Hawaii: Disney’s Aulani Resort & Oahu

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My family recently returned from a dream vacation to Oahu, Hawaii. Full disclosure, we did not actually stay at Disney’s Aulani Resort, but I could not be that close without taking a peek. Aulani is one of the three “stand-alone” Disney resorts not located near the parks. It is located in Ko Olina, (fun fact, it means “place of joy”) which is on the western shore of Oahu. We are HUGE Hawaii fans, so naturally the idea of marrying our love of Disney with Hawaii was ideal. We chose not to stay at Aulani for several reasons. The main reason being it was way out of our budget. The rooms start at $500 USD per night. You can get it cheaper than this with a room discount, which do come out quite often… but you’re still looking at $350 or more per night. If this is within your budget, I’m sure you would not regret booking this resort, it is beautiful. But another reason we wouldn’t have booked it is because we wanted our kids to actually experience Hawaii. We stayed right in the heart of Waikiki, which is not everyone’s cup of tea either. So my impression of the resort is limited, but what I can offer you is some ideas of what to do on the island.

First, let me tell you about the resort as I experienced it. Driving up to resort, I could tell the exact moment we were nearing the area. Disney does a wonderful job of beautifying the streets leading up to their properties. That may sound weird, but anyone who has visited a Disney park or resort knows exactly what I’m talking about. Disney prides themselves on this “Disney Difference!” We found public parking close to the beach where Aulani is located. We figured it would be easy to get in from the beach (anyone can walk into Disney resorts just to explore and look around) but boy were we wrong. The resort is actually 21 acres!

Beach

img_6816The cove where Aulani’s beach is located is a public space shared with a couple other resorts. I was surprised to see how small it was actually. Compared with the long stretches of sandy beach in Waikiki it felt really tight. I was expecting the resort to be directly open to the beach, but it was not. There were beach chairs and umbrellas being attended and maintained by staff. There was also a little rental hut and a little quick service food hut called Little ‘Opihi’s that served sandwiches, snacks, fresh fruit, Disney treats and beverages. This would be open to the public as well. If there was a direct way to walk up to the resort, we did not find it. I’m sure if you had a room key there is better access, but it still felt very closed off from the beach which I would be disappointed with if I was staying on site. I do think this was intentional on Disney’s part, so that it is a bit more “secluded” and safer than some of the beaches in Waikiki. I believe they wanted some protection from bigger waves and have more control over the risk for accidents, which you can’t eliminate completely but you can certainly do your best to prevent. Beach chairs and umbrellas are complimentary for Aulani guests… and you can also rent snorkeling gear, kayaks and paddleboards.

Lobby 

So once we finally walked around to the main entrance, we were able to enter through the main lobby. It completely took my breath away with the Polynesian aesthetic and authentic Hawaiian feel. This is an area I feel Disney always excels. They know how to create beautiful spaces. Like in other resorts they had a small kid friendly room with TVs and things to occupy children while mom and dad are getting checked in. If you walked straight through the lobby it led right out to a balcony area that offered stunning views of the pool and lazy river. The sun was just setting so it was very hard to get a good picture. I did a story highlight on our Instagram account (www.instagram.com/stressfreemickey), so definitely check that out if you want more of a visual. 

Shopping

There were three stores to shop in at Aulani. The first that we saw was The Lava Shack… bathing suits, pool toys, flip flops and waterproof spirit jerseys. That’s right, they had spirit jersey rash guards and they were amazing! They also had all the classic bracelets and key chains. You could also find their Roxy Disney collection which is awesome. 

The second was Kalepa’s, pretty much the regular store you can find at any Disney resort. I did find it to be a bit small actually compared to some other resorts I’ve visited, especially considering that there isn’t a ton of shopping choices near the resort. So aside from the merchandise (a lot of it was unique to Aulani) they also had a small (and I mean VERY small) selection of food for purchase at an inflated cost… but it was so much fun to see all the different merchandise! They had a selection of Disney Aulani ears that were absolutely stunning. I regret not buying a pair now. They also had Duffy and Friends which are kind of a big deal there, but I’m not that familiar with them. We were there just before Christmas so I think a lot of the regular merch wasn’t out. I did love seeing their Christmas Hawaiian decor though, and even picked up an adorable Christmas ornament.

Hale Manu is the luxury store on the resort. This is where you can find Hawaiian designer clothes, Disney Dooney & Burke (with Aulani exclusive prints), jewelry, Loungefly and much more. I ended up finding my Alex and Ani bracelet here. I definitely could drop a lot of money here if money wasn’t an object. As my Grandma used to say, “if only we were rich instead of so good lookin’,” with a wink and a smile.

Pool

The main pool was under construction when we were there but we were able to see the lazy river and that’s where I would want to be! There were lots of little paths and places to explore on the pool deck. We didn’t spend a lot of time here but it looked like a great area. This is where I put on my travel agent hat, so if you’re not interested in all of the details skip ahead to the next “red” section! Waikolohe Valley is the pool area, located between the two towers. To ensure exclusivity to the guests, you have to show your room key on a daily basis to get a new wrist band and towel to enter this area for the day.

