Aloha! Surf’s up, malihini!
Today when people think of Disney and Hawaii, probably the first thing that comes to mind might be Lilo and Stitch who make the island paradise their home.
Originally, the story was to take place in a forest near an isolated town in Kansas but one trip to Hawaii changed the minds of the creators. Co-writer Chris Sanders felt that the isolated area would limit the amount of damage that Stitch could do.
Co-director Dean Deblois said, “Without Hawaii, there would not have been the Lilo & Stitch (2002) we created. Hawaii is the soul of this movie.”
Co-director, writer, and voice of Stitch, Chris Sanders said: “Everyone in Hawaii opened their hearts and homes to us. Hawaii gave us their music and dance and taught us about ‘ohana’, which we try to incorporate in our own lives.”
Lilo means “Generous One” and her last name, Pelekai is a combination of “Pele,” the name of the Goddess of Fire and “kai” meaning “sea.” Nani means “Beautiful”.
Nani was voiced by Tia Carrere, who was born in Hawaii. Another Hawaiian born actor, Jason Scott Lee voiced David Kawena, Nani’s boyfriend. Tia and Jason helped the writers with dialog and accents to help insure authenticity.
In order to correctly capture the traditional Hawaiian dance form of the hula, Disney took a camera crew to a renowned halau, a hula school. All of the introductory hula dance is modeled but not rotoscoped on sequences captured at the halau.
Sanders decorated the animation studio with Hawaii-style props like Tiki torches and surfboards. The production team also spent weeks in Hawaii, studying things like the quality of light falling from the sky and the way vegetation blooms thickly around isolated island communities.
Using watercolor backgrounds, the artists captured the lush and beautiful charm of the Hawaiian islands and many landscape scenes in the finished movie are recognizable locations including the famous Kilauea lighthouse, located on Kauai that can be seen in the background
Of course, the Disney theme parks feature elements of Hawaii like The Enchanted Tiki Room where the finale is the Hawaiian War Chant. For awhile the Disneyland attraction was sponsored by Dole, whose pineapple plantation was based in Oahu. The Disneyland pre-show area contained a juice bar where you could purchase authentic Hawaiian pineapple juice, pineapple spears, and Dole whip, a frozen pineapple treat.
The Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World includes some references to Hawaii with originally one of the longhouses being named Hawaii.
Today’s Disney fans probably don’t remember The Castaway Cowboy (1974) a Disney live action movie starring James Garner as a Texas rancher who gets kidnapped in San Francisco but eventually escapes and washes ashore on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The entire movie was filmed on location in Hawaii.
Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, is a beachside resort hotel at the Ko Olina Resort in Kapolei, Hawaii on the island of Oahu that opened August 2011. The resort was meant to emphasize Hawaiian traditions and history with a little Disney pixie dust. The word Aulani in Hawaiian can be loosely translated as “the place that speaks for the great ones” or “with deep messages”. When the word is used as a name, it can mean “message from the chief”.
Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, said when the resort opened:
“In fact, Hawaii has been among our most requested Disney Vacation Club getaway locations beyond our theme parks. We are looking forward to building a special family resort that honors the cultural diversity of Hawaii and reflects the spirit of aloha that makes this location so unique.
“Clearly, Hawaii already has a special place in our hearts and in Disney’s history. Building a resort hotel in Hawaii is the next chapter in our effort to create immersive Disney experiences that allow families to reconnect and recharge in the areas of the world they most long to visit.”
When I think of Disney and Hawaii, because of my interest in classic Disney animation, I usually think of the 1952 short cartoon Hello, Aloha where Goofy visits Hawaii.
However, his visit to paradise including a luau feast with real shark fin soup is spoiled when according to the narrator, Goofy “knew the friendly natives wouldn’t throw him into the volcano – but they did.” Goofy survives to share a final “Aloha” and that always makes me smile.
While most Disney fans know that Walt Disney traveled to Europe and South America on cruise ships, he also took trips to the South Pacific. While Walt was alive, the most popular and common form of traveling outside the United States was by cruise ship not airplane.
Steamship travel was known for the opulence and high style of the first class cabins. Leisure or even business travel was an indication of wealth and prestige for many Americans.
One of Walt’s steamer trunks (located by Disney Archivist Becky Cline) is on display behind glass next to his desk in the Walt Disney Presents attraction at Disney Hollywood Studios.
Walt’s oldest daughter Diane Disney Miller remembered, “on a ship in the middle of the ocean, [Walt] would go out of his mind. He couldn’t find enough to do. On one trip, he got in a shuffleboard tournament with Catholic priests who were returning from a pilgrimage.”
