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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 21, 2003

Culture, college meld in La'ie

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

When the Polynesian Cultural Center first opened 40 years ago, employees had to stand on the highway in costume to lure people in.

A dancer representing the Maori of New Zealand wears a painted face at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Doubters in the tourism industry predicted failure for the Windward attraction, saying no one would drive 40 miles from Waikiki to see natives shake their hips, said Cy Bridges, the theater director and kumu hula who has been at PCC since the 1970s.

They were partly right, Bridges said.

"Sometimes there were more people on the stage than in the audience," he said.

Not anymore.

Today the center, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the No. 1 paid tourist attraction in Hawai'i, having entertained 30 million visitors over its lifetime, said Von Orgill, PCC president. It's the economic engine that drives the tiny community of La'ie, a blueprint for the development of similar cultural-based centers worldwide and a beacon for the Pacific islands whose culture it aims to preserve.

But what makes PCC unique is its relationship with Brigham Young University-Hawaii, which has students from 70 different countries and that every visitor to the center is contributing to the education of a student.

Dancers representing Fiji beat the canal water with sticks during the Parade of Canoes show. Many Brigham Young University-Hawaii students work as performers to help finance their education.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

"There's nothing else like it in the world," said Les Enderton, executive director of the O'ahu Visitors Bureau.

Despite the connection between church, school and the business, the center is not used as a means to convert students, Orgill said. Although numbers are not tracked, many people who attend the school and work at the center are not Mormons, he said.

"From the very onset the church has followed a commitment to education," he said. "Here was an opportunity to combine that commitment with the opportunity to preserve the unique culture of Polynesia. The natural blending of them together is what happened here."

In preparation for its official anniversary in October, the center has spent about $5 million on renovations and new buildings the past several years, including a new entrance with mini displays, a renovated lu'au site, a new Rapa Nui exhibit and installation of 12 giant tikis in the community.

Despite the doubters in the early 1960s, planners knew the center had potential after several local attractions succeeded in bringing visitors to La'ie, Orgill said.

In the late 1940s, members of the Mormon church put together a hukilau, lu'au and entertainment event, which inspired the "Hukilau" song, he said. In the 1950s, students at Church College of Hawaii (now Brigham Young University-Hawaii) organized a Polynesian song-and-dance revue, which they took to Waikiki to earn money for their education, Orgill said.

The entrance, as pictured in this 1973 photo, has been replaced with a new structure and displays.

Polynesian Cultural Center

The decision was made to build the center in 1962 with a mission to preserve and educate people about Polynesian cultures while providing the means for students to earn an education.

Support for the center and its mission was widespread as more than 100 people from across the Pacific — from Hawai'i to New Zealand — volunteered their skills to build the original center made up of 39 structures on 12 acres.

"This was really a labor of love on the part of these people who wanted to preserve their culture and provide a means for their kids to get an education," Orgill said. "People came from the islands and lived off the land while they helped build the different villages."

Today the center has 100 structures, including seven Polynesian villages representing Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Marquesas and Hawai'i, built on 42 acres along a meandering lagoon filled with fish.

A day at the center combines cultural education with fun and entertainment.

If you go
  • General admission: $30 adult, $19 child 3-11, under 3 is free.
  • Kama'aina rates: $24 adult, $15.20 child 3-11, under 3 is free.
  • To get there: From Waikiki and Honolulu take Likelike Highway east to Kahekili Highway north. Continue on Kamehameha Highway to La'ie. From West O'ahu, take H-1 to H-2 to Wahiawa, and Kamehameha Highway to the Hale'iwa bypass (Joseph P. Leong Highway) to La'ie.
  • Phone: 293-3333
Visitors walk the site through lush landscaping that opens to grassy plains and step back in time to experience native dance, food and a bit of history. Drums from another village summon visitors onward.

On the lagoon, canoes give people another way to see the many sites, which few can take in on one visit.

The lagoon is also the venue for a floating show in which entertainers on seven stages sail past visitors while performing native dances and songs in brightly colored costumes. The entertainers are so lively that on one recent day, two of the steersmen for the floating stages were pitched into the water, to the delight of the entertainers.

PCC also offers a variety of activities including children's games, dancing lessons, IMAX films and even a comedy routine, which are included in the admission fee.

The center provides the kind of experience that more and more travelers seek, and it survives because it has put together unique cultural activities that are authentic and fun, bringing culture alive, said University of Hawai'i professor Juanita Liu, with the School of Travel Industry Management.

"The younger generation wants something that's very dynamic and entertaining in addition to educational," Liu said.

Roberta and Rich McKone of California visited the center for the second time recently. They praised the friendly atmosphere, liked the idea that they were supporting students and said they would recommend the attraction to friends.

Dancers representing Tahiti perform at the Polynesian Cultural Center, in La'ie. The center is the No. 1 paid tourist attraction in the state.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

"You come away with a good idea about what the culture and rituals are about," said Roberta McKone.

The center provides jobs to 1,000 people, including 700 part-time student employees. About 350 of them have full scholarships and work as a means of contributing to their education.

Since it opened in 1963, nearly 13,000 students have helped to finance their education by working at the Polynesian Cultural Center, part of $140 million that the center has donated to BYUH.

Student employees said they are grateful for the opportunity to learn at BYUH, and many admitted they learned more about their culture at the center.

Rusi Vukula and Kalivati Varo, freshmen from Fiji, said they wouldn't have been able to afford BYUH without the full scholarships and were happy to be able to pay back the center by working there. Although both were attending college in their homelands, they said their education in Hawai'i is of a higher caliber.

"The classes are more developed and the skills we learn here are more advanced," Varo said.

In addition to bringing students here to learn, the center is exporting its expertise and helping other countries develop similar attractions.

"We've had inquiries from over 60 different countries for some sort of system," Orgill said. The countries were looking for advice, information about the elements of success and the hard lessons learned, he said.

China, which has had a relationship with the center since 1984, has developed its own center in Shenzhen closely copying the PCC model, including building a university next door, opening a 42-acre park and creating villages as PCC has done, Orgill said.

"The trash cans are even exactly the same as ours," he said.

Reach Eloise Aguiar at 234-5266 or eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com.