The main pool is 8200 square feet, and has a beach style entrance. There is the lazy river, and a more “extreme” waterslide. There is also Keiki Cove for the littles, which is a whimsical, interactive splash zone. For kids (48″ and under) there is Menehune Bridge, which includes 2 waterslides, water play, and a climbing structure. Ka Maka Grotto is an oceanfront pool area with a beautiful infinity edge, and even has an after dark experience with glittering lights! If you want to enjoy an adult only experience, there is Wailana Pool; a quiet oasis, set apart from the rest of the resort. It features a tension edge pool, and water wall as well as a pool bar. There are also 4 whirlpool spas (including 2 terraced adult-exclusive spa pools with infinity edges).

While we were exploring this area, we bumped into Goofy and got a picture! Characters are always walking around, so make sure to have that camera ready at all times.

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Food

This seemed to be the most problematic issue about staying in this resort. None of your meals are included, so expect to spend a lot on food. There are a couple of pool side restaurants with some more affordable options. It looked like there were a ton of fun treats too, like Dole Whip and Mickey shaped shaved ice. I also saw a little cafe which had some fun pastry and quick breakfast items. If you are looking to do a character breakfast you can reserve that at Makahiki, The Bounty of the Islands. Adults are $43, and kids (3-9) are $23. If you aren’t staying at the resort I think this would be a fun thing to do with your kids. You can make a reservation online. It’s a buffet-style restaurant so it may be the best bang for your buck. The two sit down restaurants are much pricier but have stunning ocean views. Nice place to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or honeymoon. We didn’t eat anywhere on the resort so I can’t comment on the quality of the food, but I’m sure it’s the same level of food you can find in the parks.

We all know that Disney does theming very well, and they continue it through their food offerings here at Aulani. They pride themselves on their food; offering local, fresh cuisine.

On site food options include:
Makahiki, The Bounty of the Islands (named after an annual Hawaiian Festival) includes a rotating menu of local harvest buffets. At night the dining room changes from rose to indigo with the setting sun. Dinner buffet includes things like sustainable seafood, prime rib, and Asian inspired entrees. You can also join your favourite Disney Characters for “
Aunty’s Breakfast Celebration at the Makahiki,” which includes omelets, pancakes, waffles, and french toast… to name a few.
‘AMA’AMA is located close to the pool area and the beach with open air seating, an ocean view, and boasts Island cooking melded with Asian and European flavors for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Lava Shack is a pool side shop with snacks, fountain beverages, mug refill stations (similar to WDW resorts you can pay for an all you care to enjoy soda option) and DOLE WHIP!
Little ‘Opihi’s is right on the beach and has salads, wraps, soft pretzels, Mickey bars, and fruit.
Mama’s Snack Stop serves hot dogs and chicken tenders; you can build your own with choice of bread, sauce, and meat, including a Buffalo-Ranch fried chicken tender dog!
Papalua Shave Ice is found at the poolside and serves fruity, refreshing shave ice… which is a popular Hawaiian treat!
Ulu Cafe is a pool side venue that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with grab and go selections.

There are also multiple lounges where you can enjoy a cocktail or Hawaiian beer and appetizers.

Now if you want to explore food off of the resort I saw an outdoor shopping centre with a few options. It would probably only be a 5 min walk or so from the lobby so it’s worth checking out. I spotted a Honolulu Coffee Company shop and this is a Hawaiian MUST. They have amazing lattes and pastries.

Recreation and Experiences

There is so much to see and do at Aulani, and these are just some of the things you can look forward to if you do stay at the resort.

– Character Interactions and Meals
– Pool Parties including tween only, teen only, and family pool parties
– Rainbow Reef is the only private saltwater snorkeling lagoon in Oahu and you can  enjoy it for a small fee
– Outdoor Movie Nights with pre-show games and trivia
– Aunty’s Beach House for kids ages 3-12 is complimentary and your kids will love being there while you get to enjoy some adult only time
– Mo’olelo Story Telling at night with “uncle” at the fire pit; featuring puppets, props and music
– Menehune Adventure Trail is a high tech scavenger hunt 
– Painted Sky is the only teen spa in Hawaii (ages 13-17)
– Laniwai Spa is an award winning spa with over 150 spa treatments and Kula Wai an outdoor hydrotherapy garden with private vitality pools, reflexology path, six different “rain” showers, hot tubs and is complimentary with the purchase of any full-service treatment

Rooms

Since we did not stay here, we did not see a standard room. But they did have a suite open to look through and it looked unbelievable. I think if you are a Disney Vacation Club member that will give you the best value for staying at this resort. If you have the points, I would for sure recommend staying at this resort. But don’t be afraid to leave the resort and explore the island!

A few things to note about rooms: Standard rooms only fit 4 people, so if you’re a family of 5 that’s something to consider. However with the food options being what they are, I do recommend a villa so that you have a fridge and microwave; and the 1-3 bedroom villas (5-12 guests!) also have multiple bedrooms, bathrooms and full kitchens.

