Purdue University Graduate School

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Imagineered Imperial Tourism: Disney & US Empire in Hawai'i

posted on 2022-04-19, 13:31 authored by Rachel E BoniniRachel E Bonini


Many viewers—especially those from the continental United States—have praised Disney for such recent actions as casting Pacific Islanders in the animated feature film Moana (2016) and assembling a group of cultural advisors (named the Oceanic Story Trust) to guide the filmmakers’ creative decisions. However, my project contends that Disney continues to play a significant role in the maintenance of settler colonialism in Hawai‘i, despite these seemingly progressive attempts at challenging Hollywood’s whitewashing. In this project, I argue that Disney creates and replicates the structures of settler colonialism in Hawai‘i through a mechanism that I term imagineered imperial tourism. In my formulation, imagineered imperial tourism involves commodifying historical narratives of colonization to serve the Disney brand by “innocently” repackaging them for the purpose of settler tourist consumption. To signal a Disney-specific branding and reproduction of settler colonial tropes and ideologies, I use the term “imagineered”—a play on Disney’s trademarked term Imagineering, which names the work of the creative team tasked with engineering the company’s most innovative devices, built environments, and technologies.

Through a sustained study of Disney’s relevant productions—from the feature films Lilo & Stitch (2002) and Moana to its built environments at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL, and Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, Hawai‘i—I suggest that over time, Disney has normalized a version of Native Hawaiian people and history in US popular culture that reproduces common settler colonial discourses which have structured popular perceptions of Hawai‘i. The company’s almost century-long history of media production has cemented these discourses into a set of public pedagogies that have been reproduced across generations. Disney’s Pacific Island-themed productions and attractions are rife with tropes of native primitivism and imperialist nostalgia. They also reveal the primacy of the discursive framework of hegemonic multiculturalism vis-à-vis the commodified “spirit of aloha,” a sentiment which is superficially rooted in Native Hawaiian epistemologies and branded as a key selling point by the tourism industry. Furthermore, Disney has actively colonized Hawaiian lands since 2007, capitalizing on the Islands’ exploitative tourist industry while also obscuring longstanding battles over land ownership and denying Native Hawaiians sovereignty over their stolen lands. Ultimately, I suggest that Disney’s ostensibly “innocent” repackaging contributes to the violent erasure of Native Hawaiian history in popular culture. 


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • American Studies

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Monica M. Trieu

Additional Committee Member 2

Stephanie Masta

Additional Committee Member 3

David C. Atkinson

Additional Committee Member 4

Shannon C. McMullen