Inside Look: a Deep-Dive at Disney’s Aulani Resort and Spa
You know you’re curious--just how Disney is that that Disney resort in Hawaii?
By Rachel Hart
March 20, 2016
It’s about this time of year when even the most moisture-tolerant of Pacific Northwesterners start to fray around the edges with the gray and rain. This year’s been especially rough: We did, after all, break the record for our wettest winter on record since records have been kept (1894).
Sure, we get our teases of warm weather and sunshine, but we long for the sun—real warm sunshine—not just the stuff you can get from those occasional spring blue sky Seattle days laced with an arctic chill in the air. In Seattle, our west coast go-to, one-flight-away playgrounds tend to be Palm Springs, Mexico, or Hawaii, and given the choice, I’d pick Hawaii every time.
There is something in the air that is just transformative. So when I was offered a press “FAM” (familiarization) trip this past January to Aulani, the five-year-old Disney resort and Spa on Oahu, it was a bit of a no-brainer. The television ads of a frolicking slow-mo family with that lilting Hawaiian version of the song “A Whole New World” from Aladdin run non-stop in Seattle, immediately followed in our household by our kids begging for a visit.
But as much as our kids were dying to go, I had a few reservations, having just come off the heels of a jam-packed two-day, post-holiday trip to Disneyland (apparently some of the busiest days of the year for the park).
First: Who goes to these Disney resorts? I’ve never been on a Disney cruise (though I did look longingly at the swank palm tree-lined Disney cruise port when we were embarking on another ship nearby), but I’ve heard good things. I have imagined Aulani being the type of place grown couples who go to Disneyland for entertainment—just the two of them, no kids—go once they get married and have kids. Second: If you are not that Disney-obsessed family, is this place tolerable (for adults) or will Disney characters be lurking around every turn, taunting your inner 7-year old who steered clear of such costumed figures (just saying)? And then there’s the matter of a resort full of travelers made up entirely of families.
In other words, even though our kids would love it, would my husband and I even want to go to a place designed for families, when we already know what all parents know: that you need a vacation from the vacation when you get home from traveling with your family?
But off we went in search of answers and sunshine and Mickey. I’ve been to Oahu a couple of times before and stayed in Waikiki Beach, which has turned into a mini Hawaiian version of Vegas over the last several year with high-end shops, crowds and non-stop nightlife: Fun when you’re in the mood for that, but that’s not what I wanted post-holidays. Thankfully, Aulani is located on the southwest shore of Oahu in a resort area called Ko ‘Olina in Kapolei—about a 30- to 40-minute drive from the Honolulu airport—blissfully far enough away from the maddening crowd. Perfectly positioned for epic sunsets on a man-made cove, Aulani feels quite secluded and self-contained, which is part of the attraction.
But the biggest surprise (and admitted relief) was that it’s not anywhere near as “Disneyland” as one might expect. Here, refreshingly, it’s all about immersion into an authentic Hawaiian experience rather than posing with Mickey Mouse (though you will have plenty of opportunities to do that, too, if that’s what you came for). Allow me to break down our experience and offer a more insider’s tips than you probably asked for by clicking on this post.
The A-frame shape of the hotel’s lobby is designed after a traditional canoe house
The Cultural Center that is Resort
This was my fourth trip to Hawaii, but I probably learned more about Hawaiian traditions, history and storytelling during this stay than I had in all my previous visits combined. It’s because the folks at Aulani are serious about you having an authentic Hawaiian experience, yet they’re not hitting you over the head with it. You can absorb as little or as much of it as you want. I happen to be an information nerd, so I dove right in.
The first item on our itinerary was a tour of the resort and grounds that felt more like a docent walk at a Hawaiian musem than the usual tour of properties I’ve taken on press trips.
Almost everything you see at and around the resort has meaning or a story behind it and is designed to celebrate Hawaii’s culture of storytelling and the connection of people to the land and ocean. In this way, Disney—America’s storyteller of sorts—shines through by taking every opportunity to tell the tales of Hawaii in just about every detail, starting with the name of the resort itself that means “one who delivers a message from a higher authority” “or “chief messenger.”
The stone compass in the floor lights up from time to time
The Disney team of “Imagineers” (now there’s a fantasy job for my 11-year-old), designed the resort, working with Hawaiian elders and cultural leaders who live on Oahu to learn about the customs, ensure accuracy and give meaning into the resort. The A-frame shape of the lobby and hallways is designed after a traditional canoe house; murals and decorative items in the lobby tell the story of ancient Hawaii royalty and gods and the creation of the Island. Two towers represent the masculine and feminine balance of energy as found in nature, a recurring theme in Hawaiian culture you’ll find echoed throughout the resort.
The facilities are beautiful and top notch and made with rich, luxe materials—gorgeous African Mahogany and Alder wood, volcanic stone floors in the lobby; the kind of décor you see aging beautifully rather than having to be updated every 10 years or so to keep up with the latest hotel décor trends.
Kukui nut torches
Most impressive, though, Aulani employs a full-time cultural advisor, Oahu native Kahulu DeSantos, to ensure authenticity at every level. She’s the one who makes sure even the smallest decorative details have extreme symbolism and meaning.