Exploring Oahu

As beautiful as the resort is, don’t just stay in the Disney bubble, there is so much to see and do on this island! Like I said, we were Hawaii fans before the resort was even built. My husband and I honeymooned in Hawaii and have been back several times. Next to the Disney parks, Hawaii is our favourite vacation spot. We were so excited to introduce our kids to our favourite spots, and now I can share them with you too!

Dole Plantation

If you are a lover of Dole Whip like we are, this is such a fun stop. Going to the place where that magical swirl began is so epic. They have a variety of activities you can do, including a tour. We are basically just there for the good stuff. Yes, you can get it at the resort but the menu is more extensive at the plantation. It doesn’t take more than a couple of hours so we usually lump it in with the North Shore. 

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North Shore

The North Shore is where some of the world’s best surfing can be found. These waves aren’t for beginners, but if you are like us, sit and watch the pros from the safety of the beach! There was a surfing competition while we were there but unfortunately it got canceled the day we rented a car so we missed it. If surfing isn’t your thing, we recommend snorkeling. We found the best little area called Pupukea Beach Park. It’s a perfect little wading area protected by rocks. There were so many different fish and turtles! In fact, I almost walked straight into one. The tide in this area does vary; when we went, the deepest sections were maybe four feet. But we had friends that went when the tide was low and the water was too shallow to snorkel. All along the coast there are places to stop though so I would try here first and then move on. There was a food truck spot right across from this beach so when we got hungry we just popped over for a snack. This day was the highlight of my trip actually, so don’t miss the North Shore.

Waikiki

This is the tourist hub of the island, the majority of people in this area are tourists or they work there. You can find restaurants, both chain and local, shopping – anything from Gucci to Quicksilver, countless coffee shops and much more. The reason we love to stay in this area is because you can essentially walk everywhere you need to go. There is so much to see and do here so I would say plan on spending a day or at least a couple of hours here.

If you love chain restaurants we love The Cheesecake Factory (they have menu items you can only find in Hawaii), Cheeseburger in Paradise and The Yard House. If you want something more unique, or that you can’t find at home try Maui Brewing Co (kid friendly) or Duke’s. Duke’s is right on the beach and a quintessential Waikiki experience. If you are only going to pick one, that is your best bet. The other thing that is great about Waikiki is the amount of quick and cheap options. The McDonald’s right on the beach has a beach bundle that is perfect if you don’t want to leave the beach to eat. For $15 you get the choice of 2 Big Macs, 2 Quarter Pounders, 20 chicken nuggets, 2 large fries and 2 larges sodas OR 4 cheeseburgers, 4 McChickens, 20 chicken nuggets, 2 large fries and 2 larges sodas. Only in America. This was just such a good cheap meal option to feed the family. We spent the majority of the day at the beach so it was such a convenient (but not healthy) option. 

There are lots of amazing coffee shops but our favourite is Island Vintage Coffee. They also have a shave ice store that by far outweighs the rest. Classic Hawaiian shave ice is good too… you know all the bright coloured artificial flavors. But the Island Vintage Shave Ice is something special. All their sauces and syrups are made from scratch and with all natural ingredients. They mix it in with frozen yogurt and fresh fruits and wow. You just have to trust me on this one, its a MUST.

Like I said earlier, I think the beaches in this area are just breathtaking. A sunset walk on the beaches of Waikiki is probably one of my favourite things in the whole world. Go for dinner and then head to the beach after. Or if you don’t have kids with you I would reverse that order. There is also a main stage right on the beach. Each night Hawaiian entertainers take the stage. There is always an array of traditional Hawaiian song and dance and the best part is that it’s free!

I could go on and on but I will finish with the shopping. With the increase of international tourists, we have seen an increase in high end shopping options. Even just to window shop is an experience all on it’s own. The International Market used to be a little dirt floor market in the middle of Waikiki with local vendors and lights strung between trees. I was a little sad to see this paved over and made into a mall. But really, I cannot complain because they did a beautiful job. And as for the local vendors, they are still there but in a new location called Dukes Lane. That is where you can find Aloha shirts (Hawaiian shirts) and dresses as well as puka shell necklaces and other jewelry. Don’t be afraid to negotiate the price a little. 

Diamond Head

The Diamond Head State Monument is something we like to do each visit. We decided to do the short hike with the kids. I would say that it’s an easy hike if you are in good health. There are a lot of stairs at the end so if you have mobility challenges, this might not be for you. There are lots of places to stop, rest, take in the scenery and snap a picture or two. We saw people of all ages on the path going up and down. If you want to avoid large crowds, go early. We went at around 11 AM on a Saturday and it was really busy. There are several view points that you can stop at along the way, but the view at the top is so worth pushing through to the end! And you can reward yourself at the end with a shave ice. The park is inside of the volcanic crater which is super fun!

I hope I’ve inspired you to explore Aulani and Oahu! And if you want a taste of the islands but can’t make it to Hawaii, the Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World is a great place to stay for those Hawaiian vibes! You can also eat at ‘Ohana for some island-themed cuisine… check out our review of the restaurant here. If you would like to book your vacation contact: erica.elizabeth.jones@gmail.com

Have a magical day!
Heidi and Erica

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