Oahu’s Waianae coast has officially become home to a Disney timeshare and resort hotel. The project – already six years and a billion dollars in the making – is the first of its kind, as the only Disney resort with no amusement park affiliation. But that fact won’t stop Mickey and Minnie from making an appearance. Both attended the opening blessing today and will continue to be a part of resort activities, as guests rather than hosts. This distinction is important in keeping with the intent of the resort – named Aulani, meaning “messenger from a higher authority” – to tell the story not of the Disney characters, but of the place in which the resort has been built.
Admittedly, there is a bit of irony in a fantasy-fabricating company like Disney insisting on intentions to tell the real story of a place, people and history. In an interview with msnbc, Disney spokesman John McClintock acknowledged Disney’s reputation as “a storytelling company,” but reassures residents, “when we came to Hawaii, we didn’t come to tell our own stories. We came to tell the stories that already exist here.”
In order to follow through on this promise, Disney invited input from Native Hawaiians. Brought into the planning process as “cultural consultants”, some Native Hawaiians had the opportunity to review plans for Aulani – from design to activities – and recommend changes as they saw fit.
The collaboration between Disney staff and local cultural consultants has resulted in the resort’s emphasis on Native art, customs, and culture. Visitors to Aulani will be greeted by original mele created by singer/songwriter and kumu hula Keali‘i Reichel, enjoy Native art throughout the property, and be exposed to the Hawaiian language in the ‘Olelo Room. In addition, guests will be offered opportunities to learn about Native Hawaiian culture and language through activities such as taro planting, poi pounding, and fire pit storytelling.
Does Disney risk oversimplifying the unique and multifaceted history and culture of the islands? Perhaps. But with the help of Native cultural consultants, their hope is to share the most authentic story possible in the limited time visitors have in Hawaii. “Is it 100-percent authentic Hawaiian?” cultural consultant and owner of Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii, Maile Meyer asks. She answers her own question by explaining, “Of course not. But it’s as real as you can get in a visitor experience”.
Disney – and Hawaii’s economy – is counting on a vibrant visitor experience to keep guests coming back. By 2013, when the resort is scheduled to be complete, Disney estimates that some 4,800 jobs and $634 million in economic activity will have been created by construction alone. Tourism officials estimate that Aulani could bring $300 million in added annual revenue to the Aloha state. These numbers are encouraging at a time when unemployment is high and the economy is rumored to be on the brink of a predicted “double dip”.
Despite a time-share sales snafu, fears of recession, and concerns of cultural commodification, Disney’s first Hawaii resort is open. Whether it will prove to be magic or misfortune is a story yet to be told.