Aulani Resort brings Disney magic to Hawaii

KO OLINA, Hawaii

The best way to describe Aulani Resort is by calling it an experience - one rich in Hawaiian culture.

"There's a rich culture here and a very, very deep and strong pride in that and we thought, well, let's honor that and not in any way either fight it or try to overwhelm it," said Bob Iger, president and CEO of The Walt Disney Company.

With a celebration on Thursday night, Aulani Resort is officially Disney's 11th Vacation Club Resort. It took years of planning, creating and building to bring the 21-acre oceanfront resort to life.

Inland Empire residents Justin Wall and Stefanie Serrano said they had to see it, even though they were staying more than a half an hour away in Waikiki.

"We are huge, huge Disney fans," Wall said.

For people who actually live here, the main attraction was employment. Aulani provided 3,000 jobs during the construction period, over 800 people were hired to work at the resort and that number was expected to grow to 1,250.

Plus, all the new visitors to this part of the island was good news for the community's economy. Across the street, local merchants said they saw a significant increase in their business.

"We've actually had to increase our employee staff as well because over the summer, we were just completely flustered with people that were just coming to check out the location," said Megan Santoyo, manager at Just Tacos.

Disney worked with native Hawaiian consultants to achieve authenticity, and the culture is conveyed with the help of the employees, 90 percent of whom are from Hawaii.

The native performers at the opening ceremony were just one example of something that infuses the Aulani - the spirit of the people who work here.

"The great part about the cast at Aulani is they carry stories with them," said Djuan Rivers.

Aulani employee Erin Mattson discovered her own unique connection to the Aulani weeks before the resort's opening while was working on setting up one of the Aulani's retail outlets.

"I turned around, and on the wall of the lava shack was a picture of my mother," she said.

Her mother had performed with a hula group at a special event in 1935. Photos taken at the event were eventually made into greeting cards.

Decades later, a Disney imagineer saw the card and used it for inspiration, and the photo made its way to a store at the resort.

"I was just like overwhelmed that my mother is actually here with me," Mattson said, adding that she still has the hula outfit her mother wore 76 years ago in the photo.

Rates at the Aulani begin at about $400 a night, with some amenities included.

Disney is the parent company of ABC7.

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