Disney Goes Hawaiian, Part 28:
Neighbors of Aulani
Past, Present, and Future

Aulani—officially Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, Hawai‘i—opened August 2011 at the Ko Olina Resort on the western coast of O‘ahu. Disney’s island extravaganza stood between the oldest resort at Ko Olina and a large vacant parcel.

What was once the oldest resort is now the newest. And the vacant parcel will become a $2 billion resort.

Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, September 30, 2017

Past: Ihilani

Once upon a time, there was a lonely hotel…

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2007

Before Aulani

Ihilani (Hawaiian for “heavenly splendor”) opened in 1993 as the first hotel at Ko Olina (Hawaiian for “place of joy”), a masterplanned 640-acre development with four manmade lagoons. The 387-room luxury hotel was designed by renowned modernist architect Edward Killingsworth. Even standard guest rooms were a spacious 680 square feet. All had private lanais, marble baths, and teak furniture. An impressive 85 percent had ocean and lagoon views.

Ihilani was supposed to be one of eight hotels within the Ko Olina complex—but it would be more than nine years before there would be another.

After trying to establish its own identity, Ihilani joined the Nikko Hotels brand (owned by Japan Airlines) at the end of 1997. But that didn’t last long.

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2013

JW Marriott

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

Architecture by Edward Killingsworth

With an ownership change in 1999, it became the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa at Ko Olina. It was just the tenth property flagged with the JW Marriott brand—representing hotels and resorts more deluxe than regular Marriotts, but not quite as sumptuous as Ritz-Carltons.

Finally, in January 2003, there was a second resort. Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club, a Marriott Vacation Club, opened the first tower of what will eventually be a four-tower complex of 750 condominium-like villas. (So far, there are three towers.)

In 2008, the Beach Villas at Ko Olina, a luxury condominium project opened with two towers. The average price per condo was $1.4 million. Ko Olina still had plenty of space for other developments. Several were announced, but never materialized.

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

Ihilani in 2011, with Aulani almost ready to open next door

In August 2011, Disney opened Aulani adjacent to the JW Marriott Ihilani. Ko Olina was no longer just an O‘ahu footnote.

Aulani guests could enjoy the restaurants at Ihilani and wander around the beautiful grounds and open-air aquariums. Sting rays and hammerhead sharks held dominion in a pond just downstairs from the lobby, while countless tropical fish swam in ponds at the extensive gardens.

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

Sculpture at Ihilani

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

Casual dining and buffets at Naupaka Terrace

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2009

Main swimming pool at Ihilani

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo, 2011, courtesy JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa

JW Marriott Ihilani king room, 2011 renovation

Although Ihilani was always a luxury resort, it was apparently not luxurious enough for Jeff Stone, whose company, The Resort Group (TPG), owns the Ko Olina Resort.

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Map © The Resort Group, 2014

Ko Olina Resort map

On October 27, 2014, a press release confirmed plans for “Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu at Ko Olina, an integrated luxury beach resort and private residences that will be the jewel in the crown of the master-planned Ko Olina development.”

It would reportedly take about $500 million for TPG to acquire and redevelop Ihilani into a super-luxury Four Seasons property.

Ihilani closed forever March 9, 2015.

Present: Four Seasons

After more than a year of renovation, what had been Ihilani opened to guests as the Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu at Ko Olina on June 1, 2016.

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2017

Four Seasons O‘ahu

From a distance, the Four Seasons looks just like Ihilani. Almost a quarter century old—a span of time when architecture often looks dated, but not yet vintage—Edward Killingworth’s design has aged well.

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2015

Transformation underway in 2015

On the grounds of the Four Seasons, the differences are dramatic. Naupaka shrubs between the resort and the public shoreline have given way to a new Adult Pool and the new Fish House restaurant. The lobby has been intelligently reconfigured to open up views that were previously behind walls. New restaurants replaced the restaurants that had been largely unchanged since 1993. The resort even has its own wedding chapel.

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2017

Four Seasons O‘ahu, with Fish House restaurant at its base

The latest news from the resort is that it is “thrilled to announce a new partnership with award-winning chef and restauranteur Michael Mina that will see Fish House, the resort’s signature line-to-table restaurant, become Mina’s Fish House.” A gala opening is planned for December 2017.

Yesterland: New Neighbor for Aulani

Image © Four Seasons, 2015

Four Seasons king room, designed for 2016 opening

It can be debated whether Aulani or the Four Seasons is the “jewel in the crown” of Ko Olina. Fans of Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club, with its spacious grounds fronting two lagoons, and of Beach Villas at Ko Olina, with spectacular luxury condos, might even suggest that the title belongs to one of these.

But there’s a new contender on the way.

Future: Atlantis

The 26-acre parcel on the other side of Aulani is slated to become the first Atlantis-branded resort in the United States.

Yesterland: rendering of Atlantis at Ko Olina

Rendering © Kerzner International Holdings Limited

Rendering of Atlantis at Ko Olina

At an estimated cost of USD 2 billion, Atlantis Resort & Residences Ko Olina is expected to have 800 hotel rooms, about 524 luxury residences, an aquarium, restaurants, bars, a spa, a gym, conference facilities, a wedding chapel, outdoor pools with bars, and its own waterpark.

So far, a sales office and a wedding chapel in one corner of the site have been demolished. There has not yet been any other site preparation or construction.

China Oceanwide Holdings Ltd. acquired the site to be developed as an Atlantis Resort in August 2016. It was one of three major real estate acquisitions in and near Ko Olina by the Hong Kong-based company since December 2015.

Kerzner International, the owner of Atlantis Resorts, currently has one Atlantis-branded resort in operation: the Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai; and it has two other Atlantis-branded resorts in development: Atlantis Sanya, China, and The Royal Atlantis Resort & Residences, Dubai.

To Americans, the best-known Atlantis is Atlantis Paradise Island Resort, a mega-resort in The Bahamas. In a series of financial transactions around 2011 and 2012, Kerzner International lost ownership and control of this resort, so it’s no longer a “real” Atlantis. It retains the Atlantis name, but is now owned by Brookfield Asset Management and is affiliated with Autograph Collection, a Marriott brand for one-of-a-kind hotels and resorts.

Yesterland: Ko Olina Resort from the air

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2015

Vacant parcels at Ko Olina, before demolition of the sales office and wedding chapel

Yesterland: site for Atlantis at Ko Olina

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2017

Vacant parcel that will become Atlantis at Ko Olina

In the future, affluent families might spend a few days at Aulani for the Disney storytelling magic, then a few days at Atlantis for all its recreation features, and finally a few days at the Four Seasons or the Marriott Vacation Club to relax.

It will be expensive—but at least it won’t cost much to travel between them.

Click here to post comments at MiceChat about this article.

News from Aulani, June 2019
Aulani and “Disney Presence”

© 2017-2020 Werner Weiss — Disclaimers, Copyright, and Trademarks

Updated October 28, 2020