Heard of Disney’s Hawaiian hotel, but not quite sure what it is or whether it's worth the extra trek? Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, is Disney’s first resort outside the continental United States not associated with a theme park. Aulani Resort opened in 2011 on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, and is a perfect spot for family vacations. Authenticity is key – so for those looking to immerse themselves in the cultures and traditions of the Hawaiian Islands, Aulani is the place. For families that appreciate Disney’s level of service, storytelling, and characters – Aulani is the place to be. The staff at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, like to describe the property as uniquely Hawaiian and Disney with a “Big H and Little D.”
The resort is located on 21 oceanfront acres on the western side of O’ahu. There is a pristine, private, uncrowded beach, shared with the neighboring Four Seasons Resort. Families will find plenty of beach chairs and umbrellas around the protected lagoon, and a paved trail to stroll out to a point along the ocean. Need a break from the surf and sand? The resort towers surround a fantastic waterpark with lazy river, water slides and splash grounds, all included for Aulani guests.
Family-friendly dining abounds at Aulani – including cooking family-style meals of your own in the full size kitchen of one of the Disney Vacation Club Villas or room service from 6:00am to 11:00pm. In addition, there are multiple onsite dining locations at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa.
The buffet-style Makahiki restaurant celebrates the Hawaiian harvest festival season serving breakfast and dinner as well as character meals on select days. Our “Menehune Mischief” character dinner featured fresh, high-quality food including poke, crab, mussels, prime rib, pastas, salads and a bevy of desserts. Donald Duck, Pluto, Chip and Dale circulated around the room as Aulani Resort’s “Uncle” told tales of the Menehune – mystical, mischievous little people of the islands. The character meal atmosphere was not nearly as raucous as we’ve experienced at the mainland Disney theme parks, and it was quite an enjoyable evening.
For a fine-dining experience, head to ‘AMA’AMA, the beachside restaurant with reflecting pond and indoor and outdoor seating. ‘AMA’AMA is open for breakfast (known for their cereal-crusted French toast), lunch and dinner (reservations are recommended for dinner). Named for the local mullet fish, ‘AMA’AMA specializes in fresh seafood and steaks. Our daughters joined us to celebrate our wedding anniversary during dinner where we listened to live Hawaiian music and watched the sunset behind the lagoon.
In addition to the Makahiki buffet and ‘AMA’AMA, families can dine at the Ulu Café or Off the Hook, poolside venues that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner on the outdoor patio with ocean views. There are also a variety of quick-service stands throughout the waterpark area serving everything from chicken fingers to coconut shrimp, and tasty treats like traditional Hawaiian Shave Ice and the Disney cult-classic Dole Whips.
For a splurge, make a reservation for the Ka Wa’a Luau, held select nights at Aulani. The dinner show includes buffet of traditional Hawaiian staples such as poi, teriyaki chicken and a whole roasted suckling pig. Following the dinner is a show that celebrates the stories and dances of Hawaii and O’ahu’s fertile plains that surround the resort, as well as legends and folktales of the demigod Maui (to the delight of the kids – “you’re welcome”).
Many of the activities at Aulani Resort are similar to traditional beach vacations focused on sun, sand and water. Disney provides complimentary lounge chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards, sand toys and life jackets at the equipment cabana. In addition to the beach is the Waikolohe Valley pool area – this water park contains a large, zero-entry pool, water slides and a lazy river (with tubes) that winds its way through the Hawaiian landscaping. Kids will also enjoy the Menehune Bridge with a water play structure, splash ground and slides. There are also dedicated pool areas for the smallest guests (ages 5 and under) as well as quieter adult-exclusive pools, an infinity pool and whirlpool spas. In addition, Rainbow Reef is a saltwater lagoon where guests can snorkel (for an additional fee) with native fish that are acclimated to humans.
