Where Disney and Hawaii Intersect: Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa
I adore Disney World, Disneyland and most things Disney. I also love visiting Hawaii -- even more than I love Disney. (Don't tell Mickey!) So it seemed like a total slam-dunk that I would love a Disney resort in Hawaii where two of my favorites came together.
Except I didn't. At least not at first. In fact, within 10 minutes of arriving at Disney's Aulani resort on Oahu, I thought I had made a terrible error when deciding where to end our multiweek trip to the Hawaiian Islands.
But by the end of the trip I had a very different opinion, though it took some serious mental readjusting to get to the place of enjoying Disney's version of Hawaii (officially known as Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawai‘i) for what it was.
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I've wanted to go to Aulani (pronounced ow-LAH-nee) since it opened in 2011. I mean, if your family loves Disney and Hawaii, how could this not be like Oreos and vanilla ice cream coming together to make cookies and cream? Well, more on how the mixture can go astray soon, but the reason I hadn't booked earlier was largely that Aulani can be very expensive and I like to travel using hotel points.
However, we have learned some ways to knock meaningful amounts of money off the cost of the trip, including by renting Disney Vacation Club points from David’s Vacation Club Rentals. Sadly, for our fixed mid-June dates, we couldn't get Disney Vacation Club availability to line up, so we went to Plan B, earning a bunch of rewards on the stay.
Rent Disney Vacation Club points from David’s Vacation Club Rentals to save up to 50% on Aulani.
Our stay was the most expensive one of our trip to Hawaii, at about $600 per night. We booked the three-night stay using our Capital One Venture Rewards credit card via Hotels.com to earn 10 miles per dollar on the Venture card (offer ends Jan. 31, 2020), but also three nights of credit toward a free night after 10 nights booked via Hotels.com. Based on TPG's valuations, that was a total of around 24% back in rewards, which is very good.
Disney's Aulani is on the western side of the Hawaiian Island of Oahu in Ko Olina. It's about 17 miles from Honolulu International Airport (HNL), which can easily be a 30-to-40-minute drive, depending on traffic. If you decide to take a taxi from HNL to Aulani, I highly recommend using Charlie's Taxis, as they offer a flat rate of $55 each way. A regular old taxi will almost certainly cost more. There's generally no need to set this up in advance when leaving Aulani, as they have a stand in front of the hotel, but you can make advance reservations for pickups from HNL online.
Since, for most of us, a trip to Aulani requires flights, here are tips for the best ways to use points and miles to get to Hawaii, including my favorite way when I'm feeling fancy: spending 40,000 Hawaiian Airlines miles to fly in lie-flat seats.
I was beyond thrilled pulling up to the impressive towers of Aulani, but check-in was where things started to get ... interesting, or more accurately, overwhelming. We arrived around 4pm on a Saturday, and the lobby was buzzing with activity. Families were arriving for their stays, people were heading to the luau, people were coming back from the pool. people. were. everywhere.
Now, at Disney World or Disneyland, I would have 100% been mentally prepared for that human rush hour, but coming off several weeks in Hawaii exploring places like the Big Island, where most things are spread out, we were shell-shocked at the concentration of humanity in one small area.
Thankfully, like at most Disney resort hotels, there was a cartoon room just off the lobby where I could park the girls and bags while waiting in line to check in, as they were just as overwhelmed as I was.
The actual process of checking in was uneventful, and we were given the room we booked with no upgrades offered or requested. They did apologize that we weren't given leis and necklaces upon arrival (it was a zoo, there was no way that would have happened for 100% of arriving guests), so these welcome goodies were given at the check-in desk.
Aulani has 351 hotel rooms, including 16 suites, as well as 481 two-bedroom Disney Vacation Club villas and 21 Grand Villas. Basically, there's a bunch of rooms in a couple towers. We were in one of the standard hotel rooms with two queen beds.
A general rule of thumb at Disney: Even if the rooms are expensive, don't expect to them to be the star of your vacation. The room at Aulani was completely adequate, but it was as the name described, standard. Your $600 per night isn't going to over-the-top room accommodations with butlers and soaking tubs, it's going to the on-site activities, so adjust your room expectations accordingly.
