Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, located in the Ko Olina Resort on Oahu's leeward coast opened to much fanfare and high expectations in August of 2011.
In January of 2012, I had the pleasure of joining a small group of travel writers who were invited to spend several days at the resort, Disney's first in Hawaii. Since the resort had been opened for just about five months, I was very interested in seeing how the staff (referred to as Cast Members) and resort itself had "settled in." Because this resort and everything it has to offer is so extensive, I'm deviating from our standard review format to offer this more photo intensive feature.
I arrived at Aulani about an hour after sunset after a very long day of travel from the east coast. Having been up for almost 20 hours, I was ready to settle into my room and get ready for what I knew would be four busy days. I was greeted at the resort's port cochere with a kukui nut lei and a welcome drink of pineapple-infused water. I was also offered the opportunity to learn a bit about the resort's impressive 200' Maka'ala lobby and it's beautiful artwork. From there I was escorted to the guest registration area.
Registration was seamless. Within just a few minutes I was off to my room on the fifth floor of the resort's 15-story Waianae Tower - where my luggage was delivered promptly by one of the resort's very efficient bellmen.
The resort consists of two wings on either side of the Maka'ala lobby. The Waianae Tower contains all of the resort's 351 hotel rooms which include 16 suites as well as a number of Disney Vacation Club accommodations. The Ewa Tower houses the remaining Disney Vacation Club villas and studios. (Note: The final phase opened in 2013.)
There are 481 Disney Vacation Club Villas. I'll be writing a separate feature on the Disney Vacation Club, since it is an entirely new concept for Hawaii vacationers and quite different from the other vacation club offerings in Hawaii.
My room was spacious standard hotel room with a poolside garden view with a private lanai (balcony).
The room had 2 queen-size beds, a large flat-panel TV with DVD player, a small refrigerator, combination safe and coffee maker. The refrigerator was located in the large combination bureau and entertainment center, and, quite frankly was somewhat noisy and never got very cool. When I asked housekeeping about this, I was advised that it was a common problem.
The room was decorated with muted Hawaiian colors including a taro patterned rug and contemporary Hawaiian artwork. The beds were each adorned with a lovely Hawaiian quilt which included small Mickey motif.
The woodwork throughout the room was purposely "distressed" in expectation of the tendency of young guests to place wet glasses directly on the wood. The lovely lamp on the room's table featured a lamp with a base containing Mickey Mouse playing an ukulele and leaning on a surfboard. The curtains were designed with a traditional Hawaiian kapa (tapa) pattern.
The bathroom was large with an over-sized bathtub and shower, large vanity and adjoining room for the toilet.
Taken as a whole the room reflected a strong emphasis on Hawaiian culture with just a touch of Disney magic - something I would learn the next day to be an overall theme of the entire resort.
The New Day and Exploring Aulani's Waikolohe Valley
After a good night's sleep I was up before dawn eagerly anticipating the opportunity to explore some of the resort's 21 oceanfront acres before our scheduled character breakfast at the Makahiki restaurant.
As the sun rose and I stepped out on my lanai (balcony), I was awed by the expansiveness of the resort especially by its central Waikolohe Valley which runs from the high peaked lobby to the beach, as reminiscent of a Hawaiian ahupua'a, a subdivision of the land that runs from the mountains to the ocean.
I dressed quickly, grabbed my camera and went off to explore. I was overwhelmed and very impressed by what I discovered on my pre-breakfast wandering.
The Waikolohe Valley is an amazing creation of Disney's Imagineers (design team) with a distinctly Hawaiian feel with beautiful island landscaping. The center garden, between the two towers is designed to simulate Oahu's overall landscape: dense and wet in the center; sandy and palmy on the outskirts.
The Valley is filled with thematic elements such as the countless little statues of Hawaii's little people, the mehehune dotted throughout the resort - a feature that creates a fun challenge for guests of all ages to find the many representations of these secretive and often naughty wanderers of the night.
