Beyond its iconic theme parks, cruise line and upscale guided tours, Disney also offers several luxury resorts in popular locations such as Vero Beach in Florida and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Yet arguably its most stunning off-park resort is Disney's Aulani Resort and Spa in Ko Olina, about 20 miles west of Waikiki on Oahu's leeward side.
Don't expect a theme park vibe at this stunning and very luxurious resort. Instead, Disney pays homage to the Hawaiian arts in the resort's design and ambiance. The open-air Makahala Lobby is vibrant with 200 feet of colorful murals by artist Martin Charlot. Wooden sculptures by master carver Rocky Jensen flank the lobby entrance; designs by traditional kapa maker Delani Tahany grace the heights of the lobby as well as the fabric details in the guestrooms. Families can expect plenty of complimentary fun, a perfect beach for kids of all ages, lush grounds that double as a water park, and a superb spa.
The Aulani resort is very large, with 840 rooms and suites. Even standard guestrooms include a balcony or porch, deep soaking tub, mini fridge, and Pack 'n Play playpen/crib. Room design in many units, for instance, incorporates a nifty bed that pulls out from the bottom part of a chest in the living room—just the kind of spot where a kid would love to sleep. While the Aulani is a Disney Vacation Club resort; rooms can be booked by non-members.
The grounds are expansive but stroller-friendly and the beach has a gentle entry that's perfect for small kids. A host of lifeguards are posted along the lazy river and at the pool.
That said, Aulani does have an appealing grown-up side, with sophisticated dining at the ocean-view 'AMA'AMA restaurant, the quiet Wailana pool and lounge area with its own bar, and a terrific spa,
Highlights at Aulani
The centerpiece of the resort is its vast seven-acre poolscape, known as the Waikolohe Valley, which features a mock volcano, lazy river, two waterslides, the zero-entry Waikolohe Pool, a hot pool, and several infinity pools overlooking the beach.
Water sports in the lagoon include kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. The Rainbow Reef lagoon-like snorkeling pool is full of colorful tropical fish and is a great place for little kids to try snorkeling. Fish and snorkelers can be viewed through below-ground glass windows. The fee includes gear and a length-of-stay price is available.
The excellent Aunty's Beach House Kids Club is complimentary for kids ages 3 to 12. There are multiple themed rooms in both Aunty's side and Uncle's side of the house: Kids ages 3 to 5 go to Aunty, and older kids go to Uncle. Aunty's side features a large room with a magical fireplace, dress-up area, kitchen and other fun. Uncle's side has a video game room, workshop, and more. A large outdoor area features play structures and plenty of grass for running around. Kids are served snacks every two hours; parents can also arrange for meals if Mom and Dad to try some fine dining at the ʻAMAʻAMA restaurant.
The Menehuni are mischievous "little people" in Hawaiian lore and have a starring role in the Aulani theming. Menehunis can be spotted on the property like "hidden Mickeys" Reportedly there are up to 300 Menehuni that can be found. Guests can also walk the "Menehuni Adventure Trail," a complimentary scavenger hunt activity completed with a tablet (signed out from the Pau Hana Community Room).
Even if you don't indulge in a treatment at the Laniwai Spa, consider buying an access pass to spend some hours enjoying the spa's relaxation areas. The outdoor Kula Wai hydrotherapy garden includes lounge areas, a circle of outdoor showers with different types of water flows (even showers that shoot upward from foot-level), and a chance to soak in two heated herbal pools, one eucalpytus and one a seaweed infusion meant to detoxify.
Tip: Prices at the Aulani Resort are in keeping with prices at similar luxury properties on Oahu. Families who want to go easy on the budget for meals and snacks can take a five-minute walk to the small Ko Olina commercial zone which has several casual eateries and also a good deli in the Island Country Market.
Visited: October 2011
Check rates at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa
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- Edited by Suzanne Rowan Kelleher