The first time we went to Hawaii in 2009 for a business trip, we were sorely disappointed by what we found. Having lived in a place like Alaska for many years prior, we had assumed that Hawaii would similarly have a bit of a “last frontier” character, boasting of family owned businesses and rich Hawaiian culture. What we found was quite the opposite. The Waikiki strip was overrun with big-name resorts and high-end stores like Coach, Gucci, and Tiffany and Co. It may as well have been Rodeo Drive in California. We assumed all traces of authentic Hawaii must have been long-gone.
Until….We discovered the Polynesian Cultural Center!
To understand the Polynesian Cultural Center, you must first understand its roots. As early as 1844, missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) were working among Polynesians in Tahiti and surrounding islands. Shortly thereafter the church began establishing a college in Hawaii, and in 1865 the church purchased 6,000 acres of land on Oahu. They built a temple to serve the various Polynesian islands, and in later years the college become an official branch of Brigham Young University (now known as BYU-Hawai’i).
It was in the early years of working among Polynesians in the various islands that church leaders began expressing concern about the erosion of traditional island cultures. They envisioned that the land they had purchased could also serve the various Polynesian cultures, preserving the unique culture of each island from which the growing community hailed. By the 1950’s the Polynesian Students from the College began putting on fundraising productions that featured authentic South Pacific island songs and dances, and as it grew in popularity, skilled artisans from the various islands came together to build authentic mini-villages in honor of each culture. In 1963 they officially opened the Polynesian Cultural Center, which has continued to expand and improve to be what it is today (now occupying 42 acres).
So, what is it, exactly?
It’s a Center whose focus is to “share with the world the cultures, diversity and spirit of the nations of Polynesia.” They do this by portraying the cultures and arts and crafts of Polynesia through interactive and educational programs and showcases that are family-friendly and entertaining. It is staffed by 1,000 people, including over 750 students from more than 70 countries and nearly every US state. 100 percent of revenue is used for daily operations and to support education. In fact, the PCC has provided financial assistance for over 18,000 students who have attended BYU-Hawai’i!
The Polynesian Cultural Center represents eight island villages and exhibits (Fiji, Hawai‘i, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Rapa Nui and Marquesas. Guests receive a schedule of cultural presentations and activities that take place in each village throughout the day, and they are free to make their own schedule and decide which events they would like to experience and when. The Center opens at 12pm and the cultural presentations continue until 6:30pm. Each cultural presentation lasts about 30-45 minutes (with extra activities afterwards…such as dance or ukulele lessons, learning to weave baskets, make a fire, etc), so your schedule quickly fills up as you try to squeeze in as many various island experiences/presentations as possible!
Our favorite island experience was Samoa, where the wit and humor of the presenter resulted in giggling fits throughout the audience. In Samoa they teach you how to peel a coconut using very basic tools.
I love how each village features its own traditional costume, creating a rainbow of colors throughout the day.
After the funny presentation, the kids enjoyed trying to make a fire with sticks, like the presenter had done!
The Easter Islands are represented in one area of the property, although there are no associated cultural presentations.
At 2:30 each day there is a canoe pageant on the manmade freshwater lagoon that winds its way through the beautifully landscaped property. Each village shares a traditional dance while carefully balancing on boats being pushed through the lagoon.
Canoe rides throughout the lagoon are available for all guests…
Tahiti’s village teaches guests the crazy hip-shaking technique specific to that island (WOW!), and Hawaii teaches some traditional Hula dancing.
As we crisscrossed the property and enjoyed the presentations and lessons in various villages, we found another favorite in Tonga:
Tonga’s presentation focuses on drumming, and teaching the audience some basic hand movements to accompany their rhythmic music.
The best part about Tonga was when they invited 3 men to come to the front and participate in the drumming. One man who was selected was from Japan, and his English was very limited. When they asked him questions he would simply say “Yes,” no matter what the question was. He was a good sport and perfectly happy making a fool of himself.
There were many American cultural tidbits that were totally lost on him (like the missed high-5 below). He had the entire audience DYING with laughter!
The most genius part about the Cultural Center is that they have a “keiki” (kids) program that made our kids be super energetic about going from village to village! They each received a “Passport to Polynesia” with pages that were stamped as they participate in the presentations and activities at each village.
The program focuses on encouraging the kids to participate in the traditional games and educational arts from each Polynesian island. Below, the girls were playing with tops made from the center seed of a nearby fruit tree.
And ink tattoos from Fiji!
Just being cute…
After they participated at each village, the kids would look for the sign that designated where to get their passports stamped.
After participating in 4+ activities kids can earn a free prize from the nearby gift shop. It was just a little doo-dad…but they loved the idea of earning a surprise after enjoying the activities!
It was a hot and sunny day, and we wished they had more shade for the guest seating at the various presentations. Bring hats and a lot of cold water (although they do have cold water fountains you can enjoy near the entrance)!
After running around until we wore ourselves out, we then enjoyed cooling down in their state-of-the-art theatre that had a short 12-minute special-effect film featuring beautiful scenery throughout Hawaii. The stadium-style seating literally moved as you “flew” above the Hawaiian valleys and we were spritzed with a nice cool mist as we felt the “splash” of the ocean. Very nice touch, and we all wished the movie was longer!
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our “Day Experience” at the Polynesian Cultural Center. This day experience starts at $49.95 for adults and $39.95 for kids (kids under 4 are free). Since it really is difficult to experience all that the Day Experience has to offer in just 6 1/2 hours, the PCC offers an additional “Add-a-Day” ticket that can be purchased for $9.95. With this special ticket you can re-visit the PCC for an additional day anytime within the next 2 weeks! If you have more time on the island, I would definitely recommend this option!
But the Day Experience is just the beginning of what the Polynesian Cultural Center has to offer! Just as we were leaving the villages were closing and gearing up for buffet and Luau dining shows in their main dining halls. After the dining (which I hear is fantastic) they have their magnificent evening show called “Hā: Breath of Life”. My husband and I enjoyed this show in 2009 when we visited previously, and we can attest to the fact that it is a FEAST of Polynesian dance and music in a spectacular outdoor amphitheater setting. As a musical theater performance major in college, I can assure you this is a top-quality act.
The PCC offers a large variety of ticket packages to cater to anyone’s taste. If you book directly through their website 10 days in advance, they will offer you an additional 10% off your booking. They even offer transportation options from Waikiki, since the Center is located a fair distance away from the downtown. However, if you have a decent-sized family it will be more cost-effective to rent a car and drive up there yourself (day parking is $8).
I feel strongly that a trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center enriches any Hawaiian vacation. After all…why come to Hawaii and only experience Coach, Gucci, and big-name resorts? The real gem of Hawaii is seeing and experiencing authentic Polynesian culture…and no one features it as well or as extensively as the Polynesian Cultural Center!
To find out more information and book some great experiences at the PCC, visit them at http://www.polynesia.com/oahu-luau.html. And most importantly…enjoy!
We strive to share our honest opinions and experiences. Our thanks goes out to the Polynesian Cultural for the complimentary hosting of our family for the Day Experience!