The idea of juxtaposing the culture of Hawaii against that of Disney may seem head-scratching, if not incongruous, at first glance. How could the world’s most recognizable name in theme parks and legendary purveyor of entertainment for kids find harmony with an island where the shows are rooted in traditional songs and dances and inspired by the visceral beauty of nature, whether it be the rhythmic rolling of Pacific Ocean waves, the sweet fragrance of a frangipani before it is tucked behind a girl’s ear, or the view of lush green hills after the rain has ceased falling?
That question played like a looped soundtrack in my mind as our car headed toward the Ko Olina enclave in the west side of Oahu. Soon, hints of an answer started to form as the twin sets of cocoa-hued towers of the new Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, came into view. Marked with distinct arches that are a nod to Hawaiian canoe houses, the 15-story high-rises and the low building bridging them already looked much more organic to their environment than did their hotel and condominium neighbors.
We entered the open-air lobby called Maka’ala, which means “eyes wide open,” and were immediately struck by the stunning Gauguinesque richness of it all. Everywhere we looked we saw murals, paintings, stained glass windows, sculpture, architectural carvings, and other commissioned works created by local artists such as Dalani Tanahy, Martin Charlot and Harinani Orme. One of my favorites was Douglas Pooloa Tolentino’s dramatic Kane & Kanaloa, which depicted the mythological gods thrusting their staffs into the ground, from which water then flowed. All told, there were more than 50 works of art throughout the resort.
The answer to my earlier question enveloped me as we made our way to our suite: Disney Imagineers honored the Hawaiian culture and truly made it the source of inspiration for the resort. Later, the Imagineers explained to me that the requisite touches of Disney were everywhere, but that they envisioned Mickey and Minnie not as the hosts but as vacationers.
We found that statement to be true in our suite, where we found a hand-carved Mickey with a surfboard in the base of a desk lamp while everything else – from the pineapple motif on the quilt to the taro leaf pattern on the carpet to the outrigger canoe inspiration for the headboard – was a retro-flavored evocation of the island life and history.
When we stepped onto the resort’s main outdoor space, Waikolohe Valley, my nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter screamed with joy as they bolted through the Menehune Bridge, named for the little people who are skilled craftsmen in Hawaiian folklore. The bridge is an interactive, aquatic, multi-level playground with three slides, sprinklers, showers, and a canoe that fills with and dumps water – perfect for kids with lots of energy to burn.
We were told that aside from those on the bridge, there were more than 250 carvings of menehune scattered and hidden throughout the resort so naturally, “Where are the menehune?” became a fun family activity every day. My kids found them in an elevator and under a phone booth, among other places. For guests who wanted a more interactive experience, the resort supplied a wi-fi enabled device that visitors could use for a scavenger hunt-like experience on the Menehune Adventure Trail.
Aside from the bridge, there were numerous other liquid attractions in the valley that our family explored throughout our visit, including a very relaxing and pristine lazy river, a shallow pool tailored to families with young children, an adults-only pool, four strategically-located hot tubs and two tall water slides that kids reached after climbing to the top of a faux lava outcropping called Pu’u Kilo. Also in the valley were two attractions which enabled us to get up close with ocean creatures, for a fee. We snorkeled briefly in the Rainbow Reef, a pool that’s home to numerous tropical fish, and checked out the rays at the Makai Preserve Conservation Pool.
Just the Grown-ups
Although Waikolohe Valley was exciting, the mellow beach was irresistible, especially in the afternoons. The kids repeatedly swam to a large raft and made it their launching pad for jumping into the lagoon. My daughter searched for schools of little fish and shells in the shallow areas. The days were not complete without a stop at the Papalua Shave Ice Shack for a huge, neon-hued cold treat – served with perpetually sunny smiles.
On a couple of evenings, my hubby and I were able to enjoy a worry-free date night – a first for us in the Hawaiian Islands since our kids were born. Our children played with other kids, watched movies and enjoyed games at Aunty’s Beach House, a supervised, mostly complimentary activity center for children three to 12 years old. Having borrowed a successful concept from Disney’s cruise ships, the beach house was immaculate, cheery, staffed with youth counselors, open late in the evening, and had security measures that would put at ease any neurotic parent.
With entertainment being the core of Disney’s business, it was a must to see what Aulani would offer in the evening. On one Ohana Disney Movie Night, The Little Mermaid was being shown on a giant outdoor screen to resort guests. A not-to-be missed event was Starlight Hui – an outdoor family event that mixed crafts, dances, storytelling, dueling ukuleles, and soul-rending traditional music.
Of all the things we experienced at Aulani, having the character breakfast at Makahiki the morning before we left for the mainland felt the most Disney-infused, with Minnie stopping by our table so we could take pictures with her, and other famous Disney characters joining the kids, including ours, in a happy musical parade around the restaurant. And yes, of course, the kids ate Mickey-shaped waffles. But overall, Disney touches such as a sculpture of Stitch near Aunty’s Beach House, were tastefully rendered.
I’ve visited the Hawaiian islands many times over the years, immersing myself in and falling in love with nature - the land and the oceans. I left Aulani bemused and humbled that it took Disney, of all things, to suddenly awaken in me a curiosity – no, a yearning – to learn more about the Hawaiian people and their culture, art, music and architecture. I was hoping that some of their deep beauty and spirit would become part of me.
My kids and hubby can’t wait to return. Frankly, neither can I.