This post may contain some affiliate links, which means I’ll make a little money on anything you choose to purchase. But of course, I only recommend my absolute favorites to you. Thank you for supporting the brands that make the Lincoln Travel Co possible.
If there’s one question I get asked more often than most, it’s definitely about the best luau in Hawaii. So whenever a new luau opens up, I’m always eager to try it out. You know, for research ; ) Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, on Oahu debuted their luau (Ka Wa’a) a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t able to make it out to Ko’olina to experience it until recently. Since I was staying at the resort on my last trip to Oahu, I knew I had to make it a priority.
I reserved tickets a few months in advance (you usually get better seat assignments the earlier you book) for myself and the two friends I was traveling with and at the last minute I was able to snag a ticket my friend’s daughter Maya since they happened to be vacationing at Aulani at the same time as us and she’d never been to a luau.
And I must say, I’m soooo glad Maya got to come to the luau with me because it is DEFINITELY geared towards kids.
Keep reading for my full rundown on this luau:
I received discounted tickets to this luau, but of course, I only recommend my absolute favorites to you. Thank you for supporting the brands that make Hulaland possible.
Aulani Luau Review
Before I get on with the details, check out this video of our evening at Ka Wa’a:
Location & Setting
The Ka Wa’a Luau is hosted at Disney’s Aulani Resort and Spa in Ko’olina on the west side of Oahu. The luau is held a few nights a week on a beautiful lawn tucked away on the quiet side of the resort. Even though it’s a resort luau, nothing about it feels “temporary” like it’s something that’s set up and torn down every night. The stage, lighting and everything is high quality including actual tables and chairs. It seems like a funny thing to comment on but the overall feeling of this luau is just really high end and it’s things like this that help make that overall impression. There’s no cheap folding chairs and white banquet tablecloths here.
Prices & Packages
There are two different tiers you can book for this luau:
General Seating: $170/adult ($99/child). Seating is assigned in the order that you check in at the podium.
Preferred Seating: $199/adult ($119/child). You can check in at the VIP entrance earlier and enter the grounds 10 minutes earlier than the general seating. Also, your priority seating is assigned when you book (not when you check in) so if you don’t care to arrive super early, you’ll still get the good seats for booking early. Preferred seating also includes a complimentary welcome photo.
BOTH packages include alcoholic beverages and leis.
Okay, so is preferred seating “worth it”? Normally I say no, but this luau is kind of different. It’s not so much the actual seating that’s worth the upgrade (it’s definitely better but I don’t normally find much value in a closer seat) but it’s the extra time you get to do the activities between the time the doors open and dinner is served. So technically you only get a 10 minute head start if you’re in the preferred seating, BUT it seems like they start checking people in before then plus there’s fewer people so you pretty much get inside and are seated RIGHT at 5PM. Whereas if you’re in general seating, they start checking you in at 5:10 in the order that you’re standing in line and there’s a lot more people in general seating so if you show up late and you’re towards the end of the line, you could have thirty or so minutes less time inside to do the activities than the people in the preferred seating.
So really it comes down to…IF having time to do the pre show activities is important to you then either pay more for preferred seating OR be prepared to show up 30-60 minutes before the doors open to make sure you’re at the front of the line. It sounds kind of crazy, but remember this is a Disney luau and Disney fans/theme park travelers are used to doing research, planning in advance, and waiting in lines so it’s a little different than most luaus just because of the clientele.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
Authentic or Cheesy?
I know a lot of people want an “authentic” luau. Well, here’s your first disclaimer: any commercial luau (one that you pay to attend) is NOT going to be authentic. A luau in Hawaiian culture is similar to a backyard BBQ. Friends and family gathering to eat a big meal, hang out and visit, play games, sing songs (whatever you do at your family get togethers) and just spend time together. Commercial luaus have combined some special elements of Hawaiian culture (including hula dancing and a feasting on certain foods among others) into an event. It’s not a bad thing, but just don’t get too hung up on it being “authentic.”
I think what most people want when they say they want “authentic” is “not cheesy.”
Surprisingly (or not depending on what you know about Disney), this luau isn’t cheesy AT ALL. Even with a few Disney touches (I’ll get into those later), it never felt hokey. How do I determine that…? Not one eye roll from me the entire night! ; ) It’s a very high end event from the venue, the food, the entertainment, the show. It’s just all done so well.