The two queen beds were comfortable, and housekeeping was prompt each day. I would have appreciated additional outlets by the bed, but I'll take that trade-off for the very cool air-conditioning that worked better than at most of the hotels we visited in Hawaii.
There was a TV, and you could rent free DVDs from a community room to watch on the DVD player, which we did -- the Disney selection was, not surprisingly, outstanding.
Next to the TV area was a small table with two chairs, which was functional on the one morning we ordered room service.
My favorite part of the decor in the room was likely the Hawaiian-themed Mickey lamp on the table. Generally speaking, Mickey was an understated element at Aulani.
Also the room had a minifridge and balcony.
The bathroom featured a single vanity, which probably would have been better as a double, given this was a room for families.
Having a shower-tub combo, though, was the right call for a room with two queen beds. I was surprised to find different bath amenities at Aulani than at the Disney Resorts at Disney World and Disneyland. Instead of the usual greenish-blue Disney H2O line, there was an Aulani special version of the line, which was a neat touch.
There was a lot to do.
Here's where Aulani really got both great and overwhelming all at the same time. Given the prices and the plethora of amenities, when you stay at Aulani, you are probably literally staying at Aulani. This isn't a hotel you come to use as a headquarters to plan trips out of while you enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer. You stay here and largely you play here, which makes for a unique environment. I honestly felt like I was no longer on Hawaii and was back on a Disney cruise, just without the cruising part.
There was a printed daily hotel activity sheet available each evening for the next day's lineup (not all that different than on a cruise). There was also an internal number you could call from the hotel's house phones beginning each day around 8am to find out where the various characters, such as Stitch and Moana, could be found throughout the day.
Basically, this was the thing about Aulani. You needed to go into the trip with a Disney mentality, not a true Hawaiian mentality. To make the most of what the resort had to offer, you needed a daily plan to get into the activities you wanted, avoid the pool when it was at its busiest, find the characters you cared about, get meal reservations and so on. This was a real shock to our system, and it took about 24 hours to kick my mind into Disney mode and get with the Aulani program.
All that said, there was a massive (7-acre) pool complex that went way beyond pools. The Waikolohe Stream was 900 feet long and included a traditional lazy river as well as two tubing slides that did not have height restrictions. One you could do in single or double tubes, and the other was a body slide. I loved being able to do this waterslide with my 3-year-old while my 9-year-old did countless laps with friends she made at Aunty's Beach Club. And, yes, there were lifeguards everywhere.
There was also Menehune Bridge, with waterslides, splash features and more. This closed relatively early in the evening, so we were never out in the pool area in time to play on it.
Next up were three pools and a private snorkeling lagoon with beautiful fish, Rainbow Reef, which cost $20 to $25 for one-day access.
There were adult pools, zero-entry pools, infinity pools, hot tubs and plenty of water activities to keep your group busy. We vastly preferred heading to the pools around 5pm, when most people were leaving for the day. The slides and lazy river were open until 8pm during our stay, and the main pool stayed open until 10pm.
Chairs were hot commodities, and you needed a colored wristband each day that you got at the towel hut. Cabanas were pricey, at $450 per day.
Of course, there was also a beach that was home to epic sunsets and calm water, thanks to breaks just outside the lagoon.
Outside of the water activities, there were included animation classes, evening outdoor movies, sunrise yoga, photography classes, cultural and nature tours, crafts, lei making and much more. Some of these activities required that you sign up each morning starting at 8am, but others were come-and-go events. Animation classes, for example, were very popular, so we lined up at 8am to sign up.
I didn't have time or the budget on this trip to splurge on treatments at the Laniwai Spa, but it looked and smelled fantastic. There were 15 treatment rooms, including a family treatment room that sounded really cool for those looking to relax together. There was even a teen portion of the spa and a hydrotherapy garden.
I've been holding out on you a little, because the best included amenity at Disney's Aulani for families was probably Aunty's Beach House, Disney's version of an included kids club for potty-trained children ages 3 to 12. A full day of the kids club at comparable resorts is probably $100, so if you use this service at Aulani, the room rates starts to look a little better in a hurry.
This was not just a place you safely warehoused your kids for a couple hours while you enjoyed the spa but a place that your kids would probably beg you to go. Getting them in the door may or may not be easy depending on your kids, but go during the open family playtime, when adults are allowed from 8am to 9:30am, and the odds are high that you'll have to peel them away.
