Disney’s Aulani: What it’s like to stay at Mickey’s Hawaiian getaway

2 weeks ago 8

It surprises many people that there is a Disney resort in Hawaii, but it's true. Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa is on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, and it serves as a beacon for many looking for the ultimate escape from reality.

There aren't any rides at this Disney resort (unless you count waterslides), but you will find Mickey in his vacation outfit, as well as a long list of included activities, like animation classes and evening outdoor movie nights, that are common at some Disney resorts. In addition to those offerings, there are also plenty of things to do and enjoy that you will find only at Aulani.

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If you are like me and adore not only most things Disney but also Hawaii, then here's what you need to know about Disney's Aulani resort.


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What is Disney's Aulani?

Aulani (pronounced ow-LAH-nee) opened in the summer of 2011, and it's a 21-acre Disney-owned oceanfront resort that is a part of the Disney Vacation Club. However, you don't have to book via the Disney Vacation Club to stay there (more on that shortly).

Disney's Aulani isn't just a Disney-ized version of Hawaii; instead, the architecture and decor lean intentionally into Hawaiian patterns, culture and tradition. For example, the lobby has a compass rose embedded in the floor, but instead of the North, South, East and West directions you may expect to find, the directions correspond to what was traditional to the Hawaiians: toward the sea, to the mountains, etc. Additionally, keep your eyes on the carpet for the outlines of the leaves of the native taro plant.

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Aulani is also home to one of the world's largest collections of contemporary Hawaiian art, not to mention that some parts of the resort look like an architectural work of art themselves.

But it's not a museum — it's a fun place to play. There's a 321,000-gallon lazy river, a 3,800-square-foot snorkeling lagoon, two waterslides, a plethora of daily activities, evening storytelling, Mickey-shaped shave ice and so much more.

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Related: Are the Disney Visa credit cards worth it?

How much is Aulani, and what are the best ways to book?

Standard rooms at Aulani can easily cost $600 and up per night before taxes, but thankfully there are a few ways to save money on your trip.

The most effective way to save money when visiting Aulani is by renting Disney Vacation Club points. You can do this via an owner (there are Facebook groups for this if you don't know anyone) or David's Vacation Club Rentals.

You can save 40% to 50% on the cost of your stay by renting DVC points to stay at Aulani, so this can be a tremendous savings. The "trick" is that the lower-priced DVC rooms sell out well in advance, so you are best served by renting points 11 months out if you are traveling on peak dates or want to ensure you get the lowest-priced DVC rooms.

Rent Disney Vacation Club points from David's Vacation Club Rentals to save up to 50% on Aulani.

But, if you aren't renting points and you just pay directly with cash, expect to often pay $700-plus per night for standard rooms, more during peak times. There is no resort fee on top of that, but if you are booking with cash (instead of DVC points), then parking is $40 per day for either valet parking or self-parking. Self-parking is included when using DVC points.

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Where is Aulani?

Aulani is on the island of Oahu, about 17 miles from Honolulu's Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL). It's on the western side of the island in Ko Olina, which can be a 30-to-40-minute drive from the Honolulu airport, depending on traffic.

If you decide to take a taxi from the Honolulu airport to Aulani, Charley's Taxi offers a flat rate of $70 each way. There's generally no need to set this up in advance when leaving Aulani, as it has a stand in front of the hotel, but you can make advance reservations for pickups from HNL online. Uber prices will vary, but can be cheaper at some times of the day, so you can price that option out, too.

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Since, for most of us, a trip to Aulani requires flights, here are tips for the best ways to use points and miles to get to Hawaii.

There are many room choices at Aulani

Aulani has 351 hotel rooms, including 16 suites, as well as 481 two-bedroom Disney Vacation Club villas and 21 Grand Villas spread out over a couple of towers. We have done both of our stays in one of the standard hotel rooms with two queen beds.

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A general rule of thumb at Disney: Even if the rooms are expensive, don't expect them to be the star of your vacation.

The room at Aulani was completely adequate, but it was — as the name described — standard. Your $600-plus per night isn't going to over-the-top room accommodations with butlers and soaking tubs; it's going to the on-site activities, so adjust your room expectations accordingly.