The L.A. Times newspaper stories, as well as the National Archives’ record called California Passenger and Crew Lists, 1893-1957, shows that Walt Disney was in Los Angeles most of 1934 where he played a lot of polo in July and August.
Walt and his wife Lilly went to Lake Arrowhead with Walt’s boyhood friend, Walt Pfeiffer, late in July.
Walt and his wife Lillian were then gone on their first Hawaiian trip from August 10 to September 1, 1934. They sailed on the Matson liner, S.S. Lurline, to Oahu decades before Hawaii became a state.
It was approximately a six-day cruise. It was their first of several visits to the Hawaiian Islands. The Lurline arrived in Honolulu the morning of Thursday, August 16.
“There is film [home movies] of them at a polo game, trying to surf … mother does a lot better than dad…wonderfully comic, and a luau with other distinguished looking people,” Diane Disney Miller told me. It was actually a baseball game that Walt and Lilly attended.
The Honolulu Advertiser newspaper on August 17 reported on the front page “[Walt Disney] had no sooner set foot ashore than he was besieged with invitations to go here, go there; to meet this one and do that for someone else.”
Walt insisted at first that he wasn’t interested. “I don’t want to do anything except to lie on the beach in the sun and wiggle my toes in the sand,” he told the newspaper. The front page featured photos of Walt and his wife Lillian.
The Disneys were originally scheduled to spend just one night in Honolulu before sailing to Hilo on the the Big Island of Hawaii on Friday night. However, taken by the friendliness he found, Walt decided to stay in Honolulu until the following Tuesday so he could attend a charity event on Saturday, August 18. It was the opening game of the army’s baseball championship series between teams from Fort Shaffer and Wheeler Field. The event also included aerial acrobatics by the army pilots.
To publicize the event, Walt was asked to draw a picture of Mickey Mouse. He drew what he often drew when asked for a quick sketch. It was a side view of Mickey Mouse’s head. He included the inscription: “See you at the Army ballgame Saturday. Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney.”
For the drawing, Brigader General Robert S. Abernethy sent his car to the Royal Hawaiian hotel for drawing materials having been located in the cabinet of Sgt. Charles Ross, master gunner at the Hawaiian Separate Coast Artillery Brigade Headquarters, Ft. de Russy.
Walt also agreed to appear in person at Honolulu’s Princess theater at 10 a.m. on that Saturday before the ball game. It was for a regular meeting of one of the popular theater Mickey Mouse Clubs that were so popular at the time. The program included cartoons, a Buck Jones Western serial episode and a performance by “pretty little Vera Ferne,” advertised as “Miss Acrobat.” So many children and their parents showed up that it spilled over to a second theater, the Liberty, and Walt made an appearance there as well.
He asked the attentive audience, “Would you like Mickey to come to Honolulu on a surfboard?” It was greeted by yells and applause.
Walt said, “I am pleased and happy to be here. I am glad to see this enthusiasm for Mickey. When I go back I will make a ‘Mickey’ on a surfboard as I have been on and off one since coming here, and I know just how he feels.”
The Disneys were supposed to sail to Hilo on Tuesday, August 21, but it would have been such a brief trip that they cancelled the side trip and just stayed on Oahu. They left to return to Los Angeles on the Matson liner S.S. Malolo on Saturday August 25. They arrived in California on September 1.
Diane Disney Miller wrote to historian Michael Barrier who was researching this Hawaiian trip,
“It answers some questions we’ve had about some film footage in our family film archive. My parents are in Hawaii, and are with a lot of very fashionably dressed people at what I thought must be a polo game, but it would be the baseball game you mention. There are a significant number of military people…even, as I recall, a parade of sorts.
“Must be the air show. I am amazed the way you pursue things. I really enjoy the article, because I believe dad just wanted to sit on the beach…for a while, anyway. Thank God they brought some nice clothes along…but we used to travel that way, on the Lurline, at the Royal Hawaiian.”
The Honolulu vacation was also covered in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The newspaper reported on August 23 that Walt, in the company of a Texas congressman, had gone that day to Fort Shafter “to witness a thorough demonstration of modern anti-aircraft equipment.” Also present was General Abernethy.
It took Walt a couple of years to make good on his promise to have Mickey Mouse visit Hawaii. Walt’s fascination and affection with Hawaii inspired the Disney short cartoon Hawaiian Holiday released in 1937.
