When Did Disney’s Aulani Open?

For many, the words “best Disney resort hotel in the United States” likely elicits images of Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Village or Grand Floridan or possibly Disneyland’s Grand Californian or Disneyland Hotel.


However, a strong case can be made that Disney’s best U.S.-based resort isn’t in Orlando or Anaheim. Rather it’s the Aulani Resort & Spa, located at the Ko Olina Resort in Kapolei, Hawaii. Today we’ll be looking at the evolution of Aulani, from its conception to opening day and beyond.

Initial Planning

According to most documented sources, Disney first began seriously contemplating constructing a DVC Resort in Hawaii sometime in the mid-late 1990s. By the early 2000s, the company had purchased  a large parcel of land inside the Ko Olina resort area. From there, Disney began design work on the future resort.

Disney officially announced the project that would become Aulani in 2007, with then-chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Jay Rasulo saying at the time, “This resort will give our guests another way to visit an exciting part of the world with a brand they trust. Building a resort hotel in Hawaii is the next chapter in our effort to create immersive Disney experiences that allow families to reconnect and recharge in the areas of the world they most long to visit.”

Olu Mel at Disney’s Aulani Resort ©Disney

In the same series of announcements, the company stressed that they planned to “develop a resort celebrating Hawaii’s vibrant culture and rich heritage.” To do so, and perhaps to avoid the types of cultural clash issues they ran into on projects like Disneyland Paris and the aborted Disney’s America theme park, convened an “advisory council” of Hawaiian elders and cultural experts to ensure the resort respected and correctly embraced Hawaiian culture. These cultural ambassadors worked closely with a team of imagineers led by the legendary Joe Rohde.


Rohde would later speak about the architectural layout and design of the resort to the Disney Parks Blog, saying:

“The resort was designed to reflect the sense of a Hawaiian valley opening out toward the ocean from highlands to lowlands. This organization has many connotations. One is the ahupua’a, the traditional organization of land that followed a watershed from the mountains to the sea and knitted all members of the community together in a working relationship and a functional sustainable relationship to the land. Another is a Hawaiian concept of time itself as flowing – like fresh water – from the past, which is in the mountains, to the future, which is in the sea. The architectural statements of Aulani tend to follow this organizational layout. You know, of course, that Waikolohe means “mischievous water.” That name is simply meant to connote the playful aspect of the springs, which spray you from unexpected directions, and the presence of the Menehune. It is true that, along this part of the O’ahu coast, fresh water comes from springs, and we wanted to reflect that but in a fun, mischievous way.”

The resort’s name Aulani was confirmed in 2010, with Rohde elaborating on the nomenclature choice at the time, saying the name expressed “a connection to tradition and deep story-telling.”

©Disney | Aulani Resort

He further spoke of the word aulani, saying that when translated from Hawaiian to English it means, “the place that speaks for the great ones” or “the place that speaks with deep messages.”

Opening Day

After nearly fifteen years of planning and four years of construction, Aulani opened on August 29, 2011 with over 350 hotel rooms plus over 400 Disney Vacation Club Villas. Upon opening, Aulani received mostly glowing reviews, and in the decade plus since its opening, the resort has continued to be seen as one of the jewels in Disney’s crown.

Many professional critics and guests alike praise the resort (including this author, who spent his honeymoon at the resort in 2021) for its respectful treatment of Hawaiian culture, as well as the way it integrates Disney characters and other references in a much more subtle way than many of its continental counterparts.

Have you ever been lucky enough to visit Aulani? If not, is it on your bucket list to do so? Let us know in the comments below.

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