Disney debuts in Hawaii with authenticity-minded Aulani

KO OLINA, Hawaii — Walt Disney Co. last week opened the Aulani resort on the western side of Oahu, its first Hawaii property as well as its first hotel not tied to a theme park.

Aulani, which means “the place that speaks for the great ones” in Hawaiian, opened Aug. 29 with about 285 hotel rooms and villas available, and will total 359 hotel rooms and 481 Disney Vacation Club timeshare units when work on the property’s two 15-story towers is completed next year.

AulaniResortThe property, which sits on 21 oceanfront acres, is located in the resort enclave of Ko Olina, about 25 miles west of downtown Honolulu.

Disney, which bought the property in 2007 and broke ground in October 2008, is betting big on an Oahu resort market that has outperformed most of the rest of the U.S. this year despite being beset by the effects of the March earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, a crucial Hawaii source market.

Through the first six months of the year, Oahu hotel revenue per available room surged 17% from a year earlier, dwarfing the 9.8% RevPAR growth for the largest 25 U.S. markets and trailing only San Francisco-San Mateo among markets with the fastest growth in demand, according to research firm STR.

Disney is also making a major investment in the Parks and Resorts division, which accounted for 28% of the parent company’s $30.5 billion in revenue for the nine months ended July 3.

While the company won’t disclose its investment in the resort, Disney spent a reported $800 million on the property.

By opening Aulani, Disney is attempting to present an authentic Hawaiian vacation experience for guests specifically drawn to the location while appealing to Disney loyalists with a family-friendly experience that ties in familiar touches.

“The intent really was to bring a Disney-quality experience with a theming, storytelling cultural sensitivity and immersion to life that didn’t require a theme park,” said Randy Garfield, president of the Walt Disney Travel Co. “Let’s find a place that has a rich heritage, where we can tell that story.”

Nods to local culture range from a seven-story-high artwork embedded in the side of the towers and a front lobby filled with depictions of Hawaiian life and symbols right down to the serving of loco moco (a popular dish in Hawaii consisting of a hamburger patty, rice and gravy) for breakfast.

Disney touches include the Aunty’s Beach House indoor play area for ages 3 to 10, featuring a maze of rooms with touch-screen video games, costumes and movie showings with simulated rainstorms “outside.”

AulaniResort-Disney-poolAdditionally, the resort’s 18,000-square-foot spa — the first to be operated by Disney — includes a teen-only area that offers frozen yogurt, Xbox Kinect fitness activities, manicures and pedicures.

Aulani’s centerpiece is the Waikolohe Valley, which has two waterslides; a 900-foot-long, meandering stream; and the Rainbow Reef manmade snorkel area, complete with 1,500 fish, a children’s 2,200-square-foot water-play area and the Makai Preserve, which lets guests share a pool with stingrays (stingers removed).

Surrounding the Valley are a handful of dining options ranging from Ama Ama, which offers oceanfront fine dining featuring locally sourced cuisine, to walk-up counter food service at One Paddle, Two Paddle.

Disney expects to get a premium for such accommodations. For a weekend-to-weekend stay in mid-October, Aulani’s rates ranged from $549 a night for a single, oceanview room to $2,750 a night for a two-bedroom, three-bathroom suite. By comparison, the JW Marriott Ihilani next door offered rates ranging from $269 to $459 a night.

Aulani opens as the Japanese economy continues to recover from the March earthquake and tsunami. Japanese tourists account for about 12% of annual visitor days to Hawaii, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and were expected to make up a substantial portion of Aulani guests.

Still, with Oahu resort construction at a virtual standstill and the U.S. economy continuing to slowly recover, Disney executives are confident that the investment will be a good one and that Japanese tourists will support the new resort.

“We don’t think it’ll be a game changer for us,” Elliot Mills, managing director at the Aulani, said of the lingering effects of the tsunami. “We’re going to stick with our plan as far as continuing to support that market. We still think it’s going to be a good market for us and for Hawaii in general.”

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