by Suzanne G.
Review: Waikiki’s Rock a Hula Show & Luau Buffet
Rock a Hula is an upscale luau buffet and musical extravaganza that is located in the heart of Waikiki. It is the area’s biggest show and one of its longest-running as well. It features live music, dancing, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson tribute artists, and a fire-knife dancing performance. I know it sounds cheesy, but it must be popular for a reason, right? Curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to give it a try.
And it turns out what I thought was going to be a tacky and terrible experience was actually a very enjoyable night.
Rock a Hula was incredibly easy to get to. It is located in the Royal Hawaiian Center, which is on Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s main drag. It is right in the center of Waikiki’s bustling shopping and restaurant district. The area is pedestrian-friendly, safe, and walkable from most Waikiki resorts. The Royal Hawaiian was a short walk from where I was staying, but there is a parking garage on-site for those who wish to drive. I’m told they will validate your parking at the box office too.
The luau itself was also quite easy to find. Building B, 4th floor, and the box office is the first thing you see when you emerge from the escalator or elevator.
I was skeptical about going to a luau in a shopping center, but the setting turned out to be breezy and pleasant. The Royal Hawaiian is upscale and open-air and filled with tropical plants and chic furnishings. It felt more like a tropical resort than a mall. Plus, Rock-a-hula has its own private floor above the retail floors, so it was easy to forget where I was.2
The dining area was open-air but covered by a thatched tiki-style canopy. I enjoyed eating outdoors but protected from the wind and any passing showers. Many luaus on Oahu are uncovered and held “rain or shine” – which means come prepared to eat in the rain if necessary. But Rock a hula is one of the few events on Oahu that is weatherproof and cancel-proof. It’s an especially good option if you are traveling during the wetter winter months.
The Luau Buffet
The dining area was comfy and upscale, with cloth napkins and real plates and silverware. (Unlike the disposable dinnerware and picnic feel that you find at a typical luau). A waiter brought me a giant welcome Mai Tai shortly after I sat down. Meanwhile, a ukulele player serenaded us as we snacked on the fresh-cut pineapple at the table and waited for dinner to begin.
The buffet itself was a refreshing change too. Well organized and beautifully presented, the food looked and tasted incredible. There were two carving stations, one for a whole roasted suckling pig and one for prime rib. Chicken, fish, and vegetarian entrees were also available, and there were many delicious sides and salads to choose from as well.
After a short pause for hula dancing and some silly fun with the staff, they wheeled out the dessert buffet. At most luaus, dessert is underwhelming. Usually, only a few tiny squares on a paper plate are all you’re going to get. Rock a Hula, however, pulled out all the stops. There were overflowing fresh fruit trays, Haupia (Hawaiian coconut pudding), chocolate cake, and a make-your-own-ice-cream-sundae station with toppings galore. And of course, there was a coffee and tea station ready to accompany dessert, too.
Overall, I found this luau buffet to be far superior in taste, selection, and presentation than other luau buffets. For example, the Kalua pork that you find at every luau looks and tastes like pulled pork that you could find anywhere. It’s delicious, yes, but not extraordinary. But Rock a Hula served cubes of whole roasted suckling pig that was so succulent, I’m still thinking about it months later! It was a great meal, and I left wishing I had more room to try everything. The entertainment during the meal was lively and wonderful as well, and the atmosphere was warm and fun.
The Rock a Hula Show
After dinner guests move into the Royal Theatre for the Rock a Hula show. The theater entrance is a few steps away from the dining area, so it takes no time at all. With comfy mezzanine-style seating, almost everyone in the theater gets a good view. The theater is modern with Las Vegas-caliber lighting and sound. It can seat about 750 people, but it was less than a third full on the night I was there.
The show is a musical review of Hawaii’s history starting in the 1920s to the present day. The show is led by a local singer, accompanied by a full band and a troupe of young dancers. The cast performs songs from each period while a montage of old headlines and vintage photos plays in the background. Oddly, the timeline omits any mention of Pearl Harbor or Hawaii’s overthrow, annexation, or bumpy road to statehood. I assume that is a creative decision to keep the tone light.
As we enter the 1960s, an Elvis Pressley tribute artist appears onstage. He is accompanied by footage of Elvis movies filmed in Hawaii and old concert footage from his performances in Honolulu. The tribute artist is very talented and charismatic, and the crowd really gets into his act. Especially at the end of his set when he wanders into the crowd to give his “fans” his silk scarves.
Later, as we near the 1980s, a Michael Jackson tribute artist shows up. This performer is also very talented and looks, moves, and sounds like MJ. He sings all the Michael Jackson favorites and moonwalks across the stage to loud cheers. Unfortunately, Michael Jackson doesn’t have many ties to Hawaii, except for a concert he performed in the 80s. As a result, the narrative that has been holding the show together crumbles at this point. It is all still very entertaining, just a bit messy.
Finally, the show catches up with the present day. The cast sings some songs from Disney’s Moana and an original number or two. The show loses some momentum until they bring out the fire-knife dancers who both steal and redeem the show. It is a thrilling performance, which is then followed by an all-cast finale, followed by a well-deserved standing ovation. There was a meet-and-greet with the cast after the show as we exited the theater.
I was sure that Rock a Hula would be a cheesy tourist trap, and it is in some ways, but it was also very entertaining and had a lot of heart. I had an excellent meal and some silly fun and watched a great show. Rock a Hula doesn’t take itself too seriously nor do the people who attend it. It is all about having a good time, and I did. It’s not a luau, and I would never recommend it as a substitute for one, they are very different experiences. This is definitely not the best option to observe or learn about Hawaiian culture either. That said, live entertainment is always the best way to get to know a city. I would still recommend it to anyone visiting Waikiki who is looking for a great meal and a fun night out on the town.
What I loved about Rock a Hula:
The location is so easy to get to and find. The luau buffet was delicious, one of the best meals I’ve had in Waikiki. The atmosphere was fun, light, and lively. The staff was so friendly and warm. The show was interesting and entertaining with great music, plus it is always fun to witness emerging talent on the rise. The fire-knife performance was incredible.
What I didn’t love about Rock a Hula:
The show fell apart thematically during the Michael Jackson act. They omit the most significant parts of Hawaii’s history and the show feels culturally appropriative at times. Overall, a fun show, but feels like it needs a refresh.