Disney's Hawaii Resort: Review of the Aulani Resort and Spa, Ko Olina, Oahu

Photo courtesy of Aulani Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawai'i.
••• Photo courtesy of Aulani Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawai'i. See more photos.

Reasons to Visit:

  • Perfect location on a gentle lagoon beach
  • Assured Disney quality
  • Waikolohe Valley -- the 7-acre center of the resort-- has lazy river, waterslides, water-play
  • Aunty's Beach House kids club (free) has multiple areas indoors and out
  • Beautiful design honors Hawaiian art and culture

Bottom line: don't expect a theme park vibe at this beautiful resort; Disney became a major patron of the Hawaiian arts for its design.

Do expect plenty of complimentary fun for families, a perfect beach for kids, lush grounds that double as a waterpark, and a superb spa.

Background about the Aulani Resort:

Many people know and love the Disney Resorts at Mickey's theme parks, but may not know that Disney also has properties far from any rides or Fantasylands. The Aulani resort has sister properties at Vero Beach Resort in Florida and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.

Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, is located at Ko Olina, Oahu, about 20 miles west of Waikiki on the island's leeward (and less rainy) side. Ko Olina has four man-made lagoons with sandy beaches, a golf course, several other properties, and a small commercial area. Aulani has a prime spot centered on one of the lagoons.

Oahu is the most-visited Hawaiian Island, best known for Waikiki Beach. Oahu is a mere 597 sq. miles, but has plenty of activities for families -- see Top Things to Do on Oahu.

The Aulani resort has 840 units and standard guestrooms include a balcony or porch, deep soaking tub, mini-fridge, and Pack 'n Play playard. Suites are also available -- see accommodation choices. The Aulani is also a Disney Vacation Club resort; Disney Vacation Club Villas  can be booked by regular guests also, depending on availability.

An impressive feature of the $800M Aulani resort is its dedication to Hawaiian art and culture. 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. A major creative spirit behind the Aulani is Joe Rohde, an executive at Walt Disney Imagineering who was also the lead designer at Disney's Animal Kingdom (a unique theme park that's rich in cultural details.)

Features of Aulani Resort, for Families

Aulani is designed from the inside out as a family resort.  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.

The grounds are 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 a grown-up side, with sophisticated dining at the oceanview 'AMA'AMA restaurant, the quiet Wailana pool and lounge area with its own bar, a terrific spa (plan to spend hours there before or after your treatment), and Fairy Tale Weddings services.

The Waikolohe Valley
The 7-acre Waikolohe Valley, with its Puʻu Kilo volcano, is the centerpiece of the Aulani resort. The lazy river Waikolohe Stream winds its way -- lazily!-- through the Valley. Two waterslides -- the Tubestone Curl tube slide and the Volcano Vertical body slide (dark!)-- start from the top of the volcano. Also in the valley is the  Waikolohe Pool, a lifeguarded zero-entry pool, a hot pool, and infinity pools overlooking the beach.

Menehune Bridge Waterplay Area
This area has waterslides, bridge, water showers -- lots of fun.

Rainbow Reef Snorkeling Pool:
This pool is full of colorful fish and is a great place for little kids to try snorkelling. Fish and snorkellers can be viewed through below-ground glass windows; parents can take photos while kids have a turn. Fee includes gear, and a length-of-stay price is available.

Aunty's Beach House Kids Club
This excellent kids club is complimentary -- a major perk as comparable resorts charge over $100 a day. Moreover, Aunty's Beach House is a wonderful facility with  multiple themed rooms in both Aunty's side and Uncle's side of the house: kids age three to five go to Aunty, and older kids go to Uncle.  Aunty's side features a large room with a magical fireplace, dress-up area, and other fun, and has several other rooms, including a kitchen, as well. Uncle's side has a room for video games, Uncle's workshop, and more. A large outdoor area has play structures and plenty of grass for running around. (See photos.)

Certain activities at Aunty's Beach House entail an extra charge; also, Aunty isn't actually in residence but does make appearances. Nice touch: the first stop inside Aunty's Beach House is a long sink where everyone, kid or grown-up, washes their hands! Kids are served snacks every two hours; parents can also arrange for meals, which might Mom and Dad to try some fine dining at the ʻAMAʻAMA restaurant.

