As a theme park lover, I was a little unsure a trip to the Aulani Resort on the Hawaiian island of Oahu would be enough of a Disney fix for me.
While I certainly didn’t find a replacement for the Haunted Mansion, I did find a place that both adults and kids could enjoy. To me, Aulani felt like a Disney Resort, cruise ship, and mini water park all wrapped up into one.
The place certainly didn’t scream “Disney,” and it was quite calm in the evening. The hallways were not filled with the sounds of guests returning from parks at all hours of the night. People retired fairly early. After sunset, the only sounds present were island music and ocean waves — a part of the trip I relished.
Still, there were a lot of Disney elements at Aulani that made it feel like home, even though I had never been there. Here are seven things Disney regulars should find familiar.
#1 Arrival and Rooms
The check-in process was just like an experience at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel. It could be handled online or by a cast member in person upon arrival. There was both valet and self-parking for a daily fee; however, if you are a Disney Vacation Club member, self-parking was free.
The layout and amenities in the rooms were totally recognizable, right down to the H2O products in the bathrooms.
For the first few days, our family of four stayed in a garden view room on the 5th floor with two beds. Our location was shady and extremely quiet. The balcony overlooked the Halawai Lawn, where the resort hosted its luaus. The shows were not every night, which was a shame. We loved to keep our sliding door open so we could listen to the music (we couldn’t actually see the show).
For the final days of our visit, we stayed in a one-bedroom villa on the 15thfloor with an ocean view.
This location blew us away. The large balcony was a great place to read, eat, enjoy the sun, and watch the ocean. At night, the live music from The ‘Olelo Room (a lounge) below was our nightly entertainment.
#2 The Resort’s Atmosphere
As you’d expect, Aulani’s atmosphere is very much like the Polynesian Village Resort; however, it also feels very much like the Animal Kingdom Lodge. When a cast member told me the creative lead for Aulani was Hawaiian native and Animal Kingdom mastermind Joe Rohde, that feeling made total sense.
#3 Cast Member Service
No matter where we visited in Hawaii during our trip, we had wonderful service — friendliness just seemed to be ingrained in the culture. But at Aulani, we got it in spades. There were so many cast members on hand, and on several occasions they approached us just to talk. Cast members were very knowledgeable about the art and architecture of Aulani and Hawaii. We learned a lot.
Eating on property was familiar and easy. Ulu Café is the quick service location and navigating it was the same as it would be for all other Disney resorts. If you have a sweet tooth and like cinnamon doughnuts, try the Malasadas here. They are great with coffee or a hot cup of Earl Grey. This was also a location to purchase refillable mugs, just like at “home.”
On our first day, we enjoyed eating poolside at Off The Hook. Tables were first-come, first-served and we lucked into one right away. After a half day of travel, we appreciated the location’s proximity to the umbrella drinks and its sit-down table service. The menu is good: street tacos, flatbreads, burgers, hot dogs, and tenders. The kids got mac and cheese, the grownups ate pork quesadillas and fish tacos. Everyone was happy.
Aulani also has a lovely signature restaurant, ‘Ama ‘Ama, located with a beach and ocean view. The menu looked like a dream for the surf and turf lover.
Most popular was the resort’s buffet restaurant, Makahiki. It served several Hawaiian dishes and offered lots of seafood choices. The staff did a tremendous job of swapping out the food. We rarely ate anything lukewarm, a major achievement at a buffet. In the morning, Makahiki is the site of a wildly popular character breakfast with Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy.
(I should also note that across the street from Aulani is a small shopping area with a few restaurants and a small grocery store. It was really nice to have these additional dining options just a quick walk away. We also purchased some inexpensive souvenir t-shirts at the grocery store.)
So how is Aulani like a cruise ship? It’s the excursions.
There was pretty much an excursion for every interest. We saw options for dolphin encounters, zip lining, day cruises, horseback riding, island tours, rainforest visits, kayaking, surfing, and lots more.
One of the main reasons we chose to visit the island of Oahu was to see Pearl Harbor. We used the excursion desk staffed by Holoholo Desk Tours and Travel to book our tickets and transportation. Now, Pearl Harbor does not charge for tickets to see the water memorial, and we could have done this on our own for free; however, there are only a limited number of tickets available each day. This was a “must do” for us and we didn’t want to miss it. By booking the tour we were guaranteed a spot, a time convenient for our family, and transportation to and from Aulani. For us, it was worth the $52 per person price.
Aulani also has a car rental location right in the hotel. I would definitely recommend renting a car and exploring the island on your own. Visits to both the state capitol building and the Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu were worth the effort. (Visits to the local zoo, aquarium, and the Dole Pineapple farm, not so much.)
Mainly we enjoyed driving around and seeing Oahu at our own pace — stopping to watch the surf-able waves on the North Shore, getting our fill of shave ice, and stopping to see the occasional waterfall. If you need thrills on your trip, you can find those too. Almost everyone we talked to had plans to zip line or take a helicopter tour.
Snorkeling and paddle boarding can be enjoyed right off Aulani’s beach. We brought our own snorkels and masks, but they are available for rent. For anyone afraid of the ocean, there was a snorkeling pond right in the center of the resort called Rainbow Reef. It reminded me of the snorkeling pond that used to be at Typhoon Lagoon.
#6 The Pool
Aulani’s pool was definitely the most popular spot at the resort during the day (snag a lounge chair early, because they go cruise-ship-fast). It was a pretty sensational set-up, almost like a mini water park. It featured a lazy river, two slides, a water playground, and the snorkeling pond. It doesn’t have a wave pool, but the world’s original wave pool — the ocean — is just outside the pool’s gates.
Aulani has a very nice beach area, which surprisingly is not as popular as the pool. There were always plenty of lounge chairs available no matter what time of day I showed up. The one downside of the large beach area is that beach-side service for drinks and food is also extremely slow. If you want a refreshment, I would recommend getting it yourself. The walk to any quick service location takes only minutes. Little ‘Opihi was literally 20 feet behind the lounge chairs if we needed a beer or a roast beef sandwich.
#7 Disney Merchandise
I enjoyed the two small gift shops at Aulani. They were the places I was able to get my Disney fix and snag a few resort-exclusive souvenirs. The spa on site was lovely, and I was able to book a same-day appointment.
Serious shoppers, however, may want to head to the Ala Moana Mall, the largest open-air shopping center in the world.
Aulani was definitely a place that appropriately balanced the new with the familiar, which made it easy to navigate. The Mickey vibe is subtle, but still around. There are characters, hidden Mickeys, and Disney tunes playing in the elevator (although in Hawaiian, not English). And like any Disney resort, there was always more to do and places to eat than time allowed.
All-in-all, Aulani delivered the Disney fix I needed despite the fact that I never walked into a park. Although, I wouldn’t object if Disney decided to add a Haunted Mansion.
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