Activities

Disney's Aulani: A guide for families

At Disney’s Aulani resort on Oahu, families can experience the iconic brand’s next-level service and explore the fascinating history and culture of Hawaii.

By Sasha Emmons

Disney's Aulani: A guide for families

Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Aulani: A Guide for Families

For west coasters who want a dose of Disney, there’s Disneyland in Anaheim, California. But there’s also Aulani, Disney’s unique resort on Oahu, just a 5.5 hour flight from Vancouver or San Francisco. You won’t find rides or Cinderella castles here, but you will find a bit of that Disney magic in a stunningly lush setting. Opened in 2011 and located about 30 minutes from Honolulu in Ko Olina on the west side of the island, Aulani is best for families with kids aged three and up.

Overhead shot of Disney's Aulani ResortPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

The vibe

If you’ve visited other Disney properties, you’re used to wall-to-wall Mickey. But Aulani is intentionally “Hawaii first, Disney second;” the Disney touches are subtle, letting Hawaiian culture and traditions be the main focus. You’ll catch their drift right away as you enter the soaring open-air lobby, which showcases stunning sculptures and murals, part of the biggest Native Hawaiian contemporary art collection in the world.

Orient yourself by checking out the Daily ‘Iwa, a newsletter of events, available online or in the lobby after 7pm each evening. Get into an early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine (not hard, if you’re flying west) to best take advantage of the resort’s schedule, as the day starts with a property-wide morning chant at 7am and wraps activities up by 9pm.

Photo of the lobby at Disney's Aulani resortPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Rooms

All rooms are kitted out with a full kitchen (including rice cookers, in a nod to the many Japanese guests) so families can plan for some low-key meals in-room. The sleeping arrangements in parlor suites and one-bedroom villas have been thoughtfully designed for families with 3 kids, or opposite-gender sibs who don’t want to share a bed, with an exceptionally comfy pull-out couch as well as a murphy bed hidden under the TV. Bed rails, diaper pails and high chairs are available upon request, and every room comes with a Pack ‘N’ Play.

Photo of a hotel room at Disney's Aulani resortPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Kids club

Kids aged 3 to 12 (and yes, they do need to be potty-trained) can explore all 5,200 square feet of Aunty’s Beach House, room by themed-room (dress-up! Video games! Wood shop!), ending up in a shady playground out back. The kids club is included in your stay, but you will need to queue up early in the day to register for special activities, like making “space goo” or dance parties. If you don’t have mobile service in the US, they’ll give you a loaner cell so you’re always just a phone call away. Make sure to pre-register your child a day or two before you travel.

Photo of kids at Aunty's beach house being told a storyPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

The beach

While the surf in some parts of Oahu can be rough (this is big wave rider country, after all), the crescent-shaped, man-made lagoon at Aulani is a calm cove perfect for kids still learning to swim, and often quieter than the bustling pool area. Grab a complimentary boogie board and sand toys, or rent a stand-up paddleboard or snorkel.

Photo of a little girl sitting on a stand-up paddle board with her siblings paddling in the backgroundPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

The food

There are a variety of restaurants and fanciness levels to choose from, whether you’re looking for a dressy sit-down (like at Ama Ama, pictured) or just pool-side snack fare—but the food is tasty wherever you go. While the drinks are significantly marked up, you can find lots of kid-friendly options for around $10-12. There a poke bar, pizza and to-go snacks for the room at Ulu Cafe on the resort’s north tower. At some point during your stay, splurge on the character breakfast or dinner at Makahiki and go to town on the expansive buffet.

Photo of a dining space at disney's Aulani resortPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Pools

There are several pool speeds at Aulani, from a kiddie splash pad to an adults-only infinity pool. Most of the action takes places in the main Waikolohe pool, which features zero-depth entry, two slides and a lazy river, but don’t miss the low-key Ka Maka Grotto, where you can look out at the ocean as you soak. Hit the Menehune Bridge water playground to let little guests under 48” run off energy, or savour a few kid-free moments of peace at the adults-only Wailana pool.

Photo of the outdoor splash pad playground at Disney's Aulani ResortPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Characters

Did your kids come to see the characters? Their schedule can be accessed by calling the ToonFinder line daily. But if you don’t want to wait in line, be on the lookout for a roaming Goofy, who wades right into the water at Waikolohe pool. Moana also often makes a appearance at sunset beach-side story time.

Photo of goofy with his arms up while a cast member tosses a bucket of waterPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Spa

If you book a spa treatment, do not, I repeat do not, waste the opportunity to arrive early, maybe hours early, to spend some time in the hydrotherapy garden. There you can do a circuit of cold and hot pools, showers of various intensity, and a sauna before collapsing noodle-like into a chaise. Kid manis and pedis, and princess makeovers can be booked through the Painted Sky Spa.

Woman in bathing suit standing under a waterfall at an outdoor spaPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Excursions

While there’s plenty to do at Aulani, it’s worth going off-resort one day for a drive around the island (rentals are available via an Alamo on site), or an arranged excursion, which can range from a trek to the lush Kualoa Ranch (where Lost and Jurassic Park were filmed) to a day-long trip to neighbouring island Maui. The popular catamaran cruise offers a chance to snorkel in a fish hot spot, or stay onboard to look for whales or dolphin pods.

Photo of a group of horseback riders standing before a tall Hawaiian mountainPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Luau

You don’t want to leave Hawaii without experiencing a luau, and the resort’s Ka Wa’a version can be booked Wednesdays and Saturdays. The evening, hosted on the Halawei lawn, starts with drinks for parents and activities for the kids, like stringing leis or making poi, and then moves to a pork- and fish-focused buffet, ending with a song and dance-filled spectacle that tells the story of demigod Maui. Mickey and Minnie make just a brief appearance, but the emphasis here is on Oahu traditions. Fire dancers appear near the end to perk up antsy kids.

Photo of dancers performing at Disney's Aulani resortPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Insider tips

Save money on food and sundries There’s a market and several restaurants right across the street from the resort, so you can stock up on food for your room or just take a night off from resort dining.

Secrets of Disney Disney is famous for hidden surprises you can spot if you know what you’re looking for. At most parks, you’ll find hidden Mickeys, but at Aulani, look for hidden menehune or pixie-like folklore characters.

Bring Your Pins! If your kid has tried pin trading at other Disney properties, be sure to bring them to Aulani, where the staff are all ready to swap. A small selection of pins is also available in the gift shop if you’re just getting started.

Photo of a wooden statue looking mischieviousPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Planning your trip

Direct Flights There are non-stop flights to Oahu from Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Seattle and Chicago.

Rates Summer and the holidays are, not surprisingly, peak season. You’ll get the best value, with rates starting at $484 USD a night (food is not included) in late April/early May and mid-October to mid-November (factoring out the week of US Thanksgiving).

Luana Lounge If you are taking the red eye home, you can still make the most of your last day at the resort. Even after you check out, you still have access to the Luana Lounge, where your whole brood can take showers and change for the flight home.

Photo of a lounge at Disney's Aulani resortPhoto: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

Read more: 8 best family cruises 19 magical Airbnb rentals for families 13 hotel rooms that will blow your kids’ minds

Some of the writer’s costs were covered by Aulani.

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