OAHU, Hawaii - "I need alcohol!" a bikini-clad woman exclaimed on a hot June day as she splashed out of an artificial river after plunging down a water slide inside an artificial mountain at Aulani, Disney's new resort hotel in Hawaii.
It's not the kind of proclamation you expect to hear at a Disney property, but this isn't your average Disney.
The mouse king's first endeavor in the Aloha State is in its first summer after its September 2011 grand opening in the Ko Olina resort area on Oahu's sunny southwest corner, about a 40-minute drive from Waikiki.
First-time guests are still figuring out what to expect from the $800 million-plus resort, which at buildout in 2013 will have 481 Disney Vacation Club time-share units and 359 conventional hotel rooms. Hawaii-themed gardens, pools and water-play attractions are tucked between two towers, where a view unit runs close to $700 after tax.
What you won't get is "It's a Small World" blaring over loudspeakers. Instead, Hawaiian music from local talent is piped throughout the resort. And while Minnie - in flowered sun dress and Size 42 robin's-egg-blue heels - and Mickey - in board shorts - do show up for photos near the pool and at the ever-popular Character Breakfasts, they are fashioned as "guests," rather than hosts, at Aulani.
The resort's name is a Hawaiian word that means "messenger from a chief," and Disney brands the resort as a messenger of island culture - channeled, of course, through its own "everything is happy and safe" bubble of smiles, with every employee a "cast member."
Two visually-striking 15-story towers that look like upended outrigger canoe sandwich a water park called Waikolohe Valley. From atop a man-made lava peak called Pu'u Kilo, there's a choice of two watery adventures: a quick slide through dark caverns or a lazy float on a plastic flotation tube along a 900-foot-long stream that winds through rock gardens with lifeguards about every 20 feet.
An 8,200-square-foot pool is the main swimming venue. For young kids, there's a splash park called the Menehune Bridge, named for the legendary Hawaiian "little people" said to be responsible for mysterious happenings on the islands.
A unique feature is Rainbow Reef, what Disney calls "the only private snorkeling lagoon on Oahu." But it overplays what's delivered: a man-made, 8-foot-deep saltwater pool, well away from the beach. Filled with colorful reef fish, it's like snorkeling in an oversize aquarium.
In the tradition of "no danger with Disney," users are required to wear inflatable vests. While it may be inviting for children who've never snorkeled, it's far from the natural experience you can find all over the islands for free. And Rainbow Reef isn't free: A swim with gear provided is $15 to $20 per day on top of your lodging costs, or $29 to $39 for the length of your stay. Hotel guests only.
It's not the only thing Disney sells that you can enjoy (for real) outside Aulani without cracking your wallet. For example, the Laniwai spa's hydrotherapy garden offers six different "rain" showers. I got my face misted without spending a dime while strolling Oahu's North Shore beaches. (The rain's warm. It's over quickly. Who minds?)
As with most things Disney, Aulani caters to youngsters - although there's a poolside bar. The Painted Sky teen spa has a do-it-yourself perfume mixology bar. For the youngest, there's Aunty's Beach House, hosted by a local resident said to be an expert on Hawaiian history and traditions, and known, following local custom, simply as "Aunty." (Aulani has an "Uncle," too, who tells stories around a bonfire.)
A number of kids' activities are included in the cost of a stay, such as arts and crafts, dress-up, games and a movie room showing Disney favorites. As I wandered, a lineup of youngsters wearing special backpacks with "Fish are Friends" logos (a la Disney movie "Finding Nemo") trooped toward Rainbow Reef for a fish-feeding adventure, one of Aulani's "premium experiences" (meaning there's an extra charge).
"Come on, everybody, let's hear it: FISH ARE FRIENDS, NOT FOOD," bellowed the tour leader. Further along the path, a free hula lesson was underway.
While dining options and prices take frequent fire in Aulani guests' online comments, my lunch at the fine-dining 'Ama 'Ama seemed reasonably-priced by Hawaii standards. It's one of two restaurants (along with two bars and several quick-service food stands). If Aulani's choices don't suit you, options are few: It's part of an isolated strip of resorts, unlike Waikiki with its abundance of eateries.
I enjoyed three small Kalua-roasted pulled pork sandwiches on steamed rice buns with tasty condiments and sweet-potato fries for $15. My open-air table looked beyond the waterpark to the tan-sand beach, where wedding couples were being photographed.
Breakwater islets prevent much surf from entering Aulani's man-made lagoon (where it's said even the fine-grained beach sand is imported, from Australia). The lagoon is good for swimming and snorkeling but not for surf-dependent sports. At a beach stand, snorkel gear rents for $15 for a half-day. Kayaks are $15 per hour.
TripAdvisor comments indicate not all guests have found impeccable service in Aulani's first months, and many grouse about rates. But most comments are positive, and on my one-day visit Disney bonhomie reigned in most quarters. If the traditions of "the Happiest Place on Earth" suit your tastes, Aulani might be for you, but be warned: The smiles don't come cheap.
Midweek in mid-August 2012, rooms start at $474 per night, putting the tally up to $540 with tax, for an "Island Gardens View Room," which one peeved TripAdvisor scribe said came with a view of a next-door parking lot.
For what's called an ocean-view room - though many have only an angled view of the water - the with-tax nightly rate zooms to $694. That doesn't include the $35-per-night parking, the Character Breakfast ($100 for a family of four), or the premium storytelling hour, and many more add-ons. A several-days visit quickly spirals into thousands.
By comparison, an ocean-view room for the same period next door at Marriott's Ihilani Resort, sharing the same beach and lagoon, is $426 per night including tax, with a bonus $50-per-night restaurant or spa credit.
Aulani is not Disney's first lodging unconnected with an amusement park - there's a Hilton Head Island, S.C., resort, modeled after a 1940s fishing lodge, and a Vero Beach, Fla., oceanfront property - but such stand-alone hotels remain a fresh endeavor for Disney. Aulani is heavily booked this summer, but whether guests will come back for Disney-packaged paradise - sans Space Mountain - may decide whether bringing Mickey to Hawaii was a good idea. Or if the culture clash of imbibing sun worshippers and winsome tykes makes it all a little, well, Goofy.
If you go
Aulani is in the Ko Olina resort district on the southwest tip of Oahu, near the town of Kapolei.
Just want a peek at Aulani? Go for lunch and a stroll. Four hours of free valet parking are included for dining patrons. (Reservations suggested at peak travel times.) Bring your camera for a quick photo with Mickey and snaps of the fish through an underwater window at Rainbow Reef.
Aulani: 714-520-7001 or resorts.disney.go.com/
Hawaii Visitors Bureau: gohawaii.com