|By Jason Garcia, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 30, 2011--The Walt Disney Co. on Monday opened the first phase of Aulani, its new hotel and time-share resort in Hawaii, even as the company scrambles to ensure that the $850 million project is on financially sound footing.
Aulani time-share sales have been suspended since July 9, when Disney realized it had miscalculated annual maintenance fees and was not charging buyers enough to cover the cost of operating the resort. The company fired three executives over the error, including the president of its Disney Vacation Club time-share business.
Disney planned to file a new fee schedule with Hawaiian regulators on Monday. Sales will resume once the revised plans are approved. Disney says it has been taking non-binding reservations in the interim.
The turmoil didn't stop Disney from welcoming its first guests to Aulani amid a sunrise ceremony that included Mickey and Minnie Mouse, a traditional Hawaiian chant, and remarks from Tom Staggs, the head of the company's global theme-park division.
The first phase of Aulani includes 73 two-bedroom time-share villas and 217 conventional hotel rooms. Once it's completely built, it will have 481 villas and 359 hotel rooms divided between two oceanfront towers. The 21-acre resort will also have convention facilities, a spa, two restaurants, water slides, a lazy river, and a saltwater lagoon for snorkeling.
The Hawaii project is strategically important for Disney, which is searching for new sources of growth in North America beyond its traditional theme-park resorts in Central Florida and Southern California.
With Aulani, Disney aims to capture more of the billions of dollars travelers spend every year on vacations to places other than theme parks. The company hopes Aulani will serve as a model for more stand-alone resorts or niche parks in other markets, including Washington, D.C., where Disney owns 15 acres.
"We are thrilled to open our doors and invite guests from around the world to experience Aulani," Staggs said in a prepared statement. "This resort is a unique and exciting project that combines the magic and storytelling of Disney with the rich culture and beautiful scenery of Hawaii. It is the ultimate family paradise with a touch of Disney magic."
A formal grand opening for the resort is scheduled for Sept. 22.
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