The ubiquitous mouse makes a brief appearance on the beach in Oahu but he won’t officially be in residence until late summer, 2011, when the new Disney Resort Aulani is set to open. (Yes, it is still a construction site but you can make reservations.) (www.disneyaulani.com)
This is Disney’s first foray into Hawaii and is designed so that families vacation here in a new way, promises Djuan Rivers, Vice President of the new resort as he leads me on a hard hat tour.
If the place is anything like Rivers and the rest of the Disney team promise, it will set a new bar for family resorts everywhere and will once and for all convince visitors to Oahu that there is much more to see and do here beyond busy Waikiki.
For one thing, the 359-room (with additional two-bedroom Disney Vacation Club villas) is located about 17 miles from Honolulu and Waikiki on the western side of Oahu in the Ko ‘Olina Resort and Marina next to the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa (www.ihalani.com) golf course, and pristine lagoons ideal for young kids.
You are closer here to the famous North Shore with its quaint surfing town Haleiwa and surfing beaches, adventures to snorkel with sea turtles and spinner dolphins, and ocean-front hikes.
The trick will be to convince kids to leave the resort with its 900-foot tube floating water course (a real water ride with “surprises” jumping out), huge water area for young children, sunset-facing hot tubs, snorkel lagoon complete with peepholes so grandparents and parents who don’t want to get in the water can watch, a conservation pool, and more. Aunty’s Beach House will be a signature kids club where kids can learn more about Hawaiian culture and arts and crafts and a separate teen area located adjacent to the 18,000 foot spa where, yes, there will be teen treatments as well.
Aulani, in case you were wondering, means “a messenger of a chief” and the name was chosen to position the resort as a messenger of Hawaii’s spirit and culture. “Usually we make the stories, here we have been blessed to receive the stories of the Hawaiians,” says Rivers, adding that years of research have gone into the resort to make sure it is culturally correct.
There will be a live taro field with lamps that are fashioned to look like the poi pounders that are used to pound the taro into poi, a staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet. On the water rides, you will think you are passing lava rocks. Canoes will “dump” water on the littlest visitors in a water playground just for them. Spa treatments will feature local salt scrubs, lomi lomi Hawaiian massage and more; one restaurant, AMA AMA, is being designed to remind you of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village, complete with thatched roof.
There will be a place for local storytellers for Hawaiians to “talk story.” “The amount of research is unprecedented for Disney,” Rivers says.
A page has been taken from Disney’s successful cruise line with “immersive” activities both on and off the resort –special excursions designed for families with special Hawaiian guides, whether it is climbing Diamond Head or kayaking, or taking surfing lessons, the Disney folks are kicking around ideas for separate teen activities too (surfing lessons or sunset cruise, maybe “It will be a whole different experience,” Rivers promises. “Think of Aulani as a portal to explore Hawaii.
This being Disney, Mickey and Minnie will be here too but as tourists just like your family and hopefully, settling in for a week—a far longer stay than most first-time visitors to Oahu. The gardens will be designed to look like Oahu’s landscape—dense and wet in the center, sandy on the outskirts. There will be interactive games played on hand-held phone-like devices designed to help kids and their parents better appreciate and understand what they are seeing, whether a particular plant in the garden that grows only here, a native fish in the lagoon, or a piece of art carved by a local artist. “There will be layers and layers of meaning,” Rivers promises.
Disney officials say their Vacation Club guests have long pined for the Mouse to come to Hawaii, and they hope others who haven’t visited here will be enticed to weather the long flight too.
I can see why families will want to settle in here. The hard part will be getting anyone to leave—even for a few hours.