Onsite Review: Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa

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Lobby at Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa.
Lobby at Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa.

‘Ohana is a word that you’ll hear a lot at Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa, situated on Oahu’s west coast. It is a Hawaiian term meaning “family,” and may be familiar to anyone who has seen Disney’s 2002 hit “Lilo & Stitch,” also set on the islands. The strength and inclusivity of one’s ‘ohana is a central theme of that film, and a shared ideal that both Disney and the culture of Hawaii have in common.

“We celebrate true Hawaiian culture,” says Lynn Clark, v.p., domestic travel industry & destination sales, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. “It’s not just a saying for us—we are obsessed with delivering a resort experience, which celebrates and embraces the true stories of Hawaii. Our resort is overflowing with details to explore, which all help us to tell the story of Hawaii.”

Opened in 2011, the Aulani resort was the brainchild of veteran Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde, a Hawaiian native raised with a love of its culture and traditions. The aim of the development was to utilize the creative expertise and big budget production values of the company in order to convey the unique magic of the islands. While Mickey Mouse and a cast of Disney characters are present at the resort, and on hand to provide family entertainment, it is the storytelling traditions of Hawaii itself that take central focus.

From the moment you arrive at Aulani, you are greeted by the aloha spirit, draped in flower garlands and offered refreshment in the form of ice cold drinking water infused with tropical fruit notes, before being led into the impressive hotel lobby. An arch-shaped window composed of striking geometric shapes dominates the space. Below it a colorful mural wraps the walls depicting traditional island life. Carved wooden sculptures and artifacts of Hawaiian folklore catch the eye, but every element of the lobby design directs your attention to the open terrace.

It’s from this vantage point that you receive your initial glimpse of the lush greenery and sprawling pools below. A large outcrop of
dormant volcanic rock takes central focus, and beyond it a white sand beach that fades into the expanse of the Pacific. The lobby area is known as Maka’ala, which means “open up your eyes and look,” and it is here that guests receive their first vivid sense of the attention to detail and genuine love of Hawaii that characterizes Aulani.

The resort offers 359 rooms, including 16 suites. Standard rooms contain two queen-size beds and accommodate up to four guests. They include all of the amenities one might expect at a high-end resort, such as a private balcony, flat-panel TV, DVD player, WiFi access and deep-soaking bathtub. Little touches of Disney magic can be found throughout, such as the patterned print bed-covers that display hidden Mickey Mouse silhouettes if you look closely, table lamps that reveal the shape of a surfing Mickey on the lampshade when the light is switched on, and even the towels that are arranged on the bed in the familiar iconic shape of the cartoon mouse’s head by the housekeeping staff each morning.

Larger families can opt for the 1-bedroom suite, accommodating up to five guests with a king-size bed in the master bedroom, a queen-size sleeper sofa in the living room and a pull down bunk-bed that unfolds from beneath the media center and is perfect for kids. A deluxe 1-bedroom suite is also available, accommodating the same number of guests, but with upgraded amenities including two giant 42-inch flat screens, a whirlpool tub, steam shower with body jets and rain showerhead, full-size refrigerator, microwave and dishwasher, along with Italian mosaics and custom original art on the walls. The most spacious suite available is the 2-bedroom ‘Ahu ‘Ula Suite, offering over 1,900 sq. ft. of living space. Comfortably accommodating up to six guests, it has all of the upgraded features of the deluxe 1-bedroom suite, but on a grander scale.

Clark reminds us that the resort was “purpose-built for family vacation travel. Every detail of our resort was designed to accommodate families.” In fact, she says, “we have a variety of family villas available for rent, in addition to our traditional hotel rooms. Large families find these a great value and a perfect way to vacation together. These villas come with small kitchens, laundry appliances, family dining tables, etc. and great spaces for families to enjoy.”

Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa Room
Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa Room

mischievous water and menehune
When your clients take the elevator down to the poolside area, they will be serenaded by Hawaiian language versions of well-known Disney tunes piped through the speakers. They may even spot a wooden carving of one of the Menehune, or little people, that are scattered throughout the resort. In Hawaiian mythology, the Menehune were the original inhabitants of the islands before the Polynesian settlers arrived, elusive and mysterious beings who love to play tricks and cause mischief. Kids can learn more about this local folklore by participating in the Menehune Adventure Trail, a high-tech scavenger hunt that leads them through the resort solving interactive riddles, searching for hidden statues and discovering surprise animations and special effects. The trail is one of many innovative activities that draw on Hawaiian culture.