The Waikolohe Valley is also home to the resort's large family pool; very popular 900-foot-long, 321,000 gallon Waikolohe Stream, which offers adults and children a fun tubing experience; the wonderful 3,800 square-foot Rainbow Reef snorkel lagoon where guests can snorkel with thousands of fish that inhabit the waters in and around Hawaii; the 2,200-square-foot Menehune Bridge (an interactive water play area for children); and Makai Preserve, a conservation lagoon where guests can get up close and interact with stingrays.
Also within the valley guests will find a small gift shop and soda station, shave ice stand, four whirlpool spas, the poolside (and fantastic) Off the Hook bar and much more. We'll discuss all of these in more detail in an upcoming feature.
For a quieter experience the Wailana Pool and Wailana Pool Bar is located "around the corner" of the end of the Waianae Tower adjoining the resort's oceanfront lawn.
** Many of the pools at Aulani are slated to be refurbished in the fall of 2019. Please check the hotel website for updates.
My morning breakfast, and my first opportunity to meet my fellow travel writers, was hosted at Makahiki, the resort's buffet restaurant, and it coincided with Aunty's Breakfast Celebration at the Makahiki. Offered on selected days, the resort's young guests are welcomed by one of Aulani's Aunties with songs, dances and activities and the opportunity to meet and have a photo taken with some of their favorite Disney friends such as Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse.
The breakfast buffet offers a wide selection of foods ranging from simple Continental offerings; Western breakfast favorites such as eggs, bacon, sausage pancakes and waffles; as well as Chinese and Japanese buffet items.
In the evening Makahiki offers an extensive dinner buffet which includes a large selection of appetizers; fresh seafood; a carving station; local greens; popular Hawaiian dishes such as laulau, poke and poi; a desert station; and finally a special "Keiki Corner" offering foods designed especially for children such as chicken noodle soup, hot dogs, mini burgers, grilled chicken breast and even pizza.
For guests who enjoy an a la carte breakfast menu, the resort's beach-side 'AMA 'AMA restaurant offers an excellent, and reasonably priced, breakfast menu.
In the evening, 'AMA 'AMA becomes the resort's fine dining establishment.
Over the course of my stay, I had the opportunity to dine at each of the resort's two restaurants for both breakfast and lunch, and I found the food quality to be excellent and the service, while a tad slow at times, very satisfactory. I also ate several lunches at Off the Hook where the grilled Angus bacon cheeseburger was my personal favorite accompanied by a Blue Hawaiian cocktail or two.
A favorite after-dinner gathering place for our group was The 'Olelo Room where in addition to great tropical cocktails, Hawaiian beers, excellent wines and non-alcoholic drinks, we could brush up on our Hawaiian words and learn a few more from the bartenders who are all fluent in the Hawaiian language. Throughout the 'Olelo Room 150 shadow boxes with wood carvings each feature the Hawaiian names for the specific item depicted.
Beach and Lagoon
Following breakfast on my first full day I had a few hours to relax, explore more of the resort and adjoining beach, and eat some lunch at Off the Hook.
Since the resort is relatively new and most guests are first time visitors, most guests seem to spend most of their daytime hours by the large Waikolohe Pool, or tubing along the Waikolohe Stream. Children all seemed to love the Menehune Bridge, children's water play area.
Surprisingly few guests seem to explore what lies beyond the gate that opens onto Ko Olina's beachwalk - literally steps away from the pool. Hopefully, on their next visit, guests will take advantage of the beautiful beach and lagoon and perhaps take a walk along the 1.5 mile beachwalk that meanders along Ko Olina's four major lagoons.
Aulani is located on what is known as Lagoon Kohola. Kohola means whale in Hawaiian and during whale season, you may very well see humpback whales in the ocean from many vantage points along the shoreline.
Lagoon Kohola is the first of the four major lagoons in the Ko Olina Resort and is, in my opinion, the calmest and best lagoon for ocean activities. The beach and lagoon are shared with the neighboring JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa, but, as I've said, it's rarely very crowded.
