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Having just returned from a visit to the new Disney Aulani Resort on Oahu, I have so much to tell you. Fortunately for me, a colleague visited in November and put together a very nice review, so with her permission I am using her review and interjecting some of my own experiences that may be additional or different to what she had experienced. (Thanks Kelly!)
Getting to the Resort-because the resort charges $35 per day for parking, we had decided to arrange limousine transport. There were 6 of us arriving together, basically two wallets to split the one-way fare of $160 plus gratuity. We used Cloud Nine Limousine, the official limousine transport company for Aulani and as such guests receive a 10% discount if you book on their website using the promotional code. They also offer a 5% cash discount. A huge benefit to this is that they pick you up at the gate at Honolulu Airport and drive you to baggage claim, allowing you to bypass the Wiki Wiki Bus System at the airport. This also allows some of your party to remain in the limo, while a few go retrieve the luggage. We also decided to pay the driver for an additional hour ($60) so that we could stop at Safeway on our way into town and stock up on items for snacks, breakfast, etc. I highly recommend doing this because food choices are Aulani are limited and it can get very pricey. The ride to Aulani from the airport without any stops is approximately 30 minutes.
Arrival-The lobby is beautiful, really stunning, with lots of Hawaiian art and motifs, and very high ceilings, ocean view. The bellman took our bags and greeted us with leis. There is a kids’ check in area where they can sit in small chairs and watch vintage Disney cartoon. There are some nice little touches, too, like LED lights in the flooring, a little gecko running around in one of the lights, or have them look in the “keyhole” in the children’s lobby to see something special. Check in was smooth, we gave them our credit card which they pre-authorized for $1500 and gave us a schedule for the day’s activities. Everyone was pleasant and helpful.
Rooms-We had two Partial Ocean View standard rooms that connected. These were standard hotel rooms, not a villa. The rooms were spacious, and had a good size closet with hangers, upper shelf, and about 6 drawers are under the TV stand. The beds are high and allow for the luggage to fit in a cubby under the bed. There is a fridge, coffee maker which is stocked daily, a desk, iPod docking station, and free internet. The bathroom is a very good size, with toilet that closes off, a shower with Vichy shower head and tub, and ample counter space and cubbies with two sinks and two nice bathrobes. The lanai is a nice size, with two chairs and a table. The rooms always felt dark to me, they could use a bit more light. 1 and 2 bedroom villas do have full kitchens and living areas. All rooms have a pack n play in the closet. The beds were very comfy, but the pillows a bit too fluffy & fat. I suspect just because they are so new and have not been used enough to flatten a bit.
Pools and Beach-Aulani has a fabulous pool and beach and is definitely a highlight of the resort. The center of the pool area is their lagoon style lazy river, which you can enjoy in inner tubes provided, or just float/swim along. It is well designed and attractive, and at different points you will go past waterfalls, “rapids”, bridges, etc. There are two waterslides, one is in a dark tunnel and more adventurous, the other is for inner tubes and you can go in a single or double and then float along or get out. They are located at the top of the “volcano”.
There are so many lifeguards it is almost comical. The main pool, slides, and spray park hours vary according to season. When Kelly was there they were open from 8 am – 8 pm, because we were there in January water park closed at 6pm, the main pool & slides closed at 8pm. There are lifeguards about every 20 feet as you float by in your inner tube. The quiet pool is open until 11 pm.
There is also a shallow area to the pool that starts at zero entry and is nice for little ones, as well as a large spray park with bridges and cascading water. For those seeking a quieter, albeit plainer experience, there was a regular rectangular pool off to the north side of the property. There are two large hot tubs, and my favorite was the two-level infinity edge hot tub with a lovely ocean view. Guests congregate here at sunset, it is pretty spectacular and a great place to enjoy such a beautiful view!
There is drink and food service to the lounge chairs at the pool, and when I was there we had no problems getting lounge chairs or needing to “save them”. There is a towel stand and restrooms near the middle of the pool area.
The beach was so great for kids. It is in a crescent shaped cove shared with the JW Marriott next door. The waves stop at a reef further out, and it is gentle and calm. The water was clear and we were able to snorkel in the rocks. There are rentals on the beach, Kelly's family took out a long board and all had a turn learning it on our own. Our group rented a kayak one day for an hour ($30). There are lifeguards and a rope boundary to keep you from going out to the rougher part of the ocean. The sand was nice and there were plenty of beach chairs.
In November, Kelly experienced some windy times- mostly in the morning. During our stay in January we definitely had some trade winds- but they were very refreshing while sitting out in the 80 degree temperatures.
Kids Clubs and Activities-The other strength of the resort is the kids programs and daily activities for families. We always had something to do, and my kids would each get a copy of the “Daily Navigator” to figure out what they wanted to do for the day (they are delivered to your room each evening for the next day).
The main kids club is called Aunty’s Beach House, and it was very spacious and well run. It is for ages 3 – 10, and the first half is geared for the younger kids with a dress up area (tons of costumes), make believe area, story area with couches and fireplace, video game area (interactive games on these big tables, not traditional game systems), craft area, and a whole room for classes, projects, and “experiments” with Stitch. There is also an outdoor area with a playground. The second half is for the older kids, 7 – 11 or so, with similar areas but geared for bigger kids. They had a movie studio, snack area, video games and other games like foosball and such, and they can also participate in the special events like the science experiments.
