My family and I just returned from a week in paradise, in Ko'Olina, Oh'au, Hawaii. Why Oa'hu? Because in Ko'Olina there is a relatively new resort, Aulani, that was built by Disney and opened to guests on August 29th, 2011, just a few months after my son was born.
Since that time, my family and I have gone to several Disney properties, including both Disneyland, after moving to California, and Disney World, last year, as well as a Disney Cruise. This was our first time trying a Disney resort without an attached Theme Park and was a compromise between my wife and I (I wanted to go to Hawaii, she wanted to do something everyone would enjoy, which usually means Disney).
I knew of several people that had gone to Aulani from work and asked them for their "must dos" and "do nots", but everyone is busy and I didn't get much. So, we packed up and took off for Hawaii just over a week ago and we returned two days ago. This will be my list of the things I wish I knew before I left.
Hawaiian Airlines is really quite nice
I had usually flown Hawaiian Airlines when flying between islands, usually for a connection. I knew they served a uniquely Hawaiian beverage on the flights, but that's all I remembered. My family and I were pleasantly surprised by several experiences during our flight:
- The overhead compartments were large. Unlike most airlines I've flown recently, where bags often have to be stored lengthwise, on Hawaiian they all fit wheels or handles first and in fact could be laid on their sides to accomodate even more bags per compartment. Hawaiian Airlines was aggressive in getting people to gate check bags (for free) and the result was that there was plenty of space available. On our return flight, they were using the "this is a completely full flight, you should check your bag", even though there had to have been 20+ seats empty when we took off.
- The seat ammenities for electronics were AWESOME, just check this out: That is in addition to also having a standard outlet at the seat. Not pictured is the little extension that holds your Tablet or Phone at the top as well (which I didn't figure out until later in the flight). With all of the airlines eliminating seat-back entertainment, and making us provide our own screens, my biggest complaint is having to rest my iPad on the tray table. This was an epic solution to this and should be on every airline seat-back.
- Hawaiian is the ONLY domestic carrier that provides meals, free of charge, to all passengers. Yes, free meals. They're sandwiches and there aren't any options (you take it or leave it), but on our return flight, we got a sandwich, a bag of chips, and an alcoholic beverage, all free.
Food options are expensive and rather limited
Food is probably my biggest complaint, and my wife's, for Aulani. My wife is a Vegan, my son is a Vegetarian. So, we're not an easy family to please. Here is what we found at the resort:
- Food is expensive, like, really, really, expensive. We had several breakfasts at 'Ama'Ama - Contemporary Island Cuisine. This is the only table service (sit-down, order food) restaurant at the resort. Our breakfast (Tofu scramble (wife), 2 eggs and Waffles (Son), and pancakes and 2 eggs (me), with a juice and a pot of Kona Press cofee ($15)) ran to $100 with tip. We also did the character dining at Makahiki — The Bounty of the Islands which is a buffet-only dining experience. It was a bit cheaper, but the food wasn't worth the price difference. Dinners at 'Ama'Ama ran to $200. We found two restaurants we liked better, both walking distance from the resort (< 15 min): Roy's, which is at the golf club across the road, and Monkeypod Kitchen, which is in a small shopping area, also across the road (next to the golf club). Both were comparable in price to 'Ama'Ama, but the food was better (though the view was worse, this is from 'Ama'Ama):
- For more economical dining options, across the street in the Ko'Olina Shopping area you can find: Pizza Corner, Just Tacos Mexican Grill, Eggs N Things, Ko'Olina Hawaiian BBQ, Two Scoops Ice Cream Parlor, and Island Vintage Coffee (though coffee is included in the refillable mug, see below).
- Disney sells these plastic thermos mugs for $20 that entitle you to unlimited soda, soft drinks, coffee, tea, and cocoa at various places around the resort. Buy one the first day and you'll probably end up at about $1/drink for the week. Otherwise, bring a refillable water bottle. You can fill up your own container with ice and water at Ulu Cafe. That is also where you can purchase the mug, and fill it with over 100 different beverages. Ulu Cafe also sells an unlimited popcorn bucket, but we didn't partake (I was the only one that bought the mug, as my wife filled her thermos bottle with water multiple times a day, and my son usually had fruit juice). Ulu Cafe is probably where you want to get most of your meals, as they're about 1/2 the price of the two restaurants.
- Vegan options are pretty limited, though my wife was the first to admit that they tried and on two occassions made her something specific (the first was at the luau where none of the desserts were vegan, so they made her a vegan brownie to order; the second was at the buffet where they specifically asked her if she'd like vegan waffles and pancakes made and they did; she liked the waffles the other two she would have passed on). My wife also admits that of EVERY Disney property we've been to, Aulani did the best job with vegan dishes.
