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The Aulani Interview with President Tom Staggs and CEO Bob Iger

Just to keep it real at Today's Mama, I brought my three-month-old baby girl with me to an interview with President of Disney Parks and Resorts Tom Staggs and Disney CEO Bob Iger to chat about the new Aulani Hawaiian resort.
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Just to keep it real at Today's Mama, I brought my three-month-old baby girl with me to an interview with Tom Staggs and Bob Iger in one of the beautiful suites at the Aulani Resort and Spa in Hawaii. You know you're a modern mama when you're downloading a recording app onto your smart phone, planning on questions to pose to executives, while bouncing a baby in your arms!

Read on to find out more about how they feel about social media, the philosophy behind Aulani, how they tried to create an educational experience, and telling a story about bringing families together.

Tom Staggs, Mickey Mouse, and Bob Iger

Tom Staggs, Mickey Mouse, and Bob Iger

How did the desire to tell a story factor into the building Aulani?

President of Disney Parks and Resorts Tom Staggs -

Once we started to investigate what we wanted Aulani to be, we realized that the Hawaiian tutelage that we needed was part and parcel to getting it right. The more we got into it the more we realized that this was a huge opportunity. Hawaiian traditions, family--Ohana--storytelling, harmony and respect for nature, are things that are easy for our company to embrace and are completely consistent with who we are. The story manifests itself in different ways here. It was never “Let’s go export Disney to Hawaii” it was about Disney creating an authentic presence in Hawaii.

Why did you choose this location?

We looked around for a while, but this [location] struck us as a site with unbelievable potential. These lagoons don’t happen by chance, they’re unique places, some of the best beaches in Hawaii. And Ko ‘olina’s proximity to Honolulu and the airport was another important factor.

What has the feedback been from the Hawaiian Community?

There were folks who had real trepidation; some of it with good reason. The feedback we’re getting from the coastal community now is almost universally positive. We don’t think our journey is over. Now we’re part of the community, and there are obligations and responsibilities that we have to continue to fulfill. [Aulani] is supposed to be the place where people begin their discovery of Hawaii. It’s not about landing here and creating a Disney cocoon. There’s a lot of evolution ahead of us with cultural programs and excursions and determining what resonates with our guests.

What are you hoping families will experience?

I was here with my family, I have three boys, and we couldn’t peel them off the slides. I had to pull them out of each activity to get them to go to the next one. Our hope is that families go beyond their expectations of a Hawaiian vacation, which are usually just the beach and the pool. We’d like something that speaks to everyone in the family. There’s something for everyone; Aulani is a shared family experience even though each piece of the experience isn’t shared.

We’re hoping families realize Aulani as a complete experience and not just another hotel. We want people to come here and take a different look at Disney: we create great experiences for people to share with their loved ones. We build the settings for those experiences. Disney spends a lot of time doing research with families for what they’re looking for on vacation: they want great shared time and memories, things that bond families for the future.

I heard the term “big H, little d” for the Aulani concept. It’s not hit you over the head Disney

That is on purpose. Aulani is about the place, Hawaii. People go on Adventures by Disney time and again, they pick the spots and the Disney is lowercase—it’s not like we’re trying to theme Italy! It’s Disney in the sense that your experience is being taken care of, and the way that the experience is woven so that everyone is having a good time. It’s crafted for every member of your party: families and loved ones who want to spend time together and relax. I’m fully aware that that’s a tall order, given how many people we serve, and we have to work every day to make sure we’re delivering on that promise.

There’s such an educational aspect to Aulani. Do you feel like people are getting what it's all about?

You don’t come in and sign up for the syllabus. The education is there, but you’re not feeling like you’re in the classroom. My six-year-old didn’t come here to learn Hawaiian culture; he came to go down the water slide 5,000 times. He came away knowing some things and none of it felt forced upon him.

I’m concerned with sustainable foods, cooking locally, fresh, and seasonally, and I was worried about coming to a resort as my previous resort experiences haven’t been positive. I was surprised that the restaurant ‘Ama ‘Ama and the other dining options include sustainable and fresh ideas.

