Thinking of Hawaii brings thoughts of warm breezes rustling through palm trees and waves crashing while I doze off under the sun with a fruity drink placed next to me. When I think of a Disney experience, images of Mickey Mouse, long lines and kids crying come crashing to mind. How could the two harmoniously gel into one nice experience for all? Upon entering the lobby of the Aulani Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, it became clear to me.
Ornate Hawaiian murals, wooden sculptures and an enormous gourd chandelier were breathtaking. Just beyond was the best backdrop you could ask for, the bright blue Pacific ocean. We were instantly lured outside to take in the scenery. It was so beautiful, peaceful and understated. I was waiting for an enormous Mickey Mouse to come bouncing by; that would have ruined it for me.
Tip: Book a cultural greeter early on, and they’ll give you a complimentary tour of the property and explain to you the rich Hawaiian heritage, and why the hotel was designed the way it was. So many interesting displays and areas around the property won’t mean anything unless you go on a tour. It definitely made my time here more meaningful.
Our room was perfect for our family of four, with more than enough space in the living room and kitchen area. The full kitchen and built-in banquet could easily make an extended stay with a larger family very comfortable. The living room had a single Murphy bed and queen-size pull-out sofa couch and spacious balcony. Our bedroom also had a balcony, jacuzzi tub and vanity area separated from another vanity, shower and toilet. My daughter Sloane was very happy to make the first Mickey sighting! A tasteful desk lamp.
Bedroom Ocean View Villa: $927; 866-443-4763.
The Aulani is located 17 miles northwest of Honolulu. The property is well laid out with plenty of areas to lounge ocean- or poolside. There are also many water activities for guests of all ages. The top three for my family were the lazy river, water slides and Rainbow Reef snorkeling lagoon filled with tropical fish. I would have killed for the interactive water park, though, when my kids were younger! They are twelve- and seven-years-old and had friends at the resort, so we felt safe letting them run around by themselves at times. It was fairly easy to keep an eye on them and find them when we needed to. Resort guests with wristbands are only allowed to participate in the outdoor activities and the wait times were not bad at all. The kids finally saw Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, and Goofy! Each afternoon by the main pool there’s a dance party with Disney characters.
Rainbow Reef One-Day Pass/rental fee: $15 for adults/$10 for kids 9 and younger.
Speaking of characters, the breakfast at Makahiki is the other hotspot to hang with Disney friends. The restaurant offers entertainment for the kids alongside a breakfast buffet loaded with traditional dishes as well as some Hawaiian favorites. My top choices were the pork hash, Island-style fried rice and Hawaiian Loco Moco which is similar to eggs benedict but with a hamburger patty and brown gravy. Delish! Try to sit outside by the Koi pond and make sure to get your official picture with Mickey Mouse while you’re there.
Makahiki buffet: $32 for adults/$18 for children 9 and younger.
There are many dining options at the Aulani. However since we were only there a few days, we didn’t try them all. For a more casual grab-and-go meal we headed to Ulu cafe. Here you’ll find espresso drinks, juices, pastries, sandwiches, and salads. We even ordered pizza to go for the kids one night. The adults wanted to try Off the Hook near the main pool, so we set up the kids at a nearby table for their dinner, while we indulged in scratch cocktails and heavy appetizers such as Kobe Beef Sliders ($15), Ahi Poke($15) and Beer-battered Onion Rings ($10). And before our food came, the kids were right around the corner at the Mo’olelo Fire Pit Storytelling, where they heard the age-old stories and traditions of Aulani. Win-win!
Tip: Across the street from the Aulani is the Ko Olina shopping center. We walked there one morning for lattes and acai bowls from the Island Vintage Coffee Company. We also found an ABC Island Country Market, which is the best little convenience store I’ve ever been in and that has tasty fried egg sandwiches. And nearby was the Monkeypod Kitchen, a lively restaurant with well-known Chef Peter Merriman, who has designed a great lunch, dinner and bar menu.
Downtime at Disney—is there such a thing? At the Aulani there are so many opportunities for children to safely be on their own, allowing parents some alone time. We used the Kids Club for a bit one night, and there’s also an interactive scavenger hunt that they tried with a special iPad.
For the adults, the Laniwai spa is a must see. From the moment I walked in I felt like I was going to be taken care of. The 5,000-square-foot garden with special plunge pools and a bank of six rain-style showers was phenomenal. There was also a mixology station, complimentary with a service, where I customized a body scrub of fragrant Hawaiian herbs and exfoliants. Of course my 50-minute Lomilomi signature massage with warm river stones was an instant recharge for me.
50-minute Lomiloni massage: $155.
Now that I’m home, and see the the Aulani commercials on television, I can honestly agree that the resort was truly an authentic Hawaiian experience with a touch of Disney magic. Would I go back? Absolutely.