This is a 100% unsponsored, totally unbiased review of Disney’s Aulani resort in Hawaii. It’s important for me to state this upfront because when doing my research for our trip, it was very hard to find reviews that were not sponsored by Disney. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney and I know sponsored reviews can be honest, but when it came to Aulani, I found the reviews pushing toward more expensive options. “Make sure to get the VIP luau tickets!” Aulani is expensive enough without the pressure to go bigger.
Our kids were 16 and 12 at the time of travel. Aulani’s children’s programs go until age 12, which made us worry that the resort was best for those with little kids and our kids were too old. This was not the case, but more on that later. (There are some teen events, but my kids didn’t feel any pull to attend them.)
We traveled for mid-winter break in February after booking our rooms in September. There was a 30% discount on rooms for Disney Annual Passholders and we jumped on it. It turns out, the 30% discount shows up often for everyone based on the time of year. If you’re flexible, watch it for a while and you’re likely to see a discount pop up.
Side note: While waiting for towels one morning, we were stuck behind a woman complaining that she got a deal on a room through a third party site, but then was irate that it was for a room with only a king size bed, which wouldn’t work for her family of four. The Aulani crew worked it out for her, but be smart when booking, unlike the complaining lady.
We rented a car at the airport through Costco and paid to park at Aulani. Disney Vacation Club members get free parking, but that wasn’t us. There’s an Alamo car rental option at Aulani, but the rental rate is higher than getting the car at the airport, especially through Costco or Discount Hawaii Car Rental.
We tallied up the cost of transportation to and from the airport, then on the outings we’d planned, and the cost of paying for parking and renting for the week was close enough to rent by the day on site. Plus, having our own car allowed us to stop at Target, and we avoided the stress of having to return a rental car by the end of the day. (Maybe I’m the only one who gets anxiety around rental car return times.)
Our car came from Alamo and the advice I’d read was to have some of your party get on the rental car shuttle right after exiting the plane, while others stay back to pick up luggage. The shuttles were slow, that is certain, but the rental car process moved faster than the luggage retrieval and we had to wait for my husband and son stuck on a later shuttle to arrive at the car rental place. You’re on vacation; everyone’s eager to get on with it, but it’s not a race. Do whatever works best.
We had an ocean view room in the Wai’anae Tower that was very similar to the size of a room at the Grand Californian. Maybe slightly larger. For four of us, the space worked, especially with a lanai (all rooms have one).
Before we booked, we were advised to get a suite. I thought about trying to upgrade days before our trip, but didn’t. The benefit was going to be a kitchen, but I didn’t want to cook on this trip, so why spend our money there? The little fridge in the room was plenty kitchen for us. The room cost was the same we’ve paid for the Grand Californian.
Of course, if you’re there with a bigger family or if you want to cook meals, the suite is for you. If grandparents had gone with us, we would have gotten a suite.
We went to Target twice during our week, on our way in and again later in the week. We bought juice (didn’t need), granola and breakfast bars, chips, and fruit. There is a small market (Island Country Market) about a block away from Aulani that charged a little more than Target, but for what we bought, Island Country Market would have been fine on its own.
I loved our room. It had a great view and while it was removed from the elevator area, it wasn’t far. It’s not set up like those hotels where you have to walk a marathon to get from the elevator to your room. Everything was very close and easy to walk, and from what I can see, that is true of both towers.
First Thing to Do
This advice was solid: buy the refillable cups soon after check-in. We bought four refillable cups, just under $20 each. The refillable cups were the highlight of the trip for my son – and he had an awesome trip, which really says something about the freedom to drink whatever you want.
It was hot, and we drank Powerade more than soda. Plus, the cups are good for standard coffee, hot chocolate, and tea. I wish Aulani would make the hot chocolate process easier. Getting it is straightforward: you can show a cashier at Ulu Cafe your cup and happily, they’ll give you two packets per cup. The problem is the lines can be slow, especially in the mornings. Waiting in a slow line to get the hot chocolate packets was a bummer. We started asking for them later in the day when there were no lines and then we’d have them for the next day.
They make specialty coffee drinks, like mochas, steps away at Wailana Pool Bar, but our hack was to mix a hot chocolate packet with the standard free coffee, then go to Wailana to add cream. They had the standard packet creamers and sugar packets at Ulu, but Wailana had the real thing on their counter. Take advantage of it!
We’d rinse our cups after each use with the water (hot or cold) in the beverage areas, and each night I did a thorough cleaning in our rooms to let them dry overnight.
Towels and Bracelets
You need a resort bracelet each day that can be picked up at the towel dispensing booth somewhat in the center of the pool area. We couldn’t find any signs for this when we arrived, but the stand is between the kiddie pool with the play structure and the lazy river inlets. Walk to the center of the pool area and you can’t miss it. We assumed it would be around the outer entry points and spent a lot of time looking foolish.