Makiki Joe's Beach Rentals is the place to go to rent a beach umbrella (beach chairs are complimentary), a beach premium-seating casabella (2-seater lounger with awning), kayaks, snorkel sets, and stand-up paddleboards. Hawaiian Ocean Adventures has experienced instructors who will teach you how to kayak, canoe or stand up paddle board. You can even take a ride on a Hawaiian sailing canoe. Children love the floating platform that is placed in the lagoon each day for their enjoyment.
On the afternoon of my first full day, our group had the chance to take an extended tour of the resort, beginning in the Maka'ala lobby. Maka'ala in Hawaiian means alert, vigilant watchful and in order to appreciate all that surrounds you within the lobby, you need to be just that.
From the moment guests enter the resort, they begin their Hawaiian experience and introduction to Hawaiian culture, traditions, music and art.
As guests are welcomed and escorted to guest registration, they are given a brief overview of the lobby with its soaring ceiling that is reminiscent of an ancient Hawaiian hale with kapa bands designed by artist Dalani Tanahy running along the walls of the lobby - each band represents one of the three realms: land, sea and sky. These sections are further divided into distinct masculine (right) and feminine (left) sides.
The 200-foot-long mural that wraps around the lobby walls was painted by artist Martin Charlot and is also divided into masculine and feminine sections, outlining the works of men and women in traditional Hawaiian life.
This feminine/masculine design element is carried throughout the resort as seen in the large 15-story murals the dominate the ends of each tower, the two murals in the lobby's transverse corridor arches and the 12x12 foot compass rose embedded in the lobby floor, The four points of the compass, rather than pointing north, south, east and west, point towards the sea (makai), towards the mountains (mauka), towards the feminine side of the resort on the left and the masculine side of the resort on the right.
The music that you'll hear in the lobby and throughout the resort is by Keali'i Reichel, one of Hawaii's top musical artists and award-winning kumu hula (master/teacher of hula). A number of the pieces were written by Keali'i Reichel together with Grammy winning producer Mark Mancina specifically for Aulani.
As guests arrive at the registration desk, they cannot miss the impressive "Rainbow Wall" a collage of photos taken by students in kindergarten through Grade 12 from across Hawaii. Each was asked to capture the essence of the islands in a photograph focusing on a single color. The 138 photos combine to exemplify the beauty of the islands – flowers, plants, animals and places – in brilliant shades of green, red, purple, pink, red, blue, orange and yellow.
What you see in the lobby is just a sample of the artwork throughout the resort. Aulani has the largest collection of contemporary Hawaiian art in the world.
Aunty's Beach House
Our tour continued throughout most of the resort. I'd like to touch on a couple of places that I haven't previously mentioned.
Aunty's Beach House is Aulani's kids club designed for children ages 3 to 12. Parents can leave their young children in the care of Aulani's Cast Members and Aunty, who together with Uncle, will ensure that they are taken care of in a secure environment.
Young children can explore Hawaiian culture through supervised entertainment, as Aunty and Uncle share lots of stories about when they were young. They'll learn the hula, create Hawaiian arts and crafts, play traditional Hawaiian games with visiting Disney characters or enjoy one of the great interactive touch-tables.
Older children will enjoy one of the Beach House's game or computer terminals or they can sit back and watch one of their favorite Disney films. A large and secure outdoor area is also available. There is no added cost for parents to allow their children to enjoy Aunty's Beach House.
In Hawaiian laniwai means "freshwater heaven" and Laniwai, a Disney Spa at Aulani lives up to its name. The spa encompasses 18,000 square feet of indoor space and a 5,000 square-foot outdoor space, easily the largest outdoor spa space in Hawaii.
Spa patrons are encouraged to arrive at least an hour before their scheduled appointment so that they can enjoy the outdoor Kula Wai Hydrotherapy Garden with herbal pools, reflexology path, six rain showers, and cold and hot whirlpools.
The spa has 15 treatment rooms including a couples and a family treatment room. The spa offers over 150 types of treatments including body polish, vitality baths, massage, body treatments and facials.
