Artist rendering of Disney's Ko Olina Resort © Disney
The Walt Disney Company released this rendering of Disney’s Ko Olina Resort in October 2007.  (rendering © Disney)

Disney Goes Hawaiian, Part 1:
What to Expect from
Disney at Ko Olina
Most Yesterland articles are about the past. This one is about the future, but the story begins exactly one year ago.
Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, October 3, 2008    

On October 3, 2007, The Walt Disney Company announced plans to build an 800-unit resort on a prime 21-acre oceanfront site in Hawai‘i, with the opening scheduled for 2011. Borrowing a page from Disney’s BoardWalk Villas in Florida, the Hawaiian resort would include Disney Vacation Club timeshare villas and regular deluxe hotel rooms. The press release included quotations from Disney Parks & Resorts Chairman Jay Rasulo and Hawai‘i Governor Linda Lingle, as well as praise for the master-planned Ko Olina development on the island of O‘ahu—but it said very little about the Disney resort itself. The press release included a single rendering, which is at the top of this article.

In case you never saw the press release or you want to reread it, here it is:

Disney Vacation Club Press Release
Luxury family resort planned for Ko Olina Resort & Marina on the island of O‘ahu.
BURBANK, Calif., October 3, 2007 - Walt Disney Parks & Resorts has announced that the company has finalized plans to purchase 21 acres of oceanfront property on Hawai‘i’s island of O‘ahu.
The property, located on the island’s western side in the picturesque Ko Olina Resort & Marina, Honolulu’s premier resort destination, will be home to Disney’s first mixed-use family resort outside of its theme park developments. The expansive resort, scheduled to open in 2011, is planned to have more than 800 units, including hotel rooms and Disney Vacation Club villas.*
“This resort hotel will give our Guests another way to visit an exciting part of the world with a brand they trust,” said Jay Rasulo, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. “In fact, Hawai‘i has been among our most requested Disney Vacation Club getaway locations beyond our Theme Parks. We are looking forward to building a special family resort that honors the cultural diversity of Hawai‘i and reflects the spirit of aloha that makes this location so unique.”
Consistently ranked as one of the top family destinations in the world, Hawai‘i’s natural beauty and extensive offering of family activities make it an ideal location for a Disney resort.
“Disney and Hawai‘i have something special in common, and that is the recognition of the importance of ‘ohana,” said Hawai‘i Governor Linda Lingle. “Not only does Disney provide wonderful family vacations, but as a media company, it also touches people worldwide with its entertainment offerings. The new Disney hotel will be a great addition to O‘ahu, and I am pleased to welcome a company that can also bring the world of new media and digital technology to Hawai‘i, opening new opportunities for innovative partnerships in non-tourism related sectors.”
Ko Olina
The new resort hotel will be the latest addition to the Ko Olina development, known for its sweeping ocean views, picture-postcard white sand beaches and tranquil crystal blue lagoons.
Jeff Stone, President of The Resort Group and master developer of Ko Olina, has been working closely with Disney on the land acquisition and project.
“Ko Olina means ‘place of joy,’ and I can’t imagine a more perfect fit here than a Disney resort that will bring joy to people from around the world,” Stone said. “For many years, it has been our vision to continue to expand Ko Olina as a premier vacation destination for families and business travelers, and this new Disney resort hotel is making that vision a wonderful reality.”
*This resort is not yet registered or offered for sale.

It was big news in Hawai‘i. Honolulu newspapers and television stations reported that Disney had paid $144 million for the 21-acre site—that’s almost $7 million per acre. Groundbreaking would be in 2008.

Artist rendering of Disney's Ko Olina Resort © Disney
Zooming in on the rendering reveals a Polynesian paradise.  (rendering © Disney)

The press release said nothing about the Disney resort’s theme, except that it would be a “special family resort that honors the cultural diversity of Hawai‘i and reflects the spirit of aloha that makes this location so unique.” And the press release did not indicate a name. (Ko Olina Resort is the location, not the name of the Disney resort.)

The best clues about the Disney resort’s theme come from the rendering. The resort looks the way we mainlanders expect a Hawaiian resort to look, with thatch-roofed huts in the tradition of Polynesian villages. Even the high-rise section echoes the Polynesian look. A volcano-themed waterslide and a series of tropical lagoons suggest a pool area that could rival Stormalong Bay at Disney’s Yacht and Beach Clubs, but with an idealized Hawaiian setting.

Photo for Disney Ko Olina article at Yesterland
The JW Marriott Ihilani will be Disney’s neighbor on Ko Olina Lagoon 1.

A Polynesian or Hawaiian theme may not seem particularly unusual for a resort in Hawai‘i. But, surprisingly, it’s a theme that other lodging companies avoid. It seems the Polynesian theme might be too closely associated the mainland tiki bars, “pu pu platter” eateries, and other Hawaiiana of the 1950s and 1960s.

There are a few exceptions, such as the famed Kona Village on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast. But most hotels in Hawai‘i avoid the thatched hut theme, opting instead for modern architecture or a look based on Hawai‘i’s Plantation period or even a Mediterranean style. Such hotels usually have an overlay of Hawaiian decor, with “tasteful” Hawaiian art and materials, especially in the lobby and guest rooms. And their landscaping features lush tropical plants (though often not native plants) and flaming torches at night, which make it clear you’re not in Chicago.

Photo for Disney Ko Olina article at Yesterland
Future Curator of Yesterland with Coco Palms sink in 1987.