The first time, they ran our card to verify our room, but after that, they just asked or name or room number. That was helpful because not all of our party got up and moving at the same time (ahem).
Lounge Chair Battles
This is real. Grabbing lounge chairs does start early, for sure. That’s not hyped. And people find their spots for the week and make it a homebase. Day after day, we saw the same people in the same exact seats. That’s fine if you want to do that, but it adds to the pressure to get out there early.
First, decide where you want to sit. The pool loungers fill much faster than those on the beach. In the end, we preferred the beach anyway, which made our mornings less stressful. If you’re a pool family, stay near the pool. We liked being on the beach and in the ocean, with a more relaxed vibe than the pool scene. Imagine being at a crowded swim pool anywhere and that was how the pools felt. Those with little kids may be more comfortable at the pools with active lifeguards. If your kids will spend most of their time at the play structure pool, grab those loungers quickly. They go fast.
Day one, we picked lounge chairs near the pool, close to the bathrooms and the shave ice area. It was high traffic. Not only were there a lot of people walking around, but there are people stalking for seats and it felt like they were standing over us most of the day. It wasn’t as relaxing as it could have been.
Our next pool day, we grabbed among the best seats: the ones at pool level that directly face the ocean. It was the best of both worlds. We wedged our way into a group of regulars who had made that area their homebase. They were nice – alerting us when pool staff had marked our seats as possibly vacant – but at the same time, we felt like we were intruding in their club.
As for the time limit on seats, the pool staff walks around periodically and when there are open seats, they fold the towel and hang it over the back of the lounger. This begins a countdown. If you don’t remove the towel by the time they return, they consider the seat vacant and remove your stuff. This makes perfect sense, but it adds to a little bit of stress, especially if you have a lunch reservation. It means having someone leave your lunch to have them check the towels at least once.
We left the pool lounger stress behind when we decided the beach was our preferred location. In the morning, the beach was quiet and the chairs were plentiful. We’d try to pick ones under umbrellas, then sometimes we’d grab regular chairs to sit right at the water for a little while. It was perfect for us.
The beach doesn’t have lifeguards and there is less service down there, if those are important elements.
Aulani lends boogie boards and beach toys for free. It’s pretty awesome. You can rent snorkel gear, but we brought our own because they’re cheap to buy off of Amazon, and also you put that stuff in your mouth. I’m not sharing.
They rent stand up paddleboards, too, and after watching people for a few days, my son and husband gave it a shot. The cove is a safe place to try them out. Big waves are broken up at the mouth of the cove, making the water smooth. Plus, it’s fairly shallow for when you inevitably fall in.
A short walk from Aulani is Paradise Cove, where, if lucky, you can swim with sea turtles who hang out there. The morning we went, there was one turtle on the rocks, and a lot of fish. It was a fun little outing. Aulani has their own snorkel pool and while people recommended buying a pass for our full trip, my kids didn’t care. They didn’t even care enough for Paradise Cove, so my husband and I walked down there while the kids slept in.
Finding Paradise Cove is a little trickier than we expected. You need to walk past the Four Seasons, but do this on the street. We thought we could walk along the beach path and cut through the Four Seasons, but it’s much more straightforward to take the street, where we ended up anyway.
Between the Four Seasons and the Paradise Cove Luau Center, there is a parking lot. Look for a pathway between a gate opening in the parking lot. That is the path to the cove.
In our case, we were lucky that a parking lot attendant saw that we were confused and called out to us. Without her, we would still be walking.
We went, it was fun, but we don’t need to do it again. My kids had never been to a luau, so I felt we needed to do it. It’s definitely a Disney-fied luau, but that appealed to my family. Sure, there was poi and pork, but there were chicken strips, too. Sorry to the purists, but when paying a good chunk of money, I want to make sure my kids eat.
We didn’t go the VIP route because I wasn’t sure the benefits were worth the significant cost difference despite all of the (sponsored!) reviews saying it was a must-do. I’m glad we didn’t do it.
VIP tickets allow an early entry and better seating, basically. We lined up early and found we had plenty of time to do the pre-luau activities. My kids really didn’t care about much, but we could have done all of them. We made flower bracelets, watched them make poi, saw a ukelele demonstration, and had some character photos.
The VIP seats are the front row of tables, and our table was more in the middle-back, but we saw everything fine.
An even less expensive option for the luau is a room in the Ewa Tower that overlooks the luau space. Those rooms get show after show for free! I would think that could be annoying, but we heard it was great for people with little kids. Their rooms came with built-in entertainment without having to shell out for the dinner.
Where We Ate at Aulani
Happy Hours became our norm, on and off-site. Between the time difference and fairly early mornings for vacation, early meals were popular.
My husband and I made the Happy Hour work for dinner at The Olelo Room. The kids didn’t want to leave our room, so we left them. There was live music and a relaxed vibe.
Ulu Cafe was our regular go-to place for everything. We’d grab drinks, snacks, and sometimes poke bowls for lunch. Be warned, the dessert options aren’t as good as Disneyland.