Case in point, from an email exchange with DeSantos regarding the fire-lit torches on the resort grounds of the resort that are a tribute to the black kukui nuts used in the leis given to males: “The torches of Aulani are inspired by the kukui (candlenut) torches of old. The kukui is the official tree of the State of Hawai‘i and its oily kernels strung on the midribs of coconut leaves provide a light that is still applicable today in a pinch. At Aulani we see four different variations on the lama kukui (kukui nut torch) one of which lines our driveway entry and closely resembles the ebb and flow of ignited kukui kernels with its soft glow illuminating the resort in golden light. It is this element of light perhaps that adds another layer of meaning to the word kukui, which besides light, also means enlightened.”
There’s hardly a decorative element that doesn’t have meaning or reveal a tradition. Other lighting fixtures are designed to look like baskets native ancient Hawaiians used to store food safely off the ground. Rustic long thin sticks surrounding the Ama Ama fine dining restaurant are a nod to the Hawaiian fishing lifestyle. Even the name of the grab-and-go takeout restaurant, Ulu café, sparked a 10-minute story from our tour guide (you’ll just have to take the tour yourself to hear it).
In fact, the only “tradition” I noticed that was conspicuously absent: the conch blowing and torch lighting at sunset I’ve seen at other resorts on the Islands. (Perhaps not traditional enough?)
It’s this level of attention to every fine point and cultural preservation that was absolutely the most impressive thing about Aulani. Here you’ll also find one of the largest collections of contemporary Hawaiian art in the country, including a small gallery near the upscale buffet-style Makahiki restaurant—where the character breakfasts are—with wood carvings that depict activities ancient Hawaiians did during the Makahiki season, a traditional time of rest, peace, play and renewal in winter (an ancient Hawaiian New Year Festival).
This celebration of local culture permeates through a different sort of character you’ll find at Aulani. In Hawaii, trusted grownups and elders who are family friends are referred to as “Aunty” or “Uncle.” You’ll see an Aunty or Uncle or two throughout the resort at various times: Aunty plays ukulele at the character breakfast, makes appearances at the on-site child care center, Aunty’s Beach House, and you’ll find Uncle during storytelling at the fire pit and emcee-ing Aulani’s version of a luau.
Aunty’s Beach House; Courtesy of the Aulani
At the end of the tour, I wondered if the average visitor has the chance to get this much detail on the backstory of the place? The answer is yes, if you seek it out. Look for the dates and times of Maka’ika’i tours of art and culture and nature and wildlife of Aulani (and other tours) in the daily “Iwa” (itinerary) available at the front desk and online here.
Take one of these free tours. Seriously.
I may be the only one who thinks this stuff is cool, and realize most people may not want to pay this much attention to anything but a lava flow cocktail in their hand while on vacation, but it’s a missed opportunity to hear the cool stories behind all the place. In fact, I think they should publish a walking tour brochure or interactive app for your smartphone with photos and the stories behind each item so guests can wander and learn about them at their own pace.
So, yes, if you are the type who geeks out on “Edutainment,” you can go deep at Aulani. If you just want to chill on a lounge chair and drink a Mai Tai, it’s your place too. The only downside I can see is that vacationers expecting a literal interpretation of Disneyland or Disney World may be disappointed. In fact, the only thing that struck me as Disneyland-like, besides the character breakfasts and the Mickey Mouse brownie and pretzels for sale, are the songs that play in the lobby on a continual loop, written by Disney and performed by a local master chant recording artist Keali’I Reichel and Grammy-award winning composer Mark Mancina, who arranged many of the songs on The Lion King.
“It’s the story of Hawaii,” says cultural advisor Kahulu De Santos. They’re lovely, inspiring, Hawaiian-spirited songs (and available at disneymusicstore.com) but definitely feels like a deliberate rousing Disney soundtrack for the cue-the-movie-montage of moments you’re about to have.
These little menehune dudes are everywhere throughout the resort
But discovering and uncovering the unexpected Disney magic throughout the resort was a huge part of the experience, for our family. For example, about 300 statuettes of the Island’s legendary little mischievous dwarflike creatures—the Menehune—are hidden throughout the property, in the elevators, behind a piece of art, in the pool area. This kept our 11-year-old on constant lookout. There are almost countless other less obvious tidbits throughout, and as soon as I learned about some of them I was determined to uncover as much as I could (see “Easter Eggs” on page 3 for what we uncovered below).
THINGS TO DO
We stayed four nights and five days and had a lot of free time outside scheduled press tours and experiences and still didn’t get to everything.There’s more going on here than your average resort. Here’s what’s included in the cost of your stay that I’d recommend:
The Menehune Aventure Trail: Your kids will want to make a beeline for the pool when you arrive, but do this first, or at least soon after a first dip in the pool, since it’s a great way to get the lay of the land of the resort.
Throughout the grounds are hidden features that you can discover and experience via an interactive electronic discovery trail that unlocks some of the Disney magic of the features of the pools and structures that you’d otherwise walk right by. (Think the wand game at Great Wolf Lodge but instead of unlocking mystical things you’re locating and saving Hawaiian wildlife and the like) Check out the device (essentially what looks like a mini iPad-type device with a faux wood protective cover) in the Pau Hana Room on the ground floor of the east tower, where you can also partake in activities such as lei-making and check out DVDs. Follow instructions on the device from “Aunty,” which takes you on what felt like Dora-the-Explorer missions (We can’t find the sea turtle. Do YOU see the sea turtle?) and watch as things throughout the grounds light up, sink in the water, catch fire and do other exciting things all while teaching something about Hawaii. If you can’t finish it in one setting you can give it back and pick up where you left off another time.
