When Ohana opened at the Polynesian Resort in Walt Disney World around 1996 or so, it was a lot more involved than it is these days. There was much more formal goings-on, still centered around the 30-foot fire pit and the delectable courses of meat and veggies served out of it. Over the years, the pageantry and menu have changed, but the Ohana experience remains, at its core, all about great food, great entertainment and an awesome sense of belonging to the coolest family on the islands. During my time working with the Disney Fans bulletin board on the old Prodigy Service, we were at Ohana sometimes weekly, either introducing groups of visitors to the place or just coming to kick up our heels and hang with the crew, which included a stellar troika of entertainers in Kaleo, Kawelo and Lipoa.
All three would play ukelele and stroll through the restaurant, serenading diners, engaging cousins in conversation (at Ohana, everyone is family, therefore the term "cousins" applies all around) and rounding up kids and grown-ups alike for various activities such as coconut races, dancing the hula or appeasing the angry fire gods after requesting salt, pepper or other insulting condiments. As Kaleo always said, "those of you expecting a quiet dining experience; forget it." Ohana has always been bustling with energy, all the more balanced when combined with the ridiculous amounts of food that get served to your table (Kaleo also liked to say, "here at Ohana, you don't eat till you're full - you eat till you're tired.") The trio (there were others, but many didn't stay for long) did other things around the Polynesian Resort, from the main luau to ceremonies around the property. For the 25th anniversary of Walt Disney World, Kaleo wrote the resort's official theme song and was often seen zipping between Ohana and other places to perform. They kept him hopping. Lipoa has also been MVP and between her and Kaleo - they've managed to become the voices and faces of the Poly.
Over the years, our trips to Ohana have dwindled in number (something had to give - weekly blasts of steak, pork, chicken and shrimp can add unto you, and how) but we've always been greeted as family by those there who remembered us, most namely Kaleo and Lipoa, who would make it a practice to come sit at our table during breaks from the show and catch up on what was happening with our respective "real world" lives. As Ohana got more popular, it became necessary to get reservations in order to dine there and pretty soon, it became required knowledge to book them far in advance. I tried mightily and failed to get reservations for last Saturday evening when Jae and I planned on visiting the Magic Kingdom for the first time in five years (we usually go to Epcot.) Still, we figured on taking the monorail over and maybe getting an appetizer in the Tambu Lounge, some drinks, perhaps catch some of Kaleo's act and say 'hello.'
I saw Kaleo preparing to perform after we had ordered a platter and the host stand was mobbed - we put our name in and were told it was a two-hour wait. The big banner saying "Aloha Kaleo" struck me as some kind of prop - but I somehow managed to miss the balloons and signs saying "we'll miss you." Kaleo turned from his business plugging in cables and greeted me warmly, saying that I was just in time to catch his last night.
"Last night?" I said, aghast. Without breaking his smile he said that it was so. Disney had told him a week ago that they were letting him go.
Unbelievable! No kind of notice after 18 1/2 years working for the company; I asked if they were giving him a decent severance package to which he replied calmly, "no severance." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The Poly's MVP big kahuna was getting the bum's rush; if there ever was a signal that Disney was prone to shooting themselves in the foot, this was it.
"You picked up some kind of signal, to be here this night," he said, still smiling. And perhaps maybe he was right. So Jae and I moved from the bar and got a seat by the front of the stage and listened to Kaleo's golden voice as he sung beautiful Hawaiian music. Asking if I wanted to hear anything, I requested his 25th Anniversary song, to which he replied, "wow - let's see if I can remember it" before launching into the tune like it had been written just that week. "Let aloha make all your dreams come true," he crooned and for a moment, we were back in the heyday of Ohana, when the menu was at its peak and the vibe was fun-crazy instead of turn-over table-tops crazy. No doubt that Ohana is more than likely a cash-cow for Disney - which is why it's so mystifying that they'd lay off one of its star-performers.
Lipoa was working the restaurant and she too was amazed at the news - wondering if maybe she wasn't going to be next. At one time, the Ohana experience could be considered casual dinner theater - a musical revue of culture and kindness that left everyone feeling happy and just a little bleary-eyed. It wasn't uncommon back in the day to spend three to four hours in the dining hall, rubbing our swelled tummies and getting up to participate in the ongoing sport taking place in the center of the hall. Many great memories there - some awkward and unusual ones too, in all - indicative of life, we'd been through it all there.
There was a tinge of sadness as we dined last night, though I still got up to limbo and shared a dance with Jae, receiving two flower leis and a kiss on the cheek from Lipoa. I made a phone call to friends Katie and Tina to let them know it was Kaleo's final night and, after giving him a hug and promising to keep in touch, we headed back out to the park to hit our short list of things we wanted to do before heading home. My friends informed me that they were able to come out and that the Tambu Lounge was packed, giving Kaleo a standing ovation at the conclusion of his set.
I dropped him an e-mail today inquiring about a letter-writing campaign. Enough names on a petition could show Disney brass that they are toeing the bottom line and making bad choices in the name of so-called good business. An Ohana without Kaleo or Lipoa is an Ohana with piped-in music that becomes just another buffet in the history of the Disney parks. Kaleo and Lipoa bring authenticity to the Polynesian resort, along with warmth, humor, grace and first-rate talent. Few visitors to Ohana can say they've not been touched by either of these top-flight and down-to-earth personalities. What is Disney thinking?
I'll tell you what they're NOT thinking, and that's "straight." As we left the parks, we passed by Disney's Wide World of Sports, the huge, garish monument to Michael Eisner's sports infatuation that gets used far less than you would imagine (just like the huge IRL racing oval in the Magic Kingdom parking lot that is home basically for the Richard Petty Driving Experience.) There was nothing going on there this late at night, yet most, if not all, of the high-watt stadium lamps were blazing away at the darkness, attracting flurries of Osceola County flying insects and casting an un-earthly glow against the Saturday evening sky.
Why, if they turned off those useless lamps when the park was empty, with the money they saved, they could afford to keep Kaleo on where he would happily continue to do what he's been doing at Disney for the past 18 1/2 years; making music and smiles a regular part of the Polynesian Resort experience. If everyone who has ever had occasion to meet Kaleo at the luau or in the resort lobby, or at Ohana or in the Tambu Lounge, if they all sent a polite letter to Disney requesting that Kaleo be reinstated, I'll bet they would need to create a new post office box simply to handle the demand. If nothing else, Disney needs to know what it truly is that we admire about Ohana; not just the food and the fun, but the people at the heart of it all.