Courtesy of Disney

This is how Disney tackled a traditional Hawaiian celebration.

Elisabeth Sherman
March 14, 2018

Several times a month, Aulani Resort & Spa in Oahu holds a Disney-fied version of a traditional Hawaiian celebration, the luau. On a cloudy day that ended in rain (only to be salvaged by a sympathetic staffer who kindly handed out free rain ponchos), I grabbed a bright orange tropical drink, found a seat at one of the communal dinner tables and strapped in for three-hour-long journey into a Hawaiian-themed version of a live action Disney musical. There were fire dancers, a live band, hula dancing, and even an appearance by Moana (while the movie doesn't explicity state that Moana is Hawaiian, her character is of Polynesian descent; the actress that voices her, Auliʻi Cravalho, was born in Kohala). The kids went absolutely bananas when she stepped on stage, by the way, and to be honest, I did a little bit, too.

It’s a family-friendly event meant to keep kids entertained and feed your family buffet-style with Disney’s approximation of Hawaiian food, but it will also help the audience better appreciate a (watered-down) version of Hawaiian culture. Yes, there are grass hula skirts and flower leis, but there are also moments peppered into the program that provide real insight into indigenous Hawaiian traditions. There’s also an open bar (for VIP guests, at least).

Disney's luau is an experience best suited for people who are new to Hawaii, and it should be enjoyed alongside a later trip to a museum like the Ka‘iwakīloumoku Hawaiian Cultural Center in Honolulu. Here’s everything else you need to know before attending Disney’s luau. 

The food

Elisabeth Sherman

Disney is extremely committed to pleasing your children. So while you will find poi, ahi poke, purple uala (sweet potato) mash and a whole roasted suckling pig garnished with crispy chunks of pork rind at the buffet, there are also several platters of cupcakes with Moana’s face printed on the frosting.

In fact, there is an entire buffet table dedicated to finicky children. On it, you will find macaroni and cheese, carrot and celery sticks with a side of ranch dressing and spaghetti and meatballs. Tantrum averted. More good news: All the meals are allergen free and the kitchen has gluten-free meals on hand by request.

Elisabeth Sherman

The food is satisfying and seemingly unlimited, which is essential if you’re going to be sitting with a squirming child for many hours, uninterrupted, so don’t feel guilty about going in for seconds and thirds. The meal isn’t exactly a life-changing Hawaiian feast, but it does exactly what it promises: Introduce your family to the greatest hits of mainstream Hawaiian cuisine, with a couple alternatives provided for people who would rather stick to the familiar.

The drinks

Elisabeth Sherman

One of the great things about Disney—the movies and the parks—is that the adults never get left behind. In the case of the luau at Aulani, an open bar, which is accessible to VIP guests (these tickets only costs about $40 more than general admission), will make the parental escorts feel at home. To be fair, the show is not boring (more on that shortly) but the content is completely kid-friendly, so a little alcohol to keep the grown-ups buoyant is not unwelcome—I admittedly took refuge in a couple Blue Hawaiians during the show.

The children aren’t left out either—of course, there are non-alcoholic beverages on hand, and upon entering, you’ll be greeted by a table of mini-tropical drinks in Disney’s signature neon hues to make the little ones feel that they too can embrace the island spirit.

The entertainment

The show is called Ka Wa‘a, a name inspired by the canoes that brought the ancestors of the native Hawaiian people to the islands from places like Tahiti. Like much in world of Disney, the luau performance is extravagant.

A cast of dancers and singers—including two leads, a brother and sister who guide the audience through a mini-beginner’s course on Hawaiian mythology—perform in a series of vignettes based on real Hawaiian traditions. The dancers demonstrate how ancient Hawaiian warriors trained for battle, the instruments they fashioned to play music when hula dance was banned on the islands (like the ipu and the ka’eke’eke), and in the show’s climax, fire dancers recall how the demi-God Maui (yup, he's real, not a Disney invention) wrangled the sun so that his mother could have more time to weave kapa, a fabric made from tree bark. It’s a spectacle—one that will make you shake your head in a wonder more than once, and made all-the-more moving given how talented the dancers are.

That is just a taste of the evening’s entertainment, which does its best stay true to Hawaiian culture. Sure, it is filtered through Disney’s commercial lens, but if you commit to embracing the show’s concept—that a luau can be at once entertaining and educational—you’ll discover a well-intentioned showcasing of Hawaiian culture that feels joyful, celebratory, and reverential. It also involves a segment in which the kids are asked to join the cast on stage to learn how to hula dance, and it is almost unbearably adorable.

The Aulani luau is a fine way to get an introduction to Hawaiian food in a family-friendly setting, but perhaps even more importantly, you'll be inspired to learn something valuable about the island where you’re vacationing.