Given that Mickey Mouse’s roots are in California, it’s no surprise where he chooses to spend his vacation: Hawaii.
In 2011, the Walt Disney Company opened its most ambitious resort not attached to a theme park. Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa lies on the island of Oahu.
Many may assume they know what to expect of a Disney resort from their visits to the theme parks, but when Walt Disney Imagineers create vacation resorts with no Haunted Mansion nearby, the result is far more chill.
What surprises most first-time visitors to the Disney Aulani is how very Hawaiian it is. Disney magic is often channeled to create out of this world experiences like their newest Pandora rides at Animal Kingdom at Disney World. In the vision for Aulani, however, Disney Imagineers decided to avoid fantasy and explore the richness of its location and celebrate its legacy and sense of place in a way few Hawaiian resorts do, or bothered to try.
The Hawaiian culture, history, language, and art of this region of Oahu inspired every detail of this resort. And Disney does creative details like nobody’s business. The results are impressive. This is not the beloved Polynesian resort at Disney World. Mickey’s on vacation, and he’s here to enjoy the island with you.
How? Both my daughter and I felt like we were warmly welcomed visitors into another culture, another land. Frankly, a flight across the Pacific Ocean should offer nothing less.
The Aulani meaning and vision
The Aulani meaning in Hawaiian loosely translates as “the place that speaks for the great ones” or “with deep messages.” Parents give the name to girls and can also mean “message from the chief.”
The most impressive aspect, for me, of the resort was how locally sourced its vision is. Traditional Hawaiian symbolism thoughtfully weaves throughout its design, and the resort takes cues from the Hawaiian culture and family traditions to weave everything together.
Aulani also impresses by displaying the largest collection of Hawaiian contemporary art in the world. Murals in the lobby depict the past (on the resort entrance side) and future (the beach facing side) of Oahu’s indigenous peoples.
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As you check in to your room, notice the massive mural behind the desk. Local children were asked to photograph a dominant color to make this beautiful rainbow.
Elders in Hawaiian are referred to as Uncle and Aunty. Instead of Mickey and Minnie calling the shots at Aulani, real life Uncle and Aunty host a variety of experiences to educate and entertain guests. These and other Hawaiian cultural ambassadors walk the resort ready to share an impressive depth of information about the symbolism behind every resort name and design detail.
Mo’olelo Fire Pit Storytelling along the beach gives families an opportunity to hear Uncle narrate Hawaiian folklore with a bit of ukulele and song thrown in. Each storytelling session in the day will discuss a different folktale. Amid the many deep messages Uncle shared with passion and authority, the youngest children sat still listening to every word.
Where is Aulani?
Aulani lies on Oahu’s Western shores in Ko Olina. Ko Olina is an upscale resort, shopping, and residential development about half an hour west of the Honolulu airport.
It’s far quieter than downtown Honolulu and the Waikiki Beach area. It has man-made protective coves that offer easy, still surf for swimming in calm waters.
Ko Olina is getting more resorts in the next few years to join Aulani and its neighbor, the Four Seasons. An Atlantis resort is next to join, though an opening date is far off.
Guests fly into the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) located in between the resort and downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. Honolulu offers nonstop flights to most West Coast markets. There are also nonstops from Atlanta, New York, and Boston starting in April on Hawaiian Airlines. And Southwest is starting service, too.
Guests can arrange transportation in advance with Disney or on their own. Shuttle service for a family of four is $90.00 round-trip. Private transfers run just under $200.00.
While other Oahu resort vacations may require a car, I don’t think Aulani does. There is so much to do in the area, most families will not bother leaving the resort area. Those with cars can choose either valet or self-parking for $37.00 per day.
Getting Aulani Deals
Just like when booking Disney Cruises, Luxe Recess recommends going through a travel agent who knows Aulani well in order to get the best deals and incentives. Aulani runs many specials that may not be obvious online. My personal agent for Disney is My Path Unwinding Travel for the level of expertise in both luxury and Disney. The agency has serious Hawaii expertise and can plan any Aulani trip with island hopping before or after.
Disney Aulani Hotel Rooms
The resort is split between two towers, designated as the male and female towers. Murals represent the Ewa (women) and Wai’Anae (men). Spa and fitness seekers may enjoy the Wai’Anae towers for its proximity, while the Ewa tower has the sunset views.
Stays at Aulani are either in traditional hotel rooms or at Disney Vacation Club Villas. You do not need to be a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) member to book these units. The difference between the two categories of rooms are that DVC units that are part of Disney’s ownership program include more home-like amenities like a washer and dryer and a kitchenette or full kitchen. These amenities make every vacation more convenient, so I suggest the villas over the hotel rooms, though they can both be booked on their website or by a travel agent.