Mickey Mouse and the rest of the “Fab Five” (Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto) take a vacation in Hawaii. Mickey strums his ukulele while Minnie does some hula dancing. Donald attempts to hula, as well, but ends up catching his rear end on fire. Pluto plays with a starfish and a crab. While Walt had told the audience in Honolulu that Mickey would go surfing, it turned out that it was Goofy who struggled in his attempts to master a surfboard, supposedly mimicking some of Walt’s misadventures as he tried to learn.
In the cartoon, Goofy oddly rides his board with his right foot forward. Several years after the release of this cartoon the term “goofy footed” became a common term in surfing. Regular footed surfers ride waves with their left foot forward, and goofy footed surfers ride waves with their right foot forward.
It is an unusual cartoon because there really is no major conflict, villain or project to be completed. All the characters do is enjoy a vacation so basically in the cartoon they ended up just enjoying their time in Hawaii just as Walt had originally wanted to do.
Walt also visited Oahu again in 1939 and the whole Disney family went along including Lillian; Walt’s brother Roy O. Disney; Roy’s wife, Edna; and all the Disney kids: Diane, Sharon and Roy Edward. There is a photo of the adult Disneys leisurely sitting in chairs and sipping Hawaiian drinks with the silhouette of Diamond Head in the background.
Diane told me, “Their first trip, with Roy and Edna, was just after I was born. In 1939 Roy Edward and I were with them. We went again as a family in, I believe, summer of ’48. These trips were all to Oahu. I don’t think that they made any other visits to Hawaii alone.”
The Disneys left September 15, 1939 from Los Angeles and arrived back on October 4.
As Diane recalled, Walt and his family visited yet again in the Summer of 1948. They left on the S.S. Lurline for Honolulu on June 28 and returned to Los Angeles on July 19. They stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel as they had on the previous trip almost a decade earlier.
The Disney family went to Kauai in 1965 for the filming of Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. They left May 7 and returned May 12.
“We all went to Kauai for the location filming for Lt Robin Crusoe,” Diane told me, “Mother, dad, Ron, and five of our six children. Baby Ronnie was left at mother and dad’s home in the care of the amazing Fou Fou. [Their housekeeper and cook, Thelma Howard]. Also along were Bill and Nolie Walsh, her mother, and their two children and Dick Van Dyke’s entire family. Ron and Bill were co-producers of the film. Ron and I fell in love with Kauai. I think that’s the last trip my parents made to those islands, but they did go to Tahiti at one point.”
That Tahiti trip was in October of 1962 where Walt and Lily visited Bora Bora, Papeete, Tahiti, Pago Pago, Nandi, and Fiji, as well as Honolulu, Kahului and Hana in Hawaii. They left October 12 and returned October 28.
Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. did not take place in Hawaii, but like in so many other television shows and movies, Hawaii was substituting for a tropical paradise. While some of the filming took place in Hawaii, a portion of the famous Golden Oak Ranch in Southern California was transformed into a tropical lagoon for some scenes.
One of the reasons for Walt’s Hawaiian trip to see the filming was that the movie is the only one on which he receives a story credit. It is listed as “Retlaw Yensid” (Walter Disney spelled backwards) and, unfortunately, even the outstanding story team of Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi couldn’t effectively exploit Walt’s premise of a modern day “Robinson Crusoe” story.
At 114 minutes, it is almost a half-hour longer than most of the Disney live-action comedies of the time.
Lt. Robin Crusoe (Dick Van Dyke) is a bumbling Navy pilot who ditches his plane after engine trouble. He finds himself marooned on a lush tropical Pacific island with a lost Naval astronaut chimp named Floyd, a gadget-rich abandoned sub, and a wild but beautiful native girl (Nancy Kwan) whom Crusoe names “Wednesday” and who is in exile for disobeying her overprotective father.
This film was made after the 1964 Mary Poppins to try and capitalize on Van Dyke’s comedic popularity.
One of the things I miss from the days of my youth was going to Disneyland and being able to dine at Tahitian Terrace just next door to the Enchanted Tiki Room. It was a restaurant where under a spectacular 35 foot tree (with 4,075 artificial leaves and colorful faux flowers that always bloom), there was a dining experience that included hula dancers, fire-knife dancers and an authentic island band. With the barbecued pineapple ribs, catamaran salad and broiled teriyaki steak, guests could enjoy the non-alcoholic Planter’s Punch which was a “blend of all the exotic fresh fruits of the islands served in a tall frosted glass with a flower memento.” Once, I was even called up on stage to learn how to hula much to the amusement of the rest of the audience.
I am sure that when he visited a luau in Hawaii Walt himself probably had a similar experience. Usually, we don’t think of Walt in the South Pacific but as I have recounted, he and his family did visit several times and perhaps encouraged the creation of The Enchanted Tiki Room.