Disney’s Aulani Resort and Spa – My Experience & Review

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Ever since Disney’s Aulani Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, on the island of Oahu, opened in August 2011, my husband and I have had it on our bucket list of places to visit. This year when we talked about our June vacation, the obvious place for us to visit was Aulani. Despite it being summer and close to its peak capacity, we knew we had to go, it was about time. We did a lot of research before going so we knew not to expect a theme park or anything remotely close to the Disney Cruise (we did that a few years ago and loved it!). Aulani is best described as a luxurious hotel with a few Disney characters.

Prior to our trip, I had been communicating with the Public Relations team at the Aulani. Once we got there, I met with, Noriko Harimoto, Public Relations Manager, who was as warm and friendly as all the staff on the resort. Ms.  Harimoto and Aulani were kind enough to provide me with a few perks on our vacation. These perks did not alter or affect my view of Aulani.

One thing I did learn from Ms. Harimoto was that you have to take note of the art work and decor in the lobby and throughout the resort. There is a story behind all of it and if you want to know more then do the art work tour because you will learn so much about Aulani. All the art work at the resort is by a total of local artists. Everything (art work) down to the shape and design of the buildings pay homage to Hawaiian culture, traditions, history, beliefs and island life.

On to our awesome stay…we booked a standard guest room but there are also suites available for stay. In retrospect I would have chosen a suite purely for the option of a kitchen. We had a mini fridge which allowed us to keep some food but we were primarily forced to eat out every meal. A suite would have been nice to have to have the option to cook but then the limiting factor would have been groceries. Across the street from the resort is a small shopping center with the Island Country Market that sells grocery items, souvenirs and has a small deli. Although, the prices are steep at the market…$10 for a gallon of non organic milk (whew!). There is also small store on the property that sells limited grocery items.

With food in mind, let me describe the restaurants:

  • Ulu Cafe – They serve hot and cold foods (chips, Mickey Mouse shaped sandwiches, pastries, ice cream etc…) at every meal. The hot food changes for each meal but the cold foods remain the same. This is the ideal place to pick up breakfast and take to your room or eat right there. The prices are fairly reasonable.
  • Ama Ama – Ocean view, kid-friendly, fine dining at its best! I am vegetarian and they have a separate menu for vegetarians, including vegan options. Make reservations for dinner if you want to eat at a specific time! They are also open for lunch. We went here for dinner with the kids and the enjoyed their meal as much as we did. The kids meals came with a drink and dessert.

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  • Mahakiki – Dinner buffet every night and Character breakfast/brunch every morning. The Character Breakfast is a must do for kids. All the characters roam around, play games and allow for tons of pictures. The breakfast buffet is vast with the freshest fruit you will ever get! Reservations are a must for the Character Breakfast. We did the Character Breakfast to celebrate my son’s upcoming birthday. He had a blast when the characters sang to him and brought out a cake (I ordered it in advance).

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  • Off the Hook – poolside lounge with bar and food (burgers, sandwiches etc…)
  • Pool side hot dogs and shaved ice (super popular way to cool off).
  • Beachfront dining

Across the street is a mini plaza with a few restaurants. The Monkey Pod is a popular sit down restaurant (it gets very crowded at dinner). We never ate there but everyone rants and raves about the food! Pizza Corner makes a one size pizza (large) and garlic knots which are to die for. They deliver to Aulani so order in if you do not feel like making the trek across the street. The owner Frank is super friendly, he greeted us when we were there. He even bonded with my son! There is also a Sushi restaurant and Mexican restaurant (we did not love it) in the plaza. In the plaza there is also an ice cream store, coffee shop and a few other stores (clothing, art). The Mariott next door has a Starbucks for those who need their Starbucks fix. One thing, as a vegetarian, I had fewer food options at the restaurants on the resort and off.

Another food tip, Aulani sells Disney travel mugs for $20 each which allow you to refill at the soda fountain or coffee for the duration of your trip. The only thing that they do not have for free refill is milk but if you are a coffee, ice tea, soda or juice drinker then this is a must buy!

