Rivers Deep, Mountain HighBy: Allison Schaefers
Aulani’s Vice President at his Peak
Photography By Nathalie Walker
It’s hard to imagine what’s next for Djuan Rivers, Disney’s top guy in Hawai’i.
At 45, he’s already climbed the highest mountains in Africa, South America, Europe and Australia. Several years ago, he became one of the first African-Americans to participate in a HALO skydive, free-falling over Mount Everest before opening his parachute at low altitude.
Rivers also has ascended to career peaks that few have ever seen. However, if you ask this vice president of the Disney Vacation Club and Resort in Hawai’i what’s next, he’s not at a loss for words or actions.
“Carpe Diem. Seize the day, seize the moment. That’s how I like to live my life,” says Rivers, who is training for a January climb to Antarctica’s highest mountain, the Vinson Massif. (He plans to climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain in Asia, as well as Denali, North America’s highest peak. Rivers’ climb up these mountains would make him one of only a few hundred people in the world to have climbed all “Seven Summits,” the highest mountains on each continent.)
Readying for the Aug. 29 opening of Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawai’i, the resort is not only Disney’s debut into Hawai’i but the company’s first hybrid hotel and Disney Vacation Club built outside one of its theme parks.
Given Rivers’ career success and penchant for extreme sports, I half expected to hear “It’s Rivers. Djuan Rivers,” a la James Bond’s signature greeting.
Yet, Rivers has a lot of natural charm. And while I’m only slightly disappointed that the interview is in one of Aulani’s soon-to-be- revealed Hawaiian-style suites instead of from, say, the inside of a helicopter prior to a sky-dive, he regales me with plenty of adventure- laden stories. Like the time a 6-foot-7 ex-con mistakenly identified Djuan as his identical twin brother, Dwain, (an undercover narcotics agent, sniper and an internal affairs officer in Orlando), lifting him off the ground while shopping at Home Depot.
“Living in the same city, it created some interesting random encounters,” Rivers says.
“Djuan has the energy of a constant super nova,” says Solange Dao, who became his friend in 2001 after meeting him at a two- month Leadership Orlando course. “Life simply energizes him.”
Rivers says each new day excites him. He doesn’t keep a bucket list because he doesn’t want to wait that long to fulfill his dreams.
“The key is not to psyche yourself out,” Rivers says. “Life has taught me that if you get out there and try it, the worst thing that can happen is that you learn everything that you can from that moment. On the other hand, you could far exceed your expectations.”
Samir Vakil, who has known Rivers since high school, says that his longtime friend has always reached for the stars and encouraged others to dream big, too.
“He’s always telling my kids, ‘Give 5 percent more,’” Vakil says. “And that’s what he does in his own life. He’s always pushing himself. His drive is legendary.”
Vakil adds, “He doesn’t even like cold weather, but he’s climbed to some of the world’s highest peaks. If Djuan sets his mind to it, he’s going to do it.”
Taking on responsibility for Aulani is another example of Rivers’ love of new opportunities.
“He’d never built a hotel before,” Vakil says. “But he went in and learned what he needed and put the right team together and, in doing so, leveled the playing field.”
Rivers and his siblings were raised with a passion for excellence- and for Disney. His father, Johnny Rivers, became Disney’s first corporate chef in 1988 and now owns more than 32 companies, including restaurants and franchises. He’s been featured in Time magazine and on Oprah.
“My dad is my role model. He was passionate about everything,” Rivers says. “He never made excuses and he never let us make any either.”
Despite his dad’s connections with Disney, Rivers says he got his start at the bottom of the company working as a teenager in a confectionary shop on Main Street.
“I know what it’s like to park strollers in 98 degree weather and stock ‘plush,’ Disney’s name for stuffed animals,” he says.
After those humble beginnings at Disney, Rivers says he sees a little of himself in every employee that he meets.
“I tell them, ‘Any one of you all could be standing in my spot. I know that it’s highly, highly possible that someone will.”
That may be true, but they are going to have to go the distance to get there.