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Child's Play

Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii calls to our inner keiki.
By Deborah Reinhardt

Three middle-aged women, exhibiting child-like enthusiasm, rushed up to the Disney cast member. Sporting their bathing suits, dripping hair, and a devil-may-care attitude, one of the ladies inquired if this water play area was open to adults, too.

fire story

Above: Stories are an important part of Hawaiian culture, and guests at Aulani can hear tales by the fire a few times each week.

Below: A balcony view of the grounds, including the Waikolohe Valley and beach area. A bas relief on the 15-story tower is a tribute to the goddess Hina. Deborah Reinhardt photo


“No, this area is for the keiki (children),” the cast member said, “but you’re welcome to use other areas of the Waikolohe Valley–like the water slides or stream.”

With fallen faces, the ladies replied they’d already done that, turned in unison, and headed to their next adventure. I couldn’t help but smile at the scene. These ladies knew how to tap into their inner child and have a great time, and that’s what a stay at the Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, Ko Olina, Hawaii, is all about.

How Disney manages to coax that inner child out of us must involve that ellusive “magic,” but after several Disney adventures, including a visit to Aulani late last summer to help celebrate the resort’s first anniversary, I’ve concluded it doesn’t really matter how they do it, but that we relax and go along for the ride. And that’s just what my family and I did.

My husband displayed no inhibitions about getting in on a photo with his favorite Disney character, Goofy. Our teenaged daughter, usually so aware of the cool and uncool, even cracked a smile for the family photo with Mickey Mouse wearing a Hawaiian shirt. The point is vacations are about letting go, and if a family is going to travel all the way to Hawaii, relaxation and fun should be the only pursuits.

The way to relaxation

A destination spa, quiet places scattered around the resort, and luxury accommodations combine to make an Aulani stay a relaxing experience.

Upon entering Laniwai Spa at Aulani, you feel this is a special place. The first destination spa designed by Disney “imagineers,” Laniwai’s beauty is in its details. Separate areas for adults, families, and teens ensure the best age-appropriate experience possible. Tranquil treatment rooms or outdoor private cabanas are the setting for a transforming massage.

An oasis called Kula Wai can be enjoyed before or after a spa treatment. This is an outdoor, lush hydrotherapy garden that had an instant effect on me. It would be easy to spend most of the day here. Hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but don’t wait to schedule your treatment because the spa is popular with guests.

Aulani sits on 21 oceanfront acres in the Ko Olina Resort Community and Marina that’s located on the leeward side of Oahu. Hawaiian royalty gathered at this site for rejuvenation, and there are many places within the resort for Aulani’s guests to find a quiet place to unwind.

Grab a free lounge and umbrella at the beach and lose yourself in the rhythm of the waves. For a really tranquil spot–but you may need to stake your claim in the morning–head to the Menehune Oasis in the Waikolohe Valley, the resort’s epicenter. Buy some picnic fare from the Lava Shack and walk to the Halawai Lawn. Find a tube and float the Waikolohe (which means mischievous water) Stream.

During the evening (5–11 p.m.), the ‘Olelo Room is a popular open-air lounge, but during the day, it provides a quiet shaded place to enjoy a book or game of cards with your friends. ‘Olelo means “words,” and the lounge’s décor is based on the display of hundreds of Hawaiian words and phrases.

Of course, the guest rooms can be a quiet respite. Each room at Aulani has lanai balconies or porches. Our balcony looked over the valley with partial ocean view. Each morning, I sat on the balcony and watched the resort come alive while sipping a cup of coffee. That peace alone was (almost) worth the airfare to Oahu.

The pursuit of fun

The “Type-A’s” in your family will have plenty of sport- and cultural-based activities at Aulani. Start at the beach where there are complimentary boogie boards and sand toys for the kids. You can rent kayaks and other water sport equipment. Rush down the water slides (Pu’u Kilo) in the valley. Play in the Wailana Pool. Snorkel in the Rainbow Reef, but know that the water temperature is chilly, and there is a fee for this experience. Rise early for the 7 a.m. fitness walk along the shores of Ko Olina, or do a 9 a.m. workout on the beach at Makiki Joe’s Beach Rental.

