As some of you know, I recently spent some time in Disney’s Aulani Resort and Spa, at a time that I don’t usually visit. This trip was a winter escape for us, and we found ourselves booking a Hawaiian vacation in the middle of the summer high season. I’ve got a pretty analytical review for you that I’ve been thinking about for the few weeks we have been home, so prepare yourselves for brutal honesty.
This resort is beautiful; there is no denying that. On arrival, you walk into the lobby and are greeted by a breathtaking view featuring natural colors that you’ve never dreamed were possible. It draws you in, pulling you through onto the balcony. The arms of this expansive building wrap around your sight; the chaos that you imagine a water playground to be is neatly concealed beneath a carpet of greenery that sways in the perfectly tempered breeze. It rushes past your skin, welcoming you as the warmth of the island whispers aloha.
The scene behind you is another story.
As you step back inside the lobby area, that imagined chaos becomes a reality. The line for check-in extends beyond the ropes, worse than midday at Peter Pan’s Flight in Magic Kingdom. While staff working at the front desk become irritated, the magical, relaxed vibe begins to show signs of wear and tear. Even long before the expected check-in time, the smaller-than-needed space for guests coming and going isn’t coping with the spacial demands of peak season. I suspect that staff shortages might also be contributing to the problem, keeping guests waiting much longer than we ever have before and resulting in other guests waiting for their party to linger longer.
As we approach the front, a communication breakdown ensues, significantly impacting our check-in experience, despite booking almost a year in advance. Let me explain. It began when we approached the desk, ready with documents in hand. We confirmed our guests and room bookings ahead of them being prepared for us as our flight had arrived early that morning. The Cast Member made a note that in the last of the three rooms we had booked, we were unexpectedly one guest short, leaving only one adult and one teen in the double queen room that had been booked. The lady confirmed our reservation, reiterating the room type and confirming guests before we left to get some lunch; everything was seemingly in order.
Later, once the rooms were ready to be entered, we discovered that the team member helping us had revised our booked Double Queen room to a King room and had given away the Double Queen we were supposed to have due to only two guests staying. Our two guests staying in that room were not able to sleep in the same bed, and thus, an unpleasant phone call needed to be made.
It took a little while to sort out; with the hotel fully booked and our initially confirmed room already given away, the front desk team had to place our guests in the last available room, away from our party, in a completely different area. While I understand that sometimes these things happen, the attitude taken was one that I have never come across before, a complete intolerance as if to say, tough luck. Even though we did manage to persevere and insist on getting what we needed, it was an instant dampener on the whole first day. I was able to clearly articulate my point that upon checking in, if something needed to be changed, all someone needed to do was mention it to us, not wait for us to discover the change ourselves several hours later.
Any of you who know what flights from Australia are like might have worked out that my mood was already on edge, having been up for more hours than would agree with anyone’s temperament. I wasn’t impressed, to say the least, not to mention that it was one of the worst types of disruption that irritates me: an avoidable one.
Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to move on. Australia had kept us locked away for far too long, and it was my first return to Oahu since. As I climbed atop the incredibly high bed (I will come back to that in a moment), the sweet music from below began echoing up towards our balcony and through the open doors. My mellow was slowly returning.
The rooms themselves are gorgeous, a decent size for my family of four, and the view was stunning — as you can see in the image further above. Approaching the 35th hour of straight consciousness, it was time for an early dinner before the long-awaited recovery sleep. Walking through to The ‘Ōlelo Room, the last of my energy expelled, there he was, walking through like he owned the place; Mickey. A quick catch-up with my favorite mouse had my heart strings tingling. I was finally back.
The ‘Ōlelo Room was perfection. A talented local musician played atmospheric music while the sun faded into a twinkling backdrop of nighttime. If you have never eaten at this location, it is simply a must. While it feels like a casual dining experience, the food quality is up there with the best Disney has to offer, and the surroundings are the ideal mix of Disney magic and island paradise. Their Pūpū and Sushi menus stand out among all the dining options, and for those looking for an adult beverage, try the Coconut Mint Mojito.
