't find the usual lush garden loaded with birds-of-paradise (which - FYI - isn't even native to Hawaii. The crane flower actually comes from South Africa). Instead you'll see a working taro farm.

"Taro is the staple plant of Hawaii. The plant that feeds the people," Rohde explained. "Taro  is identified with the culture of Hawaii. Which is why we turned the entire front of this resort into a beautiful working garden. That's real. That's really real. That's Hawaii."

"So when does the elegance begin?," you ask. As soon as you enter Aulani's lobby area, which is known as Maka'ala. Which is the Hawaiian word for "Open up your eyes and look. If you look, you will see. If you see, things will happen to you."


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"Hawaiian names are not just labels for things. They are descriptions of what things actually are," Joe continued. "And if you stand in Aulani's lobby, you will see these fantastic murals and carvings. Many of which are done by some of Hawaii's contemporary artists. And it's in this place that we hope that this resort's sense of elegance will first begin to wash over you. Where you then become aware that the Hawaiian culture is one of perfection, of beautifully polished objects, of finely, finely finished details."

And let's not forget about the island's natural beauty. Which Disney's Imagineers deliberately tried to showcase through the careful positioning of this 21-acre resort.

"As you step out of the lobby onto the balcony, you can see that Aulani is wrapped around this miniature valley which rolls right out to the sea," Rohde stated. "And the Imagineers put a lot of effort into making this part of the resort just as authentic as they possibly could. Just like with a real Hawaiian valley, it's deep and jungle-y on the high grounds toward the center. And then this area becomes more desert-like as it rolls past these huge lava rock-extrusions. Which were deliberately designed & colored to look like the very old rock that you find on Oahu. Not that black stuff that you see on the big island of Hawaii."


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Of course, Aulani just wouldn't be a Disney resort if there wasn't some whimsy & magic folded in along the way. Which brings us to the Menehune Adventure Trail.

"The Menehune are the little people of the Hawaiian island who build stuff. And the Adventure Trail is where our Guests can play this interactive game, where they then help the Menehune complete this whole bunch of tasks that have been left uncompleted around the resort," Joe said. "And you walk along the Menehune Adventure Trail, the magic will reveal itself. None of this is big spectacle magic, mind you. It's all very subtle stuff. But the magic is everywhere. Things that come to life, images that reveal themselves, sounds that come out of the forest, all revolving around the myths & the legends & the traditions of Hawaii.

"And what of the Disney characters?," you ask. "Are they going to be part of the Aulani experience as well?" Yes, but not in the way that you might expect.


Goofy poses for pictures with Guests as Disney's Aulani Resort & Spa officially opens for
business on August 29th.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"There are character meet-n-greets. Our characters are present at this resort. But they - like us - are tourists, coming to Hawaii. So the characters and the manner in which you see them will always in the context of these characters being visitors like yourself and sort of sharing with you the experience of being in this wonderful place," Rohde stated.

So what's the take-away here? That Disney's Aulani Resort & Spa offers its Guests a decidedly different Hawaiian vacation experience. One that stresses cultural authenticity over a theme park-style experience while - at the same time - delivering the same level of quality & great customer service that longtime Disney fans have come to expect from their previous vacations to the Disneyland & Walt Disney World Resorts as well as trips on the Disney Cruise Lines.

"Hawaii is not just land sitting out in the ocean. Hawaii is a bunch of ideas. Hawaii is values. Hawaii is traditions. Hawaii is about family, it's about unity, it's about doing things together, it's about  forming a bond,  Hawaii is about perfection, it's about doing things with purpose and doing them very, very well. Hawaii is about magic, it's about the belief that there are magic things around you all the time. And Disney is about these things too," Joe continued.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"So Disney in Hawaii makes sense. Us in Hawaii is a blend of ideas that fit together very well. Hawaii is about story. We are storytellers," Rohde concluded. "And now that we've arrived in the Islands, Aulani I think will be a blend of what Disney & Hawaii really are. Storytellers. Believers in perfection. Believers in unity and family. Believers in magic. And Disney and Hawaii have come together to create with Aulani is something really special. A vacation experience that's like no other."

Disney's Aulani Resort & Spa has its grand opening on September 22nd.

Today's JHM article was sponsored by Pixie Vacations. If you'd like to learn more about Aulani  (in particular the sorts of vacation package that Disney is now offering for its first-ever Hawaiian resort & spa), please click on this link. And the nice folks at Pixie Vacations can then help you out by getting you a Disney Aulani Quote.

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  • "authentic Hawaiian culture" isn't something most people go to Hawaii for. After going there myself for many years, Hawaii is really a melting pot of Pacific and Asian cultures. At the Luaus, the most popular dances are the Tahitian dance (and more sexier) rather than the authentic Hawaiian hula. I think Disney tried to make a good go of it, but it falls way too short. Much of it is invented or contrived.

    From the reviews, the worst thing is the prices of the restaurants and amenities. Eating there is only for the deep pocketed tourist, not most people. The prices for the cabanas are ridiculous. Much of what is in Hawaii is actually reasonably priced. Just don't expect it at the hotels. I might visit when I'm there, but it is much more likelier that I will stay at Waikiki. A real beach is the better Hawaii experience.

  • @Gimbo, I do see what you mean about not actually being what people come to Hawaii for. BUT I do think it is a very nice idea, though I doubt it will attract many families. I'm worried that it won't do that great, since families will think it isn't "Disney enough" for the price and spend money elsewhere, and couples etc. will think "oh, Disney, it's sure to be crazy and filled with kids" and go somewhere else. It is definitely pricey though!

    If you go to Hawaii often (I live in CA but we have family who retired there) it sounds like something refershingly different- I would give it a try, if I had the funds. :)

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