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The two queen beds were comfortable, and housekeeping was prompt each day. I would have appreciated additional outlets by the bed, but I'll take that trade-off for the very cool air conditioning that worked better than at many of the hotels we have visited in Hawaii.

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Next to the TV area was a small table with two chairs, which was functional and greatly appreciated when ordering room service or bringing a pizza up — which is, without question, the best value dinner on the property.

My favorite part of the decor in the room was likely the Hawaiian-themed Mickey lamp on the table. Generally speaking, Mickey was an understated element at Aulani, though he is certainly there if you look for him.

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Our rooms on both visits had a minifridge and a balcony. On our second visit, we were even upgraded to a partial ocean view.

The bathroom has a single vanity, which probably would have been better as a double, given this was a room for families.

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Having a shower-tub combo, though, was the right call for a room with two queen beds. Disney's H2O line is no longer at Aulani, which is a bummer if you've come to associate that smell with all things vacation, but instead, it currently has Malie.

Aulani's pools and beach are the stars of the show

There is a lot to do at Aulani. And this is where the resort really gets both great and overwhelming at the same time. Given the prices and the plethora of amenities, when you stay at Aulani, you are probably staying put at Aulani. Unless you're working with a larger budget, this probably isn't a hotel you stay at to use as a home base to plan trips from while you enjoy all that Oahu has to offer.

Aulani pools

With that in mind, let's start with a dive into Aulani's pools, beach and waterslides.

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Aulani has a massive 7-acre pool complex that goes way beyond traditional, basic pools.

The Waikolohe Stream is 900 feet long and includes a traditional lazy river as well as two tubing slides. On one, you could go in single or double tubes, and the other was a body slide. And, yes, there were lifeguards everywhere.

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Pro tip: The line for the slide with the tubes is usually much longer than the line for the body slide.

There is also the Menehune Bridge, with waterslides, splash features and more.

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Next up are three pools and a 3,800 square-foot snorkeling lagoon, Rainbow Reef, which is stocked with beautiful fish and some other underwater surprises to find. If you are an experienced snorkeler, this probably won't be very impressive, but it is a great way for kids to get their flippers wet snorkeling in a very controlled environment.

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It costs $20-$25 for one-day snorkel access (that includes gear), or you can buy a length-of-stay pass if you think you'll go multiple times. Or, just enjoy the view for free from these cool peekaboo windows.

During our March visit, the Rainbow Reef was a bit too cold for our tastes since it isn't heated, which made our sessions extra brief, so consider that if your crew doesn't like chilly water.

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Aulani also has an adults-only pool, a zero-entry pool, infinity pools, hot tubs and plenty of water activities to keep your group busy. These pools were all a comfortable, regulated temperature.

We vastly prefer heading to the pools either first thing in the morning or around 5 p.m., when most people are leaving for the day. The slides and lazy river were open until 8 p.m. during our stay, and the main pool stayed open until 10 p.m.

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Pool chairs are hot commodities during the middle of the day, and you need to pick up a colored wristband at the towel hut daily. Unfortunately, if you want a "good" chair spot, this is one of those places where you probably need to either start your pool day early or wait for the first round of people to start to leave. Cabanas and covered chairs are available but pricey, so expect to spend a few hundred dollars per day if you want to go that route.

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Aulani beach

Aulani is on the shore of Ko Olina beach, with soft sand and water that is generally calm enough for swimming and ideal for photos.

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Life jackets, boogie boards, chairs and umbrellas are complimentary, but you can also rent snorkel sets ($25) and stand-up paddleboards ($45) or live out your "Moana" adventures and book a sailing canoe experience for $119.

But whatever you do, don't miss the epic sunsets at Aulani, which are just about reason enough to come all on their own.

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The sunsets are truly epic here and I highly recommend you make it a point to be outside and try and catch a good one at least once or twice on your trip.

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There are Disney characters, Aunty's Beach House and more

Now, let's talk about all the non-swimming things there are to do at Aulani, of which there are many.

Aunty's Beach House

Kids ages 4 to 12 can make a reservation to play at Aunty's Beach House, which is essentially a kids club similar to what you find on a Disney cruise, just on land and with a Hawaiian flair.