My 9-year-old was aging out of most kid clubs and finds them boring, but just like on the Disney Cruise Line, even discerning tweens like her could dig this kids club.
Food and Beverage
There were multiple dining options at Disney's Aulani, ranging from the Mickey-shaped shave ice to almost fine dining at ‘AMA‘AMA.
In the middle of all that was the buffet-style Makahiki, which offered a traditional Disney character breakfast that started with pics with Mickey (in Hawaiian garb) and went on to include a variety of buffet breakfast items and visiting characters.
At night some nights there was a character show at Makahiki, and other nights there was just the normal buffet. The evening buffet had impressive foods such as sushi and crab, but while it was totally adequate, I'm not sure it was truly worth the $50 per adult and $23 per child.
Honestly, it seemed a little messy for Disney, though we did enjoy some of the selections.
I mean, all-you-can-eat dessert is a surefire winner with the kids.
However, I grade on a curve when Disney characters are involved, as my youngest loves them, so I actually felt better about the character breakfast, at $21 for kids and $41 for adults, than I did about the dinner.
If you want to eat at either of these full-service restaurants, you need to make online reservations well in advance of your trip. There's no fee to make a reservation, so do it even if you aren't 100% sure.
The food and service at the open-air 'AMA'AMA was very nice for Disney but pricey with entrees around $35 to $50 each. Even kid meals were $15 each, so if you want to save this one for a kid-free meal, this restaurant is right next to Aunty's Beach House.
For a meal that doesn't top $100 for two people, head to Ulu Cafe, which is where we ate most of our meals. This quick-service and grab-and-go had an assortment of pastries, muffins, drinks and packaged goods in addition to a few hot items at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
At lunch, there was a build-your-own poke bowl that was pretty solid.
From 5:30pm to 8pm, you could order a pizza for $20 to $25, probably the cheapest family dinner on the property. You could purchase a refillable mug to load up with soft drinks and such for the duration of your trip.
You could also grab a card with the hot item you wanted on it, such as child chicken fingers, a flatbread or the sandwich of the day, and they would cook it up for you. A family of four could do dinner here for less than $50.
Also near Ulu was a coffee hut that sold actual Kona coffee for $5 per cup, which was well worth it, in my book.
Next to the pool and beach were an assortment of kiosks, snack shops and a poolside cafe with table service for lunch and dinner called Off the Hook.
Kid meals here were $9 or $10. Shrimp tacos were tasty and $22, while a burger went for $18. It wasn't cheap, but this was a great place to have an easy meal with table service by the pool.
One spot we didn't try but looked nice with some evening music was ‘Ōlelo Room. Here there was a sunset happy-hour menu with appetizers, sushi and sashimi, along with drinks.
You could also walk to nearby off-site options such as Monkey Pod. While we didn't visit this Monkey Pod, we have enjoyed one on Maui on a previous trip. They have fantastic happy hours with discounts on drinks, $10 pizzas and 50% appetizers.
I walked in the door of Aulani in Hawaii mode and for the first 24 hours didn't have the best time. Island mode doesn't really work here, at least not during peak season. At Aulani, you need a plan to make the most of your day, because each night is pricey and there are lots of activities.
However, once I shifted my mind a bit and started looking at the schedules, calling the character line and using strategies to be sure we were lining up for characters and activities, it got better.
I enjoy Disney cruises and Disney parks, and while Aulani isn't exactly the same as either of those, once I started thinking a little bit in those terms, we had a great time.
The pools and waterslides outside of peak times were great, meeting the characters wasn't nearly as involved as at the Disney parks or cruise (once you learned how to find them), and Aunty's Beach House was an absolute standout.
If the price were right, likely via rented DVC points, I'd absolutely return to Aulani. But I would never make Aulani the totality of our Hawaiian vacation. Stay there with the kids for three or four nights of your longer trip to Hawaii and then move on to somewhere a little more relaxed and affordable so you leave the confines of the gorgeous resort and explore the beautiful islands.
Aulani was a great lesson that sometimes when two of your favorites mix, what you end up with isn't quite what you were expecting.