January 10, 2020: Longtime Walt Disney World cast member who greeted guests at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort with handmade leis and also gave hula lessons has died.
Kau’i Brandt — known to many people as Aunty Kau’i — was 87.
Brandt, born in 1932 Hawaii, began working at Disney World as part of the opening-day staff in 1971. It was supposed to be a three-month luau gig in Florida after working for a summer at Disneyland. She ended up working at the Polynesian for decades.
“We are all deeply saddened by the passing of Auntie Kau’i, a longtime cast member and Hawaiian icon who brought happiness to millions throughout the years as she took such joy in immersing guests in Polynesian culture,” Josh D’Amaro, president of Walt Disney World, said in a statement Friday.
Eventually, Brandt’s job title at the Polynesian became “cultural ambassador.” She met incoming guests with fresh-flower leis and grass skirts, entertaining the youngest guests.
“If the kids are happy, the parents are happy,” she told the Sentinel in 2009.
She was born during a lightning storm. Her mother named her Kauihealani — or “thundering voice of heaven.” A key event in her young life was the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, while sitting on her mother’s roof in a town near Pearl Harbor, she told the Sentinel in 2014.
“My mom told me, ‘It’s war. Get off the roof.’ I said, ‘What’s war?’ We didn’t know what war was. But, we learned. It was a tough time,” she said.
Years later, after learning to hula, she was recruited to be in a show at Disneyland. She said she turned it down multiple times.
“I’ve always heard once you leave Hawaii, you never go back,” she said. “And I guess it’s true because we left Hawaii for the summer of 1971, came up here to Florida only to help them open up the Polynesian Resort, and here still I am.”
We got to talk with her many times when we were cast members at Disney World.
Although not as well-known as Disney Legend Richard over at the Grand Floridian, Disney’s Polynesian Resort also has a Walt Disney Living Legend working there: cast member Kau’i Brandt, better known as Auntie Kau’i to the guests.
At age 84, Auntie Kau’i has been with Disney’s Polynesian Resort almost since it opened.
She moved from the Hawaiian island of Oahu in 1971 to first open the Polynesian show at Disneyland in California, and then moved to Florida to open a similar show at Walt Disney World. She was the master of ceremonies for both shows, and now serves as a cultural representative at the Polynesian Resort.
Guests can find Auntie Kau’i in the first-floor lobby of the Great Ceremonial House of the Polynesian five days a week making leis with fresh flowers and pretty ribbons at her table in the corner of the children’s area. She is quick with a friendly smile and delights in showing guests how leis are made.
She creates her leis from real flowers for guests celebrating their honeymoon, anniversaries, or family celebrations. (All resort guests receive a pretty, free silk flower lei when they check-in, and also get one when entering the Spirit of Aloha show.)
These special leis can be custom-ordered in specific colors and flowers in the adjacent gift shop for $10 – $20 apiece. Auntie Kau’i said she creates about 20 lei necklaces, bracelets, and headbands for guests each day. How cute would that be if you were getting married at the Polynesian and everyone wore one of these?!
Children are invited to make lei necklaces and bracelets out of pasta and candy. Modern tradition holds that carnation lei symbolize love, but a fresh flower lei is a beautiful gift that needs no reason to give and enjoy.
Auntie Kau’i also teaches guests how to dance the hula. The lessons are complimentary and last about 15 minutes. Women and girls are invited to don grass skirts and are given instruments to play to accompany the ukulele music. During the lessons, Auntie Kau’i and another cast member take turns demonstrating the graceful movements while the guests mimic them. Then, the guests put it all together for their finale. So much fun!
Auntie Kau’i has been dancing the hula since she was 6 years old. On Saturday mornings, she also teaches free dance lessons for two hours at the Polynesian Resort.
Stop by and say hi to her!
You can read more about her interesting life’s story here: Growing Up Hawaiian.
Don’t forget to try the delicious breakfast at Ohana’s!!!!
We’ve written two books about our time working – and playing – as Disney Cast Members at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
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Have a magical day!
Two Disney Sisters