Home » People Laughed When Disney First Announced This Resort, But Then Everything Changed…

    People Laughed When Disney First Announced This Resort, But Then Everything Changed…

    When you think of a magical Disney vacation, what do you think of? Is it the grand scale and overwhelming variety of Walt Disney World? Is it the theming and warmth of Disneyland? If you wanted to show off Disney’s trademark attention to detail and customer service to a friend, where would you take them?

    What if I said Disney’s most magical destination isn’t a theme park, or even in North America?

    Well, guess what: It isn’t.

    If you’re a Disney fan looking for an unforgettable experience, Disney’s Hawaiian resort, Aulani, should be on your bucket list. Actually, forget that – it shouldn’t be on your bucket list. It should be on your to do list for today. It’s that important. Go. Now. You can read this article when you get back.

    For those of us who can’t just up and go to Hawaii on a moment’s notice, the next few thousand words are here to give you a sense of just what it is that makes this resort so magical, how it came into existence, and what its success means for the future of Disney.

    Relax, pour yourself a cup of Kona coffee, turn on your ocean sounds machine and read on. We can’t go to Hawaii, so let’s just try to make this the next best thing.

    Why would Disney want to expand to Hawaii?

    Image: Disney

    When Walt Disney first brainstormed his Florida project, he had no intention of recreating the Disneyland experience on the East Coast. Eventually, he relented – agreeing to include a duplicate of the park on the outskirts of his planned City of Tomorrow. It was never intended to be the central focus of his Florida land, but rather a small diversion. When Walt passed away, the company was left in a confusing place: Walt made it clear that he didn’t want his Florida site to be a simple recreation of Disneyland, but its new business leaders were well aware that they lacked the vision and ambition to create a real, working city. So, a compromise was needed – one that would enable the Walt Disney Company to use the site well, while still honoring its namesake’s legacy.

    Thus, the scope was changed: the Disneyland duplicate would still be just one facet of the site, but rather than being the home to the City of Tomorrow, the land in Central Florida would be used for something called the “Vacation Kingdom.”

    The concept was ambitious in its own way: Recreate the types of experiences travelers look for in a vacation and put them all in one place – making the Disneyland-style park just one of many attractions vacationers could visit.

    Image: Disney

    Imagineers brainstormed different things people liked to do when they travel and started putting together plans for areas of the Florida property that might appeal to those travelers. And, when Walt Disney World opened in 1971, that impulse was on full display. If guests were interested in a South Seas-style vacation, they could visit the Polynesian Village Resort. If they wanted a modern urban vacation, they could stop by the Contemporary Resort. If they wanted to do a camping trip, Fort Wilderness was right there – complete with rustic activities and charm.

    Eventually, this Vacation Kingdom concept focused itself into a single question: “Why would you vacation to X, when you could just come to Disney?” As the world grew smaller toward the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, that question became harder and harder to answer, but Disney kept at it.

    “Why would you visit New England when you could just come to the Yacht and Beach Club?”

    “Why would you go to Hollywood or Universal when you could just come to Disney’s Hollywood Studios?”

    “Why would you go to Africa (or even Busch Gardens!?) when you could just come to Disney’s Animal Kingdom?”

    After decades of trying to recreate everything on the planet in Walt Disney World, the Walt Disney Company realized it might just be simpler to just take you to those places themselves. So, the company’s strategy morphed into an even more broad question: “Why travel with anyone else when you can just travel with Disney?” Disney started offering tour packages through its Adventures by Disney brand, and it created the Disney Cruise Line to keep guests’ money coming in even when they took to the sea.

    In this climate, Disney decided to build an outpost in the one place they’d never been able to faithfully recreate on their own shores: the beautiful state of Hawaii. Why keep fighting it? Vacationers will always want to visit Hawaii, so why not try to make it so that, when they do, they’ll still decide to stay with Disney? 

    How did Aulani come to be?

    Image: Joel, Flickr (license)

    In 1877, a man named James Campbell purchased a large chunk of land on the leeward coast of Oahu, the Hawaiian island home to Honolulu. In the decades following, he (and later his daughter) developed the land for use harvesting sugar cane – all the while acknowledging just how beautiful and peaceful the place was. By the 1930s, Campbell’s daughter was living in the area full-time and went on to use it as a vacation resort for troops stationed in the Pacific during World War II. She named her property Lanikuhonua, or “where heaven meets Earth.” And, if anything, that name was an understatement.

    By the mid-1980s, the land changed hands and was owned by a Japanese company that planned to build a multi-billion dollar resort on the site – one which would include nearly a dozen hotels, condos, and shopping areas. That never came fully into fruition, however ; never progressing beyond a handful of hotel rooms and a golf course – and, honestly, locals weren’t too upset.

