Wonderful World of Mills


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Disney most often describes its parks and properties as the place “where dreams come true” and the “happiest place on earth.”

Hotel executive Elliott Mills, 47, knows those tag lines are true because he lives them every workday. As vice president for hotel operations for Disneyland Resorts and Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, Mills has an insider’s knowledge of Disney’s magic. Those who know him say he dispenses it vigorously with his own added touch of aloha, hearkening back to his roots as a homegrown Hawai‘i Island boy.

While Mills has had a long tenure in Hawai‘i’s visitor industry, he’s earned the most respect from friends and colleagues for the role that he has played in helping Disney successfully expand their brand in Hawai‘i.

Peter Ho, Bank of Hawaii chairman, president and CEO, describes his long-time friend as the just the right combination of “local boy” and “savvy business man.”

“He has so much aloha for the culture of the islands and is, in my mind, a real keeper of our traditional values and ways of life in Hawai‘i. He brings an authentic notion of what it is to be an island person and a Hawaiian,” Ho says. “At the same time, he’s an incredibly gifted business man who works for one of the most famous media corporations in the world.”

If you ask Ho and other local friends, Mills is largely the reason that Disney is able to market Aulani as the “place to stay for a Hawai‘i family vacation that immerses you in local culture through Disney magic.”

Children, ages 3 to 12, can get a taste of old-Hawaiian hospitality at Aunty’s Beach House kid’s club, which locals say is much like being watched by relatives, while learning about Hawai‘i’s unique environment and culture.

The ‘Olelo Room, which means “Hawaiian Conversation” Room, is cultural experience for adults, who want to learn how to pronounce Hawaiian words. The Ka Wa‘a Lu‘au celebrates Hawaiian voyaging.

Mills says the inspiration for those guest experiences traces back to the days when he was a student of celebrated Hawaiian hospitality instructor George Kanehele, who wanted his students to help the resorts where they worked show respect to the culture and perpetuate it in the right ways.

Joining Disney was the chance “to live the dream of helping build a resort that celebrates the Hawaiian culture,” Mills shares.

Mills says he was up to the task partially because he was born and raised in Laupahoehoe, a town of maybe 500, in North Hilo on the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast, to a teacher and a public servant. “It was the kind of place where hospitality is innate because everyone knows and depends on everyone else,” he shares.

“My parents and other family members and the community that I lived in were hugely influential in building my character and getting me to where I am today in my life and my career,” Mills says. “We put a lot of value on friends and family and helping each other out.”

His mother, Maxine Mills, came from a ranching family that lived on the slopes of Mauna Kea, but was an elementary school teacher for 47 years.

His father, George Mills, who was 75 percent Hawaiian and came from Honoka‘a, worked for the state Department of Health. His grandmother on his father’s side, Elaine Mills, was the daughter of Aunty Lei Collins, the curator at the Hulihe‘e Palace in Kailua-Kona.

The couple, who also had daughter Kristi, were Hawaiian homesteaders who worked a family farm with macadamia and papaya trees. Mills says his experiences toiling on the family farm made his first outside job working as a teenaged busboy at Hilo Naniloa Hotel seem easier.

Mills left home to attend the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. To make ends meet, he worked as a summer bartender at the Chart House in Kona and then later worked at the Moana Surfrider as a valet, busboy and later banquet servicer.

By the time he had joined Disney in 2010, Mills already had served as general manager of the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort and held executive resort management positions on Kaua‘i, Maui and O‘ahu.

Micah Kane, chairman of the Kamehameha Schools Board of Trustees, says Mills is definitely someone that Kamehameha Schools wants its kids to know more about—because he’s proof that the skills they are learning in Hawai‘i can take them anywhere. “He’s an Hawaiian success story,” Kane says.

As a member of the Kamehameha Schools board, Mills helps provide strategic direction and governance to help the institution carry out the will of Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Over time, Kamehameha Schools has evolved into the nation’s largest independent school system and the state’s largest private landowner.

Mills was named to a five-year term as a Kamehameha Schools trustee in 2017 after a court-appointed screening process that prompted controversy because he was the only one of three finalists with Hawaiian ancestry. Th e criticism subsided after Mills was chosen to replace former board member Janeen-Ann Olds.

Mills says he enjoys serving on the board, which provides him an opportunity to share his Hawaiian roots, which run deep. Mills adds he still has a cousin living in Waimea Valley sustaining his family by growing taro and selling poi.

“I understand that following core practices, having a strong work ethic and having respect for the land is important in any job, and I want to share that knowledge,” Mills says. “I don’t have any regrets about the way that I was raised or the career choices that I’ve made, but sometimes I regret that my kids didn’t get the opportunity to experience it.”

Mills says his old-fashioned values were honed by interactions with his family and small town community, where he graduated from St. Joseph’s High School. But they were cemented by the untimely death of his father, who died when he was just 18.

“My dad’s passing was rough and difficult to get through,” he says. “It taught me that time is a commodity—it’s the most important thing you have. Th e lesson learned is that life is short. Make the best of the time you have and do the right things. Don’t take anything for granted.”

Above all else, Mills says the trauma of this early loss taught him the importance of having close relationships with friends, family and co-workers.

“The time I spend with my wife Ruth and my children, 8-year-old Taylor and Connor, 5, is what drives me,” he says. “At work, I most enjoy being in the operation with people. We opened together and we’ve grown together and we have that sense of ‘ohana.”

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