Five years ago Disney Vacations acquired a large grass lot on the west coast of Oahu just outside the town of Ko’Olina. Despite the golden sunset view and adjacent golf course, the area was surprisingly under-developed, with only two other hotels and the Paradise Cove Luau to draw tourists.
In 2011, Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, opened its doors. The grass lot was now home to two massive towers (connected by a slightly shorter one) built to echo the style of a Polynesian long house, were it 15 storeys high. Between them a seven-acre area is landscaped with a pseudo volcano complete with two built-in waterslides, a water playground, a lazy river, a series of curvaceous pools, snack bars, restaurants and even Rainbow Reef – a snorkeling pool stocked with colourful marine life. The grounds gently step down into a white sand lagoon with warm, crystal clear water lapping at the shore. The bay is filled with swimmers, kayakers and stand-up paddlers. From the lagoon waters, you can look back and take in the view of the impressive development.
There is still a vacant grass lot next to Aulani, so the area still feels like a bit of a secret, compared to Honolulu’s crowded hotel area lining Waikiki Beach.
Anyone who’s ever set foot in a Disney theme park or even just watched a Disney movie knows the company’s stock-in-trade is storytelling. Disney Aulani is no different, except this time the story revolves around the Polynesians, the proud and thriving native people of Hawaii. While a new resort promised thousands of jobs for locals in construction and hospitality, staying true to the spirit of the people was just as important.
So the Disney touches are more subtle here – Mickey ears hidden in the patterns on the wallpaper, quilts and carpets; Stitch narrates the floor stops on the elevator, and Hawaiian versions of Disney songs emanate from the hotel sound system. Mickey and Minnie join families for breakfast, along with a smattering of other costumed characters, but they blend with other Hawaiian features such as Aunty’s Beach House, hula dancing and storytelling around the fire pit. The tone is set immediately upon entering the resort lobby with huge, captivating murals painted by local artist, Douglas Po’olao Tolentino, detailing the story of the Hawaiian people. It makes one wonder, is Disney doing Hawaii, or is Hawaii doing Disney?
But leave such vexing puzzles to someone else’s brain, and instead enjoy the pools and lagoon and the perfect weather. In mid-February the resort was full of families with mostly younger children, so our teens stood out. Luckily, big people were enjoying the lazy river just as much as the little ones. We mused at how the Rainbow Reef would be an ideal place for youngsters to try snorkeling for the first time, but we ventured out in the real reef at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, a short drive away. For just a few dollars we snorkelled in and out of this protected reef and saw tons of colourful fish and sea turtles.
Aulani offers this kind of flexibility that not all vacations spots do: spend time with your kids, or let them make friends and try new things on their own. Base programming at Aunty’s Beach House, such as making Stitch’s space goo or comedy lessons with the Coconut Kings and Queens of Comedy, is included; some programming costs extra. Aulani makes it easy for parents and kids to acclimatize with daily open houses. Tweens and teens can also participate in surfing parties, treasure hunts and beach games at no extra charge.
Feedback from guests after the first year indicated that they wanted more from the resort, more flexibility to stay put and relax. So now in its third year, Disney Aulani has enhanced its offering with more dining options, another pool, a pool earmarked for adults only and improved beach access.
While the allure of loafing around the resort may be strong, so too is the call of the island. You can book several excursions through Aulani or explore on your own. Rent a car (there’s an outlet right next to the lobby) and see what else Oahu has to offer. You can drive the whole island (through the middle and around the north, east and south shore) in less than a day.
Hike through Manoa Falls, a rainforest park in the middle of Honolulu (and recognize some of the scenery from Jurassic Park and Lost); visit the Pearl Harbour Memorial; sample the pineapple whip at the Dole Plantation. We had a hankering to see the North Shore, and were blown away by its simple charms, resistance to development and chill 60s surf culture. There we took a family surfing lesson with Sunset Suzy and her crew, and watched the sun turn orangey red and dip into the ocean – along with hundreds of others – on the world famous Sunset Beach. Just two days later this beach would be decked out with staging and surfers for an interntational Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) competition.
There are several places to eat at Aulani, but meals are not included. You can head across the street to the plaza and try out the other restaurants, but they’re not that cheap either, nor were the food trucks on the North Shore where we were sure we’d find some cheap eats. Aulani’s Little ‘Opihi’s’ beach snack bar had some of the best lunch bargains and the poolside Papalua’s Shave Ice (a Hawaiian treat) is also worth it (go for the sweetened condensed milk topper). Buy a travel mug at the beginning of your stay and your coffee and soft drink refills are free. It’s easy to charge snacks and meals to your home with your Disney room card, so you don’t have to carry cash around.
A distinct feature of Aulani is Laniwai, its family-friendly spa and a first for Disney. The “Ohana” or family treatment allows up to four family members to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere and massage. “People go in as a group and come out as a family,” says spa director Lucia Rodriguez Amasio. Even here Disney applies its trademark sense of storytelling to make the experience more memorable. The Painted Sky Teen Spa focuses on skin health and wellbeing, and appeals to teen boys as well, says Lucia. “Our clarity facials are our number one treatment.” Other unique treatments include prenatal massage and body treatments, massage for mom, dad and baby, and Mello Mama massage. The traditional lomilomi massage is heavenly. Those familiar with Disney’s Bibbity Bobbity Boutiques will not be disappointed, as little ones can get coiffed and dressed like Keikiwahine (a Hawaiian princess) or a Warrior. Cool.
There’s lots of evening fun as well. Aulani is just steps away from Paradise Cove, one of the top luau destinations on Oahu. Or if your wallet isn’t quite prepared for that, enjoy the onsite weekly Starlit Hui, a blend of Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian entertainment including hula dancers and Disney characters. Local musicians perform nightly in the open-air bars and lanais (patios) if you’re craving something a bit more low-key.
If you go:
WestJet and Air Canada fly from Vancouver and Calgary to Honolulu. There are several other flight options available with other carriers.
Standard room rate is about $450/night for a family of four.
Aulani is about 30 minutes from the Honolulu International Airport. Ground transfers are not included, but can be booked with your room. Honolulu is well-known for its traffic, so book a flat rate transfer over a cab in case you get stuck in traffic.
For information on prices and availability, go to resorts.disney.go.com.