I’ll admit it: as my airport shuttle pulled up to Aulani, Disney’s destination resort on Oahu, I expected to find Mickey front and center. I was prepared to greet that familiar pair of mouse ears from every angle: in person, in silhouette, in every scrap of signage and decoration. I was wrong. And while I have nothing against the guy, I’m so glad I was wrong.
Throughout my four-night stay, my experience at the resort emphasized one key fact time and again: Aulani is not a Disney resort that just so happens to be in Hawaii. It’s a Hawaiian resort that just so happens to be (expertly) owned and operated by Disney. Put another way, if Aulani were a cupcake, the Hawaiian environs and culture would be the cake, its people and traditions the frosting. Disney would be only the sprinkles on top. What does that mean for vacationing families? It means you’ll be treated to a true Hawaiian experience, a rarity at large destination resorts. Will your kids also see Mickey? Of course! But as with everything at Aulani, the mouse and his friends are only one part of the greater Hawaiian story being told.
Families are immersed in the Hawaiian culture in a multitude of ways at Aulani, some of which most guests will never notice. The attention, of course, is in the details (this is Disney, after all). Hawaiian artwork by local talent is implemented throughout the resort (from the Maka’Ala lobby murals to the kapa textile in every guest room), taro fields (the indiginous plant used to make the food staple poi) line the outside entry, and everywhere you look (if you think like a kid), menehune, Hawaiian culture’s legendary mischief makers, are celebrated in sculpture and wood carving.
Guests who’d like to know more about any one of these features need only ask: Aulani Cast Members not only exemplify the Disney standard in guest relations, but are very knowledgable about the traditions and customs illustrated throughout the resort. Or join local artists, storytellers, and experts at one of the many family activities scheduled daily: take Ohana Hula from a local practitioner, attend Mo’Olelo storytelling in the Pau Hana Room, or learn how to carve a pineapple or prepare poi. Walk the Menehune Trail or take one of several self-guided cultural or environmental tours.
The design of the resort itself is a nod to Hawaiian tradition as well as Disney’s tradition of nurturing childhood delight. I had the pleasure of meeting several of the talented artists whose work adorn Aulani’s walls and corridors, and the word each of them continually used was ‘pride’. When asked about his vision from an engineering standpoint, Walt Disney Imagineering Senior Vice President and Creative Executive Joe Rohde explained that he tried to design the resort in a way that would make children notice the details before adults do.
Of course, Aulani is also all about recreational fun: there’s so much for families to do together on-site, you could be outside all day. The resort’s two main towers cradle the central Waikolohe Valley, where the Waikolohe Stream (lazy river) flows, the Menehune Bridge (water play structure) beckons, and the Rainbow Reef snorkel lagoon promises tropical fish sightings. In addition, families will love the zero-depth entry pool, water slides, infinity whirlpool spas, a quiet pool, and of course, the beach, with floating swimming platforms, snorkel and recreational gear rentals, and plenty of space to sit back and relax is located only steps away.
While there’s plenty to do at Aulani, families will want to book excursions at the Holoholo Desk, where it’s possible to choose from a number of off-site Oahu experiences in three distinct price ranges. Book an adventure with an affiliated local tour operation (fully vetted by Aulani), opt for one of several Adventures by Disney two-hour to half-day excursions, or participate in a multi-day Adventures by Disney program. The Excursions Guest Services team has done all the work for you, finding the best Oahu has to offer, and no less.
No matter how much families do (or don’t do) while on an Aulani vacation, one thing is certain: they’ll be surrounded by the rich storytelling tradition that always equals a magical time. From the moment I stepped onto the property, I was fully emersed in this wonderful story being told, a feeling emphasized during a meeting with Bob Iger, President and CEO of Walt Disney Company, and Tom Staggs, President of Parks and Resorts. Both emphasized what I was already finding true at Aulani myself: that Disney is indeed in the experience business, not the hotel or theme park business.
Date last visited: September 20-24, 2011
Room rates and options: Standard Aulani rooms feature five distinct view categories (all of which are very decent), and sleep up to four. They are just under 400 square feet, and include a spacious balcony or veranda. Rooms come with mini-fridges, coffee makers, hot water kettles, and bathrooms with deep tubs as well as showers and separate spaces between toilet and vanity. Parlor suites sleep five and include a separate bedroom area and additional half-bathroom. (Tip: for families of five, it’s more economical to reserve two adjoining standard rooms.) Aulani is also a Disney Vacation Club property, and guests also have the option of reserving DVC one-three bedroom villas as available.
Rates vary depending on view, season, and room type, so it’s best to check the reservations page online for current pricing.
Kids’ Club: Aunty’s Beach House is included in guests’ room rate, and offers unlimited care and fun for children 3-12. Painted Sky, also complimentary, is designed for kids 14-17.
Dining: Aulani includes several quick service dining options (including One Paddle, Two Paddle), two bars (The Olelo Room, which teaches you the Hawaiian language while you sip your cocktail, and Off the Hook, which also serves a poolside menu), Makahiki Buffet (with a character breakfast option two days per week), and ‘AMA’AMA, a signature dining restaurant. Dining is not inclusive, and menus reflect typical resort pricing, but families have the convenience of charging meals and snacks to their room card. Reservations can be made through the room phone or in advance (recommended for character breakfasts).
Directions: Aulani is located in Ko Olina at 92-1185 Aliʻinui Drive, Kapolei, HI, only 17 miles from the Honolulu International Airport. Car rentals are available at the airport of course, as is The Bus, the local public transportation (which will get guests within 1 mile of Aulani).
As I disclose whenever applicable, my stay at Aulani was fully hosted by Disney. My opinions, however, remain my own: this compensation came with no expectation of a positive review.