Should Hawaii-bound families visit Disney’s Aulani resort in 2021?

Aug 23, 2021

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For better or for worse, Americans have been flocking in near-record numbers to Hawaii this summer. With many international destinations still closed or restricted to American tourists in ever-changing ways, Hawaii has fit the bill for travelers wanting a more far-flung vacation without all the hassle of crossing international borders during a global pandemic.

My husband, two kids and I were some of those Hawaii-bound tourists this summer. We spent a week on Oahu in late July and early August 2021 at Disney’s Aulani resort. This was our family’s fourth visit to Aulani since the Disney property opened nearly a decade ago, so we’ve experienced it in a variety of different phases and have seen its offerings change over time.

Related: I love Hawaii, but I’m not going back anytime soon — here’s why

To protect the health and safety of cast members and guests alike, Aulani is naturally operating quite a bit differently now than it did on our previous visits. If you are contemplating a trip to Aulani and trying to decide whether a vacation in the near term is worth it, here are the essential differences to keep in mind.

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Disney Aulani basics

(Photo by Leslie Harvey.)

Before we dive into the changes at Aulani, let’s start with what you need to know about the resort generally and how it operated in pre-COVID-19 times.

Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, is a standalone Disney resort property on the island of Oahu. The resort is part hotel and part Disney Vacation Club property (Disney’s take on the timeshare. Here’s how to save money by renting Disney Vacation Club points).

Unlike at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, there are no theme parks or rides at Aulani. It’s much more akin to a full-service family-friendly Hawaiian resort like the Grand Hyatt Kauai, with a few extra Disney touches. The resort is also often compared to a Disney cruise on land because so many activities and entertainment offerings are included (but not food). TPG’s full review of Aulani has even more detail on how the resort operated until its pandemic-induced closure in March 2020.

The resort reopened in November 2020, not long after the state of Hawaii reopened to tourism. The offerings upon reopening were originally quite limited, but many have slowly returned in the intervening months. That said, Aulani is not operating as freely as Walt Disney World and is still even a bit more restrictive than what’s happening at Disneyland.

Hawaii means business with its COVID-19 precautions

Masked up in the lobby at Aulani. (Photo by Leslie Harvey)

Before heading to Aulani, it’s vital to understand that the state of Hawaii is taking some of the strictest COVID-19 precautions anywhere in the United States. Hawaii is a geographically isolated place, so the islands are in real danger if the healthcare system is overrun. As a result, the state has maintained tight control on permitted business operations that affect hotels like Aulani. The regulations will ultimately dictate how you can go about your vacation.

Related: What it’s like traveling to Hawaii while vaccinated

Hawaii requires all visitors to comply with its Hawaii Safe Travels program. Guests who want to avoid a mandatory quarantine must present proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from a list of approved partner labs taken no more than 72 hours before departure from the mainland. It can still be tricky to navigate and confusing, particularly if you have kids too young to be vaccinated, as was the case with my 7-year-old.

Hawaii is also the only state in the country that did not drop its indoor mask mandate for any period of time this spring or summer. While masks are no longer required outdoors, Aulani guests are expected to wear masks in all indoor locations. Practically speaking, this means grabbing a mask if you want to run into the quick-service poolside restaurant, Ulu Cafe, to grab a soda or refill a popcorn bucket. Our family hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, where masking practices are similar to Hawaii, and even we found it a little awkward to manage masks poolside all of the time. Wind and water didn’t always make the logistics easy!

I was comforted to see that the vast majority of guests at Aulani ultimately respected the local rules in spite of the occasional inconvenience. Mask-wearing indoors was near-universal. Guests usually gave plenty of space to both cast members and fellow guests alike.

Aulani was operating with about 70% capacity during our stay, which gave everyone a little breathing room in the usual choke points, such as around the pools and waiting for elevators. Having been a guest when the resort was at 98% capacity on a holiday weekend before the pandemic, the crowds are certainly more manageable right now.

Some activities are limited, but a few changes are actually improvements

The resort’s water playground, Menehune Bridge. (Photo by Leslie Harvey)

While the minor mask mishaps barely rated in altering our vacation, we did notice more changes to the activity and entertainment offerings at Aulani.

Some of the daily activities offered at the Pau Hana room were not running or were modified. These are normally a great break from the pools and the sun, but indoor offerings are minimal. We lucked into the free ukulele lessons on the one week they returned to the resort this year. (Those are now shuttered again since Hawaii implemented additional restrictions last week to address rising COVID-19 cases in the state.)

There were also no parties dancing with characters by the pool and no group activities on the beach like the sandcastle contests our kids have loved on previous trips. The resort’s free sand toys for kids on the beach have even been suspended.

Since I have kids ages 7 and 12, what we missed most, though was the kids club. Affectionately called Aunty’s Beach House, the kids club has been a highlight of all of our previous trips. Like the Oceaneer Lab and Oceaneer Club aboard Disney Cruise Line, it’s a place kids beg to be dropped off because the staff and activities are so amazing. And parents oblige because that means the chance for a kid-free date night or spa appointment.

