There are many Hawai`is.
The historic Hawai`i includes the Polynesian society that grew in harmony with the natural environment while developing a complex system of stewardship — and a unique, inviting culture with distinctive art and artistry.
The natural Hawai`i, a hotspot beneath the Pacific Plate that created the islands’ volcanic wonders, is so isolated that only the flora and fauna carried by winds and sea currents took hold (no land mammals or reptiles survived to make landfall in Hawai`i).
The Hollywood Hawai’i, a far-away, south seas island, is used both as a story element and an exotic location for films from “Bird of Paradise” (1932) to “From Here to Eternity” (1953), “South Pacific” (1958) to “Blue Hawaii” (1967), and “Jurassic Park” (1993) to “Avatar” (2009).
Walt Disney’s connection to the Islands began (as it did for many) when the rise of the cruise and tourism businesses turned Hawai’i from a distant paradise to a genuine destination. The Matson Line’s SS Malolo began the first regular service to Honolulu from the West Coast in 1927. Matson co-financed construction of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, which opened the same year, catering to luxury travelers who came to enjoy Hawai`i’s beaches and exotic culture.
“The 1930s were the heyday of Waikiki’s appeal,” reports the fascinating web site HawaiiHistory.org. “A beach-boy culture grew up to service visitors and introduce them to the laid-back island lifestyle. Hollywood movies featured hula dancers and island settings, and the radio program ‘Hawai`i Calls’ beamed Hawaiian music to a national audience every week. Hawai`i became synonymous with an exotic sensuality”
Walt and Lillian Disney made their first trip to Hawai`i in 1934, sailing on the Matson liner Lurline from Los Angeles (via the Port of San Francisco) on August 10th. They arrived in Honolulu the morning of Thursday, August 16.
“Walt’s arrival in the islands was big news, rating a headline at the top of the [Honolulu] Advertiser’s August 17 front page, accompanied by photos of both Walt and Lilly,” reports Disney scholar and biographer Michael Barrier.
The Advertiser reported that, “He had no sooner set foot ashore than he was besieged with invitations to go here, go there, meet this one, and do that for someone else.”
Walt coyly replied, “I don’t want to do anything except lie on the beach in the sun and wiggle my toes in the sand.”
He and Lilly were in Honolulu until the following Tuesday, attending a charity event on Saturday, August 18 (the opening game of the army’s baseball championship series), an aerial acrobatics show performed by army pilots, and even a demonstration of modern antiaircraft equipment in the company of U.S. Army Brigadier General Robert S. Abernethy.
Earlier that Saturday morning, Walt made a personal appearance before sold-out houses at two downtown Honolulu movie theatres — the Princess and the Liberty.
At one of these appearances, the Advertiser reported that Walt asked the audience, “Would you like Mickey to come to Honolulu on a surf board? When I go back I will make a ‘Mickey’ on a surf board, as I have been on and off one since coming here, and know just how it feels.”
True to Walt’s word, on September 24, 1937, RKO-Radio Pictures released Walt Disney’s “Hawaiian Holiday,” starring Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Donald Duck, and Goofy — all on vacation in Hawai`i. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen, the film recast the manic surfboard acrobatics to Mickey’s more comically-appropriate co-star, Goofy.
The Disneys departed Honolulu on Saturday, August 25, 1934, but, in 1939, Walt and Lillian returned via the Lurline, and again stayed in Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian. This time they were accompanied by Walt’s brother, Roy, and his wife, Edna.
“In the years following the war, Hawai`i benefited from the country’s growing prosperity and the fond memories of those visiting wartime soldiers,” HawaiiHistory.org says. “Although travel to the Islands was still mainly by ship, the journey was more affordable for middle class travelers, and no longer restricted to adventurers or wealthy celebrities. Waikiki beach was again a bustling tourist attraction.”
This post-war tourist profile certainly fit the Disney family to a degree, Walt and Lilly, along with daughters Diane and Sharon, again sailed on the Lurline and enjoyed a family vacation at the Royal Hawaiian in 1948.
The next significant Walt Disney connection to Hawai`i was also, unfortunately, the last.
