Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Preparing Hawaii for the coming wave of Disney

As I write this it's nine months until Aulani a Disney Resort and Spa is due to open in Kapolei at the Ko Olina Resort. To the best of my knowledge I'm the only Disney podcaster living on island and have been following the resort from the announcement back in the fall of 2007. This week I attended a presentation at Leeward Community College sponsored by their Job Prep Services people. So far just about everything that I've seen about the resort has been given by Disney management that's been from the mainland. Katie Mock from the College Program and Lianne Maeda the Aulani Recruitment Manager headed up the session. Lianne is a local and it was good to hear from and talk to her in person rather than just seeing a recorded face on a video screen.

One point that Katie and Lianne wanted to impart to the audience is Aulani will not be a theme park, but a luxury hotel that will be right up there in quality with the Contemporary, Polynesian or Grand Floridian at the Walt Disney World resort or the Grand Californian at the Disneyland Resort. This is reflected in the fact that the price point for a room will start at $399 per night. The 21 acre property will have 359 regular hotel rooms and 481 Disney Vacation Club villas. As they gave specifics to the resort, I was getting more excited. Many of the details for the resort are in place, but there is still some of the experience that needs to be ironed out.

The story of the resort starts as you come in off of Alii Nui Drive. The Kanaka Maoli, the indigenous Hawaiians, tell in the creation chant the story of how kalo (taro) came to be and how it has sustained them from the dawn of civilization. Kalo will be right there at the entrance in a lohi to begin the story of your stay. The main lobby will show Hawaii and Hawaiians via artwork created by local artists. Running water will be on each side of the lobby. The name of the lobby is meant to symbolize what they hope the guests will do: Maka'ala, eyes wide open, eyes to absorb the beauty and tales on display for all to see including a time line that will go from ancient to modern times.

The resort is laid out to represent the division of land given out in ancient times called an ahuapua'a. These divisions contained swaths of land from the mountains running down to the ocean that allowed the residents to live and thrive on what the natural resources provided to them. The rooms are laid out like the ridges on the side of the mountain extending mauka (mountain) to makai (sea) with the valley in between. Disney has named the valley Waikolohe meaning rascally waters. This relates to the lazy river and and other water activities within including a rainbow reef water diving experience where people can dive in and interact with live salt water animals. Seven acres will be devoted to the valley.

They stressed another area called Aunty's Beach House. Aunty's will be a place where kids can go to play. Who knows, maybe Stitch will show up there! Two weeks ago for the taping of a The Travel Channel's Bert the Conqueror at Wet'n'Wild Hawaii I met a person who had been hired by Disney for a Youth Activities Counselor role. He is going to head over to Florida in January to spend four or five months on a Disney cruise ship to get trained. I'm hoping he'll get to go on the new Disney Dream which is to have its inaugural cruise on January 26, 2011. Lianne pointed out how important these counselor roles will be.

Several food locations will be available for the guest to experience during their stay: Makahiki and 'Ama'ama. Makahiki is the time of the new year from the old harvest to the new planting. This restaurant will represent the bounty of the harvest time. 'Ama'ama is a type of mullet fish. This restaurant will be like an old fishing house that was found and renovated to bring in guests. The last location is called 'Olelo meaning language. During the session it was said that the style of the location could be changing but the idea of having items labeled in their Hawaiian terms will be accentuated to help guests with learning.

As part of the name people looking for a spa experience will not be disappointed. Guests could get a spa treatment in one of fifteen rooms or the outdoor hydrotherapy within the 18,000 square feet of the spa facility. The selection of services is still to be finalized. Something unique to this area of the resort will be the reflecting pool with water dripping into it from the ceiling reflecting the light off the surface of the water onto the walls and ceiling for visual excitement.

Something on my wish list which I hope they can put into the resort, especially since Imagineering Creative Senior Vice President Joe Rohde is involved with the project is an Adventurers Club like setting. To have a club where guests can interact with club members of a South Pacific adventuring society would be incredible. When the original Adventurers Club closed in 2008 it left a big hole in the heart of many in the Disney fan community. The devoted would come to Hawai'i to experience it again! Local talent could very well provide the improvisation and musical skills necessary to put together a great time for prospective club members. Having a South Pacific Adventurers Club here with Samoans yelling "chee whoo" and drinks being toasted with "okole maluna" would be a welcome addition to Aulani!

Integrated into the resort will be technology some of which has been talked about for the new Disney Dream cruise ship and the Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom in Lake Beuna Vista, Florida. Between the Mahakiki restaurant converting looks between lunch and dinner service to the use of specialized "windows" that will change to create an immersive experience, it will be unlike any other resort on the island of O'ahu.

Of course you'll find Mickey and Minnie with some of their friends. But keep in mind that they too will be enjoying their vacation time in Hawai'i. Aloha shirts and muumuus will probably be standard dress. I wonder if Mickey will be able to shed his shoes and wear rubbah slippahs around the resort?

For myself, I've heard from both locals and fellow Disney fans asking lots of questions about the property. One of the major concerns has been regarding what sort of vibe the resort will have. More so for the locals is will Aulani be like the Polynesian Resort or The Enchanted Tiki Room. The attraction and resort are based off of Polynesia as a whole, not focusing on one particular culture. The Enchanted Tiki Room when it was developed came at a time when the trend of Polynesian Pop was in vogue. Looking at the designs, seeing the videos and talking to Lianne in person it is very apparent that Disney is really looking to take the resort experience to a new level while showcasing the Hawaiian culture. I hope by my descriptions you can see the extreme distinctions between Aulani and anything that came prior.

To make this experience come fully alive, Disney is going to need people who embody the Aloha Spirit. The main purpose of the presentation was to talk to the two dozen people in attendance both about the resort and spa and what they are looking for in people that apply and at the same time pointing out some of the more unique positions that will be available. If you work for Disney you are not called an employee, but a cast member since you are part of a show. Ever since Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1955 this has been the case.

Disney has been hiring management staff now for some time. According to Lianne, come January 2011 they will be at the Job Quest job fair. At that time they will start to accept resumes for hourly positions and general talking to people. Interviews, including web based interviews, will start in May and June with people starting in July and August with test runs on the resort and spa in August with the opening date of August 29, 2011 for phase one. Lianne talked about the hiring process and to make sure that you let them know more about yourself than just the work history. Let them know about your interests and hobbies. This goes against what you're normally told to do when you apply, those topics are usually reserved for the interview and when asked.

Both Lianne and Katie pointed out that because Aulani is not your typical resort, people with all sorts of varied skills and trades will be necessary for the resort to run properly. They will need entertainment people, seamstresses, youth counselors, marine scientists and water specialists in addition to your standard housekeepers, front desk, clerical and back office staff. Disney is looking to draw upon the local talent pool to fill these positions putting multiple hundreds of people to work. Eventually the resort will have an area dedicated for weddings and convention space in addition to the rooms and restaurants.

To see what jobs are currently available go to the Disney Careers website.

Walt Disney once said "You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality." That is true of any Disney property anywhere on the globe but I think especially true here in Hawaii because of the intricate details and distinct location with language and culture to be embodied in and through Aulani.

Check out Aulani construction update photos here.