Disney Vacation Club units come as studios, one, two, or three-bedroom villas. These largest villas are called Grand Villas and there are more than twenty on property to book. In fact, Aulani offers more DVC villas than hotel rooms.
Aulani Disney Vacation Club Villas
We stayed in a one-bedroom unit in the Wai’Anae Tower with a beautiful view of the beach and the pool area. The decor, like our wardrobe, was resort casual. Dark teak wood armoires, Hawaiian tapestries and art, and lively tropical floral accent pillows.
Our living room contained a queen sleeper sofa. Disney Vacation Club sleeper sofas are the best in the industry. They contain a trifold memory foam mattress that has no uncomfortable springs or bars poking you in the back. Both the bedroom and living rooms came with televisions with DVD players. (Free movie rentals are available, too).
The bathroom was split into two rooms, one with a deep soaking tub and vanity area, and the other with a large rainfall shower for two and another vanity sink and commode.
I loved having the full kitchen. It’s very helpful to grab breakfast essentials that are for sale in the store so if you wake up before 6:00 AM you can cook eggs, make toast, or cereal until the kitchens get going. The villas come with Joffrey’s Aulani roasted coffee pouches for a drip-style machine but no milk or creamer. Soy milk was also available in the store, but not almond milk.
The on-site store, outside of breakfast items like eggs, bacon, bread, and milk doesn’t really go beyond frozen pizzas, mac & cheese, deli meat, and hotdogs. All other groceries can be delivered or purchased at the nearby shopping center to which there’s a resort shuttle.
Waikolohe Valley: Aulani’s Pool Areas
There are countless garden areas, a beautiful koi pond, water falls, and if you happen to be walking around at 7:00 AM, a beautiful morning song dawns a new day. The song is in Hawaiian and had a very sacred sound. Even on a family vacation, I was aware of the “deep messages” Aulani was singing to me. You can hear the end of the song in my video.
Nestled in between Aulani’s two majestic towers is the Waikolohe Valley, an expansive area of pools, activities, and snack stands. There’s so much to do here, it will take a few days to try it all.
Guests check into a towel hut to receive colored wrist bands that change daily. This helps prevent non-resort guests from sneaking into the waterslide line. Seriously, even neighboring Four Seasons guests will enviously look at the activities and reconsider their next stay.
Aulani Pool Features
Waikolohe Stream is a lazy river and where we started our pool day. My family is obsessed with lazy rivers. This is a good one. There’s considerable shade and riders can avoid getting soaked.
There are two waterslides concealed within a large volcanic rock: the Volcanic Vertical and the Tubestone Curl. For the latter, you have the option of going down in a single or double tube. If you don’t want to tip over when you hit the pool at the bottom, make sure the heavier person sits in the back of the tube. The Volcanic Vertical is mostly dark and faster according to my braver daughter.
Menehune Bridge is one of my favorites. This massive splash and play area is named after the legendary builders called the Menehune. They are known for the skill to build the impossible overnight and maybe a little water spraying mischief.
Don’t walk too close. These figures are known to laugh at you at the most startling times, like on your way back to the room with a coffee in hand at 6:30 AM. Keiki Cove nearby is a smaller-scale splash area the has its own theatrical surprises that will make you smile. Disney uses its fantasy here to make Hawaiian folklore come alive.
There are other pools including a serene adult pool by the specialty coffee bar and an infinity edge family pool overlooking the beach.
Rainbow Reef allows guests to snorkel in a saltwater pool filled with fresh coral and more than 1,000 fish. This is one of the few paid experiences that costs extra at the pools besides cabana service. Guests receive cleaned snorkel equipment and a life jacket upon paid entry. This would be suitable for children who have comfort in the water but may not yet be strong swimmers.
Here’s something I wrote one morning at 6:20 AM, “The sun is rising, the beach sunrise yoga class is full of families. Two men swim the distance of the cove and back. Couples and joggers work their way around the Ko Olina path. Despite the activity, there is a beautiful hush.”
All of the American guests are up very early because of Hawaii’s time zone. California residents experience a three-hour time change, and I experienced a six-hour time change.
On one morning, I was able to persuade my children to join me in seeing the sunrise since they were awake. I think they could count the number of sunrises they have seen, and most were during rides to the airport. A terra cotta color surrounded us, and my daughter nodded, “Wow, this is beautiful.” This was even before we saw two side-by-side rainbows five minutes later.
Guests can borrow paddle boards to traverse the protected cove, and the surf was easy on young swimmers. Those who ventured to the cove boundaries with masks and goggles reported seeing sea turtles.