    Image: Disney

    While the massive tourist area would seemingly help improve the economy, the original plans weren’t too welcoming of the Hawaiian residents. In addition to restricting access to the beaches, many locals were turned away from jobs on site at the resort.

    In 1998, the land was bought by a company intending to build something called the Ko Olina resort – a planned community that would host a handful of resorts, shopping, condos, golf courses, and beaches. Essentially, Ko Olina would be the tourist resort the land was always earmarked for; however, this time, the owners were determined to do it right.

    The designers worked with local cultural groups to both accurately reflect the heritage of Hawaii and help create jobs that would help grow the local economy. In all, it seemed to be working perfectly.

    But one of the resort’s primary developers, a man named Jeff Stone, had an ace up his sleeve: He wanted Disney to come. That, he thought, could make the place even more special.

    Image: Joel, Flickr (license)

    And so, in 2007, after over a year of negotiations, Disney announced an agreement wherein they would pay Ko Olina $144 million in return for a plot of land near one of Ko Olina’s lagoons. After some speculation that the company might be interested in building a theme park on the site, Disney finally announced the plan: Build one of the finest resort hotels in Hawaii. Easy, right?

    The development and Hawaiification of Aulani

    Image: Disney

    Early in the development process, before any real construction had even gotten underway, Disney gathered a group of local Hawaiian business leaders and cultural minds together to present its idea for the resort. As Disney shared its vision for what the Hawaiian resort could be, the local contingent laughed. “It was so wrong that it was entertaining,” one representative later recalled.

    Now, in the past, Disney might have soldiered on without worry – assuming that, well, the goal is to entertain tourists, not locals. However, in 2007, the wounds of Euro Disneyland’s initial flop – which was largely due to that same stubborn mindset – were still quite fresh. Instead of ignoring or rationalizing the feedback, Disney did something unique: they listened.

    Well, actually, that’s not entirely accurate. They didn’t just listen: They hired some of those business and cultural leaders to help design the new resort. Those voices, which not long ago had been laughing at Disney’s generic Hawaii, were now going to be able to speak up and help shape its development. For most Hawaiian resorts, that’s unprecedented.

    Joel, Flickr (license)

    And so, when Aulani opened in 2011, it was one of the more culturally resonant places on the Hawaiian islands. Is it perfect in its representation of its host culture? Of course not. But it does get the important parts right – all the way down to its name.

    “Aulani” means “messenger of the chief” – a nod to the results role as a messenger bringing word of Hawaii’s rich culture to its visitors. However, that isn’t even the most important aspect of the name. Eschewing Disney’s normal resort nomenclature, adding the word “Disney’s” before the resort’s actual name, the company opted to title its Hawaiian location, “Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa.”

    Image: Disney

    Why does that matter? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t. It’s a gesture, really, more than anything. However, I think it’s an important gesture, because it shows how Disney respects the local culture enough to take a step back when it needs to – essentially, to get out of the way and let Hawaii be Hawaii.

    And, of course, that makes sense. It’s one thing when you’re turning Anaheim or Central Florida into some place people want to vacation. It’s another when you plop your resort down in the middle of “where heaven meets Earth.”

    But if you need a bit more convincing, here’s one little tidbit that might help: At all other Disney resorts, from the Magic Kingdom to Tokyo Disney, Mickey and Minnie Mouse are there to welcome you into their home. You’re their guests, and they’re the hosts – dedicated to making sure you have a wonderful vacation. Not at Aulani, however. At Aulani, Mickey and Minnie are guests too, and Hawaiians are the hosts. They’ve just been kind enough to welcome all of us – even the Big Cheese – into their home. 

    OK, so what is Aulani actually like?

    Image: Disney

    Alright, enough of the history lesson. Let’s get down to what you really want to know: Is this place really as magical as I’ve heard? The answer is yes, yes it is. I mean, look at this:

    Imagineering genius Joe Rohde is a talented man, but not even he could design something that looks quite like that. That’s the natural beauty of Hawaii. Granted, the parts that Disney actually did design aren’t too shabby either:

    The first thing guests will encounter at the resort is its grand and magnificent lobby – a kind of cross between Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. While the rest of the resort is, indeed, stunning and luxurious, the lobby has an artistic quality all its own. Its high arching roof and open-air feel make it the perfect place to begin the Aulani story: One rooted in Hawaiian history and culture, but also relaxation.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing about the lobby is its impressive collection of Hawaiian art. Disney claims it has “one of the world’s largest private collections,” and it’s hard not to believe such a statement with one look around the entryway.

    One of the lobby’s most impressive murals was created by an artist named Martin Charlot, and features masculine and feminine sections designed to showcase, as Disney says, “the works of men and women in traditional Hawaiian life.”