It began with a story idea from Walt himself, an updated comic take on the classic Daniel Defoe story “Robinson Crusoe.” Walt had long noted that his daughter Diane had a felicity for writing, and he initially talked with her about taking a crack at the screen story. “Dad pitched the concept of ‘Lt. Robin Crusoe’ to Ron and me,” Diane told Disney historian Jim Korkis, “wanting to encourage us to become a writing team. I wasn’t taken with the idea at all, and had six children who took up all of my time, a large house, and yard. That was my career of choice, and I cherished it. He finally did it himself.”
Thus, the story credit for “Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN” was given to a fellow by the name of Retlaw Yensid. “Retlaw Yensid is an old joke we’ve had around the Studio for years,” Walt told the Honolulu Advertiser. “I started using my name backward on the slate to identify the scenes. Pretty soon, my cameraman followed suit, and the poor guys at Technicolor® processing the film thought we had hired a bunch of immigrants. This will be the first time it has been used in the credits.”
Although most of the picture was shot on the sound stages and back lot of The Walt Disney Studio in Burbank (a heated, filtered “tropical lagoon” was constructed on one of the back lot berms), a week of principal shooting — and three weeks of second unit shooting — was done on location in Hawai`i.
The Disney family made another Hawaiian visit for this occasion, departing for Kaua’i on May 7, 1965. “The location was really a wonderful time for us,” Diane told Jim Korkis. “We spent about three weeks at the Waiohai Hotel with mom and dad, Bill and Nolie Walsh, the Van Dykes, Byron Paul and his family. The Van Dykes were a wonderful family. Dick’s a superb human being as well as a great talent.”
The Waiohai had just opened in 1962, an assemblage of low-rise, two-story “Polynesian cottages” (“We stayed at a hotel whose accommodations looked like grass-covered huts,” Van Dyke says.) The owners of the Halekulani Hotel at Waikiki were the original developers of the property, but the quaint cottages were moved to Koloa and other locations on Kaua’i (or torn down) in 1979. It is now the site of Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club.
“Well, we were in Kaua’i, over in Hawai`i, at [Poipu] Beach, and so I did get to spend some evenings with Walt at that time,” Dick Van Dyke recalls.
Situated on the south shore beside the Lãwa’i Bay, Lãwa’i -Kai, the estate of Queen Lilu Kalani (the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Islands), was used for beach scenes. The 80-acre Allerton Botanical Gardens was the setting for the dense jungle through which Crusoe flees from a group of spear-wielding native girls.
“I think the funniest thing that happened,” Van Dyke says, “you know, they’d had lots of war canoes over in Hawai`i, but Walt wanted some of his own design, so he had some built at the Disney Studios, I think of fiberglass. There must have been eight or ten of them, floating about a half mile offshore … as we watched, they all sank to the bottom of the ocean!” Van Dyke recalls that the prop canoes had “stoppers” in the bottom so they could be made to sink on cue. This effects design innovation apparently had practical shortcomings.
“He took it in stride,” Van Dyke says. “He wasn’t in it for any reason except that he just enjoyed it so much.”
Since that time, the “movie studio in paradise” has again been visited by Disney. Such films as “George of the Jungle” (1997), “Pearl Harbor” (2001), and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (2011) have used the beautiful and historic locales of Hawai`i. Even the 2002 Disney animated feature “Lilo & Stitch” takes place in a lush and exquisite watercolor world evocative of Kaua’i.
Most recently, Walt Disney Imagineers journeyed to the islands, and worked hand in hand with locals to create a magnificent new destination that celebrates Hawaiian culture, history, and traditions. Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa at Ko Olina, on the island of O’ahu, opened in August 2011 and combines many traditions of Hawaiian culture that Walt himself instilled deeply within the culture of Disney: high aesthetic, fine craftsmanship, rich value, unanticipated uniqueness, and a commitment to quality prominent among them.
It is a fitting bond between a man who treasured Hawai`i, and the splendid and enchanting locale that brought him such pleasure.
By Jeff Kurtti
Jeff Kurtti is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, Kurtti worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Most recently he was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for the cornerstone exhibit at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California.
Now, Jeff brings his passion and expertise to Disney Insider through a unique online presence called “The Wonderful World of WALT.”