We had Papalua Shave Ice only once to make sure we got those Mickey ears for Instagram.
Mama’s Snack Stop had good chicken strips and fish and chips for lunch.
One tired night we grabbed food from Off the Hook to take up to our room. It was a great option with standard fare that appealed to all of us.
Finally, we did a character breakfast at Makahiki. We’re character breakfast lovers, and while I’m glad we did this once, that was enough. The buffet is good with tons of varied options. It was the character part that kind of failed. They didn’t seem to do a good job of moving the characters around equitably. Characters would get trapped by certain tables, then there would be a show, but then the characters wouldn’t start up where they left off. They would start with the same tables again.
This could have been a fluke, but it happened with all of the characters, not only one or two. We’d been there for almost an hour when our first character reached us. It was frustrating and very different from any character breakfast we’d ever attended. The scarcity could be why people would really hang on to the characters once they reached their table. After almost two hours there, we gave up, not having seen all of the characters.
Characters Outside of Makahiki
Characters would be at different places in the resort throughout the day with lines to take pictures that ranged from short to reasonable. Our surprise: the longest line was for ShellieMae.
There’s a number to call each day to get the character schedule, which is helpful if you’re trying to get a meetup with someone specific.
Where We Ate Away from Aulani
We hit up Monkeypod Kitchen like everyone who stays at one of the resorts in this area. Monkeypod was good and so easy, plus Happy Hour! Make reservations on Open Table because there is always a wait. Happy Hour applies to anywhere in the restaurant (it’s not limited to the bar), and the servers are all hip to it. No need to remind anyone about the Happy Hour deals or time. I think we ate there three times. I made three reservations, expecting to cancel at least one of them, but in the end, we kept them all because it was easy and worked for us.
Kualoa Ranch was a must-visit, we were told, but be warned, it can take an eternity to get there.
Traffic is Hawaii is atrocious, and that comes from someone who lives in the Bay Area. We had morning reservations at Kualoa (mistake #1) and we woke up early to depart of that time advised by Google days before (mistake #2) with a buffer included.
It was dark and rainy when we left and as soon as we got in the car, the ETA was much, MUCH later than expected. It was going to take us over two hours to get there, meaning we’d arrive just in time if everything went well.
Everything did not go well. The traffic was hell and one missed exit meant a 40-minute delay. Once there, we ran up to see our tour taking off. Thankfully they rescheduled us – very thankfully because this was a $500 expense – but the first opening was a few days later. We were bummed, but this was for the best because when we did take the tour, it was on a gorgeous day and not the grey rainy day we would have had.
With our day now wide open, we hit the North Shore early, enjoying the views with few people out due to the weather, and stopping at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck for shrimp scampi. (Yes! no regrets! We got there early and there was already a line in the pouring rain. It’s that good.) After that, we stopped at Matsumoto’s Shave Ice, then headed back to Aulani.
We arrived back at mid-day, which should have been a peak time at the water, but because the rain had just ended, for a while, it felt like it was only us and the rainbows.
When we returned to Kualoa a few days later, we ate at Ted’s Bakery, which was good, but not Giovanni’s good. We shared a pie with forks and ate among the strolling chickens, which was fun.
Aulani has malasadas, and while they’re pretty good, they’re not as good as the ones at Leonard’s. Leonard’s has a truck not too far from Aulani, much more convenient than driving into Honolulu. We got a bunch and ate them hot. They were good, but they felt a little hyped. Of course, that didn’t stop our family from finishing off the box.
This was the biggest, more surprising bonus of Aulani. We left our stuff out at our chairs without hesitation, but much bigger than that was that we’d go hours without seeing our kids and never worried. This was a huge, happy surprise for us. Our 12-year-old liked to hang with us, but our introverted 16-year-old wanted her space. She’d be at the beach and pool, too, but out of our sight. That was enough for her to feel independent. We never once worried that she’d been lured into a room or was being bothered by a creeper. Both kids told us they felt safe the entire time, too.
Of course, they have phones and we could easily track them, if needed. But as a mom with anxiety, it was so nice to feel my kids were secure. Plus, with those refillable cups that didn’t require my help, they stayed hydrated and felt like big-shots.
We expected Aulani would be a one-time visit for us, especially because of our kids’ ages, but by the end of our week, we were plotting a return. It was nice, safe, and fun. It’s hard to imagine other places delivering on all of those things. Nice and fun, sure, but the feeling of safety is hard to replicate. We’ve thought of other resorts and we’ve asked friends to recommend places where they felt safe letting their kids roam, but there is always that element of concern, especially in other countries. Not worrying about safety made the vacation more enjoyable for all of us.
Aulani works well for all ages. It comes with all of the standard Disney magic without feeling like you’re at a theme park. Aulani was worth the cost and we’d do it again in an instant. We’ve saved the refillable cups for our return.