You're at a resort, there are all kinds of activities designed to help you relax, see sights, unwind, or even to stay active. Needless to say, our family is the "pool kind" and we spent almost 100% of our activity time near or in a pool. Here are some of the activities we participated in, what we found we liked, and some observations:
- The Ka Wa'a Lu'au. The Lu'au books up fast, so MAKE SURE you book this before you leave on your vacation. I also highly recommend booking the VIP seating for two reasons: 1) You really do get the best seating, 2) You get to enjoy all of the children's activities about 30 minutes before everyone else joins, which gives you time to make sure they can do everything, which includes: temporary "island" tattoos, ukelele lessons, making Poi, stringing flowers for leis, making cards with bamboo stamps, and some others. My son loved making Poi the most, but didn't care for the taste (it's Taro root).
- The pools are all shallow. They're designed for kids and as such, I couldn't find a pool that was deeper than 5'. Even the adults-only pool topped out around 4-5' deep.
- You cannot have any type of "pool toy" in the pools. The only exception are attached flotation devices (vests, floties, etc.). Pool noodles, kick boards, etc. are not permitted, and anything else that you'd normally play with in a pool are forbidden. Don't bother bringing them at all.
- You will ALWAYS be able to find a chair, it won't be the best location, but we were always able to find a place to dump our stuff. If you want a prime location, then you need to be at the pool by around 9:00 am, as this is when the main kids water play area fires up and lots of families arrive at the pool.
- The man-made beach is super nice, but the sand is a bit coarse. There were beach chairs available (even with umbrellas) around the clock. The water is quite a bit cooler than the pools (in April), but as this is a man-made lagoon, there are also no waves crashing (there's a breakwall at the mouth of the lagoon). If you want to rent a paddle board, these seem to sell out early, so get there early. The lagoon is ideal for ocean swimming as there are almost no waves (or frankly people) in the ocean.
- Towels are available for pickup by showing a room key (they'll then give you an armband so you don't need your card anymore). The towel places are a bit difficult to find, and there are NONE at the beach. The ones we ended up using the most were at the Rainbow Reef and down by the Ka Maka Grotto pool.
- My wife worked out every day at Aulani. The fitness center, which is free, was a bit limited in equipment selection, but was more than adequate for her needs. She went running a couple days and ran out the front of the resort and on the street. What she WISHED she had known was that there is a running path that goes along the inside of the resort past the beach. This would have been a better option and I've marked it on this map:
- Character dining. The only reason to actually dine at Makahiki — The Bounty of the Islands is for the characters that roam, most, breakfasts and dinners. However, as we found, not all of them are "Character Dining", so just make sure your reservations include characters. My son loved getting to meet Minnie Mouse, Goofey, and Pluto, and then getting a picture with Mickey Mouse (which is an additional fee if you want their photo, but you can take them on your phone if you want (and they'll do it for you)). The food is buffet-style and okay, but not great. This was the only place that we routinely saw Mickey Mouse, though there was one photo opportunity we witnessed outside of the Character Dining Experience, but they're limited.
- Character Meetings. There are several Disney characters you can meet at Aulani: Stitch, Donald Duck, Mikey and Minnie Mouse, Goofey, Pluto, and of course Moana. Those were the primary Disney characters that float around. Each morning, after 8:00 am, you can call a number from your room and get the schedule for the day of when and where characters will appear. Line up at the appointed time and take a picture with your new friend (PhotoPass folks, there are always professional photographers present at the meetings).
- Waikiki Aquarium. We wanted to do something off-resort and neither I, nor my wife, had ever been into Waikiki. A friend had told us there was a decent aquarium in Waikiki and we went there with my son. Rose: the aquarium only cost us $29 for three of us to attend. Bud: my son got to interact with Ocean Hermit Crabs and (non-poisonous) Urchins; we also got to see the Hawaiian Monk Seal feeding. Thorn: it's really small and we only spent about an hour there. I'm glad we did it, but I wouldn't do it again. Here's the monk seal (my son and I got to see him much more closely, but I was holding him, so no photos): While we were in Waikiki, we did wander through the large mall, have lunch at Maui Brewing Company, and do some shopping. However, the Uber/Lyft to get from the Resort to the Aquarium was over $100 round-trip, so factor that in. If we were doing it again, I probaby would have rented a car for the day, which you can do on-site at the resort.
The Aulani probably doesn't have a bad room. My family paid for the "Island Gardens View" room. What we ended up having was a room in the West Tower, on the 16th floor, that looked out over the adult swimming pool, where you could see the ocean. The official description is "Includes at least a partial view of the mountains, spa or landscaping from the room or balcony". I guess we lucked out and ended up with an Ocean/Partial Ocean view.
