Mickey Checks In
Disney and Hawaii: A match made in heaven?
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On a windy November day, an empty lot at the Ko Olina Resort & Marina was the site of an event both reverential and literally cartoonish: the ground breaking for the newest development for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
Like most groundbreaking ceremonies in Hawaii, this one started with a chant from kahu, followed by glowing praise of public officials and executives from Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, thanking each other for the opportunity. Before ground was broken, conch shells sounded and dancers from a local halau performed traditional hula. O‘o sticks, not gold shovels, turned over the dirt.
The ensuing luncheon and program, however, seemed straight out of Disneyland. Two rows of children no taller than 4 feet lined up to greet attendees as if they were entering the Magic Kingdom. Disney mascots Mickey and Minnie Mouse (Mickey in a red aloha shirt and kukui-nut lei, Minnie in a muumuu) posed for photos. Grade-school children performed a dance accompanied by a song from the 2002 Disney film, “Lilo & Stitch.”
The occasion formally launched construction of an estimated $800 million Disney resort unlike any other in the world. In some minds, this was historic. A perfect convergence of two world-renowned brands: the family-friendly Disney combined with the paradise destination of Hawaii.
Even though the economy is in a recession, Disney understands Hawaii’s importance in the global travel and leisure market. Hospitality brands Hilton and Marriott have increased their local timeshare presence with the Grand Waikikian and Ko Olina Beach Club, respectively, for the same reason major airlines fly to Hawaii despite the costs — because their customer loyalty programs demand it.
Here’s the challenge: Will Disney produce a product that is both entirely Disney and entirely Hawaii?
As the first Disney resort outside of its theme parks, the Ko Olina project is an experiment for the company. Its success could initiate a new business model for Disney. For Hawaii, it’s a free advertising ride that could not be matched by any other entity, including the state’s own Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. For West Oahu, it’s the piece that could propel the second city to its economic destiny.
Another Reason to Go to Hawaii
In October 2007, Disney purchased 21 acres of oceanfront property from Ko Olina. The City and County of Honolulu had zoned the parcel for resort use in the 1980s. It sits between the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa and the parcel planned for the Grand Ko Olina Resort & Spa, which had been called the resort’s centerpiece and at one time was to have featured an extravagant aquarium.
In the past year, the Walt Disney Imagineering team came up with a comprehensive plan, consulting cultural leaders and local architects. Judging by artists’ renderings, the result is something unique. “This will be visually distinct,” says Djuan Rivers, vice president of Disney Vacations Club Hawaii. “When you come to it, you’re not going to go, ‘Hmm, which one is the Disney resort?’”
Djuan Rivers, VP of Disney Vacations Club Hawaii,
Rivers has been a long-time Disney employee, previously overseeing new Disney developments and other Disney Vacation Club destinations in Florida. Aside from a quick summer session at the University of Hawaii, he admits he is still a newcomer to the Islands, only arriving last June. (How new is he? He may be the only person to ever introduce Hawaii’s lieutenant governor without saying his nickname, “Duke.”)
When Rivers talks about the project, though, it is clear Disney is in for the long haul and is committed to the community. “We have a lot of faith in the viability of Hawaii’s long-term tourism,” Rivers says. “People will always come here. There are slowdowns, but people are going to have Hawaii on their list of destinations.”
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