Despite a slump in Hawai'i tourism, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts is moving forward on a hotel-timeshare development at Ko Olina on O'ahu's Leeward Coast.
The resort first announced a year ago is scheduled to open in 2011 with 350 hotel rooms and 480 timeshare units, said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, at a news conference yesterday at Kapolei Hale.
Rasulo declined to say how much the company intends to spend on the project, though earlier estimates placed the figure at $800 million. Costs of the expansive project could rise or decline in the coming months, Rasulo said, adding, "We are still on track to open this project in 2011."
The company expects to employ about 1,000 people at the resort.
Disney's investment in Hawai'i comes at a time when many other destinations are seeing a delay in new construction. More than $10 billion in hotel and casino projects with 10,000 rooms have been delayed on the Strip in Las Vegas, according to Bloomberg News.
Rasulo said Disney is moving forward with the Hawai'i resort because it fits well with Disney's family emphasis and because the company's core customers want to travel to the islands.
"Hawai'i is a long-term family destination," Rasulo said. "There are always economic ups and downs and we have confidence in Hawai'i as a continued family tourist destination for the long term."
Disney customers "equate Hawai'i with family," he added. "The place they go and want to come to is Hawai'i."
Disney acquired 21 acres for the resort a year ago and has since been learning more about Hawai'i, planning and researching, Rasulo said.
"This project is very true and authentic to who we are," he said.
Wing Chao, executive vice president of master planning, architecture and design at Walt Disney Imagineering, provided a mini-tour of what to expect using an intricately crafted model of the project. He painted a picture of a place that honors Hawaiian culture but splashes in "some Disney magic."
"It's for family fun," he said, but will take time to accurately reflect Hawai'i's culture and history. The grounds are intended to include indigenous plants, a taro lo'i and a thatched 50-foot-high canoe house.
Two towers are planned, with a center garden that includes water features, "and the icon for the center area is the caldera, the volcanic caldera." A tube slide takes swimmers "to an adventurous water course," he said.
As you're cascading through the water course, you'll be experiencing rapids, a bubbling pool, special effects and a lot of surprising elements, Chao said.
Children can enjoy an aquatic play structure, he said.
Chao said guests can swim in a saltwater snorkeling lagoon that will feature native fish and "some elements of Disney characters."
As of June, two people were working full-time on O'ahu for Disney: Djuan Rivers, vice president of Disney Vacation Club Resort Hawai'i and his assistant.
Rivers, who has worked for Disney for 20 years, said he expects the next wave of hiring to come in about a year to 18 months for administrative staff. And he expects the vast majority of the 1,000 employees to be hired late in 2011, beginning about three months prior to the resort's opening.
Rivers said the community will be able to enjoy the resort in a variety of ways. He said Disney expects the community to book the conference center and that the resort will welcome birthday parties of all sizes, although not all of the details have been worked out.
And he said the company routinely offers school tours and gets involved in the communities surrounding its properties. "I'm really passionate about education," he said.
Rivers has taken tours at Wai'anae High School to see the award-winning Searider video program and to Nanakuli High School.
A formal groundbreaking and blessing are scheduled for Nov. 19, he said.