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Hawaiian culture, not cartoons, dominates Disney's new resort

A luxury resort that celebrates Hawaiian culture in every corner.

Paul Hiffmeyer/Paul Hiffmeyer

Aulani: A Disney Resort & Spa

1185 Ali'inui Drive; Ko Olina, Oahu, Hawaii; 1-714-520-7001;; 1,066 suites from $399. No eco-rating.

Mickey Mouse wasn't allowed to steamroll Hawaiian culture at Disney's newly opened Aulani Resort and Spa just west of Honolulu. Unless you go looking, you wouldn't know the five-star ocean paradise is even affiliated with the Mouse.

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"We're not here to celebrate Disney, but celebrate families in Hawaii," Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Tom Staggs tells me at Aulani's recent grand opening, which featured Polynesian song and dance. "We're not just in the movie and theme park business, but the guest experience business."


Disney decided to go authentic Polynesian with this 10-hectare property. The company's "imagineers" worked with Hawaiian contractors, landscapers, architects, interior designers and cultural leaders to create a tropical paradise that's as Hawaiian as possible for a dense, 1,066-room, nine-tower mega-resort.

The thatched-roof soaring lobby is designed after a traditional Hawaiian home's entry hall, called a makaala, which means "the beginning of a path." Gourd water jugs are fashioned into a massive lighting sculpture that hangs from the high ceiling in the shape of the constellation Pleiades, the star cluster Polynesian pioneers used to navigate their way to Hawaii.

Even the towers feature Polynesian flourishes such as lava rock accents, dark wood columns and thatched peaks in the shape of giant outrigger canoes.


Beyond the natural attributes of a prime Pacific location on Kohola Lagoon, there are pool complexes that feature waterslides, infinity hot tubs overlooking the lagoon, and a lazy river – ride the meandering, kilometre-long Waikolohe Stream on a giant inner tube imprinted with Hawaiian motif, of course. An adults-only area includes a secluded pool with its own thatched-roof bar. And at the Makai Preserve, you can feed stingrays or try snorkelling with native Hawaiian tropical fish (can you say humahumanukanukaapuaa?) at Rainbow Reef.

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Aunty's Beach House is the children's club that kids actually want to go to. Our nine-year-old daughter, Grace, loved the hula lesson – she taught us a move or two – and the shell bracelet-making session. She's handy with the ukulele now, too.

Laniwai Spa is the place to get a massage that mimics the waves of the Pacific Ocean. My wife indulged in the traditional Hawaiian lomilomi massage and rejoined us as a puddle of calm and contentment.

Later, at the Olelo Room, my wife and I lounged on cushioned teak chairs on the patio by the bubbling fountain and chatted over eco-tinis, a wonderful concoction of acai (palm tree) liqueur and organic agave nectar served with a souvenir acai seed bracelet.


Housed in nine towers that tier down around the massive pool complex toward the beach, all the rooms have either ocean or mountain views, and lanais (balconies) or patios for soaking up that view. This being a Disney resort, the rooms are designed for families: from the 356-square-foot studio suite that sleeps four, to the three-bedroom 2,150-square-foot grand villa that sleeps 13. The decor is contemporary Hawaiian with dark woods, floral and leaf print carpet and fabrics, and outrigger art. The only nod to Mickey is a retro lamp featuring him standing with a surfboard.

The bathrobes aren't terry, but a smooth silk that both my wife and our daughter fell in love with.

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Disney is a master at customer-service training. Ninety per cent of the resort staff are Hawaiian and the genuine local friendliness and graciousness combined with Disney savvy shows from the front desk right through to the beach rental dudes. Joey Valentine, who set us up for stand-up paddle boarding, knew just how to get Grace off and paddling quickly while providing a middle-aged man (that would be me) with the extra tutoring needed to take up a new sport.


Families who'd love to have a Disney character join them at breakfast can book a table at Makahiki, an open-air buffet restaurant that also serves lunch and dinner. But why not drop the kids off at the children's club and have a date night at Ama Ama. The atmosphere here is upmarket chic – admire the centrepiece-reflecting pond and the walls painted different hues of blue to match the ocean. Under a thatched roof next to the ocean, enjoy the sustainable catch of the day, such as yellow-striped snapper served with Charles de Fère bubbly. A great starter is the Kahuka corn chowder with taro and lomilomi salmon or splurge for the Keahole lobster with a glass of sauvignon blanc.


Aulani can be an adrenalin-filled family getaway or a quiet luxury escape without the kids. Disney hit the perfect combination of Disney quality and customer service without too much interruption from Mickey and Minnie. It truly is a celebration of Hawaiian locale and vibe.

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