Take a Hawaiian craft class–we loved making floral leis–or check out other family activities and games at the Pau Hana Room. Walk through the resort to enjoy a multitude of Hawaiian art, or be on the lookout for charming menehune (legendary small folk in Hawaiian culture).

Children 3–12 years will adore spending time at Aunty’s Beach House, a registered, secure daycare center packed with imaginative, fun activities. Experience volcanic science with Eruption Disruption here, or learn to hula. It’s a fantastic facility for children.

With the kids at Aunty’s, mom can take the shopping shuttle (there is a charge) that stops at Ala Moana Centre, DFS Galleria, and Waikele Center while dad plays nine or 18 holes at Ko Olina Golf Club that’s across the street from Aulani.

Several character meet-and-greets take place daily at Aulani, and they usually are well attended. Evening brings music, storytelling, stargazing (there is a charge), dining, movies, and more. Our family–with its diverse interests–was never in want of something to do.

Plus and minus

Hawaii is one of those vacations most people have to save and plan for; so goes a stay at Aulani. This is not an all-inclusive resort–everything from a soft drink to a starlit dinner has a price tag. But you will get a lot of amenities at this resort that add value to even a brief stay here.

Yes, you can buy a photo pass, but cast members are more than happy to snap photos with characters and your kids with your camera. Entertainment is free and plentiful. Dining is expensive, but the food is excellent. Dinner on the last night at ‘AMA‘AMA was memorable. The Makahiki Buffet was bountiful. By summer 2013, two new casual dining options will be added, as will a new infinity edge pool and Splash Zone for younger children.

If families want to trim some fat off their dining budget, across the street from Aulani is Ko Olina Station and Center with less-expensive options for breakfast and dinner. We loved the deli at ABC Stores/Island Country Market. Breakfast and lunch items are available. One bite of Spam musubi and I was hooked.

The leeward side of the island has better weather, but it’s a 30-minute drive to many island attractions from Ko Olina. However, there’s plenty of parking ($35 per day) at the Aulani. A one-way taxi ride to Waikiki is about $55. There’s also a car rental service at the Aulani tour desk.

The Aulani may be just a year old, but Disney’s years of experience in hospitality and entertainment come together at this special resort. If you’re planning for Oahu, make the Aulani a part of your plan.

Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Midwest Traveler and AAA Southern Traveler magazines.

Mar/Apr 2013 Issue


Your AAA Travel Agent can help you plan a Hawaiian vacation at Aulani. Find a AAA Travel professional near you or call (888) 366-4222.

For more Hawaii vacation ideas, visit the Hawaii page. During March, AAA offices will feature special vacation offers through Pleasant Holidays.



Hit or Miss

Tips to help you get the most out of your visit to Aulani

With so many activities, it can be tough picking and choosing what to do. During a stay at Aulani, be sure to hit:

  • the Starlit Hui. It’s a wonderful evening show that runs Mondays and Thursdays featuring Hawaiian stories, dancing, and music.
  • Papalua Shave Ice that’s near the Waikolohe pool. Dozens of flavors, plus a topping of sweetened, condensed milk, made this confection a daily favorite of ours.
  • a craft class. The Aulani does a marvelous job celebrating Hawaii’s culture, and the craft classes are one of the activities that allow guests to participate in that culture.

With so much to do–and knowing you can’t do it all–a few experiences you can afford to miss include:

  • a tour, “Tales of a Moonlit Night,” that was billed as storytelling excursion that focuses on haunted legends. Most of the evening was on a bus, and the storytelling experience disappointed. Save your money and attend the evening fireside storytelling offered at Aulani.
  • a tour, “Catamaran Experience,” took participants on a not-so-scenic snorkeling adventure. Lunch on the boat was fine, but a better choice might be renting a car for the day and driving to Hawaii’s North Shore.

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