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During our 2019 visit, my kids absolutely loved Aunty's Beach House, which was a serious draw to the property for us. However, we couldn't visit Aunty's Beach House this time for two reasons. First, my oldest kid has aged out. But my younger kiddo couldn't go either, as the process to book a slot there has changed during the pandemic, and you now have to really plan ahead.

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You book 90-minute slots to play starting three months out, and they absolutely sell out. Do not wait until you get to Aulani to figure out the Aunty's Beach House situation — book this part of your trip months in advance or risk being disappointed and frustrated with this feature of the resort when you arrive.

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Also of note is that there seem to now be more premium (i.e., costly) offerings at Aunty's Beach House than there used to be, which also limits the "free" times to go. But even those fill up, so make those bookings for things like games with Moana or a dance party with Disney pals.

Meet Disney characters

Aulani is great for meeting Disney characters with lines that are much shorter than what you'd often find at Disney theme parks. And they have not only some of the usual suspects, such as Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Chip, Dale and Goofy, but some harder-to-find friends, such as ShellieMay, Duffy, Stitch and Max.

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The Aulani app is great for telling you who will be out at different times during the day, so be sure to set it up before you start your trip. We like to line up about 15-20 minutes before the start time for the popular characters.

Classes and activities

At Aulani, there are many different activities and classes you can take part in. A few, like evening storytelling by the fire pit, are open to all who show up, but many, such as making your own Mickey ears, koi fish feeding, T-shirt stamping and animation classes, have limited capacity and require you to sign up in advance.

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Some of these activities are included, while some (such as making ears or T-shirts) require an extra fee. You can book in the activity room on-site, but I recommend booking activities in the Aulani app at least a few days before your trip.

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Laniwai Spa

I haven't had the time or the budget to splurge on treatments at the Laniwai Spa, but from a walk-by, it looks (and smells!) fantastic.

There are 15 treatment rooms, including a family treatment room that sounded really cool for those looking to relax together. There's even a teen portion of the spa for those 14 to 17 years old and a hydrotherapy garden.

If you want to be sure you get the treatment you want at the time you want, you need to — you guessed it — book it well in advance. You can book spa appointments up to 90 days in advance online.

What to eat at Aulani

There are multiple dining options at Disney's Aulani, ranging from the you-gotta-get-it Mickey-shaped shave ice to almost fine dining at Ama Ama.

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Makahiki

I recommend doing one breakfast while you are at Aulani at Makahiki, which offers a traditional Disney character breakfast. You'll likely start by meeting Mickey in his Hawaiian vacation attire, then get to say hi to Minnie, and then a few other characters will come by as you enjoy your meal.

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This is a three-course breakfast that starts off with a tropical yogurt parfait with fruit such as coconut and pineapple, along with sugary and absolutely delicious malasadas.

You then have your pick of entrees, such as various omelets, French toast, pancakes and a Hawaiian-style loco moco, to name a few.

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This meal costs $50 per adult and $29 for children ages 3 to 9, which you'll soon realize is a relative bargain for a sit-down meal at Aulani. This restaurant is also open for dinner with the same three-course concept and priced at $75 for adults and $30 for kids, but without the characters, as they are only there in the morning.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance — and you need to book exactly on that day to have the best chance of getting a breakfast spot as it is very popular.

Ama Ama

The nicest restaurant at Aulani is the beachside, open-air Ama Ama. We ate there on a trip a few years ago and certainly enjoyed the food. We had reservations to return on this trip, but once we learned that it is now a four-course meal that costs $125 per person ($55 for kids 3 to 9 years old), we opted to skip a return visit.

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I can't say that I'm thrilled with this move to the pricey set-course meals at so many of Aulani's restaurants, as it makes it tough for families and kids who want a nicer meal but aren't going to get anywhere near their money's worth out of a costly multicourse dinner. Paying $125 for a 10-year-old to have dinner is just a whole lot, even for Hawaii.