For me, this luau feels like they acknowledge that it’s a commercial luau (instead of the host making speeches about you being “family” while you’re standing in line with 700 people for the buffet) but they’re committed to making it the most welcoming and quality experience they can.
And while there are a couple of opportunities for the kids to get involved in the show, it really cuts down on a lot of the cheesy crowd pandering that other luaus seem to depend on (I can’t be the only one who’s uncomfortable when Bob from Omaha is pulled up on stage to be basically given a lap dance by one of the hula dancers right???!-that’s 10/10 eye roll material for me).
Arrival & Pre Dinner Entertainment
We arrived at the luau grounds right about 5PM and got checked in. Despite this being my job, I literally did NO advance research so was totally unaware about the perk of the preferred seating, but we did see the long line on the other side of the grounds (for the general seating) and wonder why they were all over there haha. The ladies got a shell lei, the gentlemen a kukui nut lei, and Maya had the choice between a shell lei or a necklace with Maui’s fishhook (the first of surprisingly only a few “Disney” touches throughout the evening. If you’re not familiar, Maui’s fishhook is a big element in the movie Moana). She chose the necklace.
Next we were offered drinks before we were shown to our table. There was a special fruit punch (with straw and lid) for the kids, and some sort of blue coconut flavored alcoholic beverage for the adults. I wasn’t a fan, but I don’t usually think the welcome drinks at luaus are very good.
Our seats were literally as close to the stage as we could get so we set our stuff down and took a few photos in front of the stage.
Next, we scampered off to take part in all of the activities offered on the lawn! There was lei making, printing, ukulele lessons, poi pounding, and so much more. While I think this is set up as a nice diversion for the kids, adults are more than welcome to join in and plenty did! We made it to every station except the temporary tattoo one (which Maya wasn’t interested in) by 6PM, which was when dinner was announced.
So if you’re keeping track, we entered at 5 and spent a solid HOUR doing the preshow activities and we didn’t feel super rushed but we also weren’t standing around with nothing to do.
In my opinion, this is one of the things that the Aulani luau excels at. Everything is included in your admission and it’s all run as well as you’d expect Disney to run it.
At 6, there was a little show where Moana came out to basically kick things off, but unfortunately we missed it because we were in the bathroom. Kids have the worst timing haha. One thing to note is that the nearest restrooms are at Ama Ama or Makahiki (the resort’s two restaurants) and they’re not super close. The restrooms aren’t completely inconvenient, but maybe try to time your trip so you don’t miss anything!
Food & Drinks
We made it back just in time to head up to the buffet (our table was one of the first to go up). Keep in mind that I attended this luau BEFORE COVID when it was still a buffet (check before you book to see if it’s still served Bento style or if it’s back to a buffet). The food at this luau was DELICIOUS. While they have a lot of traditional luau staples, they also have some more upscale options like prime rib. And I have to say, the flavors of the food tasted a lot better to my unsophisticated palette than other luaus I’ve been to where the food was more “traditional.”
For example…to the standard American taste buds, traditional Hawaiian food can taste kind of bland. A lot of luaus have a taro dish (I like to call it the purple mashed potatoes) and I’m not going to lie, it’s usually pretty bland (that’s how it’s traditionally prepared). But the Aulani version was dynamite and I’m going to assume that’s because it was loaded with butter, cream, and a little sugar. So it’s not that the food is necessarily more authentic, but they cater to their audience.
This luau also featured a separate kid friendly buffet with mac and cheese, pasta with red sauce, chicken tenders, and Moana cupcakes. While I’m sure this buffet was designed with kids in mind, there were more than a few adults (myself included!) who found the mac and cheese and chicken tenders too tempting to pass up!
Overall, I would say Ka Wa’a had the best tasting food of any luau I’ve been to, although not necessarily the most traditional. Don’t get me wrong, most of the traditional luau foods were there (kalua pork, teriyaki chicken, fish, taro mashed potatoes, poke and seafood salads, etc.), but the flavors just seemed a little richer and more pleasing than at other places.
But also, this is a much smaller luau than most and the food is coming straight from the resort restaurant’s kitchens so it’s bound to be better than the mass produced places.