The Ka Maka Grotto pool at night. Duck underwater and listen for a surprise
The Pools: Of course, when our kids are on vacation, they’re all about the pool or the beach. The pools here keep both kids and grown-ups who want to be in a pool together and those who want to be in a pool without kids firmly in mind. For parents who have kids old enough to go in the pool by themselves, it’s all about the relaxing time on the lounge while the kids are swimming.
The entire outdoor recreation area of the resort where the pools and water slides are located is named Waikolohe Valley—Hawaiian for “mischievous waters.” For families, there are two pools—the Waikolohe Pool (family fun pool) and our favorite and the one less overrun with kids: the Ka Maka Grotto. It’s a gorgeous infinity pool at the edge of the property bordered by a man-made cave that has a pretty awesome Easter Egg—a hidden surprise—when you duck underwater (see below). The Lazy river (Waikolohe Stream) was indeed relaxing and lazy as promised but a bit chilly during our January visit. Good thing there’s a hot tub perched right along the path and three others nearby. They have one of those splash playgrounds where it’s constantly “raining” and a rowboat dumps gallons of water every few minutes, and elsewhere in the park is a gentle spray and splash park for the little ones.
The centerpieces of the resort pool area are the two water slides within the “Kilo,” the man-made mountain that itself has several hidden embedded carvings of ocean animals you only notice after staring it for a while. I was too chicken to try the slides but my kids report that one is open-air and one or two people can go down at a time on an inner tube (Tubestone Curl) and the other is a one-person-at-a-time-without-an-inner-tube deal down a tunnel that’s completely enclosed and dark (Volcanic Vertical).
Also handy and fabulous: four hot tubs including the “secret” one along the walkway perched above the lazy river. My favorite, though, was the adults-only bi-level infinity pool-style hot tubs (two separate ones, actually) that overlook the ocean (come sunset time—6 p.m. when we were there in late January—grab your giant pineapple drink and get a seat along the edge).
The quiet, adults-only Wailana pool is closest to the spa (more details below), has its own bar and—important note, Seattleites who can’t live without their lattes: this is the site of the only espresso machine we could find on the grounds (serving espresso only from 6 to 10 a.m.) Forgo your usual Mai tai, Blue Hawaiian and lava flow and try their Lilikolada drink (a mashup of lilikoi, or passion flower, and a pina colada). Being able to use these adults-only pools is a big reward for the stage of parenthood when your kids are old enough to swim and hang out on their own in the park. But my advice to parents whose kids aren’t old enough to be on their own: Don’t let them be. Drop them off at the free Aunty’s Beach House childcare (more below) for awhile. On more than one occasion I found myself connecting a couple of lost little ones looking for their parents with an Aulani staffer.
I was surprised that some pools close down at 8 p.m. while we were there in January in the winter; during the summer pools are open till 10 p.m. This early closing contributes to the feeling that this is definitely a family resort. But Hawaii always feels like that to me—when the sun goes down, things slow down—and I sort of like that. I do not think “raging nightlife” when I think of the reasons I want to visit Hawaii.
A 30-minute “Starlit Hui” show feels like just the right amount of Luau light (sans dinner)
Shows and storytelling: If your trip to Hawaii never seems complete with out a Luau, catch the mercifully short, 30-minute Starlit Hui, a Luau light of sorts (performance only, no food) where you sit on the lawn on mats plaited from pandanus leaves called lauhala as the hula and fire dancers tell stories of the Islands, and then two guys shred ukuleles like you’ve never seen or heard before.
Fidgety kids (and adults) can kill time before the show making traditional Hawaiian crafts.
Probably the only other overt Disney moment during our trip was when all the characters came on stage for a dance party at the end. It never ceases to amaze me how kids just go nuts when they see these characters, as if One Direction has crashed a Girl Scouts convention. (If you want the full-bore luau experience, one of the Island’s most popular dinner and show Luaus is just down the street. Also short and sweet: Every night, an “Uncle” tells a short 15-minute story around the fire pit during Mo’Oleo Fire pit storytelling, in which you’ll learn a few Hawaiian words, sing a song and hear story about folklore on the Island…the one we heard was about how the coconut came to look the way it does. Check the Daily “Iwa” (itinerary) for times and locations and marvel at its precision on-time start.
Crafts: At The Pau Hana Room on the ground floor of the east tower there’s a rotating selection of classes from ukulele lessons, lei making and such. We missed the lei-making class every time it was offered. One day we tried to catch the end of a class but found they were wrapping up, the staff was kind enough to load us up with a bagful of flowers, a lei “needle” and thread and we made our own in our room. You can also check out a very limited selection of family friendly DVDs in this room.
Aunty’s Dress Up Room
Kids’ childcare and programs: We’ve never really put our kids in childcare facilities when we travel since the whole point of a vacation for our crazy-busy family is to spend time together reconnecting. But if our kids were younger, we would have taken advantage of Aunty’s Beach House, Aulani’s well-designed, high-tech childcare facility that is included in the cost of your stay (though a few “excursions” and meals cost extra). Kids age 3-12 can theoretically hang out here any time from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. or drop in or out for activities scheduled throughout the day. Twelve hours of free child care certainly is a draw, though it’s sort of sad to think about leaving your kid in child care all day on vacation…tempting though.
But this place is slick, and decorated and designed to look like a typical traditional Hawaiian home. There’s a room with a giant fireplace (for dancing, storytime and playing dress-up); a shaded back yard with a playground; a video game room, movie room, and a room designed to look like “Uncle’s” garage for arts and crafts. I would want to go here if I were little.
