(CNN) — A surefire way to get some odd looks from your friends is to tell them you’re heading to a Disney resort to learn about authentic Hawaiian culture.
But at Aulani, Disney’s resort on Oahu’s western shore, between breakfast with Minnie Mouse, Instagram-worthy shave ice topped with Mickey ears, and selfies with Moana, guests will find themselves immersed in unexpected details that paint a picture of what it means to be Hawaiian.
“We have this measure of creativity where we’re always, like Walt Disney, looking for the next storytelling opportunity and how we might bring a different facet of the story to life, to shine that light on a perspective of Hawaiian culture that has been unexplored by the grander audience of the world,” says Kahulu De Santos, Aulani’s cultural adviser. “The story that we have is a rich one. But it’s not Disney’s story — the culture is held by the Hawaiian people.”
The storytelling begins when you walk into Aulani’s open-air lobby and are greeted not just with a flower lei but by a striking 200-foot mural painted by Hawaiian artist Martin Charlot, one of more than 80 local artists whose work is displayed across the resort.
The lobby’s curved arch frame — a shape found in Aulani’s logo and repeated across the property — reflects that of a traditional Hawaiian canoe house, a nod to Hawaii’s voyaging roots.
Global trends in travel have shown an increased emphasis on experiencing local culture, and when it comes to voyaging in particular, there have been two recent moments to push the topic to the forefront, according to Kainoa Daines, cultural advisor for the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau and director of sales for the Oahu Visitors Bureau: Disney’s animated film “Moana” and the voyage of the Hōkūleʻa, a double-hull canoe sailed more than 40,000 nautical miles without the use of modern technology by Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson.
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It was voyaging that brought De Santos’ ancestors to Hawaii. “My people have been born and raised here since the first canoes arrived,” she says with a note of pride. “As we say, we are ‘of the land.'”
She’s relied heavily on her personal story in her role at Aulani, where she oversees the infusion of Hawaiian culture into the resort’s entertainment, staff training, and even merchandise sold in the gift shops.
“My challenge is for us to present things that are of a true origin, that truly speak to our culture and our practices, and the depth of feeling we have for our family and our place in a commercial setting such as a commercial luau, and for it to be taken with that heart,” De Santos says.
A major initiative at Aulani has been its use of the Hawaiian language, which is spoken by just three percent of the islands’ residents. The language is present in place names across the resort, but especially at the ‘Ōlelo Room, a lounge and bar overlooking a koi pond on the edge of the resort’s pool area. Every member of the lounge’s staff is fluent in Hawaiian, and its décor features wood carvings of a variety of common objects labeled with their Hawaiian names.
“At every instance we’re encouraging and teaching and coaching our cast members to learn more Hawaiian language, to understand the stories there is and to share that, and this is something that makes an experience at Aulani unique,” De Santos says. “It’s the presence of Hawaiian language, the very fabric of the culture and the story we’re sharing.”
De Santos says the work Disney has done to share Hawaiian culture at Aulani has prompted other properties to take a similar direction.
“There’s been a resetting of priorities and responsibilities,” she says.
Daines has also noted a shift in recent years.
“The local community’s renewed interest in preserving, perpetuating and sharing native Hawaiian culture has resulted in new cultural experiences that are more easily accessible to visitors,” he says. “More and more Hawaii hotels and resorts are putting a lot of thought into perpetuating a sense of place or telling a specific story, whether it’s about the natural environment or about the foundation culture.”