Children (ages 3 to 12) can also visit Aunty’s Beach House, the interactive kids club with a variety of complimentary activities open from 8:00am to 9:00pm daily. Each day Aunty’s Beach House offers a different theme where kids can channel their inner superhero, explore the galaxy, celebrate the islands of Hawaii and so much more with games, activities and arts and crafts that change with each day’s special theme.
Another spot for activities is the Pau Hana Room Community Hall where families and friends can connect over video games, board games, crafts, books and Disney family movies. In addition, the Pau Hana Room offers ukulele lessons, supplies to make flower leis and t-shirt stamping.
Similar to cruise ships, a daily activity schedule for Aulani is available listing everything there is to do. Guests can pick up the Daily ‘Iwa throughout Aulani Resort, and plan their day from sunrise yoga, art & culture tours of the resort, hula lessons for all ages, pool parties, fitness challenges, and storytelling by the fire pit. Multiple times throughout the day and evening, guests can gather around a fire to hear traditional Hawaiian legends and tales told by a master storyteller. The Mo‘olelo Fire Pit Storytelling is a great way to learn more about the culture of the area, and each day you will hear a different story.
For families looking for some extra pampering, head to the Laniwai Spa and Kula Wai hydrotherapy garden. The indoor and outdoor spa offers a number of traditional massages, facials and treatments. A spa designed with families in mind, teens can utilize Painted Sky – the only teen spa in Hawaii, and there is a special ‘Ohana Means Family massage experience designed for three to six family members (ages 5 and up) that utilizes the healing touches of lomilomi sticks.
Finally, there are multiple things to do off Aulani Resort property as well. O’ahu is a world-class tourist destination families have visited for generations. If you have a car available, you can easily visit Pearl Harbor and learn about America’s entrance into World War II. World-famous Waikiki Beach is located an hour east of Aulani as well as Diamond Head State Monument – the cone and crater of an extinct volcano. On the opposite side of O’ahu is Kualoa Ranch, filming location for “Jurassic Park” and “Jurassic World” movies, “Lost,” and numerous other TV and film productions. O’ahu’s North Shore is a mecca for surfing aficionados. Aulani Resort Excursions offers organized tours of these sites as well as whale and dolphin watching cruises and sailing canoe experiences. Or, rent a vehicle and easily explore the destinations on your own pace and schedule.
Guest rooms are spacious, comfortable, beautifully-themed and well-appointed. Rooms feature Hawaiian details such as the taro root, sailing canoe and traditional woods connected with butterfly joints. Our family stayed on the Disney Vacation Club side of the resort, and had a 1-bedroom villa with a full-size kitchen, dining area, living room with sleeper couch and chair, master bedroom with king-size bed, and 1.5 bathrooms. It was plenty of space for our family of four, and we stopped at a grocery store on the way to the resort to stock the kitchen with necessary supplies for breakfasts.
There are Disney touches throughout Aulani Resort. Of course, you will find Disney character meet-and-greets everyday, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, Goofy, Pluto, Chip and Dale, Stitch and Moana. There’s a pool party where Disney characters dance while the entertainment staff lead kids in games loosely themed around Hawaiian surf culture. Families can dine with Disney characters during breakfast or dinner. We even had an impromptu Mickey Mouse visit in the activity room where he made flower leis with us. Other Disney aspects are more subtle such as the Hawaiian versions of Disney songs that played in the elevator, or the “Hidden Mickey” patterns on the wallpaper and fabrics. However, the Hawaiian influences at Aulani far outweigh the Disney aspect – even the characters are there for a Hawaiian vacation (and dressed in themed beachwear).
Although a visit to Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa is not inexpensive, you get a lot for your money at this high-end, luxury resort vacation. Your nightly hotel rate includes the kids club, family activities, nighttime entertainment, pools, beach activities and more. The resort itself has one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary Hawaiian art with daily walking tours provided. As the recipient of multiple “Best Resort” awards from many different publications, Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, is an ideal home base for your O’ahu vacation. Families looking for a quintessential Hawaiian beach vacation will find it at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa.
By Dave Parfitt