If your kids are on the older end of the scale—our younger son is 11—Aunty’s may be bit of a bust since they’re likely quite a bit older than the average age of attendee but not old enough to do the cool things like video scavenger hunts and crafts and activities available for teenagers up to age 17.
But they will still want the cool “child detection application” bracelet they get when you sign them up for child care. If you’ve been on a Disney Cruise before, you’ll recognize the colorful plastic fit-bit type looking GPS bracelet; this one has a Stitch character on it. The bracelet is free unless you want to keep it, and then it’s $12.95. It was impressive how the instant he walked in they knew his name. But it’s not a bad souvenier, and there’s an embedded Easter Egg your child can reveal when he or she gets back home (see “Easter Eggs” on page 3). We signed our younger son for Stitch’s Goo session, one of their most popular sessions (they essentially make gak) and he had fun, despite the fact that most kids were far younger than he was.
My advice if you have younger kids and don’t typically put them in the child care areas: stash them here for a couple of hours and spend a serious chunk of time at the spa (see below for recommended spa strategy).
The extras worth paying extra for:
Laniwai spa treatment room with a peek to the private outdoor treament room. Photo courtesy of Aulani Resort
The Spa As part of the press trip, we were invited to experience the “Ohana”—or “family”—spa treatment at the resort’s Laniwai Spa (Hawaiian for “Heavenly waters”). Laniwai is Disney’s first spa and no expense—nor an opportunity to tell more of the story of Hawaii—seems to have been spared.
This time, the focus is about healing waters, rainbows and rituals that connect the Hawaiian people with the land and sea). Usually when I am going to a spa (which is rare) I am doing so to get away from the stresses and demands of work or parenthood (or both) but I had to check out what a family spa treatment was all about, despite the fact that all I could imagine was a whole lot of farting and giggling and disruption of everyone’s Zen buzz with two teenage/preteen boys in the spa. (Fortunately, they behaved).
We started by choosing a polished stone from a basket engraved with an inspirational word such as “dream” or “harmony” to focus on during the treatment. In the Hawaiian tradition of “what you take from the land you give back to the land” we tossed our stones into a little pool accented with a giant suspended raindrop slow-trickle tranquility fountain at the end of a 60-foot-long hallway with a rough wall on one side and a smooth wall on the other that echo the ongoing Hawaiian theme of masculine and feminine influences in nature.
My husband and I heeded the advice of our media guides and arrived an hour early to take advantage of the 5,000-square-foot outdoor co-ed hydrotherapy garden, Kula Wai (“Healing waters”), available to adults only and only when you book a full-service spa treatment. (Adults defined as 18 and up when solo or 14 or older with a parent or guardian—but it’s really meant to be a place for adults to chill out). In this part of the resort, which is miraculously completely quiet and tranquil (it’s closest to the adults-only pool), you’ll have access to several hot tubs at different temperatures (including an ice-cold plunge pool) for a complete Goldilocks “this one is just right” fairy tale soak. It’s co-ed so you are wearing your swimsuit the entire time.
The Healing Waters spa shower grotto; photo courtesy of Aulani Resort
One of the main attractions here is a stone grotto-like shower area with several different types of short bursts of perfectly warm water in various forms: waterfall, overhead rain, dump of water, shooting out from all sides; bliss. The only slight record scratch in this otherwise harmonic experience was there was a slight chlorinated smell to the water coming out of the showers.
Our guide for the media tour said that the outdoor showers reflect the six different types of rain on the island…I could never get anyone to define what those types of rain are exactly but I made an immediate mental note: Open “rain spa” in Seattle—we must have at least 20 more types of rain, and it’s about dang time we start capitalizing on them. Though somehow “Seattle rain showers” just doesn’t have the same pleasant connotation as rains in Hawaii. Oh yes, and don’t forget to make your own custom sugar scrubs in the hydrotherapy garden before you leave. I love what these scrubs do to my skin but hate the greasy residue they leave on our shower floor so any time I can use them in a bathroom that isn’t mine and I don’t have to clean is a major bonus.
Back to the spa treatment. We weren’t entirely sure what a “family massage” entailed, but were game. You’re discreetly called in from the hydrotherapy garden by an attendant (the kids met us at the spa lobby, more on that later) to your treatment room (there are 15 of them) which are spacious, spotless, serene and tranquil with neutral tones and dark wood. There are all the usual amenities—infused waters, fruits and snacks, luxe bath products—but taken to a plush extreme (think macroons, mini cupcakes). Snuggled in our plush robes, we selected a scented lotion for our rubdowns, while the four (yes four, one for each of us) women who were to give the treatments opened sliding doors to our own little private enclosed outdoor treatment patio with two lounge chairs and a little table with more snacks. I think “Dope!” was the word my 13-year-old uttered.
Two of us had back and arm rubs on massage tables inside the treatment rooms while the other two had leg/foot rubs utilizing the Hawaiian lomi lomi massage/reflexology stick on the private outdoor patio. After about 20 minutes, we had a light snack on the patio while the masseuses changed the linens on the massage tables and we switched. I will not lie, it was pretty amazing—and hilarious to watch my 13-year-old son’s reaction–this was his first experience getting a massage. They do suggest you disrobe to at least your underwear (in privacy, of course, and you immediately slip under the covers on the massage table) but it’s all very demure and only backs and arms exposed.
