"Big 'H,' little 'd'." That's how Djuan Rivers, vice president of Aulani, characterizes the resort.
The stunning property, which is on the western, or leeward side of Oahu is not attached to a theme park and represents Disney's first attempt at a standalone resort. (The company does have two park-free resorts in the southeast US, but they are time-share properties geared to the Disney Vacation Club.) Those who might be expecting Daisy Duck and a cavalcade of toons in grass skirts, a fairy tale castle that houses a Polynesian princess, a boatload of animatronic pirates storming the shore, or other Mouse House conventions might be surprised to discover that the little "d" stands for Disney.
Sure, Mickey and the gang, including hometown heroes Lilo and Stitch, can be found at the resort. But the emphasis is squarely on the big "H," Hawaii, and its culture, people, and traditions. Instead of spinning mythical tales as is their wont, Disney's Imagineers have used their considerable skills to tell the real story of the Hawaiian Islands. The result is a delightful blend of tropical paradise, high-end hotel, and whimsical adventure.
Aulani Upfront Info
- Location: Part of the gated Ko Olina community in Kapolei on Oahu, Hawaii. It is about 17 miles west of Honolulu International Airport.
- Directions from Honolulu: I-H1 W, which becomes Farrington Hwy/HI-93, to Ko Olina exit. Go through Ko Olina gate, and take right into Aulani resort.
- See Aulani: Aulani Video
- My picks for the top reasons to visit Aulani
- Phone: (808) 674-6200 or (714) 520-7001
- Date of review: October, 2011 at the grand opening of the resort.
- In 2013, the resort expanded and made some modifications. See my article about the additions and changes at Aulani.
- Room rates: $$$$, Luxury. Expect to pay $400 and up. Room types include standard rooms and suites. Some of the activities require extra fees, although many are complementary. When complete, the property will be split about 60/40 between Disney Vacation Club time-share villas and hotel rooms.
- Official Website: Aulani
Distinctly Hawaiian and Distinctly Disney
The pampering begins the moment you arrive. Bell service reps welcome guests, coordinate their luggage and parking, and direct them to greeters who offer pineapple-infused water and bestow leis and beads. They, in turn, hand guests off to an attendant who escorts them into the hotel, spends a few minutes orienting them and pointing out some of the highlights in the grand lobby, and walks them over to the registration desk. Whew. At that point, I had a feeling we weren't in the Kansas Motel 6 any more.
The first few moments set the stage for the Hawaiian adventure that is about to unfold. "The lobby begs you to look," says Joe Rohde, senior vice president at Walt Disney Imagineering and the chief designer for Aulani. "Voices call out to you." Indeed, the totems, artifacts, murals, and other artwork that adorn the vestibule, with its arched ceiling, dramatic lighting, and striking views overlooking the bay, make a powerful -- and inviting -- statement.
Disney's outreach to the people of Hawaii and its efforts to make Aulani as authentically Hawaiian as possible are impressive. Rohde said that he and his team worked closely with cultural advisors, consultants, artists, and even spiritual leaders to guide them as they developed the resort. The name, "Aulani," which means "a messenger of a chief, or one who delivers messages from a higher authority," itself was bestowed by one of the advisors who said the name came to him in a dream.
"We have one of the largest collections of contemporary, indigenous Hawaiian art in the world. It may well be the largest," Rohde says. The Imagineer, who grew up on Oahu, is passionate about dispelling myths and avoiding stereotypes about his homeland, and says that drove him as he crafted the resort. "It's important that the artwork is contemporary," he adds. "Hawaiian culture is not just something from hundred of years ago. It is alive. It is today."
But Aulani is more than a museum or an edutainment experience. It works quite well as a posh resort. The standard rooms, which are generous in size and come with balconies, are handsomely decorated. All of the furniture is made from koa, a native Hawaiian wood that has a rich, burnt-orange hue. The high-mounted beds are exceptionally comfortable. The flat-screen TV includes a Blu-Ray player and a command center that allows guests to easily plug in their cameras and other devices.
The parlor suites, which command a significantly higher rate, feature ocean or mountain views, accommodate up to five guests, and have a separate bedroom and a living room with a dining area. They offer a half bathroom and a nicely appointed full bathroom with a walk-in shower, a whirlpool bath, and a toilet/bidet with customizable (!) controls and a heated seat. Comfy robes and slippers are a nice added touch.
On-property restaurants include the high-end 'Ama 'Ama, which, like all of the establishments at Aulani, feature locally sourced ingredients with an emphasis on fresh produce and seafood. Signature dishes include sustainable whole fish and an island favorite, ahi poke, which includes chopped vegetables to complement the tuna. The restaurant is decidedly gourmet, and the food is delicious; but the portions are small, and the prices might induce sticker shock. Expect to pay about $45 for a la carte dinner entrées.
