A Magical Mother-Daughter Getaway to Disney's Aulani in Hawaii

As my thirteen year old daughter grows older and more connected to her phone, friends and the world around her, I find myself searching for ways to strengthen our bond. Sappy as it might be, I already teary thinking that in just five years she’ll be an adult and heading off to college. Travel has always been a great way for us to spend quality time together. Although we’ve taken plenty of trips with just the two, of us I thought that this time it might be fun if we made it a girls trip. I asked my friend Robin if she and her daughter would consider a girls getaway with us. She jumped at the idea and before we knew it we were planning the ultimate mother-daughter getaway to Hawaii.

We booked a direct 10-hour flight from the East Coast via United Airlines into Honolulu on the island of Oahu. The trip was seamless and we even ended up getting a row to ourselves. If it’s available in your area, I would strongly recommend opting for this option over a connecting flight. Even if it's slightly pricier, it's worth the ease and reduced travel stress.

We chose Disney’s Aulani Resort and Spa which is located in Ko Olina on the southwest part of the island of Oahu and a short 25-minute car ride from the Honolulu airport. My family has always loved Disney vacations, mostly due to their attention to detail, level of service and commitment to their guests. I was curious to see how a property away from the parks would capture the same Disney magic. 

Learn Together About Hawaii

We could see right away that Hawaii is the main character in this Disney experience. The moment we arrived at Aulani we were given gardenia leis, citrus-infused water and welcomed into the Maka’ala lobby, which is designed to resemble the inside of a canoe house. The lobby is filled with wood carvings and Hawaiian murals painted by local artists. Disney went to great lengths to celebrate the Hawaiian culture and even worked with a group of Hawaiian cultural advisors to help the imagineers convey the local stories of the area.

There are opportunities to learn about Hawaii in every inch of this place, so exploring the property became a big part of our trip with the girls. Just walking around the hotel there's plenty of local contemporary Hawaiian art to admire (Disney is surprisingly the largest purveyor). We also learned Aulani was gifted its name by a local cultural committee and that it means "guardian of the chief."

We loved  searching high and low for the “secret” surprise moments that Disney is known for creating. We had a friendly competition of who could discover the most “menehunes,” which are small mythological creatures who work at night. There are over 300 of the statues hidden throughout  the resort in the elevators, high on a ledges and even tucked away in the foliage. There’s also a more high-tech option available at the activities center where you can search for them all digitally.

There are also two free guided tours of the resort offered that focus on the art and culture that I highly recommend.

Rooms are Big So We Each Had Our Own Space

With gorgeous ocean views and extra comfy beds, it was honestly hard to leave the room sometimes. We opted for a one bedroom villa since we really needed the extra space to make room for all those straightening irons, flip flops and clothes that teenage girls (ok, and their moms!) tend to bring along on a trip. We loved that the room had a kitchenette — one night we even made chocolate chip cookies bought from the convenience store in the lobby.

The greatest highlight of having a villa at Aulani was the in-room washer and dryer. My friend Robin gave me a great tip to wash everything in our suitcases before packing so when we returned home all we had to do when unpacking is  put everything right into our drawers.

The rooms are decorated with native Hawaiian materials like natural woods and feature exotic patterns with hidden Mickeys throughout. They offer standard hotel rooms, suites and one- and two-bedroom villas. If you're planning to come with a whole crew in tow, there is even a three-bedroom villa that sleeps 12. This property is also part of Disney Vacation Club, which is a flexible ownership program that gives its members a lot of perks including priority early bookings for rooms.

There Were Plenty of Food Options to Please All of Us

The first thing we did after arriving in our rooms was head down to the Waikolohe Valley pool area to the Ulu Cafe and buy reusable mugs for $18.99 each. The handy mugs are a nice way to be more environmentally friendly and can be re-filled endlessly with soft drinks and coffee at various spots throughout the resort. 

We then had lunch poolside at Off the Hook which is one of nine different restaurants on the property. It was quick and we loved the mahi mahi tacos and to-die-for onion rings. Robin's daughter is a bit of a picky eater, but it wasn’t an issue since Aulani has the ultimate children’s menu with chicken nuggets, hamburgers and hot dogs in addition to more upscale options. My daughter’s all-time favorite treat at Aulani was the traditional Hawaiian shaved ice in the shape of Mickey ears flavored with fruit syrups and sweetened condensed milk at Papalua Shave Ice.