Disney Aulani Auntys Beach House
Aunty’s Beach House activities in pre-COVID-19 times. (Photo courtesy of Disney Aulani)

Aunty’s is normally included in the price of an Aulani stay. With the offering paused, that certainly changes the potential value of an Aulani vacation for families who would otherwise take advantage. Interestingly, when Disney Cruise Line recently began sailing some of its ships again, those ships have offered the onboard kids club. Hopefully, this bodes well for the eventual return of Aunty’s Beach House at Aulani.

But for all that was missing, there was still a ton to do. We spent most of our days by various pools and water features. The lazy river (Waikolohe Stream), waterslides (Volcanic Vertical and Tubestone Curl), toddler splash pad (Keiki Cove) and kids water playground (Menehune Bridge) were fully operational in addition to regular pools and hot tubs and entertained us for hours.

Rainbow Reef, the resort’s snorkeling lagoon filled with tropical fish and paddleboard rentals on the beach were open as well for an additional fee. Everyone in the family also really enjoyed the addition of a Make Your Own Mickey Ears craft project offered several times daily for a reasonable additional fee.

Duffy and Olu Mel (an Aulani exclusive) are a few of the distanced character meet-and-greets that were done well. (Photo by Leslie Harvey)

We also found that the resort’s modified character meet-and-greets turned out to be a major highlight. Now mostly on a side lawn away from the action of the central pool area, lines are short. Characters are often accompanied by Photopass photographers (you can purchase the photos for an additional fee) or even the occasional live musician. We saw every character in Aulani residence during our stay, including a few that are not available in the U.S. parks. For any Disney superfans, the character experiences are a definite upgrade.

We were pleasantly surprised to find the resort’s Laniwai Spa open along with Painted Sky next door. Painted Sky is Aulani’s version of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where children can get Hawaiian-style makeovers. With the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique still closed in both Florida and California, my 12-year-old felt she lucked out being able to make an appointment at Aulani before she ages out of the experience.

Final pixie dust being added to our daughter’s pre-luau Hawaiian makeover at Painted Sky. (Photo by Leslie Harvey.)

Expect limited and modified dining

Like the activities, the restaurant and dining offerings are also a bit different at the moment.

Most of the restaurants at Aulani are operating close to normal, with some capacity limitations as state regulations dictate. Almost all of Aulani’s restaurants have outdoor seating and much of the indoor areas are open air. We returned often to our favorite, the Olelo Room, a restaurant and bar featuring live Hawaiian music nightly. The variety of shared plates, tropical cocktails and sushi bar make this restaurant a standout.

With ‘AMA ‘AMA closed, we opted for a few walkable off-property restaurants to mix up our dining experiences. (Photo by Leslie Harvey)

Where the modifications in dining might be more noticeable is in the premium offerings. The resort’s signature restaurant, ‘AMA ‘AMA remains closed despite being in an open-air location. There is no projected date for reopening.

Both the character breakfast held at Makahiki restaurant and the resort’s evening luau are operating, but with changes. Most noticeably, both have ditched their buffet service for now. Normally the spread at both is pretty decadent, so the a la carte service that has replaced the buffets feels like less of a value. In addition, the character meal no longer has characters roaming near tables and has a reduced number of characters to see. As we had experienced both offerings before, we probably should have skipped them this trip.

Pre-breakfast photo opp with a few characters. (Photo courtesy of Disney Photopass)

Guests traveling to Aulani for the first time though will likely find value in them, even in this modified form. The luau is normally one of my most recommended splurges on an Aulani vacation, so I’d prioritize that if you are choosing only one of the two for budget purposes. The show itself is still just as fantastic (and drinks are still included). Bookings for character dining and the luau both fill up quickly, so make reservations as soon as possible.

Is Aulani worth it in 2021?

So with some offerings reduced and capacity limited, would I recommend Aulani in 2021? We certainly had a highly relaxing and much-needed vacation. It was a pleasant surprise that some of the changes even seemed to work in our favor, like the character meet-and-greets. The pandemic has most definitely changed what is “worth it” to many travelers, us included. No regrets! But my husband and I definitely cringed on occasion, recognizing that we were paying the full rack rate at Aulani for less. (Related: How to save money on an Aulani vacation.)

I would suspect that many travelers who never had been to Aulani, though and weren’t familiar with the pre-COVID-19 operations, would never have recognized that much of anything was amiss. There were still amazing pools, waterslides, activities, characters and dining opportunities. In fact, there was so much to do so that we opted not to leave the resort for a full week this trip. To be fair, some of the reason for our decision to stay put was the challenge and expense of rental cars in Hawaii. But we were a content captive audience, fully entertained the entire time.

(Photo by Leslie Harvey)

Bottom line

All that said, Aulani travelers should do careful research for trips in the coming months and keep up with local news. Everything in Hawaii is a moving target at the moment. Many travelers are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with whether travel to Hawaii in the near term is advisable at all. Since our visit, Hawaii’s governor has already tightened up rules again in response to surging COVID-19 cases in the state. More changes could always be coming, whether to Hawaii Safe Travel requirements for entry into the state or to the offerings a resort like Aulani can operate.

If you are able to travel to Aulani safely and responsibly, it still has much of the Disney magic and Hawaiian aloha spirit to offer, even with restrictions in place.

Featured photo by Leslie Harvey.

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