Since 1985, the sprawling tract, still a working ranch with roughly 500 head of cattle, has been opened for tourists who are drawn there to not only step foot where their favorite movie stars have walked but also to experience the raw, native Hawaii that has little to do with a metropolitan center like Honolulu or the teeming beaches at Waikiki and Maui. More than 600 acres of Kualoa Ranch, considered one of the most sacred sites on Oahu and once the province of island royalty, was purchased from King Kamehameha III by Dr. Gerritt Judd, a missionary doctor, in 1850. More of the peripheral land was purchased in ensuing years, and now the property is managed by Judd’s descendants, the Morgan family.
“It’s just an amazingly beautiful place with a fascinating history,” says president and general manager John Morgan, part of the ownership group. “When people want to come to Hawaii and experience Hawaii, that’s what we’re trying to pitch it as. If you really want to get into Hawaii, come to Kualoa Ranch.”
Today, more than 200,000 visitors annually make the trek to the windward side of Oahu to visit Kualoa Ranch, which offers tours by horseback, canoe and boat, as well as by all-terrain vehicles and Jeeps. What they find on site are several distinct areas. The northern half is defined by the scenic Ka’a’awa Valley, which accommodates most of the moviemaking sites (this was the setting for the aforementioned South Korea sequence in Hawaii Five-0), while the southern half includes Hakipu’u Valley and the 800-year-old Moli’i fish pond. Dissecting the property is the Kualoa ridge and its 1,900-foot peak called Kanehoalani, which has provided the backdrop to many a TV and movie scene, including the chase sequence for capturing the giant ape in Mighty Joe Young and the dramatic battle showdowns in the World War II epic Windtalkers.
“It’s a history lesson,” says Tamara Arnett, an education tour guide who has worked on the property since 1996. “They have a responsibility to keep this land in its natural beauty, and they take it seriously. I mean, the first Polynesians arrived at Kualoa Ranch. Nobody has ever messed with this land.”
Except, on occasion, a Smoke Monster, Godzilla or legions of actors and film and television production crews. The state of Hawaii’s production expenditures on movie, television and digital media projects reached an estimated $407 million for 2010, more than twice the outlay of the previous two years combined. More than $600 million in total economic activity was generated last year alone.