Polynesian Cultural Center Celebrates 40 Years of Aloha


Two numbers have big significance for the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) this year. One is 40. On 12 October the center, located in Laie, Hawaii, will celebrate its 40th anniversary. The other number is 30 million. On 25 April 2003, the 30 millionth visitor walked through the center’s entrance.

“Of course the surprise and hoopla of being the 30 millionth visitor was incredible,” wrote Dianna Cheri Hill of Woodland, California, in a thank-you letter to the center. “But the beauty and authenticity and genuine camaraderie that ensued throughout that day were the most memorable of all. We truly felt like we had met the ‘real’ people of Polynesia.”

That is the spirit of aloha that makes the Church-owned center a must-see attraction. Located adjacent to Brigham Young University—Hawaii, the PCC is a 42-acre (17-hectare) refuge of tropical foliage and flowers where canoes glide along a freshwater lagoon and friendly islanders in scenic villages share the customs and cultures of Pacific island nations. Guests see demonstrations of islanders climbing a palm tree, throwing spears, starting a fire with a coconut husk, hosting traditional welcoming ceremonies, and much more. In the evening, visitors can join in an authentic luau, then attend the largest Polynesian revue in the world—a staged spectacular featuring more than 100 dancers.

Some 760 of the 1,200 center employees are students at BYU—Hawaii, working 20 hours a week to help finance their studies. The university has a total student body of around 2,400 from more than 70 nations, with half of the students coming from the Pacific Basin. Many could not afford tuition and expenses without their work at the PCC.

“The center is an extraordinary extension of our campus,” says BYU—Hawaii president Eric B. Shumway. “We’re joined at the heart.”

What visitors to the PCC may not realize is that all of these facilities, as well as the neighboring community of Laie, are fulfilling a prophecy made in 1955 by President David O. McKay, ninth President of the Church. In the dedicatory prayer at the groundbreaking ceremony for what was then called the Church College of Hawaii, President McKay asked the Lord that the college, the temple, and the town would become “a missionary factor, influencing not thousands, not tens of thousands, but millions of people who will come seeking to know what this town and its significance are.”

When the cultural center opened in 1963, tourism experts in Honolulu were skeptical that anyone would travel to the north side of Oahu just to see students perform. But over time the center gained a positive reputation. The PCC has been the number-one paid attraction in Hawaii every year since 1977, with the highest guest satisfaction ratings of any paid attraction, according to the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

“The spirit of aloha, the spirit of love and welcome, is legendary in Hawaii,” says PCC president Von D. Orgill. “Every person who comes here feels it. But at the center they also feel something more. The students who work here begin their day by sharing scriptures and spiritual thoughts. They pray together and ask that the Lord’s Spirit will shine through their lives and touch people, and it does.”

Iolani Mariteragi, a student and performer from French Polynesia, agrees: “When visitors come through the center, they ask, ‘How can you all be so happy?’ I tell them it’s because we live according to the gospel.”

That spiritual preparation is reflected in another interesting fact: the visitors’ center of the nearby Laie Hawaii Temple is second only to Temple Square in Salt Lake City in the number of non–Latter-day Saints taking guided tours and the number of referrals coming from those tours.

President McKay also described how students from BYU—Hawaii would become an influence for international peace, building bridges between nations. That statement is also coming true. As one example, the Polynesian Cultural Center has become the primary contact with the government of the People’s Republic of China for the Asian Executive Management Training Program, a joint effort of BYU—Hawaii and the PCC. Participants work 20 hours per week at the PCC, rotating through various departments to understand how an American business operates. They also receive training at BYU—Hawaii. Since the program started in 1985, there have been 138 participants who have gone on to positions of international responsibility and influence.

What is more, it is commonplace for the PCC to host dignitaries not only from China but also from 50 to 75 other countries each year. The reach of the PCC and BYU—Hawaii is remarkable. “It’s impressive when you think about it,” says President Orgill. “Here is this little tiny town on this little island in the middle of this gigantic ocean, and it is exercising an influence around the world that is incredible.”

A monthlong celebration is planned for the Polynesian Cultural Center’s 40th anniversary in October, and considerable renovation has been completed. Plans are also underway to commemorate the 50th anniversary of BYU—Hawaii in February 2005.

For more information about the Polynesian Cultural Center, visit www.polynesia.com; for more information about BYU—Hawaii, visit www.byuh.edu.

[photo] In a canoe pageant, performers represent the King of Hawaii and his entourage, welcoming guests to the Polynesian Cultural Center. The center celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. (Photograph by Richard M. Romney.)