Hawai’i keeps close eye on Disney approach to openness, cultural sensitivity

News Report
Samson Kaala Reiny

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, which officially broke ground last month on its new hotel and timeshare development in Ko Olina, has hosted several by-invitation-only meetings to various people and organizations since mid-October to discuss cultural sensitivity and community impact issues.

"It's really about reaching out to the people and community," said Djuan Rivers, Disney's project head for the new Hawai'i venture. The resort, scheduled to open in 2011, includes two 15-story towers with 350 hotel rooms and 480 timeshare villas set in a "Hawaiian" theme.

The meetings held at Lanikuhonua, a cultural events center along the Ko Olina coast, bring together a broad sector of the community, including cultural practitioners, Hawaiian Homestead residents, and locally involved politicians, Mr. Rivers explained.

Disneyfication raises concerns

Along with these various contingencies, come many questions and concerns from the community.

"I think it's very important that they (Disney) realize that they need to make a distinction between entertainment and culture," said William Aila, who has attended some of the meetings. Mr. Aila retold a dialogue he had with Disney officials at one of the meetings. He asked them how many fire dancers they should have at a Hawaiian show. Before they could answer, he replied, "None. Fire dancing is not Hawaiian."

One of the concepts Disney presented is a volcano water feature that will serve as a centerpiece for the resort. Aila is waiting to see how culturally sensitive this, and other depictions are. "Will Pele and the volcano be told responsibly?" he asked. "Will the story behind the water's connection to Kane be explained? They seem willing to do things pono, but I'm waiting to see."

The volcano is not the only water attraction Disney is planning. Two very large activity pools have been designed, both replete with slides, tubes, and water activities. One pool will have saltwater, and the other, freshwater.

Some residents are concerned that Disney would further tax the coast's already diminished water supply. "I can't see people swimming in freshwater when we already have enough water problems on this side of the island," said longtime Waianae Coast resident Walter-bea Auldeguer. "Enough wasting fresh water. There's already a water park right next to Ko Olina. It's a ridiculous idea."

Economic potential, community improvement a goal

The resort's potential negative impact on the leeward coast's water supply could be offset by increased job opportunities for residents—another commodity visibly lacking on the Waianae Coast. But people remain skeptical.

"[Leeward residents have] been burned before by the Ko Olina developers," said Maile Meyer, a cultural consultant to Disney. But the $55 billion dollar corporation has promised to do its share to uplift the economically depressed coast. Disney has sought out high school and college students about potential job opportunities, and donated $100,000 to schools in the area. "They're trying to reach out to the community and get people involved," Ms. Meyer said.

Disney's community gestures have left observers cautiously optimistic.

"They've done a fairly decent job of being open and willing to talk," said Mr. Aila, "and I think that's a good start."

"They have proven themselves to be honorable and admirable so far," Ms. Meyer said. "But we're still trying to flush out friend and foe, … we're waiting to see if this is another close-gated community or if they're going to let us in."

And for all of Disney's apparent openness with the public, they haven't answered all the questions.

"They never got back to us about the water shortage concerns, or the effect they'll have on the ocean life out there," said Mr. Auldeguer. "And I haven't heard of any other upcoming meetings so far, so I'm just waiting."

The outcome of that wait, according to Mr. Aila, will dictate his actions and others like him who feel passionate about protecting the Hawaiian culture and people. "We're the guys who can create the biggest problems," he said. "If Disney doesn't fulfill their kuleana, I'll be the guy at the hula show with the picket sign."