Disney's 21-acre Aulani Resort & Spa, about 30 minutes from Waikiki… (Paul Hiffmeyer )
Reporting from Ko’ Olina, Hawaii — — On leeward Oahu, it is 85 degrees and the trade winds are blowing. Beyond a towering volcanic outcropping, the Pacific Ocean, at a steady 70 degrees, beckons. Honeymooners sip tropical drinks under a thatched-roof hut as the afternoon sun begins its lazy descent.
This is Hawaii. Do you really need Disney?
My wife, Nancy, and I and our 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, journeyed last month to Disney's new Hawaii resort to see whether Mickey Mouse & Co. could improve on near perfection. Aulani sets out to replace the clichés of tiki torches, totem poles, bamboo furniture and tacky luaus with a resort that celebrates Hawaii's history, legends and cultures with just a sprinkling of Disney's trademark pixie dust.
PHOTOS: Disney's Aulani Resort & Spa
And, for the most part, it succeeds — not only as a vacation resort but also as an entity that capitalizes on rather than marginalizes its destination, ironic for a company that built its brand on fairy-tale fantasy. Disney pulls it off with style, grace and beauty, and this $800-million resort delivers on its promise and its considerable marquee name.
Aulani opened in late August with 359 pricey hotel rooms and 460 time-share units. The 21-acre resort, about 30 minutes from Waikiki in Ko' Olina, is worlds apart in look, feel and spirit from that tourist mecca of high-rise monoliths.
"It feels like we're on a different island even though we're still on Oahu," said Michelle Blake, visiting Aulani with her family from nearby Waipahu.
And perhaps that is its magic, one or two missteps aside. Oahu — at least this part of Oahu — becomes the Hawaii we're all hoping to find.
Three A-frame thatch huts greet you when you arrive at Aulani, along with a pair of towers that rise like modern interpretations of a Hawaiian fishing village — if fishermen could build a 15-story hotel. An Aulani hostess greeted us, presenting Nancy and Hannah with flower leis and me with a kukui nut version. Telephone pole-sized timbers support the lobby's cathedral-like vaulted interior. From the ceiling, lights dangle like luminescent jellyfish caught in clusters of fishing nets. A verdant ribbon mural depicting island life wraps the lobby's perimeter.
Once in our room (about 382 square feet), we found whimsical touches throughout, including the pineapple-patterned quilt woven with hidden Mickeys, an outrigger canoe motif in the headboard and giant hand-carved fishhooks framing the wall mirror.
A flat-screen TV with a Blu-ray player (loaner DVDs were available in the community room for a fee) and hookups for video games (brought from home) sat atop a six-drawer dresser with a hidden mini-fridge. A table for two featured the only overt Disney reference in the room: a lamp with a ukulele-playing Mickey Mouse.
A small side table with compartments below for a coffee maker and an ice bucket stood nearby. Beneath the bed was space for stowing suitcases, a smart touch. On the nightstand sat a gourd lamp and an alarm clock with an iPod dock.
In the bath, a mirror with a wave-motif frame flanked by seashell sconces stood above a single sink vanity with six cubbies for storage. Island art on the walls and floral print throw pillows added just enough aloha flavor.
Once we had settled in, it was time to start exploring.
Just as it does in Hawaiian life, water plays a central role at Aulani, in such features as the water-park-like pool, sunset-facing hot tubs, saltwater snorkeling pool and the adult and youth spas.
The centerpiece of Aulani's pool is a man-made volcanic outcropping where hidden stingrays, squid and crabs are carved into lava-like rock. Two water slides — one a zippy body slide through the dark and the other an inner-tube slide with plenty of airtime — start at the top of the peak.
Hannah loved riding down the slide with me on the two-person inner tube that starts at the volcanic peak.
"The extra weight makes it go faster," Hannah said, clearly unaware I'd lost 10 pounds in preparation for the trip.
At the bottom of the slide, Hannah rocketed forward like a human cannonball as we hit the pool, the inner tube bonking her on the head and dunking her.
"Let's do it again," she said as she surfaced, unscathed and undeterred.
Hannah's favorite part of the Aulani pool complex was the 900-foot-long lazy river that wound through misty caverns, under footbridges and around the resort's tropical grounds.
But she had one complaint: "This lazy river is too lazy," said Hannah who didn't realize the meaning of island time. Life slows down a bit here.
The saltwater snorkeling lagoon, an 8-foot-deep pool filled with 1,000 angelfish, tangs and butterflyfish, was the most interesting part of the pool area. Hannah held tightly to my arm as we explored the man-made volcanic caverns and coral reefs as fish swam up to and around us.