The food and beverage side is something we spent a whole bunch of time on and it’s a particular interest of mine. To do something that was not in the realm of sustainable, that didn’t embrace those concepts, would have felt hypocritical given this place and the way that we think about Aulani. It’s fun, too. By putting those cues in the menus we can get people to ask the questions: the notion that this sustainable catch came off this boat with this captain, it is part of the storytelling. You do it in a way that’s approachable.

Thank you!

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Was that it? I didn’t get to hold the baby!

aulani penthouse

And now Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, who arrives in the room dressed in a loose Hawaiian shirt and ready to chat.

"That’s a little one! How old is she?"

"Three months."

"Very cute! I want to hold her. I have a granddaughter that’s 8 months…"

Thanks for meeting with us! Not every company wants bloggers to come to their events, but Disney embraces us, always treats us as important. How do you see us?

It begins with an appreciation for new media and social networking. People are using these unbelievably powerful technological tools and platforms to communicate, learn, and express themselves. We think it’s a very real medium that needs to be taken seriously. It’s a good way for us to reach people who might be interested in Disney. We get great feedback that’s fairly immediate from people who actually have a legitimate thing to say about who we are and what we’re doing. When you think about Disney and who our core consumer is, it’s largely a mother with children under 12. Why not embrace that customer base wholeheartedly? We want to be connected to the people you are connected to.

What about couples? Is part of your marketing going there?

Aulani is a place for families, but there’s something for everyone to do, either individually or together as a family. I raised two girls and have two boys, 12 and 9, and two grandchildren, so I vacation with a variety. A vacation with a family is a time for everyone to spend time together, but it’s also nice, particularly for people who work very hard, or would like some “me time,” to be able to have their kids go off and do something that’s perfectly entertaining and allow the adult to do the same without feeling too guilty.

I’m continually fascinated that there are a lot of people who visit our sites that come without kids: cruises, hotels, theme parks, and even our movies. That’s for a variety of reasons, but in terms of this site, we’ve gone out of our way to offer adults higher quality food, wine, spas, and other forms of experience. I haven’t seen a spa that is this nice, for an adult it’s a great place. It’s a great statement about who we are; we are for everybody and everyone can enjoy us together.

What do you think is the Disney experience thread?

You arrive and get excited the moment you put your feet on the ground and you just want to experience it. When you do enter the grounds you are transported to another world. Walt Disney was intent on doing that with Disneyland. You leave your daily frets behind and you enter a world of fantasy and adventure. We’re transporting you to Hawaii in a real sense, and with respect for the culture and reliance on Hawaiian stories.

Any secrets on how you create an educational immersion experience for kids without them even realizing it?

They are here on vacation and this is an escape from classroom and homework. On the other hand, there is a real opportunity to allow kids to engage in what Hawaii really is, in an entertaining way and letting them learn as they play. Joe Rohde is primarily responsible for creating this concept, and he has Hawaiian roots. He was really proud about creating a place that could tell Hawaiian stories. There were a few times I wanted to say to him, “Joe, we’re not professors here! We’re inherently entertainers! Yes, let’s tell the story, but let’s not force feed kids tofu hotdogs!”

How long did it take from the original concept until today’s opening?

I first set foot on this property in 2007 and we were working on the concept for a year before that. And we don’t have any plans to replicate Aulani.

This is my first time at a Disney resort or hotel and I’ve been impressed with the level of service and hospitality. Everyone you encounter is service focused and intent on creating a great experience. Where does that come from?

It’s been that way for a long time; it’s a legacy of the company. I marvel at the company’s ability to keep that up. The values that were defined, created, and instilled in the company and its employees in Walt’s day live on today. That’s a really interesting dynamic for a company to have. It says a lot about who the company is. And it’s not that much of an issue for us: we make sure that people who are hired know what’s expected of them, we spend a fair amount of time and money on training, and retraining. We try to set examples right from the top. I don’t get on an elevator without saying hello to the people who are there, or bending down and picking up a piece of trash from the ground, you’ll see an executive at the highest level and an employee whose soul job it is to keep the pool clean, doing the same thing. It’s just who we are. It sets us apart and creates a competitive advantage. It strengthens people’s sense of Disney. We are in the brand business and part of our brand is providing a quality service.

Thank you!

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