On Location: Talking With the Aulani Team

So I’ve had a chance to look at Aulani by daylight, and I have to say I’m even more impressed than I was this morning. (That could be due to the coffee, of course.) There are little Disney touches throughout—a wooden table lamp might have a subtly-shaded Mickey in the base, or you might go past a small statue of Stitch from the movie Lilo and Stitch (which, of course, was set in Hawaii). But on the whole, the resort has a very grown-up feel, with natural products in the design and subdued color schemes. There's plenty that would appeal to the younger crowd, but it doesn't feel specifically designed for children.

Over breakfast at 'Ama 'Ama (the more upscale restaurant at the resort, with killer views of the beach and the pools--see above), I chatted with Elliot Mills, Aulani’s managing director (below), to find out how a Disney resort should balance its appeal to children with its appeal to their parents. The answer, he says, is not in the design or décor, but in the experiences, with different activities available for a wide range of age groups. Little kids can go to Aunty’s House for storytelling; teens can play on the beach and learn various arts and crafts (or even the art of cooking!) and grownups can relax on the beach or sip cocktails on a terrace (with views over the beach and the pool area, making it easy to keep an eye on kids) or unwind in the spa.

That spa, Mills predicts, will be the best in all of Hawaii. Spa Director Lucia Rodriguez agrees (naturally), pointing out several unique perks the spa offers, like rainwater therapies in a dedicated rainwater suite, a reflexology path for guests to walk on barefoot (soothes foot problems, she says), and the hydrotherapy program. This program is included as part of the treatments, so guests can arrive an hour early and soak in an herb-infused tub and wash off with a custom-blended exfoliation scrub before they get their massage. If guests would rather just unwind in the outdoor hydrotherapy garden and skip the massage, it’s just $35 (and that still includes the custom-blended exfoliation treatment).

Shelby Jiggets, the director of Theatrical Development, comes to Aulani with an impressive theatrical resume (she worked for years with the Public Theater in New York City). She, like Mills, points out the value of having diverse options for a wide range of ages at the resort. She especially likes the distinctly Hawaiian sense of ritual throughout the resort, and explains that the team worked with local consultants and artists—including choreographers and writers—to make the activities authentic but appropriate for the Disney demographic.

And then, of course, there’s the food. Patrick Callarec, Aulani’s executive chef, said that his cuisine will appeal to parents (nothing is fried; everything is made from scratch; lots of local ingredients; etc.) as well as the kids. Even better, to introduce younger guests to the world of fine dining, family meals are presented in a proper three-course format—even when the main course is pizza. (Hey, they’re kids. Pizza is its own food group to a 10-year-old.) In the bars, the cocktails are also made with fresh ingredients—the pineapple juice is fresh-squeezed, for example, and nothing comes from cans. (Memo to self: Try a mai tai ASAP.)

Kapa (known as Tapa elsewhere) is a distinctly Polynesian artform, but it largely disappeared from Hawaii generations ago. Dalani Tanahy (above) traveled throughout the South Pacific to learn about the unique fabric, and is now considered a master of the craft. She is responsible for a lot of the kapa throughout the resort, all of which is authentic and handmade (and strikingly beautiful). As we were talking, she mentioned that in her travels, she heard the expression "We learned this from our grandmothers" frequently, and was always saddened that Hawaiians could not say the same. But now Tanahy has a grandchild of her own, and the tradition can resume. 

Oh, one more detail about my room I forgot to mention: The toilet is heated, and features a built-in electronic bidet. Yes, folks, it’s finally happened, and it was only a matter of time: We’ve gone from smart phones to smart toilets. The machines now run the world.

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