Aside from my experience with the front desk, Aulani Cast Members were delightful everywhere you went. They have this genuine approach to greeting you that doesn’t feel scripted (though I know it likely is); instead, you feel truly welcome at every turn. Even at night, passing cast in the walkways around the pool areas, each person felt warm and approachable. Around this time each night, the resort began to glow, and I couldn’t take enough photos to capture how enchanting it felt.
The days and nights that came after were smooth and enjoyable. In a separate article, you can read more about my Aulani Resort Pool Tips, as acquiring (and hanging on to) a seat by the pool proved to be more difficult than expected in the high season. In some ways, I wonder if the resort’s insular feel sometimes backfires, not allowing enough guest traffic to flow through different areas. Every time I visit, it takes me a day or two to remember that the design of the resort lends itself to keeping you within the Disney walls and is not very encouraging in exploring the surrounding areas.
I understand why it was created this way, similar to the casinos in Las Vegas, where you often don’t know if it is night or day; there is a timelessness that keeps you spending money in one place. Willingly, I might add. It isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it also gives you this sense of freedom in a safe environment to let the kids explore a little further on their own or enjoy the slides without watching their every step. It seems to promote a different level of relaxation than you might find in a more open-plan resort. Though, you need to be a bit more adventurous than your average traveler to pursue the restaurants and shops that are a casual walk from the front gates.
One aspect that I did think was lacking ended up being the dining options. With ‘Ama ‘Ama still closed until the fall, it felt a little overcrowded when it came to wanting a sit-down option for dinner. Off the Hook had great food for lunch – try the crabcake burger, just trust me — though, without the sophisticated vibe of ‘Ama ‘Ama, there didn’t feel like enough places to enjoy that more upscale dining experience in the evening. Admittedly, I also missed the breakfast there; it’s so good! You can see my breakfast review from the last trip here.
Many people were gravitating towards places like the Ulu Cafe to feed their families, making it an overcrowded location where the wait for any sort of food could blow out to 30 – 40 mins at any time of the day. To be honest, we tried this a few times, and though the quality was actually quite good, the wait made it impossible to please everyone in the family with nowhere to sit and relax in the meantime. One night, we ended up venturing over to Monkey Pod, just across the main road there, and had a lovely, albeit expensive, evening.
No matter where we ended up dining, the canal that hosts the Waikolohe Stream is my favorite to walk along at night time on the way back to the room. The way the water glistens under the low lighting of the rocks takes me to a place that no lens can capture.
We wandered down to the beach area a few times to enjoy the crystal clear waters and perfect sand, which proved not as popular as I would have thought. The shore was mostly deserted, and beach chairs were abundantly empty. I knew why we weren’t spending much time there; coming from Australia, we live right next to the beach, but I did wonder why it seemed others shied away from it.
There were a few resort amenities we hadn’t previously made the most of, including the self-parking and unlock door feature on the Aulani app. Now traveling with older kids, being able to open the room door with just my phone saved me more than a couple of times. They kept taking the key out of my purse to go and do things, leaving me stranded! On more than one occasion, I would go out to look in the shops or take some photos for our Monday Merch Meeting and then find my key missing when I returned to let myself back in the room.
All in all, we had a fantastic time. This resort is just as beautiful as ever, and even though my encounters with the front desk cast were less than stellar, it seemed to be an isolated experience, with all other cast interactions being outstanding.
Before I forget, has anyone else ever fallen out of the bed at Aulani? I like to think of it more as a less-than-graceful slide when the floor was much further away than I remembered, and I went sailing down an extra unexpected foot before making a thud. Okay, fine, I fell like a three-year-old, but in my defense, it was in the middle of the first night when I had not slept enough to be conscious of anything. Does that count?
Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.
Join Zoë as she lets you in on all the tips, tricks, anecdotes, and embarrassments that arise from her family adventures.