Paddling a 10-foot standup surfboard over the glassy, early morning waters of a Ko Olina lagoon, I decided Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa on the west coast of Oahu, didn't look all that different than it had a couple of years ago.
Viewed from the ocean, the 21-acre property hadn't changed much since my last visit during the fall 2011 grand opening. Maybe the palm trees fronting the beach were taller, and there certainly were more resort chairs and umbrellas on the broad ribbon of sand fringing the turquoise lagoon, but the place still radiated a welcomingly familiar feel.
Aulani has, however, undergone several alterations in the past two years and officially unveiled a major pool deck expansion only last month that officials are calling Ka Maka Landing.
According to Elliot Mills, the resort's vice president and general manager, the upgrade was needed to accommodate a guest population that adored the resort's existing seven-acre Waikolohe Valley, a central play area home to a lazy river, several pools, kid-friendly water features and two water slides.
In fact, travelers liked what Disney had done out at Oahu's master-planned Ko Olina Resort area so much that they were spending more time around Aulani's various pools and water features than officials anticipated.
"We quickly figured out that we wanted to give them more of that to enjoy because they were staying on property a bit more than the normal [Oahu] guest," Mills said.
While Aulani's layout has been modified some since 2011, officials there have worked hard to simply offer more of what folks already enjoyed, integrating a new infinity-edge pool, hot tub and rock grotto into Ka Maka Landing along with much more pool deck area and an entertaining new water feature for smaller kids.
"We didn't really have a special place for our toddlers," Mills said. "So this splash zone at Keiki Cove is for them, [and] they can cruise around, hang out with each other. Plus it's a safe place for the parents to be right there, relax and have fun with their toddlers."
Another popular addition is Ulu Cafe, a new Aulani food-and-beverage outlet I made use of regularly during my recent stay. Mills described it as "fresh food fast," saying it fills a need not covered by the more upscale Ama Ama restaurant or the buffet-style Makahiki venue.
"What we didn't have was the in-between, casual dining where you can sit down but go in your slippers and shirt, bareback, whatever, and grab a salad or a wrap then walk outside and enjoy it at a price point that's a bit lower," he explained.
Despite the recently completed expansion, Aulani's unprecedented connection with the Hawaiian culture certainly hasn't wavered and played a key part in that sense of familiarity I encountered throughout my visit.
Mills said he believes the Hawaiian foundation throughout the property's programming, art, music and architecture, which is unlike any other hotel in the Islands, is an integral component to why guests are spending more of their vacation time at the resort rather than venturing out as often.
"I think when guests come here, we're exceeding their expectations," he said. "I don't believe they think any property in Hawaii could be so well connected to the culture, so it's a surprise they like."
One man hugely responsible for articulating that host culture messaging across Aulani is Joe Rohde, the senior vice president and creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, who spent his childhood on Oahu.
"I think when you grow up here, when you are familiar with Hawaii, the first thing that is clear to you is people come here with the most absurd notions of what these islands are," he said. "And what they really are is so much better, richer than what people think, [and] it is much more than going to a sandy beach with a palm tree."
Maintaining that, even for Americans, a Hawaii vacation is like a trip to another country, Rohde said Aulani, which features 351 hotel rooms and 481 vacation villas, is founded on a simple premise.
"What makes Hawaii Hawaii is Hawaiians; otherwise, why not go to Thailand?" he said. "They've got palm trees, they've got an ocean, [but] what makes Hawaii Hawaii is Hawaiians, and so if that's true, then Hawaiians need to play a profound role in setting the definition, the design, the protocol, everything about the property."
Not surprisingly, that premise was fundamental to the Ka Maka Landing build, and Rohde, who has worked closely with prominent members of the Hawaiian community throughout Aulani's design process, noted that Ka Maka refers to the tip of a fish hook the demigod Maui used to pull the Hawaiian Islands from the sea.
"You don't have to know that," Rohde said, "It's a perfectly nice infinity pool with special effects and [dolphin] sounds underneath the water, but if you want a deeper, richer experience, there is that to be learned and more."