Bath and body product fans out there: The lotion Aulani uses for the massage—Epicuren Discovery brand—is incredible and is for sale in travel-friendly sizes in the spa lobby. I am not usually a fan of lemongrass but their take on it is heavenly, as was the mango pineapple. But don’t choke at the $14 price for two ounces; I obsessively searched the Internet for this lotion and it’s priced here as you’ll find it elsewhere. So I bought some at the spa, in travel-ready 2-ounce pump bottle.
My spa tip if you go for the family massage if your kids are old enough to meet up with you at the spa so you can get some quality time in the hydrotherapy garden: Be sure to they understand that “meet us at the front of the spa” means actually going into the doors of the spa and waiting at the check-in lobby area, not outside the spa in the hallway or they’ll sit there while you stress out wondering where they are and why are they so late, and totally lose your peaceful water buzz. Otherwise, as awesome as bonding with the family the Ohana treatment was, take the rare moment and book a treatment for yourself or one with you and your spouse/partner. Put the kids in Aunty’s Beach House for three hours: one before your spa service to enjoy the hydrotherapy garden, one for your treatment and another for the steam rooms and shower scrub. The only problem with the spa treatment: my younger son, who has already had a foot massage and backrub or two, was crushed when it was over. That boy better find a job when he grows up that will keep him in the lifestyle to which he wants to become accustomed.
Bonus for Oahu travelers not staying at Aulani: You can book a spa treatment here even if you’re not staying at Aulani, and have use of the hydrotherapy gardens. Worth it and a great way to get a peek at this resort.
Dolphins seen from the catamaran
Sightseeing tours: Like most resorts and hotels, Aulani offers a number of activities you can book during your stay. This press trip included Aulani’s Catamaran Experience, run by at Hawaii Nautical ($154 per person, hawaiinautical.com). It’s a beautiful cruise along the north leeward coast. I liked that it was only a 4-hour excursion (we did it on a morning, though it typically runs 12:45 p.m. to 5 p.m.), which still left time to get a big chunk of relaxation in at the resort. Our boat’s crew was a group of really fun, knowledgeable guys. I chuckled that they spent about twice as long describing the list of cocktails served on board as they did detailing safety information, but we felt safe and well-cared-for the entire time. I especially appreciated, though, how they reminded the group to be respectful of the wildlife every time they pointed out marine life around us.
And during our late January visit, we hit the marine life sight-seeing jackpot: dozens of dolphins were frolicking around the boat in pairs, as if right out of a Disney movie (maybe more Disney magic?); humpback whales and their babies were breaching and flipping their tails, and even green sea turtle hanging on the ocean shore floor (Dude!). We didn’t see many fish when we actually anchored to snorkel, but the trip paid off in spades. Winter (December through April, specifically) is the best time to see all this activity. They also served some light snacks—banana bread, grapes—and a lunch of pulled pork, pasta salad.
Other Aulani excursions include hikes, horseback riding and other adventures but given we’re surrounded by the ocean—if we were choosing an activity, it’d be the snorkeling for the chance to hit the jackpot the way we did.
Tip: If you’re prone to seasickness as I am, take your Dramamine before you leave, sit at the head of the boat facing the direction you’re going, and definitely NOT in the interior of the cabin as I made the brief mistake of doing. You’re welcome.
Dories in the Rainbow Reef
Rainbow Reef: One of the coolest activities on the grounds at Aulani is Rainbow Reef—or what I call the snorkeling training pool—a temperature-appropriate (read: COLD!) pool with hundreds of tropical fish where you can snorkel. It’s a safe place to start if your kids (or you) haven’t gone snorkeling before with attendants who give lots of guidance and reminders to respect and don’t touch the fish. You’ll may see more fish (yes, plenty of Dory, Nemo and friends here) than you may see on an actual snorkeling trip. Spring for the duration of stay rate ($39 for adults, $29 for kids) so you can come back and perfect your technique before you go out in the open water.
Stand Up Paddle boarding: The resort has a man-made beach and lagoon, which by the way, looked like a giant smiley face from our room on the 15th floor. It’s a pleasant sandy beach and quieter and less populated than the pool areas so the cocktail service is less frequent, so if that’s a priority, you might want to order a drink before you head over.
Like most other resorts with a private man-made cove, you can rent stand up paddle (SUP) boards and kayaks. (SUP: $39 per hour; Kayaks $29 per hour at the beachside Makiki Joe’s rental station.) The kids have wanted to try SUP but haven’t because of it’s just too dang cold in Seattle. But here the waters are smooth, the boards a bit wider than others I’ve seen and there’s a patient, friendly attendant helping you get on and off the board. The kids popped up and were off and paddling right away, but I stuck with my sit-down paddle boarding technique (but am sure I worked my core from my graceless mounting and dismounting of this thing). I’d suggest the SUP versus kayaking because you’re basically going around the same small cove and not much more to see if you do both. The antique-looking sailing canoe perched on the beach is not only a sweet decorative piece but can also be rented for a sailing excursion outside the cove.
Fitness classes: I had lofty goals to work out every day, but in the end only did the sunrise yoga on the beach with my younger son, which was offered as part of the media trip. It started in complete darkness—the better to hide my complete lack of balance and flexibility—and what a cool way to greet the day. I didn’t get a chance to check out the workout facilities (using the basic machines and weights are included in your stay) but they did have a lot of cool-sounding classes around the grounds, many of which cost an extra fee.
Though you can’t really take long uninterrupted walks along the beach because of the coves, you can walk a 1.5-mile paved shoreline walkway pathway along the three other man-made coves in the Ko’ Olina area and loop back to the grounds. We only had time to do about half of the way, but it reportedly takes 30-45 minutes to complete.