The Painted Sky Spa is for children ages 3 - 12. Services include new hairstyles, makeup, and costumes.
A full-service salon offers four manicure, four pedicure and two hair stations.
The Mikimiki Fitness Center is open 24 hours daily at no additional charge for guests 14 and older. It includes Life Fitness cardiovascular and strength training equipment, kinesis machine and free weights.
I'll be writing more about my own spa experience at Laniwai in a future feature.
Disney Fairy Tale Weddings
The second day of our Aulani visit began with a morning breakfast buffet where we had the opportunity to meet and talk to a number of the resort's senior Cast Members.
I enjoyed my discussion with Mark Regan, Aulani's Sales Director who arranged for me to speak the next day with one of Disney's Vacation Club Guides. I also spoke with Spa Director Lucia Rodgriguez and Spa Manager Brett Perkins who arranged for me to have a facial on the last morning of my visit before flying home.
I also had the opportunity to speak with Marla Dunn, the Aulani's sales and services director about Disney's Fairy Tale Weddings & Honeymoons. While Aulani is, without doubt, primarily a resort designed for families with children, I had noticed what appeared to be a significant number of couples of all ages, without children, who had decided to vacation at the resort.
I was curious how many weddings Aulani had hosted at the resort. The Makaloa Garden, where our breakfast was being held, seemed to me to be a perfect location for a wedding. It is a flora-filled enclave with a great view of the ocean and beach. It allows ample space for the wedding ceremony and reception for all guests, including some special visits by Disney characters should the couple so desire.
Marla explained that since the resort opened, less than five months previously, over 50 weddings have taken place and that they are expecting over 100 during the resort's first year.
Aulani has hosted weddings for both Hawaii residents and mainland guests. In addition, a wedding in Hawaii is very popular with Japanese visitors, who make up a good number of Aulani's guests.
Since, in order to coordinate travel plans for all attendees, many weddings are planned a year or more in advance, the number of weddings that have already taken place is a good indication that Aulani will be a very popular wedding destination in the future.
You can learn more about Disney Fairy Tale Weddings at disneyweddings.com.
Catamaran Cruise and Adventures by Disney
The remainder of our second day consisted of a catamaran cruise on Hawaii Nautical's Honi Olani catamaran. I'll be writing a separate feature on our catamaran cruise, but suffice it to say that it was a wonderful experience sailing along the Ko Olina and southwest coast of Oahu in which we saw lots of Hawaii spinner dolphins and plenty of tropical fish at our snorkel stop.
The Honi Olani does a number of excursions that are exclusive to Disney Aulani guests and which can be booked online at the Aulani website prior to arrival or at the Holoholo Tours and Travel desk at the resort.
Adventures by Disney at Aulani offers a number of excursions which take guests to many areas of the island of Oahu. Many of the available excursions have been specifically designed for Aulani guests by Adventures by Disney and feature knowledgeable and friendly Adventure Guides who accompany guests on the excursions.
Aulani Starlit Hui
Following a dinner reception, in the evening of our second day, we were able to enjoy Aulani's signature nighttime event, the Aulani Starlit Hui.
Uncle and a talented ensemble of dancers, musicians, singers and cultural practitioners gather under the stars in the Makaloa Garden.
A pre-show features traditional Hawaiian games as well as local artisans teaching and exhibiting popular Hawaiian crafts.
Guests are then invited to enjoy a 25-minute show featuring live music including a high energy dueling ukulele performance Na Hoku Hanohano Award nominated ukulele duo Heart and Soul (Jody Kamisato and Chris Salvador) and lots of traditional and modern hula. During much of the pre-show and at times during the show, there are many opportunities for audience participation.
The evening ends with a DJ-driven, high-energy dance party, including a chance to dance with some favorite Disney characters.
(Since this review, the evening entertainment has changed to the Ka Wa'a luau. Details can be found on the hotel's website.)
