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The Stories Behind Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the morning I stood on the balcony of the Maka’ala and saw a glorious rainbow emerge above Waikolohe Valley. In Hawaiian, rainbows suggest transformation and that’s certainly an accurate word to describe my experience here.

The first guests were welcomed to Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, located in Ko Olina on the island of O’ahu five years ago today. In that time, the resort has quickly become one of the most popular family vacation destinations in the world. What happens when Disney, a company of storytellers, comes to Hawaii, which is full of storytellers?

Magic. That’s what happens.

So, while much has been written in the travel press about the resort and it’s amenities, I want to give you an artists look at Aulani, and share some of the ideas and concepts behind it. In other words, it’s time to “talk story”…

Ahupua’a

Ahupua'a
Ahupua’a

Central to Aulani was the concept of “ahupua’a“, a complex system of land division dating back to when the islands were ruled by chiefs. An island would have multiple ahupua’a – wedge shaped plots of land that stretched from the mountains to the sea. Within each ahupua’a were most of the necessities to sustain a community – water from mountain streams, koa and other trees in the upslopes for building structures and canoes, farmland in the valley for animals and crops of taro, the lowland and beaches for living, and the sea for fishing. Whatever could not be found in one ahupua’a might be traded for something of value from another; enabling trade and commerce. While this certainly seems a practical approach, it’s actually rooted in Hawaiian spirituality. The Hawaiians believed in the interrelationship of humans and the elements. The ahupua’a infused all of the elements of nature into the activities of daily and seasonal life. Not only were all of the elements necessary and important but so was each person and their contribution to the community. You hunted, or built, or gathered, or cooked, or fished. Each person had value. Each contribution to the community had value.

Waianae Tower
Waianae Tower

If you look at Aulani, you’ll see that the hotel towers begin far from the beach. They represent the mountains, and just like the mountains, decrease in height as they approach the water. Large timber elements grace the facades of the towers, representing trees in the upper reaches of the mountains.

Waikolohe Stream
Waikolohe Stream

In the Waikolohe Valley below, multiple sources of water meander through areas thick with lush, overgrown foliage; spanned by “old” bridges. Dark-colored textures and stones appear within this area of the valley.

As you get closer to the beach, the landscaping thins and the stonework becomes more arid, similar to the Ewa plain upon which the resort is built; and as you get closer the beach, small structures begin to appear as they would have in the lowlands of old Hawaii.

DUALITY

Another element underlying Aulani is that of gender duality; acknowledging that everything has a masculine and a feminine side. This is expressed primarily in two areas. First, on either side of the Maka’ala as you enter through the front doors of the resort, there appear two streams. The one on the left (the Ewa side) is tranquil and calm (feminine). The one on the right (the Waianae side) is lively and boisterous (masculine). Further representation of this concept can be found on the towers themselves. The Ewa tower features rounder, softer graphic elements. The Waianae tower’s graphic elements are sharper.

Waianae Tower Detail
Waianae Tower Detail

Additionally, the sides of each tower capture, in magnificently oversized bas relief, key Hawaiian legends

Maui Bas Relief
Maui Bas Relief

LOOK TWICE

Aulani is suffused with the Hawaiian concept of “look twice, see three times”. This is perhaps most evident in Pu’u Kilo. At first glance it appears to be a caldera. Upon closer inspection, there appear to be discernible shapes. An even closer look reveals silhouettes of island animals carved into the face of the caldera.

Do you see the whale?
Do you see the whale?

A HALE (or home) FOR ART

Guests are welcomed to Aulani through Maka’ala. Maka’ala is distinguished on the exterior by three large arches, echoing the inverted hull of a canoe (which is how the first polynesian settlers arrived). The interior of the lobby features a wraparound mural telling the story of the islands, from its pre-contact days through the present. The mural, along with the rest of the art on the property, was created by Hawaiian artists. The resort houses the single largest collection of original Hawaiian art (outside of a museum) in the world.

Maka'ala
Maka’ala

SMALL TOUCHES

Hundreds of details abound across the property. Instead of tiki torches, the resort has custom designed torches inspired by one of the Hawaiians first sources of artificial light – the Kukui nut. At the entrance, you aren’t greeted by tiki figures (tiki is not Hawaiian) but by Hawaiian Ki’i figures). The guest room carpet features sculpted Taro leaves, one of Hawaii’s original food sources. Everywhere you look, graphics and design elements rooted in Hawaiian history tell a story.

Kukui Nut-inspired fixtures
Kukui Nut-inspired fixtures

CULTURAL SENSITIVITY

None of this would have happened without a concerted effort and outreach to local leaders, artisans, elders, Auntys, and Hawaiian historians and scholars. They shared their history, their knowledge, their stories, and their hearts with the Imagineers who were tasked with designing and building Aulani. That desire to honor Hawaii and its people is abundantly clear; and the resort delivers on its original intent which was to be authentically Hawaiian, yet distinctly Disney.

GO DO – Seeking Awe

The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” W.B. Yeats

Photo: KC Wilkerson
Photo: KC Wilkerson

Think for a moment about a time you were in awe of something; and think about how you felt, the emotion of that moment. It’s an addictive feeling, right? I think creatives rely on that feeling more than most. Truly experiencing something with all of my senses is enough to give me a little jolt.

One of those moments for me was standing on Oahu’s North Shore in January of 2012 as massive swells generated by storms in the north Pacific Ocean hammered the shore at Banzai Pipeline. While the image above captures the beauty of the surf itself, the image below (by Sean Davey) captures more of what I’m talking about.

Photo: Sean Davey (www.seandavey.com)
Photo: Sean Davey (www.seandavey.com)

A large number of people stood on the beach (some for hours) just watching the waves roll in, set after set. The conversation amongst those gathered was minimal. Everyone was just soaking in this astounding display of natural force and beauty; a collective moment of awe.

Now, I’m not saying anyone has to go to Hawai’i to experience awe (though there’s certainly a lot of it there…) but I think “going” is part of the process. Most of us are not immediately surrounded in our homes or yards by the sorts of occurrences that inspire awe. But it’s important to know that you don’t have to go far, either. I was reminded of that last week when my spouse and I embarked on a hike in the canyon behind our house. Together, we explored an area close to home but entirely new to us. The trails have been there for years and we kept saying, “one day…”. That day finally came and it has opened up new things for us to see. I’d never seen the valley below our home. I’d never seen the incredible hilltop view of downtown L.A. Those two things, as well as a few others, inspired awe in me. Okay, not the big sort of awe that massive 20′ walls of cresting ocean inspires, but smaller moments. Those smaller moments are just as important.

There is so much beauty in our world – natural and man-made. To NOT stop and take it in is to deprive yourself of something precious. It could also deprive you of creative inspiration – after all inspiration is EVERYWHERE and, like the magic referred to by to our poet Yeats, is just “waiting for our senses to grow sharper”.

Seeking awe requires two simple things, I believe. Something to experience and the ability to experience it, not just glance at it between checking messages. That day on the beach, I could see the incredible waves but I could also feel the warmth of the January sun on my skin, taste the salt of the sea air, hear the crashing of waves, and smell the plumeria blooms wafting on the breeze. That memory is forever etched into my brain. It was, truly, “awe”some.