- Here's our room view from the balcony:
- The rooms I would DEFINITELY avoid are almost all of the rooms in the East Tower. Why? Because rooms on the outside of the East Tower (standard rooms) will front the Halawai Lawn which is where the Luau is performed, which is loud, until around 9:00 pm. Rooms on the inside of the East Tower (Island Gardens View) will front the interior pools and there is a nightly live band that runs until about the same time.
- Room Cleaning. You probaby didn't expect to see this on a list of things we enjoyed, but the only word I have is "magical". We would see a room cart parked in our hallway pretty much all the time from around 8:00 am until around 2:00 pm. Not once were we interrupted in our room by a cleaning person checking to see if we were there. Without fail, EVERY time we left the room for even an hour, we came back and our room was cleaned. All I could figure out was that they were just cleaning rooms they knew were empty and if they saw (or heard) us leave, they immediately cleaned our room. It was simply magical.
Things I Wish We'd Done
You won't be able to do everything, your eyes are always bigger than your stomach (or wallet, or time remaining). However, there were a few things I wish we had done, but we either realized it too late, or we had missed our opportunity:
- Green Sea Turtles. About a 15-20 minute walk from the resort is an area called Paradise Cove. There is some shopping here and another resort, but most importantly there is Honu Lagoon. In the evenings, at high tide, this is where you can go and watch green sea turtles come up onto the beach. You can also see Hawaiian Monk seals sunbathing on the rocks. Note: both Green Sea Turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals are protected species and it is illegal to harass (including touch) them. To know when it is high tide you need to look it up here. Do this the first day you get there and plan when you're going to go. We waited until high tide wasn't happening until after dark, and decided not to go.
- PhotoPass. Disney offers a PhotoPass that allows you to get all of your character photos (with two exceptions, keep reading) and a bunch of other photos for a single price, which includes all of the digital downloads. The two exceptions are: Luau photos and Character dining photos, those are extra. However, I wish we had purchased the PhotoPass the first day, as there are Disney photographers wandering around everywhere, and you just ask them to take candids of you and your family and they do it. They were even at the pools so you could get water shots, or kids coming down slides. It would have been worth it, as long as you made sure you were getting the photos taken in the first place.
- Rainbow Reef. This is a large fish aquarium on the property, but it's not for watching fish, it's for diving (and snorkeling). For a fee, you can SNUBA (Surface-supplied air diving) or snorkel in the "reef". This is actually in the middle of the resort and is technically an artificial reef. My son doesn't yet swim well, but I think we would have all enjoyed it.
- Exploring Oa'hu. We did go into Waikiki, but we didn't walk the beach, and we didn't go anywhere else. If we had rented a car (see below) we could have explored more of Oa'hu. I feel like we missed out.
Things I Wish We Hadn't Done
- Uber/Lyft into Waikiki. I mentioned this before, but this was a terribly expensive way to get into Waikiki. I'm pretty sure a car rental, on site at Aulani, would have been cheaper, and ultimately more fun (e.g. convertible)
- The Resort Shuttle. The first day we took the shuttle to the shopping area across the road. The shuttle took about 45 minutes to get there (it's a 10 minute walk) as it stops at a bunch of other resorts in Ko'Olina. The only logical reason to take the shuttle is when going to Roy's for dinner (it's the first stop from Aulani) or when leaving the Ko'Olina shopping area (Aulani is the second stop). However, both of those are easily walkable, and with all the food you eat, you probably should.
- Taking pool toys. We hauled a bunch of stuff because we thought we'd be able to use them in the pools, you cannot. You CAN use them in the Ocean, but we didn't spend a lot of time in the ocean. There's a good chance we could have eliminated a checked bag if we had been a bit more judicious and eliminiated the pool toys. That would have saved us $60 in checked luggage fees.
All in all, we had a great vacation. It's always something when you come back and think to yourself, "I'd do that again, I'm looking forward to it".
The one last area I wanted to cover is Disney Vacation Club (DVC). You'll see this all over the resort. This is Disney's time share system. I haven't joined, yet, but we're thinking about it. The payback on it seems to be around 9 years, assuming you buy directly from Disney. There is also a secondary marketplace where you can buy out other people's contracts at a savings of around 30%. The main reason I'm mentioning it here is that you can also rent other people's Disney Vacation Club points. This appears to save you around 40-50% off of booking directly with Disney.
Hope this helps you plan your vacation at Aulani. I'll be referring back to it when we book our next trip.