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Disney Resort Taking Shape on Oahu; Expects to
 Invest $800 million, Employ 1,000

By Robbie Dingeman, The Honolulu AdvertiserMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 11, 2009--Hawai'i's first Disney Resort can be seen taking shape at Ko Olina -- concrete proof that the resort/entertainment company has faith in the future of the Islands' embattled tourism industry.

"It's a visual affirmation that they're continuing to invest," said state tourism liaison Marsha Wienert, as the third floor of the resort started to emerge from a forest of pilings. "It confirms Disney's commitment to the Islands and the future of the Islands."

Disney expects to invest about $800 million in the project, completing the first phase in the fall of 2011 and eventually employing 1,000 people.

At a time when visitor arrivals have plummeted and the tourism industry has seen more layoffs than grand openings, Disney's budding resort is not just a Mickey Mouse venture. "Disney is the No. 1 brand in family vacations," Wienert said. Combine that with Hawai'i's "fabulous reputation as a family destination" and there's reason for optimism for the visitor industry, she said.

As it builds the new resort, Disney is also preparing to blend Hawaiian culture into its magical kingdom.

Disney is sometimes criticized for homogenizing the world rather than showcasing diverse elements.

A big part of the job for Disney's top man in Hawai'i, Djuan Rivers, is building community ties and spending time learning more about Hawai'i's native culture. In the past several weeks, Rivers and his assistant, Johnlyn Doi, took two sessions of professional training in Hawaiian hospitality at Kapi'olani Community College.

Rivers, who is vice president of Disney Vacation Club and Resort Hawai'i, is now one of three Disney operations employees in Hawai'i.

The bulk of employees will be hired in 2011, but some key positions are being filled now. The company brought on Michael Yee as project manager for facilities and operation services.

Rivers said Yee's engineering background, extensive skill set and familiarity with Hawai'i -- he's returned home -- make him ideal for the job.

Yee is a graduate of Saint Louis High School and has a master of business administration from the University of Hawai'i.

Disney is now advertising for a general manager for the planned 21-acre oceanfront resort.

lessons learned

Disney Resorts chairman of parks and resorts, Jay Rasulo, recently spoke in Waikiki on cultural lessons learned by Disney after some early mistakes.

In 1992, when Disney opened in France, Rasulo said, the company discovered that the French really didn't care for the hot-dog carts scattered around the park. "And they were insulted when we didn't serve wine with our meals at the Magic Kingdom," Rasulo said. "Bon appetit: Now we do."

The Disney team also learned that Europeans prefer to eat breakfast at home, or in a hotel restaurant, before going into the parks.

So the early entry specials that succeeded in the United States didn't work there, he said. And they found that while many adults in Europe are comfortable in English, their young children preferred to hear their native language, so more shows are multilingual.

Rasulo said the company took these cultural lessons to heart in establishing Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005 by consulting with a feng shui master so the park's walkways feature a bend near their entrances, and the doorways are set at the correct angles.

And he said that park serves six different types of regional Chinese cuisine, and employees -- cast members in Disney's world -- speak three languages.

Rasulo said establishing new ways of doing business can be daunting but economically important. "It's worth it -- and it pays dividends," he said.

local stories

Rivers noted that Walt Disney World has been able to present other cultures with the help of people from the regions. For example, at Animal Kingdom Lodge, he said, students from throughout Africa spend time telling the story about their place.

"You hear it firsthand from the voices of those individuals," Rivers said. "It's not orchestrated; it's not a line; they're able to tell who they are."

Rivers said he expects Disney to work with cultural experts and the people of Hawai'i in telling the stories.

"I think there are lots and lots of examples of Disney being able to allow diversity to shine through.

Originally from Florida, Rivers first lived in Hawai'i in the summer of 1985 as a college student. While he was attending Emory University in Georgia, he decided on a summer in Hawai'i because his older brother was stationed here in the military.

"I saw an ad for a one-way ticket to Hawai'i for $150," Rivers said. To meet people his age, he took organic chemistry classes at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and sold pearls in oysters in Waikiki.

"Working here was just like a dream," Rivers said, with roommates who taught him to surf. He returned several times for vacations and then jumped at the chance when Disney offered him the opportunity to transfer here and lead the West O'ahu project.

Rivers said he has moved permanently to Hawai'i and will be a part of the team that remains and operates the resort.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at


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