All kids receive a GPS bracelet so that you know where they are, it is waterproof and they wear it their whole stay. They are signed in and out by their parents, and receive a password. Kids need to be potty trained, and you leave your cell phone in their registration. They can hang out there any time they want, and they will feed them lunch or dinner from the rooms service menu ($15 each). The price of the kids club is included. The hours they are open varied daily while we were there, always opening at 9am, but some nights closed at 9pm and other nights 11pm. They have their activities printed in the daily navigator so that you can drop in for something special.
Across the courtyard is the tween and teen club. They have their own space that is next to the spa, and their own teen spa. Kelly has a "teen" who hung out there and enjoyed it when there were other kids there. They also have their own schedule of activities printed in the daily navigator, and those were more of a hit with my 13-year old than just “hanging out”. They had a video scavenger hunt throughout the resort, where they were given video cameras and teamed up and sent out with a mission to complete, and afterwards everyone got together and watched the videos. They had computers for checking Facebook and email, and video games. They had a couple of movie nights, also beach games and contests. The tween/teens were able to get out and utilize the resort as part of their program, and can come and go as they please once parents fill out a form. Older kids can sign in as a guest at Aunty’s Beach House if they want to hang out with siblings or do the activities over there. The teen spa offered a number of services that I think any tween or teen girl would love to participate in.
The only complaint that our friends had was that they wished there were more outdoor activities. If the counselors would take the kids swimming or out to learn paddle boarding, etc. Our friends have a 9 year old who didn't want to go to the club and an almost 6 year old who we couldn't pry away from the club.
The Daily Navigator had a myriad of activities every day for Ohana (families), and it would be impossible to partake in all of them! There were hula lessons, art tours, fitness classes, games, fish feeding, ukulele lessons, etc. going on all day, and in the evening there were family movies under the stars, a show that was similar to a luau but without food that had activities for the kids and then dancing (and Disney characters come out at the end!); and nightly storytelling by the fire pit.
One of our favorite activities was the Menehune Adventure Trail. You check out an itouch from the community center, and it sends you out on an interactive scavenger hunt around the courtyard of the resort. There is an interactive movie/game with Aunty that has clues, and some pretty amazing things happen along the way (fire in the volcano, rocks that light up, things rising up out of the water, etc.). It was very Disney and very clever! There was also an inside trek in the lobby area that was shorter that we let the boys do on their own the next day.
For an additional fee, there is the Rainbow Reef which is a stocked and gentle place to learn to snorkel. We got the kids acclimated here before going out into the real lagoon and it was a good experience. You can get a week-long pass ($39/adult $29/child) or just one for the day ($20/adult $15/child), but you can keep the equipment all day and use it in the Rainbow Reef area or in the lagoon. When you are in the ocean you can also get flippers at the beach shack. Rentals at the Rainbow Reef can be taken out to the ocean and allow you access to Rainbow Reef, but not vice-versa if you rent at the beach shack, so be sure to get them at Rainbow Reef.
Another optional activity is the sting ray adventure. They have a pool with sting rays that you can get in the water with and feed and pet. It was very enjoyable & informative. ($50 per adult/$45 child). Now they do tell you when you check in and pay to hang onto your receipt to claim your "surprise". I'm not sure if the surprise is different each time, but for us it was a 5 X 7 photo of our experience. Now since I did this with my niece, we paid separately- which was a good thing because that meant we got two copies of the picture!
One of the aspects of the resort that I liked was that it is designed with more of a Hawaiian touch than Disney character touch, but there are character greetings three times a day that are listed in the daily schedule. You can take pictures with your own camera, or there are Disney photographers as well. They will give you a “photo pass” just like in the park, and you can collect your pictures from the character greetings, character breakfast, sting ray experience, or family photos at sunset and order them from the gift shop. I didn’t really like they way they had that set up, where you have to ask the clerk to show you every picture and pack up or zoom in as needed, I hope they go the way I have seen at other resorts where there is a bank of photo computers and you sit down and spend time at your leisure looking at them and deciding what to get. I am a sucker for getting the photos, though, and it so nice to have some with everyone it them!
The community center has games you can check out. The lobby gift shop has a selection of souvenirs, as well as sundries and snacks and a few basic groceries.
The Spa was very nice, Kelly says it was a lovely experience, with a serene atmosphere, good treatments to choose from, and nice treatment rooms and changing rooms with everything you need. The best part was the access to the outside water garden, with numerous hot tubs, lounge chairs and a “shower garden” where you can go in a circle and experience all these different types of showers (not sure how else to describe it, but it was wonderful!) Kelly managed to spend several happy hours having a massage and hanging in the water garden.
There are concierges and an activities desk. Their activities were in conjunction with Adventures by Disney. We did not do any activities during our stay; however, Kelly and her family did and she found it to be more economical to book their own outings. They went to the same place they go for horseback riding, the Kuoloa Ranch, and just drove themselves there and enjoyed the scenery along the way. They hit Pearl Harbor and Iolani Palace the morning they were flying out since those things are near the airport. There is so much going on at Aulani, it’s possible to never leave, or only to go off once or twice.