WHERE TO EAT
In addition to a shave ice stand, snack stands and such, these dining spots on the property are worth stopping at:
Intricately designed entry to the Ama Ama restaurant
For the fancy night out: The gorgeous beachside Ama Ama restaurant is the higher-end (pricey) casual fine dining option. More storytelling in the design abounds: part of the restaurant is designed like a historic open-air Hawaiian thatch-roofed home and has a sweeping, open-air view framing the ocean.
But what I really thought was cool was the entry décor: a series of parallel wood branches framing the restaurant, which are a nod to Hawaiian tradition of fishing local mullet fish Ama Ama; the small fish could freely swim in and out of the man-made feeding pen but as they got bigger they couldn’t escape the “cage” and their inevitable spot on a dinner plate. A metaphor for how stuffed you feel when you leave perhaps? Nah, can’t be…) Go with the seasonal catch every time, the fresh poke and enjoy view. It’s a lovely dinner.
Mini Mickey waffles
For a hit of Disneyland: The earlier mentioned Makahiki buffet is the site of the character breakfast (this is a Disney resort after all; $35 for ages 10 and up and $18 for ages 3-9 for breakfast) Brunch had a huge array of options with bagels and lox, meats, plus a variety of local Hawaiian sweet breads and dishes like loco moco (hamburger patty, rice, fried egg, gravy—yum).
Also: one of the most Pinterest-worthy kids’ food ideas I’ve ever seen that looked like a dolphin with a fish in its mouth (half of a banana, a goldfish cracker in a little dish of blueberries). My 13-year old’s mind was blown when discovered the make your own omelet station, which somehow we have not experienced yet. Another subtle Disney sighting: miniature Mickey Mouse shaped waffles.
Genius kids’ finger food idea
In the evening, if your kids are old enough to hang back and watch movies in your room, drop in at the adjacent ‘Oeleo Room, the restaurant bar in the evening where there’s live Hawaiian music every night in the open air adjacent patio till 8 or 10 p.m., depending on the time of year.
Oeleo Room with graphic decor
It’s a nice, grown-up spot for a late-night drink and dessert. (“KaMau” is cheers in Hawaiian.) The Oeleo Room is one of the only spots at Aulani that has a more modern look but is still all about Hawaii. I especially liked the graphic décor with a pronunciation key of the 13 letters of the Hawaiian alphabet and artwork defining common Hawaiian words. (As you wait for your table, ask the hostess at the check-in area about the nod-to-Mickey story about the mouse who helps release food for people from a greedy god who had it all tied up in a net, a story also detailed in the adjacent Makahiki gallery.) Probably the busiest and most utilized dining spots in the place is the Ulu Café—the grab-and-go café with outdoor patio seating on the ground floor of the west tower. Dozens of families constantly file in and out of for their flatbread pizzas (which they even have for breakfast, topped with scrambled eggs and bacon), wraps, salads, baked goods (loved the old Disney, new Disney balance of Mickey Mouse brownies with Darth Vader cupcakes).
Aulani smartly added this eatery a couple of years ago due to demand for a more casual spot. It’s affordable and clearly being well used. It’s also the site of the beverage station where, if you buy the plastic handled cup in the café for about $19, you can drink all the refills of sodas, punch, iced tea and coffee (with real half and half) you want during your stay.
Monkey Pod Kitchen
Where to eat nearby: Just an easy walk across the street from the resort is a shopping center with a popular ice cream/shave ice shop, Two Scoops. Coffee lovers will appreciate even the more sugary concoctions at Island Vintage Coffee such as the Island latte (macadamia with a hint of coconut) or a Hawaiian Honey latte, which both come with an added punch because here, all drinks are made with extra-strength Kona coffee.
You might notice the tourist-attraction train pull in during your stop here—if so, beat the line to the ice cream or coffee shops before the tourists disembark. Also in this shopping center is a decent, superfriendly semi-open-air restaurant called Monkey Pod Kitchen. It’s an upscale casual American/Hawaiian regional cuisine with burgers, salads and a good section of noodle dishes, microbrews and craft cocktails. Definintely leave room for a slice of their signature cream pies (we scarfed down a slice of banana cream back in the room).
SUPPLIES AND SUNDRIES: In the same shopping center as the restaurants and coffee shop are a handful of fairly nice gift and apparel shops and an Island Country Market, a grocery/souvenir store run by the Hawaiian ABC chain of stores.
Like ABC, it’s the mother load of boxes of chocolates and cheap souvenirs but also has a good supply of upscale snacks and basics (you know, like $6 gallons of milk). But it’s not the place you want to load up on groceries for the week for the room. There’s a Costco nearby for that. One gadget we purchased at Island Country Market became a trip essential: a waterproof phone case for about $20 (dicapac.com) so we could take some video and pictures underwater while snorkeling and while on the paddle boards, in the pool. It sort of feels a bit like you’re taking your iphone’s life in your hands, but it kept the water out. The photos we got were great, but it’s not a perfect user experience. The touch pad is not nearly as sensitive with the extra layer of plastic and we spent more time fussing with it than enjoying snorkeling. Plus, I captured about 100 accidental burst photos and hilarious slow-mo underwater fish thinking I was videotaping so that made for some hilarious post-trip photo editing.
The Aulani gift shop is a mash up of a Disney store (hey, there’s Chip, the tea cup from Beauty and the Beast!) and a convenience store (you don’t have to pay through the nose for some bandages when you need them). There’s also a swankier Hawaiian clothing shop with lots of stuff from Seattle-based Tommy Bahama. As an aside, it always makes me chuckle that this tropical clothing line is based in our opposite-of-tropical city.
WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE AGAIN? Positioned on the Southwest shore of Oahu about 40-minute drive from the airport, Aulani is quite a way from the action of Honolulu Waikiki beach, which is a huge part of the attraction for me. The resort is a community called Ko’ Olina near the town of Kapolei; it reminded me a little of Princeville on Kauai in that it’s a well-kept resort community of time share condos and towers, with Aulani tucked in amongst them. A Four Seasons Resort is opening next door soon. On one of four man-made coves in the area, the whole property is designed to mimic Oahu’s Manoa Valley with two wings of the 16-floor towers embracing the recreational/pools area that leads out to the man-made beach and smiley-face-looking cove. People who want a long uninterrupted walk on the beach may find it a little too closed off—though there is access to the other coves and resorts nearby. It feels very insular and enclosed, in a good way.
WHAT ELSE TO DO ON YOUR TRIP
I’ve been to the Island before and have done a pretty full tour. This trip was about staying put, but had we more time, here’s where we would have gone:
Pearl Harbor Memorial. For edutainment travel nerds like me, this is a must. I went my first time 20 years ago but timing didn’t work out for us to go this trip, because you must book Pearl Harbor tickets as soon as you know you’re going and the free tickets were already issued before we had our travel plans set. Next time, I look forward to checking out the updates they’ve made since my last visit. (The memorial gives out their allotment of free tickets in advance online and you to get a chance to get day-of tickets you have to be on site at 7 a.m. to get them). You can also book a fairly reasonable tour from Aulani for about $50 a person (transportation included) from Aulani on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Of course, there is an entire island to explore with endless activities. As much as I like to whine about how Waikiki Beach area is overblown, it’s a fun stop. I love peeking into the swank hotel lobbies, the easy non-snorkeling tropical fish viewing opportunities like Hanama Bay, a stop at Dole pineapple plant, watching the surfers, etc. A visit with representatives of the Oahu visitor’s bureau during my press trip reminded me there’s also Kualoa Ranch, where Jurassic Park was filmed (as were other movies). (The movie tour apparently takes you to the fences the T Rexes broke through.)
And because I like to explore cool neighborhoods and dine where the locals do when I travel, I asked them about highlights that savvy Seattleites, in particular, might enjoy. The Oahu reps were buzzing about how Chinatown is the hot neighborhood of the moment with new restaurants, boutiques and specialty shops popping up. Name-droppy restaurants include chef Andrew Le’s The Pig and the Lady; craft cocktail hotspot Bar Leather Apron. In Honolulu, San Fran transplant celebrity chef Ed Kenney—is popping out restaurants: the international/fusion focused Mud Hen Water, the local/organic focused Town his Kaimuki Superette restaurant and grab and go shop across the way and opening soon is Mahina & Suns. When I explained how Seattle’s distillery scene has been booming, the Oahu reps pointed out Kohana Rum (kohanarum.com) a boutique distillery that crafts rhum agricole (rum made from cane sugar juice rather than from molasses) from hand-harvested, single varietals of Native Hawaiian heirloom sugarcane grown on the Islands. Rum is one of the liquors Washington state can’t technically call a local craft liquor because sugar—something Hawaii has in abundance—is not a local crop. Hmmm, looks like I will just have to arrange for another trip soon to report back on all these restaurants and that rum.
EASTER EGGS AND INSIDER TIPS
Uncovering every bit of Disney Magic hidden throughout the resort—“Easter eggs” intentionally left to be discovered by the most observant of travelers—became my mission during our stay. I can sometimes be the nerd looking for the things like that rather than simply enjoy the random discovery of them. (Note to self: take a vacation!) We found quite a few, and I imagine there’s a lot more I missed—Disney doesn’t exactly print a guidebook to this stuff—but here’s what we gleaned during our time there. What did I miss?
Underwater whale sounds in in the Ka Maka Grotto pool—When you go underwater in the gorgeous infinity pool on the far west side of the resort, you can hear a recording of whale sounds. Things light up! The edge of each stone in the fireplace at Aunty’s Beach House childcare light up on occasion, as does the compass in the lobby entryway. Also as Aunty’s, a magic “skylight” shows birds and leaves—and occasionally Stitch—landing on the skylight.
The video game bonus in the “Child Detection Application” bracelet. Disney borrowed a phrase from its own Monsters Inc., movies to name the slick bracelet with a GPS chip inside, which all kids staying at Aunty’s Beach House for childcare receive. When your kid is wearing it, they’re greeted by name the instant they come in the door. But even cooler, if your child has a Disney Infinity play system: When you place the Mickey Mouse icon on the bracelet on the hexagonal part of the Disney Infinity game base, your child can redeem a special video game bonus.
Liltling Hawaiian ukulele versions of Disney songs playing in the elevator. I wish these were for sale on itunes.
Pu’u Kilo: Can you see the hidden animal?
There are countless hidden animals in the Pu’u Kilo, the man-made mountain where the water slides are. The longer you stare it, the more you’ll discover.
Look carefully at the art in your room for familiar looking bubble shapes and other surprises.
There is a tiny, barely trafficked drink refill station behind Aunty’s Beach House. No coffee at this station, though.
Dial #2447 from your hotel phone to learn where the costumed Disney characters are in the resort for photo opps that day.