Aunty’s Beach House
A significant perk staying at the Aulani resort is that families have access to a complimentary kids’ club for those aged 3 to 12 years-old. Aunty’s Beach House is one of the resort’s most popular amenities. The club can reach capacity during peak season, so guests queue early in the morning to ensure that their children can enter to play.
The Beach House is designed like the family residence of Aunty and Uncle. The center stage of the main room is a massive stone fireplace and mantle filled with family pictures of Aunty, Uncle, and their family.
There are various rooms designed like the rooms of a house around certain activity themes. Kids choose between arts and crafts, costumes and dress up, movies, iPads, table games, and outdoor play.
Guests ideally pre-register their children online and print out registration sheets to present on their first day at the resort. Parents are asked to provide a secret safe word in order to collect their children. The experience will remind many of how the Disney Cruise Line kid’s clubs operate.
By contrast, Aulani guests pay a deposit on the Beach House Magic Bands. Guests can return those bands for a full refund before they depart. They resemble Magic Bands, but a lock is attached to them to ensure that children don’t remove them. These bands send signals to the front desk so that the exact location of your child is known when you come to collect them at pick up.
Aunty’s Beach house is really targeted for children under ten. There are tween programs and teen programs that are later in the day and in the evenings more focused on age-appropriate activities for them.
Aulani Activities for Families
The Pau Hana Room is the home base for many guest activities that rotate throughout the day. This community hall offers a complimentary board game and movie library for guests to take to their villa, and it’s also where families can register for additional activities that change every day.
Resort schedules, called the Daily ‘Iwa, are distributed at 7:30 PM for the following day.
There truly are enough activities for a family to partake for a full week’s vacation. Painting, animation, hula, ukulele, crafts and star gazing are just some of the experiences. Even learning to take a sunset shot for beginner photographers.
There’s also a unique scavenger hunt guests take throughout the resort with specially loaded iPads. This Menehune adventure trail is similar to the theme park experiences using cards like Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom and Phineas and Ferb’s Epcot Adventure.
Aulani offers its own version of the popular mixology classes for adults, too.
During our trip, we were so fortunate that my son got to experience the newly opened Painted Sky studio. Imagine a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique experience customized specifically for breaking through resort casual’s limits.
Children age 3 to 12 can sign up for a variety of looks. Both boys and girls can get luau-ready in two different types of traditional Hawaiian shirts or dresses. Tori Richard who has been designing Hawaiian resort wear since the 1950s created an exclusive pattern for Aulani used in the shirts for boys and the dresses for girls.
These packages include a hairstyle and stylish accessories. My son received a hook necklace inspired by Maui from Moana, Polynesian inspired tattoos, and his favorite new leather sandals. He chose a simple hairstyle, but other boys added color to their hair, blue to match their luau shirts.
For girls seeking a more Disney-focused transformation, Moana is obviously the most popular option though there are mermaid and Minnie Mouse choices too. The studio offers an excellent selection of merchandise the guests can purchase separately from the salon enhancing experience. Hair and make-up can also be done separately.
The Laniwai Spa
As a luxury travel writer, I can say with confidence that Aulani’s spa is a five-star experience. It’s actually the largest spa in the state of Hawaii with a massive outdoor hydrotherapy garden. Laniwai means “freshwater haven”
Disney weaves it’s magic here by adding in a unique ritual most fittingly for Aulani’s meaning. Remember, it’s a place of deep messages, right? Each spa visitor selects polished stone that reveals a one-word message. I received the word “listen.”
Spa attendants escort guests to a beautiful sleek fountain where we throw our stones into the pool below the suspending giant teardrop. And I mean it looks like a teardrop that belongs to a giant. The host points to the light that the ripples my stone created danced on the walls. OK, maybe it was a little hokey, but I loved this fortune cookie inspired ceremony to start my wellness visit.
I had a traditional Lomilomi massage on my first visit to the spa, and was so impressed with the treatment I returned the following day to experience a facial, too.
My daughter got to book a treatment from the teen menu, and she enjoyed a 25-minute facial. I truly broke my own rules by doing this. As a parent, I’m all about never setting the bar of expectations too high. So, I totally messed this up, I just found at the spa was worth the multiple visits.
The wet areas in the men’s and women’s locker rooms are standard steam rooms, sauna, and lounges. What’s more impressive is what couples can experience together.
The coed relaxation lounge with teas, fruits, and snacks opens onto the outdoor hydrotherapy garden, Kula Wai. There are reserved hot tubs specific couples’ treatments. There are several plunge pools that very temperatures in this tropical garden.
Its showcase feature is a structure erected like Stonehenge. A tall circle of stones contains various shower and hydrotherapy experiences. Guests rotate through these motion-activated showers. A man in a group sharing the facilities nailed it when he said, ‘I feel like a car in a car wash.”