For slightly less than the cost of an entrée at 'Ama 'Ama, diners can eat all they wish at Makahiki, a buffet restaurant that's open for dinner and breakfast. Items focus on Hawaiian delicacies as well as Western- and Asian-inspired dishes. (Like the rest of Hawaii, Aulani's visitors are split fairly evenly between the mainland US and Asia -- especially Japan -- with a smattering hailing from elsewhere around the globe.) The food is generally quite good, if not up to the gourmet standards at 'Ama 'Ama, and offers an opportunity to sample some island fare.
Local -- and Loco -- Meals
My wife and I got to try loco moco, a native cholesterol-busting dish that consists of a gooey fried egg layered atop a hamburger that sits on a heaping helping of rice. The whole thing is smothered in gravy; the Makahiki chefs add their own touch by capping it with mushrooms. A fruit fanatic, I think I got my money's worth nibbling on the mango, pineapple, star fruit, and other heavenly fruit available at the buffet alone.
On Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, Makahiki offers a character breakfast. You should make reservations well in advance, as the meals, especially on the weekends, are quite popular. In addition to guests staying at Aulani, vacationers from other hotels as well as locals flock to the breakfast so they can commune with Mickey and his pals. Note that the character breakfasts cost more than the Mickey-less buffets -- and they are much noisier.
Among other dining options, the quick service One Paddle, Two Paddle features surprisingly healthy (and tasty) selections such as a tofu lettuce wrap. The Papalua Shave Ice stand doles out cold Hawaiian treats that were as good as any we sampled elsewhere on the island.
For vacationers spending more than a couple of days at Aulani, the restaurant receipts can really add up. While the Makahiki buffet is bountiful and costs significantly less than 'Ama 'Ama, $43 ($21 for ages nine and under) is still a fairly hefty tab for dinner. But unlike Disney's theme park resorts, where the goal is to keep guests on property and to extract most, if not all, of their vacation dollars, those staying at Aulani can easily leave the resort and explore other restaurants. Off-property eateries even advertise in the Aulani magazine that's available in guest rooms.
There are some chain restaurants and other choices within walking distance in the Ko Olina resort area. And for guests with a car, a bounty of restaurants at all price levels is available throughout the island.
Little "d" Alert
Aulani's celebration of Hawaii implicitly encourages its guests to venture outside of its gates. In fact, the resort offers a number of excursions, such as surfing lessons, a charming catamaran cruise that includes a snorkeling experience, and a Chinatown tour followed by a cooking class with a renowned Honolulu chef. Some of the excursions have been developed for Aulani by Adventures by Disney and are guided, while others are self-guided opportunities.
But there is plenty to do at the resort itself. A kids' clubhouse (which is included in the room rate) has a full roster of organized activities as well as free-play. And -- little "d" alert! -- Disney characters are often integrated into the activities. Tweens and teens have their own programs, such as poolside games. A community hall offers experiences for all ages, such as hula lessons and making leis.
Among the more intriguing, and only-at-Disney offerings, is the Menehune Adventure Trail, an interactive experience (that is complementary) not unlike the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure at Epcot. The Menehune are mischievous little people in Hawaiian lore (think island-bred leprechauns). Using handheld devices, participants solve mysteries with the Menehune and trigger set pieces embedded throughout the resort. It's quite clever and a great group experience.
The Imagineer-designed "Waikolohe Valley" that extends from the main building down to the ocean is filed with more Disneyesque fun. At its center is a mini-volcano that houses two surprisingly potent water slides. The tube slide empties into the Waikolohe Stream, an enjoyable -- and long -- lazy river that meanders through the valley. The Menehune Bridge is an interactive water play center filled with ways to get wet. There are also two pools and four hot tubs.
Two extra-charge activities include a stingray encounter and a snorkeling experience. The fees are somewhat steep, especially for the Makai Preserve, which offers guests the opportunity to climb into the water with stingrays and pet them (under supervision). Real coral reefs abound throughout Oahu making snorkeling a readily available, and more exciting experience than Aulani's fabricated Rainbow Reef lagoon.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Vacation?
In addition to the Mouse-made water fun, a gorgeous beach (which Aulani shares with the neighboring Marriott resort, and, like all beaches throughout Hawaii, is also open to the public) offers swimming and all kinds of other recreational opportunities. Kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and other equipment are available for rent. My only complaint: Breakers prevent enticing-looking waves from entering the bay and allowing any decent body or boogie-board surfing. Then again, it does keep the beach relatively calm and safe for swimmers of all levels.
The long-winded name of the property is Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa. The spa in question, Laniwai, is delightfully decadent and offers a hushed, calming retreat complete with a unique outdoor hydrotherapy garden and the usual menu of massages, treatments, saunas, and other amenities. A special area caters to teens.
A departure for Disney, Aulani is an intriguing and enchanting resort. Of course all of that intrigue, enchantment, storytelling, luxury, and pampering comes at a price. A pretty steep price. If money is no object for you, you'll have a ball. If money is a concern, Aulani may merit a once-in-a-lifetime, deplete-the-vacation-account, let's-go-nuts escape. Or, if you are thinking about travelling to Hawaii, perhaps you could consider booking a couple of budget-busting days to savor the Aulani experience and spend the balance of your vacation at a more pedestrian hotel.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.