The different eating options range from salads and wraps at Little ‘Opihi’s beach kiosk to frozen Dole whip and poke bowls at the counter service at Ulu cafe to delicious avocado toast and steak at the fancy upscale restaurant, ‘Ama ‘Ama overlooking  Ko’Olina Beach. On our third day we went to a character breakfast buffet in the Makahiki room where we had our picture taken at a meet and greet with Mickey. Pluto, Minnie and others stopped by all the tables interacting with the guests and taking pictures. The girls loved Pluto, who was super silly with them.

The Pool Offered Relaxing Fun

We spent most of our time in the the Waikolohe Valley which is the pool area in the middle of the resort. There are enough hot tubs and pools that it doesn’t ever feel overcrowded. You can also feel at ease even if your kids are young as there are numerous amounts of lifeguards on duty roaming the pool area. There's also an adults pool if you need some time for yourself and two adult infinity hot tubs. The adult pool is also conveniently near the bar and Aulani certainly knows how to make a Mai Tai. The girls loved the two slides and floating along the lazy river.

A unique highlight of Aulani is the man-made saltwater snorkeling lagoon, The Rainbow Reef.  My daughter is enthralled by all kinds of marine life and it was fun snorkeling with her and having her point out so many of the tropical fish — there's over 1,000 varieties in the water! 

We Bonded Over the Numerous Activities

We started most of our mornings by waking up early to hike along a 2.5-mile walking path up the coast from the resort. The morning hours allow for quiet moments to talk to each other about anything that's on our mind. On one of the walks my daughter was looking at the sunrise and actually said, "I'm so lucky to be here. Thanks you so much, Mom." The parental dream!

After our walks, we then scanned our daily itinerary to pick out our daily activities. Our favorite was getting our butts kicked at the beachside boot camp class. It's actually the first time I've ever taken an exercise class with my daughter and I loved watching her blow right past me and master burpees in the sand.  

Most of our afternoons were spent laying by the beach and taking advantage of the water activities. My daughter and her friend fell over laughing watching me trying to balance on a paddle board. The resort also offers boogie boarding, kayaking and snorkeling in the lagoon. 

For parents with younger kids, there’s Aunt Annie’s Beach Club which is a certified child care center and kid’s club with loads of activities to keep the little ones busy. The hotel also offers in-room babysitting.

The spa is an absolute must when you go to Aulani as they offer treatments for adults as well as the whole family. I had a heavenly massage and arrived  an hour before my appointment to enjoy some extra relaxation in the hydrotherapy garden with six different rain showers, hot mineral tubs and resting lounges. Our girls got the full treatment at the new Painted Sky Style Studio adjacent to the spa. It's the perfect oasis for kids to get their very own island makeover. This is similar to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique Salons seen on Disney cruise ships and at the parks, but with an island twist. The girls were able to choose their own makeup look, hairstyle and a beautiful dress.

We were tempted to never leave the resort, but knew we should venture out and explore the island. You can book all kinds of excursions with the concierge desk from adventurous helicopter tours and zipline experiences to dolphin encounters. We chose to rent a car from the onsite car rental. The girls flipped out when the attendant pulled up in a very Instagrammable bright blue Jeep. We followed an island map and drove about 30 minutes to the North Shore where we explored some of  the most beautiful public beaches, ate at a delicious food truck, toured the Dole plantation and then headed down to Honolulu. We were also able to make an important and sobering historical stop so the girls could learn first hand about Pearl Harbor. 

The Entertainment Brings Culture

It's always a good thing when we can teach our children to appreciate the beauty of other cultures. One of the highlights of our trip was watching the award-winning Ka Wa’a Luau, which tells the story of two siblings and comes with all the fire throwing and hula dancing you could ever hope for. We had the VIP tickets which gave us early access to experience the cultural activities offered before the show. The girls were first in line for getting temporary Hawaiian tattoos and enjoyed making flower leis, creating Hawaiian art and taking part in an interactive demonstration where the girls learned how to pound arrowroot to make poi, which is native to Hawaii. The show came with a delicious dinner buffet of salads, grilled fish and, of course, a full roasted pig on a spit.

One thing I know for sure is that the Disney magic is alive and well far beyond the typical parks. They perfectly combined the beauty of Hawaii with the quintessential Disney experience and helped me create moments with my daughter that I will treasure forever.

By Carey Reilly