KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- Order a mai tai in the 'Olelo Room lounge at Disney's new Aulani Resort & Spa, and you'll get more than a tropical drink. Also on tap: informal lessons in the Hawaiian language, delivered via labeled shadowboxes, flashing pronunciation guides and bartender Brad Kekuhaupi'ookalani Kalilimoku.
A Native Hawaiian and former University of Hawaii linebacker, Kalilimoku will gladly coach you on the meaning of words like aulani ("messenger of a higher authority"), kama'aina (a local, or "child of the land") and 'iole (rat, unless of course you're referring to Mickey or Minnie).
Fronting a perfect (and man-made) crescent cove in Oahu's Ko Olina resort area about an hour west of Waikiki, Aulani is Disney's first hotel and time-share development not connected to a theme park. It opened last week with 217 hotel rooms and 73 two-bedroom time-share units in two facing towers, and will add another 130 rooms and 134 time shares in mid-November. (When complete in 2013, the 21-acre project will total 359 hotel rooms and 481 time shares.)
Key Disney characters — Mickey and Minnie, Goofy and Donald, Chip and Dale, and Stitch of Lilo & Stitch— are on hand at Aulani as fellow tourists, making daily scheduled appearances on the resort grounds and at special "character breakfasts." Like similar programs at other Disney properties, the three-times-a-week breakfasts ($32 per person for ages 10 and up, $18 for ages 3 to 9) have been wildly popular, with advance reservations sold out for several months.
But while Mickey and his cohorts may be ali'i nui (ruling chiefs) among the resort's younger guests, Aulani "is a different model for us," insists Joe Rohde, the project's conceptual designer. and Disney's chief "imagineer."
"When people come here, we want them to get Hawaiinot an illusion," says Rohde, who grew up on Oahu. "We are not an island within an island."
So, along with hidden Mickeys (a Disney parks signature)in the rooms' Hawaiian quilts, you'll find plenty of hidden menehunes— mischievous, troll-like creatures native to Hawaii.
Before spreading out a woven lauhala mat on the lawn on a swath of green lawn for an outdoor screening of Finding Nemo, you can sit in on a Hawaiian storytelling session around a beach-side fire pit.
And after tackling a 8,200-square-foot pool complex that includes two slides, a lazy river and an artificial snorkeling lagoon, kids can dry out with hula lessons at the Aunty's Beach House activity center — or join their parents on Disney-sponsored excursions like a three-hour surf school led by Honolulu city firefighters ($154 for adults, $184 for children's private instruction).
A few glitches at the outset
If Aulani's first week of operation is any indication, most guests are content to confine their explorations to the resort itself. Hotel rooms (which start at $399 per night) include rain-shower bath fixtures and ample wood accents; the suites and two-bedroom time-share villas cater to what's expected to be a large Japanese clientele, given rice cookers and fancy heated toilet seats. One signature draw: an 18,000-square-foot spa with family treatment rooms and a teens-only area.
"I would like to live at this hotel," muses 6-year-old Kylie Cox of Orange, Calif., who has been running her mother, Melanie, ragged during a three-day marathon of Goofy sightings and trips down the Waikolohe Stream (aka lazy river).
Disney pixie dust notwithstanding, there have been some early grumblings and glitches at Aulani, from inconsistent service and steep food prices ($43 per person for a dinner buffet) to murky, algae-filled water in the resort's hands-on stingray pool (which costs $50 per session for adults, $45 for kids).
"The attention to detail is amazing, but they need more food options. And I would have expected more adult-only areas and programming," says Kari Valley, a Seattle-based travel agent. (A "quiet pool" off the spa discourages but doesn't forbid unaccompanied children.)
While "it is a beautiful resort, and the people are very welcoming," the overall experience was "less than what I expected from Disney," adds Robert Anderson, a Disney Vacation Club member from Gilroy, Calif. who posted a review to the Disney fan site LaughingPlace.comwho checked in on opening day and posted a review on the Disney blog LaughingPlace.com.
Behind the scenes, the company suspended sales of Aulani time-share units in July because of concerns that it underpriced maintenance costs and other fees, and it fired three key executives over the mistake. (Disney is "making adjustments to the annual dues forecasts" and has filed new registration documents with Hawaii; sales are on hold pending state approval.)
Then, too, some observers question how far Disney — itself a master of manicured, manufactured experiences — is able or willing to go in its quest to give visitors more than a superficial view of Hawaiian culture.
"Just what is an 'authentic Hawaiian experience,' anyway?" asks Oahu author Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose novel about the complexities of Hawaiian identity, The Descendants, has been made into a Hollywood film starring George Clooney, in theaters later this year.
"I don't think you can pin it down to kapa cloth and taro." (As part of its emphasis on traditional landscaping, the resort's entrance is fronted by a patch of the leafy plant that's used to create the Hawaiian food staple poi.)
Disney takes some risks
A 15-minute drive west of Aulani, the town of Waianae is the kind of place that most Oahu hotels "would tell visitors to avoid," says Ramsay Taum, a Native Hawaiian who served as a cultural resource during the resort's planning stages.
The Waianae Coast is one of the poorest areas in the state, with a large homeless population, a strong following among supporters of Hawaiian sovereignty and a reputation for being anti-tourist. But now, thanks to Disney, it's also a focus of "Tales of a Moonlit Night," a ghost tour that explores the legends and lore of Hawaiian "chicken-skin" stories.
In a "long line of broken promises by offshore developers," Disney's efforts at Aulani stand out because "they're treating Hawaiian culture as the main item on the menu, rather than a condiment," says Taum.
"They're taking some risks," he adds, "but it's a huge departure" from the plastic lei and tiki torch stereotype perpetuated by other Hawaiian resorts.
Indeed, there are no Elvis tunes or coconut bras at Aulani's "starlit hui," a weekly event featuring Hawaiian artisans and performers. But while dancers from a local halau (hula school) earn appreciative applause from the audience, the closing act brings down the house.
Mickey, Minnie and the rest of the Disney crew take to the stage wearing shorts, loud aloha shirts and what look suspiciously like artificial leis — and they're dancing the Electric Slide.