For kids ages 3 to 12, Aunty’s Beach House is the place to be. This complimentary kids’ club provides storytelling, traditional arts and crafts, movies, video games, dress-up fun and surprise visits from Disney characters. Aunty’s Breakfast Celebration at the Makahiki Buffet is another fun-filled event where kids can start their morning in the company of Mickey, Donald and friends.

Families will spend lots of time at the Waikolohe Valley (Hawaiian for “mischievous water”), the aptly named main pool area situated between the two towers of Aulani. It includes the huge 8,200-sq.-ft. Waikolohe Pool, where teens-only, tweens-only and all-ages themed parties are regularly held. The nearby Waikolohe Stream consists of two tubing adventures, one an enclosed extreme body slide that plunges into the pool area; and the other a more relaxed open-air tube ride that takes many twists and turns before depositing guests in the Lazy River that winds through the resort. For younger children there is the Menehune Bridge play area that includes two water slides, a climbing play structure and more splashing activities that bring the legend of the Menehune to life. Directly in the center of the resort is the Rainbow Reef, a private salt-water snorkeling lagoon ideal for beginners where they’ll encounter colorful butterfly fish, angelfish, surgeonfish and tangs.

Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa Lazy River.
Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa Lazy River.

A major expansion project to the pool area, completed in 2013, added an infinity edge pool to the Ka Maka Grotto offering beautiful sunset views, as well as the adult-exclusive Wailana Pool, secluded away from the excitement of the main resort area and featuring a poolside bar. Four outdoor whirlpool spas provide another peaceful escape while the kids are occupied elsewhere.

“We provide a great deal of inclusive activities and recreation. Our entertainment, our extensive pools and water slides, and themed whirlpools and grottos, and of course, our very popular Aunty’s Beach House children’s play center, are all included in the price of the room,” points out Clark.

However, as impressive as Aulani’s pool areas are, it’s hard to beat the lure of the sea itself. The resort is situated on a stretch of
white-sand beach facing a man-made lagoon that is ideal for swimming or just floating along and admiring the stunning scenery. For more active beachgoers, kayaks, snorkels and other beach equipment are available for hire, or guests can participate in beach games, sandcastle competitions or an authentic Hawaiian sailing canoe experience organized by the resort.

music and mai tais
To unwind, guests can step into the Laniwai spa, where treatments range from the traditional lomilomi massage, incorporating aromatherapy and warm river stones, to rejuvenating facial masks. We were encouraged to arrive an hour before our appointment to make use of the outdoor hydrotherapy garden, which includes herbal pools, waterfall rain showers and whirlpool jet baths. For kids there’s the Keiki Wahine Experience, where ages 3 and up are transformed into hula dancers with makeup and costume; or Painted Sky, the only teen spa in Hawaii, which offers spa treatments, computer stations and a yogurt bar.

Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa Mai Tai
Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa Mai Tai

Come evening, the signature family event is the Starlit Hui on the Halawai Lawn, featuring live music, hula dancers and a dance party with Disney characters. For a more subdued experience, guests can gather around the fire-pit for traditional storytelling, or listen to live music at a choice of cocktail lounge or open-air venues.

Aulani offers a variety of dining options, ranging from the Makahiki Buffet to grab-and-go selections at the Ulu Cafe or Lava Shack. But for a real taste of Polynesia, we visited the ‘Ama‘Ama restaurant, where chef Patrick Callarec presents Hawaiian-inspired delicacies. For an entree, filet of beef topped with braised short rib and accompanied by tomato-pepper chutney, leek and spinach a la creme and smoked potato puree give an island spin to a classic main course.

Beyond the resort itself, Aulani offers guests a variety of excursions—ranging from rainforest hikes to horseback riding, to a Catamaran Experience where guests can snorkel in a lagoon with tropical fish, or spot giant sea turtles, dolphins and whales. There’s also a nearby 18-hole golf course, and guests at Aulani can enjoy discounted rates and a complimentary shuttle from the resort.

The resort is offering a free night promotion: When clients stay for a minimum of four nights, the fourth night is free. And if they upgrade to a 1- or 2-bedroom Villa, they’ll receive the fourth night free plus a nightly $100 resort credit. Plus, if travel agents purchase this package through The Walt Disney Travel Company, they’ll receive complimentary transfers for their clients to and from Honolulu International Airport and a complimentary 1-day mid-size Alamo car rental. Book by Oct. 30 for travel through Dec. 22 (excluding Nov. 26-29).

contact information
Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa: (866) 443-4763; resorts.disney.go.com/aulani-hawaii-resort or disneytravelagents.com