On the morning of our third day, our group gathered together on the lawn area in the Waikolohe Valley near the Menehune Bridge for a Lei-making Experience with Aulani Cast Members Marcus and Uluwehi. Using blossoms of tuberose and white orchids we all sat and relaxed, made our own lei, listened to some Hawaiian music and talked story.
The rest of the day allowed me plenty of free time to enjoy Aulani.
I decided to take a walk along the 1.5 mile beachwalk that extends along Ko Olina's four major lagoons. As calm as the ocean was at the Kohola Lagoon at Aulani, it was much rougher at each of the succeeding lagoons as I walked towards the Ko Olina Marina. Still, it was fun to see the wedding chapels and other resorts at the Ko Olina Resort & Marina.
My only regret is that I missed, by ten minutes, the shuttle that stops at the Ko Olina Marina and which would have taken my back to Aulani with several other stops along the way. So, I turned around and made the long walk back.
(Craft activities change so check the website for information. In 2019, the activity is Kapala Ki'i, a t-shirt stamping event.
During the afternoon of my third full day, I spent well over an hour snorkeling in Rainbow Reef. I made sure that I was there in time for the afternoon fish feeding which made for some great photos.
Everyone who enters Rainbow Reef must wear a life-vest, which you can inflate as needed. Those who need snorkel equipment and help learning the basics of snorkeling are taken care of and lifeguards are present both in the water and on the edge make sure everyone is safe.
The area where you enter Rainbow Reef is shallow and you can stand in this area as needed. After a while in the deeper part, it's a great place to go back to and rest for a few minutes. While in the deeper parts of Rainbow Reef, the instructor asks that you not kick with your feet, dive beneath the water or attempt to touch any of the fish. The fish, however, can, and will, come right up to you.
Bring your own underwater camera or buy a one-time-only use camera, but whatever you do, bring a camera. My advice would be to go in the afternoon when the sun is shining. The water is warmer than in the morning and the sun makes the water perfect for photos. I was able to obtain much better photos of Hawaiian reef fish in Rainbow Reef than I have ever taken in the open ocean where the motion of the waves makes it very hard to take photos.
In the evening our group gathered together with our hosts for a farewell dinner at Makahiki and then some after dinner cocktails in the 'Olelo Room.
My Visit Ends and Some Final Thoughts
All too soon, my final day at Aulani arrived. I spent the bulk of the morning at the Laniwai Spa where I relaxed in the Kula Wai Hydrotherapy Garden and had a wonderful facial with Julie.
I then ate a final lunch at Off the Hook, did some shopping at the resort's very nice Kalepa's Store, and then packed for my long trip back to the east coast.
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in the Ko Olina Resort.
Our hosts, Mike Hyland and John McClintock were with us all the way and made sure that everything went well, and it did! Both Mike and John, along with all of the Cast Members that I encountered throughout the resort - ranging from the department heads that we met on our resort tour or at the Thursday breakfast to the housekeeping staff, reception desk clerks, and just random staff throughout the resort - truly reflected the aloha spirit that is so important at any resort in Hawaii. In addition I always felt the hospitality and attentiveness for which Disney is so well known.
Were there a few things that I saw as issues that need to may need to be addressed? Actually there were just a few in addition to the refrigerator problem I mentioned previously.
As someone approaching senior citizen status, I found it a bit hard to get in and out of the tub/shower in my bathroom. A grab bar or two would be very helpful.
I can also foresee a time, when the remaining Vacation Rental units are finished, that the resort will need an additional dining facility - ideally a moderately priced full service restaurant. Finally, with so much to do at the resort and with such great optional island excursions, many visitors really don't need a rental car.
Finally, I would like to see a Disney airport shuttle such as you find in Orlando providing transportation to and from Disneyworld.
All things considered, however, these are small issues when you look at all of the positive things that Aulani has to offer and how much they have accomplished in less than six months since their Grand Opening in August 2011.
The good thing about Disney is that they surely will address some of these issues and they'll continue to innovate, modify, and enhance the resort constantly to meet the demands of what is surely to be the many guests who will return to Aulani over and over again.