Reporting from Ko Olina, Oahu - My 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, has wanted to visit Hawaii since Disney's "Lilo & Stitch" movie came out in 2002.
The wacky animated movie about a Hawaiian girl who adopts a pet that turns out to be an alien was filled with surfing, hula dancing and exotic locales. But mostly it was about ohana – the Hawaiian word for "family."
So when we arrived at
it seemed like a no-brainer that we'd find Lilo and Stitch here to welcome Hannah to the tropical paradise that filled her dreams and imagination.
We spotted Stitch almost immediately wearing a lei and a floral print hat, but no matter how hard we looked we couldn't find the spirited and eccentric little girl who seemed such a natural fit for a Disney resort in Hawaii.
Everywhere we went in the resort, we asked: Where's Lilo? We were variously told Lilo was at school, on vacation or surfing on Kauai – but none of the answers sufficiently explained the obvious storytelling oversight.
The $800-million Aulani in Ko Olina on leeward Oahu opened in late August with an official grand opening scheduled for Sept. 22.
I've been staying at the Aulani for the last few days with my wife, Nancy, and Hannah, where there was no shortage of family activities to keep us busy.
The new resort has gone to great lengths to emphasize the Aulani's historic Hawaiian theme and keep the Disney touches to a minimum.
Make no mistake, you'll find vacationing versions of Mickey, Minnie,Goofy, Chip, Dale and Stitch posing for photo ops – but only in small doses.
Here are some of the family activities we took part in during our recent visit:
Upon arrival, our first stop was at Aunty's Beach House, a kids club featuring a host of activities: hula lessons, luau parties, science experiments and comedy shows.
Adorned with surfboards, boat oars and fishing gear, the kids club is a concept lifted from the Disney cruise line with repurposed props and decorations from Disney World's defunct Adventurer's Club.
Aunty's is filled with tabletop touch-screen video games, arts and crafts, dress-up costumes, storytelling sessions and big-screen TVs showing endless movies – making it difficult for parents to retrieve their children. Hawaiian renditions of Disney favorites such as "Be Our Guest" and "You've Got a Friend in Me" play over the sound system. Replica photos made from the collection at the Bishop Museum, the Hawaiian history museum in Honolulu, line the hallways.
But with an age-range that topped out around 10, Hannah felt a little old for the crowd at Aunty's. She preferred the Painted Sky teen spa that offered movie nights, pool parties, beach bashes, stargazing tours, lei making, dessert decorating, scavenger hunts and fitness challenges. Disney counselors warmly welcomed her at both locations regardless of her age, and she soon became a regular at each place, reveling in her dual grade-schooler and tween status.
Similarly, the Pau Hana community hall served as a family room where parents and kids could spend time together. The three of us made bracelets with our favorite Hawaiian words. Hannah's bracelet said
, or soccer, surrounded by kukui nuts and turtle-shaped beads.
Next door was an ingenious waiting room for hotel guests that had already checked out but hadn't left for the airport yet because of a late flight. The Luana Lounge included couches, big-screen TVs, lockers, showers, a swimsuit water extractor, computers for printing boarding passes and a constantly updating flight departure board from theHonolulu airport.
At the community hall, Nancy, Hannah and I checked out a modified Android cellphone that doubled as a GPS wayfinder on the Menehune Adventure Trail, a treasure hunt game in which hotel guests search for Hawaii's mischievous little people.
About 300 menehune statues were scattered throughout the resort and spotting them quickly became Hannah's favorite pursuit. They could be found under footbridges, inside the shave ice stand and atop bookcases. Hannah's favorite menehune was sleeping in the upper reaches of one of the elevators leading to our room. On more than one occasion we waited in the lobby for the menehune elevator to arrive.
On the menehune trail, we used the wayfinder to track clues leading to madcap menehune mischief. By speaking into the phone, we caused the menehune to appear in rocks, blow conch shells and even start fires. The finale sent us into a dark cavern where volcanic lava began to flow.
"Daddy, look at the walls," Hannah said, gripping my hand tightly. "They're glowing."
After our treasure hunt, the cell phones were easily repurposed into electronic guides to the Aulani's gardens and artwork, which I enjoyed on my own.
One of my favorite activities at the Aulani was the nightly fireside storytelling hour, where families listened to Hawaiian tales of star-crossed lovers told with a ukulele accompaniment. Less successful was the poorly attended sunset gathering, where a conch shell was blown and hotel guests were encouraged to chant as day turned to night. Most people seemed confused or disinterested.
You'll notice that so far I have written little about Disney's famous walk-around characters. I've saved the worst for last. You'd assume that Disney would have their character interactions dialed in by now.
I was surprised by the contrived and disruptive afternoon character poolside party that featured a Disney employee, using a public address system, extolling swimmers to scream, splash and hop up on deck for a hula contest. The pump-up-the-energy vibe so upset the tranquil mood that poolside loungers cringed at the paradise-wrecking spectacle.
A similar dry-land surfing lesson for kids withChip and Dale employed more amplified pep rally exhortations that echoed throughout the resort.
I would have dismissed the overexuberance as grand opening jitters if not for the Starlight Hui, the resort's marquee event held several times a week. In an effort to avoid the pan-
luau common at most resorts, Disney produced a tradition-rich show that paid tribute to Hawaii, its people and customs.
As the stirring show drew to a close, a youth counselor jumped up on stage in a but-wait-there's-more moment and called out all the Disney characters one by one. The folklore-rich show steeped in myth and legend quickly devolved into a disco nightclub with the characters leading the crowd in the "Electric Slide" and other line dancing steps typically reserved for weddings and reunions. It left me almost dumbstruck until I jumped up to boogie with Hannah, who could care less about thematic consistency and coherent storytelling.
I trust Disney will dial down the excitement level of the character appearances over the coming weeks as complaints start rolling in.