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Our shuttle driver from the airport was kind enough to (his suggestion) to stop at Safeway on the way to the hotel. He warned us that prices for groceries is high in Ko Olina. I am so glad he did this because I bought milk, cereal, bagels, cream cheese, snacks, yogurt etc. These groceries were perfect for the kids when they woke up at the crack of dawn starving. They were happy and fed while my husband and I were happy and sleepy.

I digressed from the rooms but our room had a small Mickey lamp which was the only Disney motif in the room. Overall the theme was brown colors and Hawaiian culture. The bathtub/shower is deep and large, the balcony is large to sit and enjoy the view and fresh air. The rooms were very clean with a nightly turn down service. Disney was smart because they made the beds higher up to provide space to store suitcases. There is even a stool in the room to climb up the bed for those who need it (my 2 1/2 year old). Every room has a DVD player and all other standard hotel amenities.

Moving on to more exciting things, the water activities/pools are plentiful. You can spend hours in the water without realizing how much time has gone by. The water activities were a blast for the kids. There are lifeguards throughout so you feel safe letting your children be free. My older one would sometimes go down the water slide or something on his own but we felt safe because he is a good swimmer and there are lifeguards present everywhere.

Here is a list of the water fun:

  • Tube water slide which can be done solo or 2 people together in the double tube. Any age as long as they can hold on (my 2 1/2 year old did the double tube with us).
  • Tube slide which leads into the lazy river which you can swim through or relax in the tubes. Any age.
  • Single body water slide is technically for any age but its a dark tunnel all the way through so it can be scary. Leads into a 3 1/2-4 feet pool.
  • Main Pool – Zero entry pool and has access to the single body water slide
  • Menehune Bridge – Must be under 48″ so no adults allowed on the bridge but anyone can go underneath the bridge. Includes 2 slides and a play structure.
  • Keiki Cove Splash Zone – resembles a tidal pool
  • Infinty pool – Overlooks the beach and is the newest addition to Aulani.
  • 3 spas for all ages
  • Rainbow Reef – Private snorkling lagoon where you can see the fish from below or enjoy snorkling. You must be a strong swimmer and the water is super cold. My oldest son tried it but the water was too cold for him. There is an additional fee for snorkling.
  • 1 pool and 1 spa for 18+

 During the peak season, if you do not get to the pool at 8 am or sooner all the “good” pool chairs will be gone. You need to save your seat early. The good thing is that Aulani regulates so if you are away from your chair for 2 hours they will take your stuff and store it at the towel house for pick up. This prevents people from reserving chairs and then never returning. At the towel house, they have free life vests to borrow so you do not have to bring your own.

Disney has thought of everything, there are ice cold water jugs with cups around the pool area so you never have to search for water.

Moving on to the rest of what Aulani has to offer, keep posted by reading the daily Iwa (schedule) every evening. At turn down every night, the staff places an Iwa in your room so you will always get one. The night before, plan your next day so you do not miss all the great classes and activities that will be happening.

Aulani Activities:

  • Menhune Adventure Trail – Borrow an iPad and go on a scavenger hunt around the resort looking for the Menehune (legendary “little people” responsible for mysterious happenings on the Islands). Learn the history of Hawaii and its culture. This is fun and interactive for people of all ages.
  • Rent Disney DVDs to watch in your room. A relaxing way wind down your evening or to entertain your early birds (if you are flying west be prepared for very early risers).
  • Classes and activities (crafts, star gazing, music, toddler play time, surfing etc…) throughout the day. Some activities or classes require reservation in the morning because there are limited spaces.
  • Evening activities include movies on the lawn (a Disney movie) or the Starlit Hui which is a hula show and crafts. The Hui is a must do at least once while at Aulani. Every evening there is firepit storytelling which is a fun way to hear Hawaiian legends and folklore.

