Sneak Peek: Disney's Aulani Resort

Aulani rendering; Disney

Disney has learned a thing or two in the last 80 years about telling fabulous tales. But how do you tell a story with a resort? Their newest property, Aulani, opens next summer on Oahu and it aims to embody the Hawaiian culture, mythology, and strong island traditions. We were lucky enough to get behind the scenes for a sneak peek of how it's all coming together. What does it take to make a resort like this live up to expectations?

Disney Aulani Hawaii

Disney's Aulani Resort; Disney

Location, Location, Location

The first step in building a resort is to figure out where to put it. Disney immediately recognized that travelers go to Hawaii not just for its beaches and scenery, but also for the strong Hawaiian culture that distinguishes the islands from other tropical locales like Baja or the Caribbean. "People go to Hawaii seeking transformation," says Joe Rohde, Senior Vice President and Creative Executive of Disney Imagineerings. "That's why they go across the ocean to an island."

Rohde, who was also the mastermind behind Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, grew up on Oahu and understands how to meld the company's vision with the unique surroundings. "Everything we build is a byproduct of the desire to Tell. A. Story," he says emphatically. "The land we are on has 1,500 years of story rising up from it. We're in a place that has its own magic."

Naming the resort was key as well. Aulani means "messenger" in Hawaiian. "Aulani is filled with symbol. It's filled with statement. It's filled with meaning," says Rohde, pointing out that Hawaiian culture shares these attributes. The state's history, after all, was passed on orally, and every hula, oli (chant), and mele (song) is a vehicle for recounting the tales.

Disney Aulani Hawaii Art

Disney sourced local artists to make the resort's art; Disney

Local Perspective

Of course, the planning that goes into building a resort of this size in one of the most amazing places on the planet is no small feat. Disney, acknowledging its responsibility to tell the story of Hawaii accurately, tapped Native Hawaiian artists and practitioners to advise them.

"Disney came with an interest that was truly Hawaiian," says Aunty Nettie, a kupuna (elder) and kahu (spiritual advisor) who stewards the area of Ko Olina on Oahu's west coast where the resort is located. She told the Disney crew, "Do your homework. Go to the museum. Go to the library. And learn about the things in our culture." The instructions came with a warning from the elder as well: "If you do something wrong, I will tell you."

The creative team dutifully followed her instructions, studying Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian history in depth and reading works by Hawaiian historians and anthropologists. Native Hawaiian leaders were also consulted on everything from celestial navigation to farming and conservation practices. A traditional Hawaiian blessing was given when they broke ground on the resort in November 2008. The result is that Hawaiian inspiration is found everywhere, from the overall design of the resort to the individual fixtures in the rooms-the kapa weave in the jacquard bedspreads, the crab-claw-sail vanity lights, the carpet of taro leaves. Using art as a bridge to the Hawaiian community, Disney also commissioned 70 Native Hawaiian artists to create works for the resort. The result: Aulani will feature the world's largest collection of Native Hawaiian art under one roof.

"Disney has made sure that Hawaiians have a voice," says Rocky Jensen, a master woodcarver from Hilo. "We never had this before. The artist is involved in the process." Contemporary artist Solomon Enos, who will paint a mural for one of the two restaurants, explains that his work serves to show people how much Hawaiians love their land. "Don't you love where you come from?" he asks rhetorically. He hopes the resort's artwork will help visitors to do just that. "What parallels can we make that can make people appreciate where they're from?"

When it is completed, the resort will provide the equivalent of 1,200 full-time jobs. Expectations are high and cautiously hopeful in the surrounding communities, and Disney intends to exceed them. Their experience suggests they will. "When Disney chooses to do something, we aim to do it forever," Rohde says convincingly. "We build for generations."

Disney Aulani Hawaii Construction

Aulani construction; Disney

Respecting the Land

"The land is not just land," insists Rohde, who grew up in the neighboring town of Makiki (also the childhood home of President Obama). "You better live on this land a certain way or else you're not living here at all." Existing on an island with limited resources, Hawaiians historically practiced sustainable resource management. Aulani aspires to high standards when it comes to sustainable practices, and the resort is currently pursuing LEED certification.

Rohde laid out Aulani's 21 acres as a typical ahupua'a, a traditional land division that stretches from the mountain to the sea. The resort is set in the mythical Waikolohe Valley, with landscaping that reflects the ecological transition from rainforest to valley to shoreline. Wai is the word for freshwater, and kolohe means "rascally." ("We do have a sense of humor," Rohde says.) There is one Hawaiian symbol that Disney resisted, though: Volcanoes. "A volcano is not believable," says Rohde. Instead, Aulani's landmark is mound of lava-Pu'u Kino-that features imagery-filled rocks. From an aerial vantage point in either of the resort's two high-rise towers, the lava flow will look very real.

Layers of Hawaiian symbolism are scattered throughout the resort as well. In the hotel's vaulted, cathedral-like, open-air lobby, a mural along the north wall reflects a masculine theme while one along the south wall features a feminine theme. The walls stretch from mauka (toward the mountains) to makai (toward the ocean), and depict tales from the past leading to the future. When the afternoon sun shines through the stained glass tiles, little rainbows will splash across the lobby floor. The staff will be trained to offer explanations, and the creators hope that these explanations will prompt more questions and a deeper respect for the symbols.

Disney Aulani Hawaii

Joe Rohde, Senior Vice President and Creative Executive of Disney Imagineerings, at Aulani; Disney

The Magic Touch

They might be surrounded by all things Hawaii, but at no time will Aulani's guests forget they're at a Disney resort, either. Mickey, Minnie, Chip & Dale, and Stitch will make regular appearances at the Character Buffet. Disney's signature mouse ears pop up unexpectedly, like in the pattern of the Hawaiian quilt bedcovers for example.

The towers reached their vertical height in April 2010, but there's a lot of work still to be done. When it is completed the resort will have 840 rooms (359 hotel rooms and 481 two-bedroom Disney Vacation Club villas), where every detail is carefully considered. This is a family resort, so many of the features are for those with kids in tow: There's a hidden bed under the television unit, a toy chest in the living room doubles as a coffee table, a footrest, or a bench. All of the furniture will also be carefully pre-scuffed for a lived-in feel (just like home!).

Outside, a calm turquoise lagoon ideal for kids fronts the resort and Aunty's Beach House is the site of organized activities (perfect for when parents want to slip off to the 18,000-square-foot spa). Water lovers will have a 900-foot tube-floating watercourse, a snorkel lagoon, a conservation pool where you can interact with marine life like stingrays, an adults-only pool, and sunset-facing hot tubs.

There will also be surprises sprinkled throughout the resort -- elements that, Rohde explains, are "very deliberately hidden where a child could find them." Some of the symbols are found on the interactive Menehune Adventure Trail, a high-tech scavenger hunt where kids solve clues and are challenged to find the 80 wooden menehune statues in secret corners of the resort. (The menehune are a mythological little people who accomplished large feats of engineering in the middle of the night.) Because it wouldn't be Disney without a reliable dose of magic.

Aulani is scheduled to open on August 29, 2011. Reservations are already being accepted, with rates starting at $399 per night (

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