Editor’s note: We asked Harper Glantz, 15, who recently visited Aulani, the Disney Resort and Spa in Oahu, Hawaii, to tell us in brutally honest terms what she expected before her trip and what her impressions were of the resort, from a teen point of view, once she experienced it for herself.
The following are her words:
Before leaving the east coast and traveling to Aulani, upon hearing the words “Disney Hawaiian resort” I pictured shaking Mickey’s hand before entering any hallway, fake rocks, spoiled kids, Americanized Hawaiian food (yes I know Hawaii is part of America, but you know what I mean), Disney Princess trivia being begged of me at every turn, Disney themed karaoke, perhaps some pineapple shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head, and maybe some questionable hula dancing…maybe.
This was my narrowly informed vision of Disney vacations mostly based on ’90s commercials that were at the beginning of the VHS Disney movies I watched nonstop when I was little (Yeah, I said it folks, VHS — get over it.)
Being 15, I have grown to loathe the word “teen.” Perhaps I feel that between the ages of 13 and 18 we are not considered people by the relative world; we are for the moment simply a hassle. During this period of time it is clear to me that parents become expertly frustrated: “I swear to god, that child has an infinitely closer relationship to her phone than with me.” It is my understanding that parents find it difficult to satisfy their “teens,” and approach the dilemma by creating calculated “plans” and “activities” and “things to do,” all of which should add up to produce a certain enjoyable outcome, but never do. For this reason the term “teen activity” that I associated with family vacations was less than attractive to me; I didn’t want to have to square dance or wear a name tag.
All of which is to say that now would be the perfect time to please return your seats to an upright position and fasten your seat belts; tuck any carry on items under the seat in front of you or in the over head storage bins, flight attendants prepare for departure. You’re about to hear how my entire outlook got turned upside down and inside out.
The first thing I heard when we arrived at Aulani was “Aloha, welcome,” and a fresh flower lei was placed around my neck. I felt like I was walking into a massive Hawaiian temple. Hundred foot ceilings, open aired walls, indoor rock gardens, and fountains, led down a massive hallway towards the front desk. As we checked in, I felt the salty breeze my neck, and sized up these new surroundings. To our backs was a massive patio, overlooking the water park/gardens and beyond that was the ocean. Cool. And weirdly, so far I saw nothing iconically Disney… hmm, interesting.
My mother and I were hungry so we headed down to the Olelo Room, which we found out is the only restaurant in Hawaii where every employee speaks fluent Hawaiian. Finally, a good and productive idea in the tourism industry! I thought. But I had just arrived y’all; it gets better.
I quickly realized that Aulani didn’t feel like a “resort” at all, but like a “real” place. It is difficult to describe, but I felt I was being accepted into what seemed more like an authentic community – something that I think is a rarity in today’s world of social media, plastic boxes we call homes, disposable everything, local nothing, and the rapid death of indigenous culture worldwide. In this regard I think Aulani has done a hugely significant service to the world, by creating a place that is not Hawaiian themed, but Hawaiian at heart. I learned more about the culture from a few days there than I probably could have from living there for a year.
What really makes Aulani feel the way it does are the people that work there. First of all, the network of cast members is so extensive, you could probably abandon a toddler anywhere in the resort and have them back to you within 15 minutes no matter what. But what’s most impressive about them is what genuine people they are, and how much pride they have in what they’re participating in and creating. I felt the Aulani cast members also really respected me, truly wanted me to enjoy myself, and were happy to teach me about the Hawaiian culture. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to be surrounded by this level of authenticity and respect on so many levels.
What I loved most was that as a “teen” at Aulani, I was in charge of my day. I wasn’t forced to do anything or participate in anything. I enjoyed creating my own agenda, going to the programs on my terms. There were things going on like ukulele workshops, beach fitness, kayaking and paddleboarding, but I could choose to do them or not. I found what I loved to do as much as anything was to just wander around up and down the beach and around the paths of the resort, or hang out with my mom.
Probably my favorite activity turned out to be going to a froyo social’ at the Painted Sky teen spa. I frankly had low expectations for this because I don’t like to “socialize” and I usually only eat frozen yogurt “alone” or “with my mom.” But it ended up being a peak experience. It was infinitely more casual than I thought. There were no games or mandatory activities. I met a couple other kids there, and we just talked and made lei, and ate disgusting amounts of frozen yogurt. I met a girl from the island there, and it was so interesting to find out that even people who live in Hawaii vacation at Aulani. She told me about what it was like living there, and in turn, she was curious to hear about what riding the subway “on the mainland” was like. Given I actually live in a small town quite far outside of New York City, I rarely if ever ride a subway — but I didn’t want to disappoint her so I just said it’s a great place to try out freestyle rap in front of an audience.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing of all was that my view of what “Disney” is changed. It became apparent to me that Disney isn’t their extensive merchandising franchise, Disney isn’t Mickey Mouse, or Princesses, or even animation. Disney is self-expression. Disney is inspiration. Disney is imagination. These things and more are what made Aulani so desirable and attractive to me, and would appeal to teens or any person who craves authenticity and adventure.