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Why This Disney Imagineer Said “No” to Make Believe

Joe Rohde, Senior Vice President, Creative, Walt Disney Imagineering. Rohde designed Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa.

Joe Rohde, Senior Vice President, Creative, Walt Disney Imagineering. Rohde designed Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa.

Since before our grandparents’ grandparents time, tropical themes in literature, music, and folklore have imbued our collective imaginations with the fantasy of remote island adventure. Tales like Treasure Island, The Swiss Family Robinson, Peter Pan, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Lonely Island, Lord of the Flies and so many others all added their own particular brand of romance, mystery and intrigue to that sense of wanderlust. Later, Walt Disney built on the same tradition — adapting many classic island stories and novels into movies that further shaped our imaginings of these distant lands. Walt Disney, in fact, may have as much or more to do with creating generations of tropical dreamers as any one person.

The tropical paradises of the movies Walt Disney made during his lifetime are numerous. They can be found in Peter Pan, Treasure Island, more than one Jules’ Verne adaptation, the comedy Lt. Robin Crusoe USN, and in nuanced ways in countless others. Outside the realm of the silver screen, Walt Disney brought the tropics to life in the Tiki Room and the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride of the resorts, the latter giving way to the huge movie franchise we are all familiar with now.

After Walt Disney’s lifetime, the tradition continued in countless more Disney films and attractions.

So why do island destinations beckon us so?

These imagined tropical paradises tap into something at the core of our culture. Paradise is after all connected to the most fundamental story in western culture: the Garden of Eden — our creation myth. It is no wonder then, that when many of us think of the ultimate vacation, we think of wanting to get a glimpse of real paradises that do exist. We want to see them with our eyes, touch and see and feel and experience the surroundings and their indigenous cultures, and have some sense of belonging to them.

The taro plant, a staple food and spiritual symbol of the Hawaiian people, is grown at the entrance to Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Hawaii.

The taro plant, a staple food and spiritual symbol of the Hawaiian people, is grown at the entrance to Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Hawaii.

Aulani, the Disney Resort and Spa on Oahu in Hawaii, which has just undergone an expansion (just fully open to the public since October 19) has been explosively popular to guests from all over the world, particularly the US and Japan. Why? It is undeniably the most Hawaiian Hawaiian vacation a family could take.

The “realness” at Aulani has much to do with the creative mind who designed it. Joe Rohde, a 30-some year veteran of Disney Imagineering, creator of Disney’s Animal Kingdom among other attractions, could not have been better suited for the challenge. Rohde is nothing if not real, slightly eccentric and an incredibly intense and affable genius mind oh, and he certainly knows Hawaii. He grew up there.

Rohde, whose signature look is a very heavy collection of tribal-esque earrings in just one earlobe, is passionate about having created a place that all Hawaiians would be proud to present to the world. If it wasn’t genuine and representative of the Hawaiian people, Rohde felt it wasn’t worthy of being built on his childhood island.

“Going to Hawaii, by nature, is a gigantic journey no matter where you’re coming from,” says Rohde. “So what people want when they arrive is Hawaii and Aulani rewards you when you finally arrive. You haven’t arrived in a make-believe Hawaii. This actually is Hawaii.”

The 'Olelo Room at Aulani.

The ‘Olelo Room at Aulani, the only of its kind on Hawaii, is a lounge where every cast member is fluent in conversational native Hawaiian.

“Even as a child,” he continues, “I was aware that people coming to Hawaii didn’t really ‘get’ where they were. So Aulani is grounded in something very real. Aulani is the most real thing I’ve ever done.”

In imagining what Aulani could be, Rohde assembled a council of Hawaiian advisors. He wanted Aulani to present Hawaiian culture as a living culture — reflecting not just ancient traditions and customs, but the real cultural renaissance that Hawaii has been going through for the past generation. Aulani is filled with contemporary Hawaiian art and music, and authentic details wherever one looks.

Consequently, the cast members at Aulani are chosen carefully. There’s a definite sense of cast members having ownership of Aulani — a sense that the hospitality is very personal. Aulani feels like a village — a home.

One young cast member, Kahoku Tavai, says he is extremely proud to work at Aulani and that he feels Disney has represented his ancestors there in a profound and authentic way. Kahoku is a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools and later majored in Hawaiian culture and language, something he did out of honor for his late grandfather who was pure blood Hawaiian and fluent in the language and traditions.

Aulani

Fireside Mo ‘Olelo led by Uncle at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Hawaii.

One of the most special places at Aulani may be the ‘Olelo Room — a lounge at which all cast members are required to be completely fluent in the Hawaiian language. ‘Olelo means “word” and the lounge and restaurant is crafted in library-esque dark wood decorated with Hawaiian words and their English translations. It is a place where university professors and academics can often be found, since it’s the only restaurant on Hawaii where conversational Hawaiian can be practiced with each and every employee.

Aulani of course offers all the things one expects from a Disney vacation as well: family-friendly entertainment, extreme fun attractions and ongoing club activities for kids, high end spa services, sophisticated cuisine, lounges and pool areas for adults only, and impeccably clean beautiful surroundings. But Aulani goes a step beyond. As Joe Rohde says, Disney is a company always masterful in the art of telling stories — “it’s just that the story that we tell at Aulani happens to be true.”

For more information on Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa, visit their website.

Disney Hawaiian Movie Night Recommendations:

Our top 5 editor’s picks of Disney movies set or shot in Hawaii:

robincrusoeLT. ROBIN CRUSOE, USN. This 1966 Disney comedy, starring Dick Van Dyke, is based on the classic novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and was co-written and produced by Walt Disney himself. Filmed on location in Kauai.

castawaycowboyCASTAWAY COWBOY. A 1974 classic western with a compelling romance and family drama set in Hawaii. This film boasts terrific performances by James Garner and Vera Miles. Filmed on location in Kauai.

georgeofthejungleGEORGE OF THE JUNGLE. Brendan Fraser stars in this 1997 hit adaptation of the classic cartoon. Though George’s jungle is supposed to be in Africa, the film was actually shot on location in Kauai and Oahu.

mightyjoeyoungMIGHTY JOE YOUNG. A 1998 heartwarming drama starring Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron, centered around a very large mountain gorilla named Joe. This version is a remake of a 1949 film of the same name. Filmed on Kauai and Oahu.

lilo&stitchLILO & STITCH. 2002 very popular animated feature set in Kauai featuring a mischievous alien set amid a very touching story about the true meaning of family (‘Ohana.)

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