Visited: October 2011

Check rates at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodation and experiences for the purpose of review. 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.

More Complimentary Activities On-Property

The Aulani Resort has a number of activities going on that change every day; guests receive a daily schedule that notes options for kids, youth, and families.

Starlit Hui Night-Time Show: this complimentary show (on select nights) is a high-quality performance, as would be expected with Disney. Some audience participation adds to the fun.

Mo'olelo Storytelling: on select evenings at an outdoor fire pit.

Character Meet and Greets: the daily schedule tells guests where they can pose for pix with Stitch, Donald, and other characters.

Menehuni Advenure Trail: 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 do the "Menehuni Adventure Trail", a complimentary activity that uses a tablet (signed out from the Pau Hana Community Room.) The tablet shows a video story; kids get glimpses of daily Hawaiian life while Aunty sends them out to find certain special locations in the Waikolohe Valley. Once kids find the right spot, they answer a simple quiz and activate something magical: a torch lights up with flame, water showers down in a pool cave...  While a great concept, the Menehuni Adventure Trail had a few bugs when sampled during Aulani's Grand Opening.

 The tablet was very difficult to view in sunlight, and connectivity with Aunty had hiccups. Hopefully these will be fixed -- check recent visitor comments to see how kids are enjoying the Adventure Trail.

Po La'ila'i Gathering– Sunset Ceremony: a family event with puppetry and song.

Ōhana Movie Nights: Ohana means "family", and families can watch Disney movies under the stars on select nights.

Pre-movie fun, too.

Luana Lounge: this comfortable lounge is a nice convenience for guests who've checked out and want to enjoy the resort until their flight leaves later in the day. The lounge has sitting areas, internet access, and washrooms with lockers, towels, and showers.

Pau Hana Community Room: offers craft activities and is the place to check out devices for the Menehune Adventure Trail.

Painted Sky Spa doubles as a place for teens, with a lounge area, and daily activities such as ukulele lessons or movie night.

Other Features at the Aulani Resort:

Aunty's Breakfast Celebration at the Makahiki: this character breakfast offers a big buffet and lots of fun with Mickey and other characters.

'Olelo Room: everything in this lounge is labelled in the Hawaiian language, and staff here speak Hawaiian and will help guests learn words.

Laniwai Spa: even if you don't indulge in a spa treatment, consider buying an access pass to spend some hours -- yes, 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.

  Read details about a visit at the Laniwai Spa.

Makai Preserve: guests can interact with stingrays, starfish and other sea creatures in a pool. This is a paid experience; proceeds go towards research and conservation efforts.

Poolside Cabanas can be rented with tv, fridge, WiFi, bottled water.

Watersports: kayaks and stand-up paddleboards can be rented from Makiki Joe’s Beach Rentals; instruction is available also. See beach activities.

Guests might also find on the schedule: Art and Nature Tours at Aulani (for adults only), an adult's Culinary Series; hula lessons.

Excursions:

Excursions booked at the Aulani are offered by local Oahu companies under the Adventures by Disney brand, and guests can expect Adventures by Disney quality. Price includes transportation and whatever else is needed to enjoy the trip.

We sampled the Hawaiian Fire Surf School (--read details--) and towels, bottled water, and snacks were provided: all guests needed to do was show up and enjoy the experience. Guests can also buy an Adventures by Disney Explorer Package: a 3-day package of experiences, exclusively for Aulani guests. Book online or at the Holoholo Tours and Travel room in the Aulani lobby. Excursions that families might like include a  Sea Kayaking and Nature Walk, with storytelling; outing to the Kualoa Ranch, with horse-riding,  and an outing to Oahu's North Shore that includes a chance for kids to play Hawaiian games. (See current Aulani excursions.)

Keep in Mind about the Aulani Resort:

Prices at the Aulani Resort are in keeping with prices at similar properties. 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. (This store is associated with ABC, a ubiquitous brand in Hawaii and a great place to buy low-cost souvenirs.) See more about saving money at the Aulani Resort.

Find Out More:

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodation for the purpose of review. 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.