Dining- I found the dining to be the one challenging aspect about our stay. There are two main restaurants, the Makahiki which is a buffet restaurant open for breakfast and dinner, and the Ama Ama which is an oceanfront fine dining restaurant that was open for Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Breakfast at the Makahiki is a nice buffet, but expensive for every day. ($27 adult/$14 children). Their character breakfast is fun and worth doing once ($32/18), but it is offered three times a week (Saturdays, Sundays & Wednesdays) We were not able to get reservations in advance, but found out while there that they have added Fridays as an "overflow" day for the Character Breakfast. We stumbled upon that and were able to get seated right away. Ama Ama offers sit down breakfast a la carte, my husband and his buddy had breakfast there one morning and said it was fine. Service was a bit slow, the food was good but not over the top for a "fine dining" establishment. There is also a coffee bar with some cold items (pastries, fruit, and yogurt).
Lunch has more options, with Ama Ama for a full service restaurant, One Paddle Two Paddle for walk up quick service items (burgers, fish tacos, wraps); or Hooks which is the pool lounge and has casual options in a sit down setting (or poolside ordering).
For dinner, you are back to the buffet restaurant (Makahiki, $43/adults $21/child age 9 & under) or the fine dining restaurant (Ama Ama). Kelly & her family really enjoyed Ama Ama, it was excellent food and service, but it would be nice to have other options besides the buffet. Our group, however, did not enjoy Ama Ama. We thought that the service was a bit lacking and there was nothing 5 star about the food. We went next door to the JW Marriott twice during our stay and enjoyed excellent meals. We did have to make sure to have reservations at the JW Marriott though since it was Pro Bowl time and the hotel was under tight security because of the event and most players staying at the JW Marriott. You can leave the kids in the kids programs to go offsite. There is also a Roys across the street that was recently closed after a fire- it will re-open in a few months. We heard that Chuck's Steakhouse at the Marriott Vacation Villas is a good choice, but we just ran out of nights to go try for ourselves. We were told that the Hawaiian BBQ across the street was pretty good and that the Taco Joint gets mixed reviews. Most Californians think it's terrible.
Children are considered ages 3 – 9. The kids menu comes with a choice of entrée and either a starter or dessert, which is nice. We did discover that you can order appetizers at Hooks in the evening, and we did that one evening for our dinner. We ordered room service a few times as well, and it was prompt and about average price for a resort.
Restaurants do require reservations, it is a good idea for the character breakfast to reserve before you depart for Oahu, and for the other restaurants try to reserve by the day before. (even the buffet).
As stated earlier, I would highly recommend stopping at the Safeway or Super Target right before getting to the Aulani and stocking up on breakfast items, snacks, and drinks if you are in a hotel room as we were; and groceries/meals if you are in a villa with kitchen. There is a small selection of groceries and snacks in the lobby store, and a small market across the road for more selection. The Safeway and Super Target are located on your way to Ko’olina on the H-1, exit at Kapolei. We also bought several bottles of wine and felt it was a better value to have our own wine and pay corkage fees (usually about $20/bottle) vs. paying for their wines. One of our friend's favorite bottles of Cabernet was listed at $156/bottle on the Ama Ama menu...you can buy it here at BevMo for $50!
There is a shaved ice stand at the pool; you can pick multiple flavors for a large shaved ice for $3.75, a relative bargain. There is also a frozen yogurt bar in the teen club that anyone can go to. Each family member will have a key card, and it is optional whether or not you have charging privileges on them.
Another relative bargain is the unlimited soda/coffee cup. It was just under $20 and you could refill it with soda as often as you liked for the length of your stay. There was a station in the lobby, by the pool, and by the snack bar. The one in the lobby also had coffee. Depending upon what you think your family will consume, a family of four can probably get by with 2 mugs and share them throughout the stay. It makes a good souvenir when done as a travel coffee mug.
Check Out - you are given the option to do automatic check-out and they will email your receipt to you, which we opted in. The emailed receipt was delivered around 4am to my inbox and then promptly at 11am our TV in the room automatically shut off. Then at 1110am, the maid was knocking on our door to see when we would vacate the hotel. The resort was about 50% occupied, so I was a little irritated by that. We had our ride scheduled for 1130am pick-up, but I was quite surprised by their tactics to enforce the 11am check-out. Not very Disney-like.
All together, I loved the Aulani resort and so did our friends. They did a beautiful job, with enough subtle Disney touches to remind you who designed it, but mostly just a lovely Hawaiian resort. The activities and touches that they offer for families make it a great value despite the price tag. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay there and can’t wait to go back! I will also say that you just can't beat a Hawaiian Sunset! Pretty darn spectacular!
Things to Bring/Do before you go-
Autograph Book for character signings
Stop for drinks and snacks at Safeway
Laptop or some other internet friendly device if you want to utilize free wi-fi in rooms
Make reservations for character meals and any special meals and/or stingray experience
To view more pictures of our stay, click HERE!