Her name means “beautiful flower growing in beauty,” the soft-spoken young woman explains as she quickly braids thin strips of palm leaves into a men’s lei, all the while keeping an eye on my hands as I thread delicate white lilies into a necklace of my own. I dare not ask if redundancy avoidance might have made her name more manageable, as I can’t begin to pronounce the word on her name tag, Uluwehipuanani. She sees my confusion and laughs, telling me to call her Uluwehi for short.
But as my stay at the Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawai`i, on Oahu’s leeward coast, continues, I come to understand how sensible the name is that was given to this lovely artist. She, along with fellow Hawaiians employed here, gently steers me to this realization: Virtually everything in Hawaiian culture focuses on the gifts of nature, a truth celebrated with great care throughout Aulani.
This isn’t quite what I expect in Disney’s maiden Hawaiian venture, its first resort not connected to a theme park. If I’d suspected that Disney’s Imagineers might deliver a magical, fairy-tale version of Hawaii, shame on me. But what surprises me is the degree to which the company so famous for its iconic cartoon mouse incorporates a great wealth of pure Hawaiian culture in this 20-acre sliver of paradise, roughly an hour west of Waikiki.
Though I’ve visited Hawaii a half-dozen times, my immersion in the Hawaiian language and traditions at Aulani gives me newer appreciation, not improbably because I’m seeing the culture the way children visiting here do: through expert storytelling, crafted through the centuries. Just as Uluwehi demonstrates with descriptive detail the lei-making craft and hula-dancing skill she learned from her tutu, or grandmother, so do the many Hawaiians at Aulani, who share legends they grew up with and that remain strong throughout these islands.
For guests craving character interaction, time spent with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Stitch is simply gravy. Parents get ample doses of quiet time while staffers wrangle kids into adventures and artistic pursuits. Of course, the expected resort offerings include spa treatments and whale-watching excursions, but the Aulani experience always circles back to the essence of Hawaii. And the bonus? There’s not a luau in sight.