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  • Beach – relax on a Aulani lounge chair, play beach games, volleyball, learn how to build a sand castle. Sand toys and boogie boards are complimentary to Aulani guests. There is an additional charge for paddle boarding rental, surfing lessons, kayaking rentals etc.
  • Aunty’s Beach House – Drop off free childcare for children 3-12. There is a movie room, activities, games, computer games, video games, outdoor play structure and outdoor toys, dress up closet, pretend play, etc. There are some activities that require you to sign your children up in the morning to attend. If you are going at a busy time of the year then make sure you get in line early (7 am) to sign your child up for certain activities or your child will not get in (Eruption Disruption Volcano, Stitch’s Space Goo). Every morning from 8-9:30 am they have open play for children of any age to play at Aunty’s Beach House. This worked for our daughter who was not old enough for the drop off because she got upset when we dropped her brothers off the first day for the sign-up activity. After that we were smart and took her to play in the morning. If your child is content playing then the kids club is great for you. My kids wanted to be in the pool so  in 1 week they only went to Aunty’s Beach House twice for the scheduled activites because they wanted to swim the whole time. Snack and drinks are served at Aunty’s Beach House but if you want your child to each lunch or dinner then you have to reserve a meal spot and pay extra. If your child will allow it, reserve a dinner spot at the Beach House while you enjoy a relaxing meal at Ama Ama.  Aunty’s Beach House is secure with a strict check-in and check-out service. No one can release your child expect whomever you designate.
  • Morning exercise classes are a great way to start the day for the early birds. I never did the classes but I saw the yoga on the beach and it looked so serene.
  • The Spa at Ohana – I did not go to the spa but I heard it was spectacular!
  • The Disney characters (Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Stich, Chip n’ Dale) make random appearances in the pool area through out the day. They also have appointed times for the characters to be if you want pictures with a specific character (check the Iwa). One of the actitives is a pool party and the characters come dance with the guests. If you do the Character Breakfast, you will have plenty of photo opprotunites with the characters.
  • Photography -Throughout the resort, well mostly outside, photographers roam and at any time you can ask them to take your picture. They give you a photo card and you keep that card to store all your photos under 1 account. Every time they take your picture, give them your photo card. If you do not have it on you, you can always get another card. You can view the photos on your TV in the room. At the end of your visit, you have a choice to buy the photo CD for $100. The deal is awesome because you get all images. If you think you are going to buy the CD then take advantage and dress up for family pictures one evening and get free professional pictures on the beach at sunset. We did it and I am glad we did. The memories are priceless!
  • Koi pond with feedings daily for the kids or adults to participate in.
  • Teen activities in Painted Sky – meet-ups, activities etc…

Beyond resort activities, Oahu is obviously an island with a lot to see and rich history (Pearl Harbor for example). This is not my family’s first time at Oahu so we chose not to rent a car but if you have never been to Oahu or feel like you want to get out then you will need a car. Aulani will arrange travel for you but a car will just be more convenient. Aulani is on the quieter side of the island (Ko Olina) so if you desire action and the city then rent a car. A lot of people stay at Aulani for a few days and the other side of the island for a few days to experience the entire island.

Aulani is a must-go see. Do not go expecting to see princesses and everything Disney. It has the Disney quality without being a theme park. Aulani caters to everyone. They do not have height or age restrictions with most of their activities which makes it very family friendly. Although, if you are planning to visit, my suggestion is make sure your children or at least 1 of your children is over the age of 3 so you/they can fully enjoy the resort. Before we left, my husband’s patient was telling him how he his wife and 1 1/2 year old were just at Aulani. They said it was beautiful but there was not enough to do. After visiting, I realize he meant that with their young daughter it is hard to keep her entertained in the pool all day. She is not old enough to appreciate it they way a 4 or 5 year old and older would. We had to drag my kids out of the water every day, even though they had been in it all day. Everything is catered to a little older children. My daughter loves the water but she definitely did not appreciate the activities and water the way my boys did. Yes it is a family place but it is known for the pools so you should love the water to fully take advantage.

I want to thank Aulani for a vacation that my family will never forget. We loved every moment of our 1 week there!

Extra info: Free wifi, no resort fee for fitness center, stroller friendly (senior citizen friendly), bbq grills for guest use, outside guests can pay a daily fee to use the resort for the day (Aulani verifies by changing a daily colored band that every guest needs to wear every day), resort to airport shuttle not included