It wasn’t always like this. From the day it opened in 1953, the Coco Palms Resort on Kaua‘i immersed guests in an idealized ancient Hawai‘i, built around actual ancient royal fishponds. Under the leadership of visionary hotelier Grace Guslander, the Coco Palms Resort offered such features as giant South Pacific clam shells as bathroom sinks. Guslander invented the “traditional” torch lighting ceremony, which has been imitated throughout Hawai‘i. The Coco Palms Resort was the location for the highlights of Elvis Presley’s 1961 film, Blue Hawaii. Alas, on September 11, 1992, Hurricane Iniki did so much damage to the venerable resort that it never reopened.

It’s been said that Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn on steroids, and Disney’s Grand Californian Resort is a Greene & Greene Craftsman bungalow on steroids. If the artist concept rendering is an accurate depiction of what Disney will build at Ko Olina, then this new resort will be the Coco Palms Resort on steroids.

Photo for Disney Ko Olina article at Yesterland
Enchanted Tiki Room art is not authentic—but sure is fun.

Don’t expect a Disneyfied Hawai‘i like the Enchanted Tiki Room. At Ko Olina, Disney will be respectful of Hawaiian history and culture. On the day that Disney announced the project, Honolulu’s KGMB Channel 9 included the following as part of their news segment:

“Disney officials said they want to provide guests with an authentic Hawaiian experience. The company plans to work with cultural consultants and community leaders. When Disney’s Lilo & Stitch movie came out, some Native Hawaiian groups were upset with a song they said was taken from two chants for Hawaiian royalty.”

Actually, it would be great if Disney could have one restaurant that captures the cartoony mid-20th-century interpretation of Hawai‘i, as exemplified by the Enchanted Tiki Room. The hard part would be making sure that everyone understands what it is—a fun (and inoffensive) look at the Hawai‘i craze that swept the nation around the time of Hawai‘i’s 1959 statehood—not an assault on those who are seriously committed to preserving Hawai‘i’s rich but fragile culture.

Photo for Disney Ko Olina article at Yesterland
The first two buildings of Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club.

Most O‘ahu tourists book rooms on Waikiki. Most have probably never heard of the Ko Olina Resort & Marina, a master-planned, gated resort on the western shore of O‘ahu—essentially in the opposite direction from Honolulu International Airport as Waikiki.

Photo for Disney Ko Olina article at Yesterland
Paradise Cove is very touristy. Most guests are bused in from Waikiki.

So far, the Ko Olina Resort consists of:

  • Three small natural lagoons and four large manmade lagoons;
  • The JW Marriott Ihilani, a 17-story, 387-room luxury hotel with three table-service restaurants;
  • Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club, a timeshare resort that will eventually have 750 villas in four large buildings on 28 acres;
  • The Beach Villas at Ko Olina, a spectacular condominium building, with most villas costing over $1 million;
  • Paradise Cove Luau, a beachfront luau that pre-dates the rest of the Ko Olina Resort;
  • Ko Olina Marina, a 43-acre marina;
  • A championship golf course by Ted Robinson, with Roy’s Ko Olina Restaurant;
  • A wedding chapel;
  • Various condominiums that are not oceanfront;
  • Around a half dozen additional resort sites for other developers whose pockets are as deep as Disney’s;
  • A seaside pedestrian pathway that goes from the JW Marriott Ihilani to the Marina, past all the manmade lagoons and the resorts that face them.
Photo for Disney Ko Olina article at Yesterland
Fia Fia at Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club is a great show with surprisingly good food.

The many attractions of O‘ahu await Ko Olina guests who want to leave the resort, but it’s possible to have a great vacation without leaving Ko Olina.

Of course, the number one attraction is the beach. Disney’s site faces directly toward Lagoon 1, the largest of the manmade lagoons. The water is calm because the lagoons are protected from the open ocean. The lagoons are like large, warm, salt-water swimming pools. Colorful tropical fish come into the lagoons, especially into Lagoon 1, so you can go snorkeling right from the beach.

There are openings to the ocean to flush the lagoons continuously with clean ocean water. For safety, the openings are beyond roped-off sections of the lagoons. Speaking of safety, these lagoons are perfect family beaches, and are probably much safer than typical beaches that are subject to strong waves and ocean currents. However, it’s important not to be complacent. The day before my first visit to Ko Olina in 2005, a man drowned in Lagoon 1.

Photo for Disney Ko Olina article at Yesterland
The Ko Olina Cat operates snorkeling cruises and sunset cruises out of the Ko Olina Marina.

The activity desks at the two Marriott resorts sell a wide variety of tours and activities, and Disney will undoubtedly do the same. I’m very fond of the Ko Olina Cat, especially the sunset sailings.

Photo for Disney Ko Olina article at Yesterland
Kapolei, O‘ahu’s “second city” offers contemporary conveniences.

The resorts of Ko Olina are part of the fast-growing city of Kapolei. Before the Disney resort is completed, Kaoplei will gain a Target, a Costco, and two new shopping centers. It may seem strange to fly halfway across the Pacific Ocean to go to the same big box stores that are at home. But it will be convenient to have access to such stores when shopping for food to stock the villa kitchen or to pick up anything that didn’t get packed in a suitcase.

The Ko Olina Resort has only a few restaurants today. We can expect a few more from Disney. With the new shopping centers in Kapolei, there should be still more restaurants. It will be good to have additional choices.

Photo for Disney Ko Olina article at Yesterland
Ko Olina has spectacular sunsets.

Yes, Disney picked a great location.

Disney Goes Hawaiian, 2
Disney at National Harbor

© 2008-2019 Werner Weiss — Disclaimers, Copyright, and Trademarks

Updated April 20, 2019.

Publicity artwork © Disney.
Photo of future Curator of Yesterland at sink: Tina Weiss, 1987
All other photos: Werner Weiss, 2005-2007.