In the morning and the afternoon, a spa attendant makes a homemade salt and sugar scrub by the pools for guests. I’m not one to linger in these types of spaces, but I found Kula Wai irresistible.
Though I’ve had an excellent experience with the spas on the Disney cruise ships, I think Aulani offers the most luxurious Disney resort spa.
Aulani offers only two sit-down restaurants, and both suggest reservations before arrival. Makahiki, offers a vast buffet and a Disney character breakfast and dinner.
The character meal routine is similar to Ohana at Disney World. Families check in for their reservation and proceed to a photo line. The star character is Mickey Mouse dressed in his vacation casual attire. Goofy also circulated around the tables while Aunty emceed some simple song and dance.
The buffet was extensive offering a wonderful combination of Hawaiian favorites with American, Japanese, and European standards. I love trying the mini loco moco, a Hawaiian fusion comfort food of a poached egg on top of a hamburger patty, white rice, and brown gravy.
There is a dinner on select nights of the week that feature Disney characters. Uncle hosts this meal, alone with Donald Duck. Stich, Chip, and Dale might make an appearance, too.
‘Ama ‘ama is the formal oceanfront restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with sweeping views of the ocean. Its named for a local fish that circles the island of Oahu. Both my kids fell for their corn and potato chowder and ordered it multiple times. I enjoyed their version of traditional Hawaiian poke with fresh ahi tuna. Live music plays at night.
Ulu Cafe next to the pool area is where we found our favorite food. This surprised me, because, as a foodie, I prefer the Disney signature restaurants in Orlando to any quick service restaurants but everything there was excellent. In addition to a fantastic breakfast platter three of us could easily share, I had my best poke bowl in all of Hawaii there. Premade sandwiches and salads as well as daily specials are available for lunch and dinner.
Even quick service restaurants in Hawaii come at a premium price. In addition to cooking in their kitchens to reign in the vacation budget, Ulu Cafe makes pizzas to go at night for a welcome bargain.
Pāpālua Shave Ice
The other key restaurant at Aulani is the Pāpālua Shave Ice located in the middle of the pool area. It’s the colorful traditional Hawaiian dessert that can come with Mickey ears for a few extra dollars.
If guests who stay a while fear they will tire of the two restaurants, there are many options by foot, too. The Four Seasons is right next door with several more restaurants, and the Monkey Pod in the shopping center across from the resort gets rave reviews.
The Disney Aulani Luau: Ka Wa’A
The showcase event during a family’s stay at Aulani is the Ka Wa’a luau. We got all dressed up after our Painted Sky laua makeover, and then got rained out. Fear not, Stuffed Suitcase tells you everything you need to know about the Ka Wa’a luau in this guide.
For shopping on site, the main gift shop resembles many Disney resort gift shops you’ve been to. There is a variety of character merchandise, toys, and apparel. There are also vacation essentials in sundries and basic groceries. Local food-based gifts like macadamia nuts and Kona coffee sets make good souvenirs or gifts.
There’s a more formal store across the way, Hale Manu, that sells upscale resort clothing, sandals, jewelry, and housewares with a golden pineapple theme. They were also limited-edition Kate Spade hand bags and accessories with a Minnie Mouse motif.
Guests seeking a really Disney vacation can find it at Aulani, too. Disney character meals, Moana meet and greets, hidden Mickeys are all there. There’s a perfect balance for those seeking two styles of vacations. For Disney regulars, they will be happy to see many vacation elements and programs from other destinations here, too like Photopass photographers.
The Disney Aulani Photopass System
Guests can take advantage of getting family photos from Disney castmembers at designated spots around the resort. Several photographers are along the beach to get that classic shot for you. Photographers also took shots of my children at Aunty’s House. Photographers give wristbands or photo cards after each photo to claim in the system. Guests can take these to the Photopass cashier inside the main resort shop to consolidate all of the photos on one card. You can purchase them once you are home online and do not have to be claimed on site.
Aulani had indeed delivered many deep messages of cultural pride and celebration. Considering my chosen rock from the spa was inscribed, “Listen,” I was ready for them. Disney truly approached the creation of the resort from a place of local respect. Other luxury resorts cannot to the same extent because they must adhere to strict branding rules. Disney could have chosen a theme defined by retro 1960’s Hawaiian beach movies, for example, but chose a different direction with humility.
Aulani has a lounge dedicated to teaching and resurrecting traditional Hawaiian language staffed only by those who speak it. I heard the enthusiasm of young cast members sharing their love of hula traditions in the luau lessons. I listened each day to the morning song piped through Waikolohe Valley, and I keep hearing Uncle’s ukulele rendition of Pearly Shells with sentimentality weeks later. Mahalo.