    Image: Disney

    The tension between the masculine and feminine is an important theme both in Hawaiian culture and at Aulani. Several works of art explore this relationship, from the aforementioned mural to the massive sculptures that greet guests upon their entrance to the resort.

    Beyond just the art within it, the lobby also serves an important role architecturally. Throughout the resort’s construction, Disney committed to using Aulani to tell the story of Hawaii in its entirety: From the mountains, to the valleys, and out to the sea. As such, the lobby came to represent the mountains – its verticality echoing the dramatic topography inland.

    The heart of the resort, the massive and lush pool complex, came to represent the island’s valley, with the lobby and towering resort structures calling to mind the mountains off in the distance.

    And then the beach – well, they didn’t have to do much to make that feel special.

    Image: Disney

    When nerds like us talk about the Disney difference, this is what we’re talking about – a commitment to storytelling that extends way beyond what you’d notice immediately, and obsesses over the things you could really only perceive subconsciously. That’s what sets Disney – and by extension, Aulani – apart: They don’t just want you to feel relaxed, they want you to feel relaxed while never once forgetting the magical location you’ve traveled to.

    Of course, all of that obsession with the minutiae isn’t really what draws the guests in. For that, there’s also the usual amazing Disney attractions: Everything from charming character shows, to thrilling water slides, and delicious dining experiences all right there on site. Some have compared Aulani to a Disney Cruise that just happens to be on land – and that’s a pretty apt comparison.

    The resort has a handful of dining options, the pick of which is the high brow ‘Ama ‘Ama, which serves modern interpretations of classic Hawaiian cuisine. While many of the island flavors and garnish options will seem exotic to some travelers, the experience isn’t so out of the ordinary that mainlanders will feel uneasy.

    Image: Disney

    But while Disney has always been great about keeping guests on their property, they understand that many guests will want to experience Hawaii outside the Disney bubble – and, in keeping with the grand cruise line tradition, they’ve offered excursion packages for that very purpose. Visitors can do nearly anything: Visit a local ranch, take a sightseeing helicopter ride, tee off at one of the many resort golf courses nearby. There are plenty of ways to enjoy Hawaii, and the excursions are there to help you find something to do. Or, alternatively, there’s a rental car site on property, giving you the option of exploring the island yourself.

    Essentially, Disney has built its most magical theme park at Aulani, only the forgot the theme park part. If you love the feeling of walking into a deluxe Disney resort, but have always wanted to visit Hawaii, you’re in luck: Disney went ahead and combined the two experiences for you. How nice of them.   

    What does this mean about the future of Disney vacations?

    Image: Disney

    Disney has knocked it out of the park with Aulani, creating a vacation destination in an exotic land that is beautiful, luxurious, and respectful of its local culture. And so, it’s hard not to ask what’s next for the company.

    Remember: The goal of the Walt Disney Company since the turn of the millennium has been to capture an ever-growing share of vacationers’ money. As much as Disney is in the filmmaking business – and make no mistake: After the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pixar, and Star Wars, they definitely still are – travel and tourism is an ever-increasing asset in their portfolio.

    So, how do they get bigger? Well, there are a few ways – but the biggest is already underway.

    Image: Disney

    Have you heard the best kept Disney secret? I’ll give you a hint: It’s actually the worst secret Disney has ever kept. It’s their timeshare program, Disney Vacation Club – and it’s where Disney thinks it can win the vacation game.

    Timeshares have long had a bad reputation for charging large fees for limited flexibility and stringent rules. The Disney Vacation Club has largely escaped this bad reputation because, while it is a large expense, it provides enough flexibility for travel to a location guests tend to visit year in and year out. And, the more flexibility Disney can give its Vacation members, the more people will likely join the ranks.

    For a long time, DVC members were really only able to use their memberships to book resort stays at Walt Disney World, but that portfolio has now expanded to include hotels in South Carolina, the East Coast of Florida, Disneyland, and now, Hawaii. And, if you need proof that DVC has been an overwhelming success, you need only look as far as Bay Lake, where the shores are now home to construction of the newest DVC property: Lakeside cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.

    Image: Disney

    Disney has been ramping up its investment in DVC properties, and that is not going to slow down. As long as memberships keep flying off the shelves, they’ll keep building new resorts, enabling transfers to Disney Cruise Line and Adventures by Disney, and doing everything they can to make sure that they’re the first people you think of when you want to travel somewhere. Don’t be surprised if Disney announces another stand-alone resort in another exotic location, recreating the Aulani magic somewhere else.

    And so, Aulani is important not just because of its wonderful homage to local culture, its beautiful and luxurious design, or its unique Disney magic: It’s important because it shows that the Disney vacation model can work even when there’s no theme park in sight. That means Disney can really start getting ambitious about taking you places you’ve never been before — and when you consider how well they’ve done creating a Hawaiian resort, that’s something to be pretty excited about.