Ulu Cafe

For a meal that doesn't top $100 for two people, head to Ulu Cafe, which is where we've enjoyed most of our Aulani meals over the years. This quick-service and grab-and-go venue had an assortment of pastries, muffins, drinks and packaged goods in addition to a few hot items at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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At lunch, you can get Mickey-shaped Spam musubi, which I think is pretty fantastic. It does sell out, so don't wait until too late in the day if you want one.

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There are also build-your-own poke bowl and acai bowl stations, which are very solid.

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From 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., you can order a pizza for $24, which is the cheapest family dinner on the property. You can purchase a refillable mug to load up with soft drinks and such for the duration of your trip.

Off the Hook

Next to the pool and beach is an assortment of kiosks, snack shops and a poolside cafe with table service for lunch and dinner called Off the Hook.

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Kids meals here are $15, a poke bowl was $25 and my teen's burger was $23. Thankfully, this restaurant is still a la carte, so you can order as much or as little as you want. Also, reservations are not required, so just head over there when you're getting hungry.

Olelo Room

One spot we haven't tried yet but that was always intriguing with some evening music was Olelo Room. Here there was a sunset happy hour menu with appetizers, sushi and sashimi, along with drinks.

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You could also walk to nearby off-site dining options such as Monkeypod. Monkeypod has fantastic happy hours with discounts on drinks, $12 pizzas and 50% off most appetizers from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Luau at Disney's Aulani

Aulani is home to a luau that I've heard very good things about, but I haven't tried it yet, as prices start at $109 for kids ages 3 to 9 and $180 per person for those ages 10 and up. The better seats cost even more.

However, if you want to do it, you need to book at least a couple of months in advance and know it only operates a few days a week.

Snacks and Mickey shave ice

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You can't go to Aulani and miss getting the shave ice from the poolside Papalua Shave Ice stand — just be sure and add the Mickey ears for an extra dollar.

At Aulani, you can also get a Dole Whip from the Ulu Cafe, which was just as good as the one at Disney World ... or maybe better.

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Accessibility

Disney's Aulani has wheelchair- and hearing-accessible rooms that you can reserve by checking the accessible rooms box when making your booking. The large outside pool area is paved for wheelchair access, and there are ramps to access most of the areas. Additionally, the pools do have lifts available.

Reasons Aulani might not be for you

  • Aulani is an expensive vacation destination, and I'm not just talking about the rooms (again, I highly recommend renting DVC points to help there). But your on-property meals, drinks and snacks and any activities you book will add up in a hurry, which makes this not the right match for every budget.
  • Getting slots for some activities, Aunty's Beach House and even breakfast is competitive and requires advance planning or extreme luck, which isn't everyone's cup of tea.
  • Aulani can be very busy and, with multiple towers of rooms, can host many people, so if you are looking to "get away from it all" and have some peace and quiet, this isn't necessarily the right vacation choice.
  • Aulani does have some Disney-themed activities and characters, but it isn't a replacement for, say Disneyland or Disney World, so if you want an all-in Disney trip, you may not find that at Aulani. On the flip side, if you want a Disney-free part of Hawaii, this isn't that.

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Checking out

Aulani is a Disney resort in Hawaii, but it isn't really like most other resorts in Hawaii, nor is it exactly like most other Disney destinations. I've found that liking one or both of those things doesn't necessarily guarantee that Aulani will be a slam-dunk for your vacation.

Truthfully, on my first trip to Aulani, I didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped at first. I found it too frenetic and it required more planning and advance booking than I wanted out of a Hawaii vacation.

But, by the end of that trip, I had adjusted my expectations and really started to enjoy it. And now, with the benefit of knowing what to expect from past experiences (and having kids that are older), I very much enjoyed Aulani the second time, and I'm even plotting a third visit.

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That said, if you really want to maximize Aunty's Beach House, your meals, etc., then there's just no way around planning and booking at least parts of your stay starting 90 days in advance online.

But I also found that with my kids now older, some of that mattered a bit less; we could go to the later-timed activities that the younger families often don't do, and it was easier to have a more laid-back Aulani trip that was quite enjoyable.

Aulani was a great lesson that sometimes, when two of your favorites mix, what you end up with isn't quite what you were expecting, but that doesn't mean it can't still be very good.

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Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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