This August, we were lucky enough to be treated to a family vacation in Hawaii. Aron’s parents took the four of us as well as his sister, her husband, and their two children to the Aulani—a spectacular Disney resort on Oahu—for a celebration. Suffice to say, it was an incredible gift, so it’s impossible to feel anything but fortunate when I think back on it.
In total we spent just over a week on Oahu—five nights at the Aulani and three in an AirBnB on the North Shore of the island. (I’ll post a travelogue about that portion of the trip soon—hopefully tomorrow!) But I’ve gotten lots of questions about the Aulani.
I participated very little in the planning for the first portion of our stay—such a luxury—so I’m not the best source for advice on booking a stay, but here are some highlights and a few tips I gleaned for anyone lucky enough to be headed to Ko’Olina.
The resort is on the western side of the island, set in one of a series of four small lagoons that make up an area called Ko’Olina—near the town of Kapolei. A 1-1/2 mile path connects each lagoon and the resorts that use the beach at each one. A Four Seasons will soon share this lagoon with Disney.
The 10 of us shared a shuttle to the resort (we didn’t rent a car for this portion of the trip) and grabbed our swimsuits to spend time at the pool until our rooms were ready. The property is beautiful with a canoe-house style of open lobby that overlooks all of the pools and the beach beyond. We were there in August, so I gathered that the resort was at capacity, but we were constantly impressed with the staff’s ability to make everything feel personal.
There were things that distinguished the property as part of the Disney resort (the personable staff—or “cast-members”—definitely among them), but in general they were subtle: characters were occasionally passing by on their way to a meet-and-greet, but you actually had to seek them out if you wanted to be near them.
There are tons of activities included in your stay, and of course many that also are available for an extra charge. We would often see workout sessions or kids’ club groups meeting around the grounds.
For our part, we headed straight for the Rainbow Reef, where you can decide to either get a pass for the day or for the length of your stay to swim in a giant tropical fish tank.
We had been prepping Hudson at home, giving him a mask and snorkel to practice with—and this swimmable aquarium turned out to be such a great transition between ocean snorkeling and the pool. Unlike in the submarine ride in Disneyland, this tank is filled with real fish (and staffed with plenty of lifegaurds). He absolutely loved it! At 77 degrees, it was definitely a bit chilly. He’d usually be shivering (and a touch blue) when we’d tell him to get out.
One of the best parts was that there ways to watch everyone from observation windows. Skyler would scream out, “fishes, fishes” (which sounds like just like “Hudsee,” the way she says Hudson, oddly enough) every time we got close.
I think it made all the difference for his confidence when we’d take him out in the lagoon—where the current was just strong enough to be a bit more challenging.
The visibility and marine life wasn’t the best there, generally, but he still got incredibly lucky and found himself right beside a green turtle!
Actually, those looking for waves will need to go elsewhere, but the calm waters were perfect for all of the small children. We could check out sand toys from the beach hut and feel confident about Hudson running back and forth to the water without fearing he’d be knocked over. Each day, the hotel would set up a small floating island in the middle of the lagoon; and guests would rent kayaks and stand-up-paddleboards (though you can’t take them outside the lagoon).
Still, I think it’s the pools that tend to thrill most kids at the property.
The set-up is massive: There’s a large zero-entry pool that wraps around close to the beach (and never gets so deep that Hudson couldn’t stand), two water-slides (one for inner tubes and one all-in-the-dark drop), a lazy river (probably our favorite part—Skyler could share a raft and we all went around and around), a splash-zone play structure with slides and water features (for those 48″ and under only), a warmer “grotto” (the infinity pool), adults-only spots and a water-fountain play area perfect for babies. Usually I’d take Skyler here while Aron and Hudson went back into the Rainbow Reef.
Some general notes on the pool area: I can’t overstate how much I appreciated all the lifeguards everywhere. The pools were chaotic and busy and it was occasionally stressful to watch Hudson speed off after his older cousins in the lazy river while I held onto Skyler. I never let him out of my sight, but it was really nice knowing he was never out of a lifeguard’s reach as well. And Aron and I noted that they were seriously on top of it. At first their pacing and constant switch-outs (for fresh eyes) made us feel tense, but once we adjusted we felt nothing but grateful for the extra caution that seemed to be taken all over. It’s really one of the best parts of the whole place for families with small kids and just helps you to relax. My sister-in-law even noted that it let her relax more about her 10-year-old playing out of sight.