Uber does NOT come out this way, and a taxi ride can be as much as renting a car for the week, so if you plan to go anywhere outside of walking distance, rent a car. A light rail in the works will provide better but not door-to-door access to Aulani. We didn’t rent a car since we were only there for a short time and a driver came to pick us up, so you’re pretty stuck if you don’t have a car.
Pre-travel tips for Alaska Airlines travelers: Download the go-go entertainment app you’re your iPad before you take off. The digi players are $10 but you can watch everything you can on that for free on your own device—unless you didn’t update the app, like I did. It is a six to seven hour flight there depending on the winds and there is no wireless on the flight. Also, get the coconut chicken if they have it. Tom Douglas, can you please tell me where I can get this at one of your restaurants?
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Who Aulani is best for: Our kids were 11 and 13 when we visited in late January this year. They are in that sweet spot when the idea of going to Aulani is mind-blowing. They still want to hang out with us but they can also be left alone and wander the grounds and swim on their own. There was plenty of poolside lounge time for my husband and me and plenty of togetherness and family time. We mainly saw families with kids toddler-age to 10 years old; We did not see a ton of families with teenagers but it could have been because school was in session. I could envision our extended family here for an epic trip like we did for my parent’s 50th anniversary on Maui a few years back. We also noticed it’s very gay-family-friendly. Aulani is unapologetically a family resort, so families who sometimes feel like they travel under the hateful glares of kidless types can let their family flag fly free here. That, alone, is a form of relief that has no price. And don’t forget, there’s the respite of the quiet, adults-only pool for kidless adults as well as parents who definitely don’t want to be within earshot of other parents who, at the top of their lungs, frequently remind their kids to remember to make good choices.
Still, I wondered: Would people without kids like it here? We did see a young couple who just got married (there is a chapel on the grounds). They must have known what they got themselves into…or maybe they are that couple who goes to Disneyland on their own on a regular basis. As long as there are kids in my life I’d be traveling with, I would go back—for the splurge trip.
Best time to go: During our stay in late January, it was busy but the place never really felt like it was mobbed. I’d be curious to see what it’s like in peak seasons, around the holidays and summer. If you have little ones and aren’t a slave to the school calendar yet, take advantage of your flexibility and the lower rates January through March and in the fall. It’s also quieter during this time of year; they run specials of 30 percent off five nights or more. Like most Hawaiian resorts, typical peak seasons are summer, spring break and holidays. Look for deals through vacation flight and accommodations packages via Alaska Airlines, Expedia and Costco Travel. Mind you, the only downside is that when you have kids in school and go to one of Seattle’s popular vacation playgrounds on spring, summer or winter breaks, you’re likely to run into some folks from home. We once saw 10 families we knew from Seattle while we were in Hawaii. Oh yes, there are also conference facilities on the grounds, so put your bid in early for your company retreat to be held here.
Four nights at Aulani is a decent amount of time if you’re staying longer on the Island but can’t or don’t want to stay there the whole time. It’s a resort that allows you to feel OK just hanging out and not exploring, ziplining and the like. There is enough going on you so can spend a few days here and still not get to everything. If you want part of your trip to be closer to the action in Honolulu, I’d recommend finishing up at Aulani because you will not want to lose the mellow vacation vibe you’ll accrue here. Spring for the one bedroom suite or villa for the full kitchen (deluxe studios and 1-bedroom parlor suites have kitchenettes). Get a spa treatment. Do the rainbow reef for a snorkeling for a refresher before you take to the open water. Take the arts and history tour. It’s almost like you could go to Hawaii, park yourself at Aulani and experience Hawaii. Almost.
WHAT IT COSTS: Full disclosure, this was a pretty deluxe FAM trip: Disney covered the costs of accommodations and flight for my family of four, except for my husband’s flight. We also paid for meals and incidentals we incurred beyond a per diem allowance for the stay. They also paid for a couple of nice meals at the resort (Ama Ama and a character brunch), a family spa treatment, experiences at the resort and a catamaran trip. I don’t typically take press trips this far out of Seattle region but when I do accept a press trip I try to have an experience as close to as we would if we were paying for it myself. But a number of experiences were planned for us and as a result our visit to Aulani was a little more luxe than we would have sprung for. Here’s what we experienced would typically cost:
Mickey towel on bed
Accommodations: We stayed in a one-bedroom villa, which starts at $699 a night; rates for standard hotel room are $449. They run specials on their website of 25 to 30 percent off when you book multiple nights during off seasons.
The one-bedrooms are nice because there is space for at least five to sleep, two on a sleeper couch, king bed and a sweet little murphy bed under the television. My mother-in-law would have loved taking this trip with us. Kitchens are available in 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom villas as well as 1- and 2-bedroom suites; deluxe studios and 1-bedroom parlor suites have kitchenettes. The rooms are spotless, beautiful, more luxurious than any house we’ll likely live in. H2O Plus bath and body products are abundant in the bathroom.
50-minute Ohana (“family”) massage: $400 ($100 per person, they can accommodate up to six members), plus tip
Rainbow Reef snorkeling pool: $39 per adult and $29 per child for access duration of stay Kayaking: $29 for single; $39 for double Standup paddle board: $39
Catamaran Excursion: $154 per adult; $124 for children
Flights from Seattle were about $600 round trip when we traveled, in late January.
Total for a family of four: About $6,500, not including meals
92-1185 Ali’inui Dr, Kapolei, HI 96707
351 rooms, including 16 suites 481 2 bedroom equivalent villas 21 grand villas 3 bedroom suites