On the con side: The pools—especially the lounge chairs—were packed. Our kids are at an age that we never really get to sit down anyway, but we were often leaving our towels atop our shoes by a rock because there weren’t any free chairs. The resort takes their no-reserving-chairs policy seriously: You’ll see staff folding towels all day long. If a towel is folded for over an hour, that chair is cleared and the property is held at the towel station. And yet everyone still does it… starting at around 6:30 or 7am. We’d get up for breakfast and look out the window to see the chairs filling up. The day we wanted to be sure to have a chair with some shade, I actually split off to get that day’s wristband, our towels, sand toys (which can also be all checked out) early—and felt so guilty about violating the no-save rule! I had to set a timer!
I would definitely try to visit when the resort isn’t at capacity, if possible.
One thing about Ko’Olina is that it tends to be more dry. I ran into a friend (from New York!) who stayed on the other side of the island and she noted it had been pretty rainy all week, with few sunsets. However ours were really beautiful—particularly along the beachwalk. One night we headed down the way to the Marriott Beach Club for dinner, and it reminded me that you really do want to try and time your meal such that you can enjoy that evening light. This meant late nights for the kids.
There are a few restaurants at the Aulani: an upscale spot called ‘Ama’Ama (and definitely the highlight), Makahiki buffet (where character breakfasts are held—we ate there our first night), the poolside Ulu Cafe (from where we often took things to go), another poolside cafe and bar called Off the Hook, a few quick service options—the Lava Shack (you can get pineapple Dole Whips!), Mama’s Snack Shop, a Shave Ice stand, and a beachside hut (with shrimp spring rolls).
If you want to eat at one of the first two restaurants, you have to reserve in advance and you should do that when you make your room reservations because they fill up! We got lucky and were able to get a table for all 10 of us at ‘Ama’Ama one night, but tables at sunset go fast. Breakfast there was easier last-minute, and good thing because I was very curious about some of the offerings—like cereal-crusted french toast.
In general, however, we tried to have breakfasts in the room (a grocery-run was crucial), lunch by the pool, and dinners out. Menu options at the resort tended toward chicken fingers and such—typically preferred kid-fare, but the buffet was a fun opportunity to let everyone try some other flavors. I think everyone’s favorite meal was actually a dinner across the street at MonkeyPod kitchen, however, where we had a great dinner of local seafood and seasonal cocktails.
Also across the street we found an ABC convenience store where we were able to pick up some more fresh fruit. Pineapple is available throughout the resort, but I’d suggest stopping somewhere to pick up mangoes and papaya and whatever else you can when you’re near a grocery or market.
Probably one of the most talked about features of the Aulani is the kids’ club, Aunty’s Beach House. Kids aged 3-12 can be dropped off without an adult for registered activities. (I say registered because you do have to sign up for drop-off activities in advance. You should also do this at the time you make your room reservation.)
Skyler could check out the place between 8 and 9:30am each morning, but only with a parent and only then. For this reason, I would suggest trying to wait to visit the Aulani until your child is at least 3. It’s such a unique opportunity for some alone time while you’re on vacation—and it’s included!
We brought Hudson twice, each time for about 45 minutes. He seemed just okay with his first visit—an Aloha party—but thrilled with his second, where he got to make “Space Goo.” Though we weren’t ever in attendance, they take photos and you can get a peek later.
Actually, there are photographers around at most events/activities and at character meet-and-greets. You can pick up a “photo pass” the first time you meet one and have it scanned anytime you decide to stop for a family picture. If you’re at the pool or beach all day, with your camera in the room, but still want some family photos it could be a great feature. Or you can ignore them completely!
Other top activities for kids (that we didn’t try): Beach games, movie nights, storyteller sessions, stargazing (with an astronomer), and a “Starlit Hui” luau on the lawn.There’s also a community room where they often hold Ukulele and lei-making lessons, and have a library of DVDs for borrowing.
There’s an Alamo rental car office on the property and our reservations each included a one-day rental. Aron’s sister’s family used their day to go to Pearl Harbor; his parents used theirs to take the older kids on a catamaran/dolphin-spotting trip and visit Waikiki; we used our day to visit Hanuama Bay for snorkeling. I’ll share photos from that side-trip in the next part of the travelogue.
I think my major tips for anyone planning a stay here include: checking capacity and trying to stay in shoulder or off-seasons; bringing in some of your own food (and fresh fruit) and having breakfast in the room—or even considering a room with a kitchen; and reserving as much as you can—meals, activities, the kids’ club—in advance.
Overall, it was just a wonderful five days spent with family in a beautiful place.
Have you been? What tips would you add?