Dessert was also phenomenal (again, the best I’ve ever had at a luau). Unfortunately, the featured dessert was a banana bread pudding (I’m allergic to bananas) but it looked AMAZING. They also had guava cake (which if you know me, I get so excited about guava), brownies, and fresh fruit. And those Moana cupcakes from the kids table.
We finished up dinner just in time for the show to start. While some luaus often have an overarching story that weaves the dances together, this show really took it to the max. It felt like a high quality stage production (think Broadway) instead of a collection of dances.
The show is led by two “storytellers” who recount the journey across the seas to the Hawaiian Islands as well as settling the local land. There was a big emphasis on telling the story of Ewa (the part of the island that modern day Ko’olina is located on) as it relates to the storytellers ancestors. The show had emotional moments as well as a lot of participation for kids.
At one point, Mickey and Minnie came out to help teach the Aulani Hula to the kids (they were invited to come to the front of the stage), and there was another moment where some of the kids were given shakers and they stood up on one of the side stages during one of the dances.
Another unique aspect of this luau was that in addition to the main stage, there were a couple of smaller stages located further back so that no matter where you were sitting you had a good view.
The big highlight of the show (and the finale) was the fire dancers. They tied in a story about Maui fighting with the sun that all of the kids loved.
The Overall Experience
If you’ve got kids, this is THE luau to do on Oahu. It does have a few Disney elements (Moana, Mickey and Minnie make appearances as well as the tie ins of Maui), but I think even if you’re not a big Disney fan, it doesn’t detract from the overall experience.
One thing to note, there is no Imu ceremony (where they unearth the pig) at this luau, but they do have a whole pig displayed on one of the buffet tables (which I haven’t seen at a luau before).
I missed out on this memo (probably what happens when you’re wrangling a kid and managing bathroom visits) but apparently the preferred seating also included drink service at the table whereas general seating had to go to the bar.
And like I mentioned before, general seating is assigned first come first serve so the people who get there early and wait in line not only get more time to do the preshow activities but also better seats.
You don’t have to be an Aulani resort guest to attend the luau, and up to five hours of parking is provided.
There is usually quite a bit of luau specific merchandise in the resort’s gift shop which is fun
The luau isn’t offered every night (I think it’s usually offered three nights a week), so plan accordingly.
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on Oahu
Aulani Luau vs Paradise Cove
This is the big question. The Paradise Cove Luau is highly regarded as the best luau on Oahu, and it’s right down the street from Aulani so the question is how do they compare. Honestly, they don’t compare at all. Paradise Cove is a HUGE luau (like 700+ people per night) and it checks all of the boxes that most tourists want (hula lessons, unearthing of the pig, etc.) plus it’s right on the beach. However, I find it to be pretty cheesy at times (I’ve rolled my eyes more than a few times there haha). I will say, even with the Disney touches, Ka Wa’a wasn’t cheesy at all. It never felt hokey and the whole thing was pretty high quality. It’s definitely the better luau for kids, and in general I found the whole thing to be more laid back (never felt like cattle being herded from one event to another) and a bit like a backyard party.
You’ll love this luau if…
You love Disney for their high quality level of entertainment and production.
You want good food.
You like things a little more laid back.
You’ve got kids (especially 9 and under).
You might not like this luau if…
You want a luau with the whole 9 yards including an emu ceremony (unearthing of the pig)
You like corny jokes and a lot of crowd involvement (especially for adults).
You’re super budget conscious.
When to book
I recommend making reservations for this luau as soon as you know your dates so you don’t miss out. You can book your tickets in advance right here.
On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Oahu vacation rentals for your trip.
Still Looking for a Place to Stay?
Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Oahu:
If you’re trying to figure out where to stay, you’re going to want to look at my favorite boutique resort in Waikiki and the lowdown on where to stay on Oahu besides Waikiki. Plus I’ve got the scoop on how to avoid illegal vacation rentals and a roundup of where to stay in Ko Olina and reviews of the Laylow and Disney’s Aulani Resort. And a LOT more on Aulani like is Aulani worth it?, tips for staying at Aulani, how many days to spend, and the best things to eat and drink at Aulani.
If you’re researching luaus on Oahu, I’ve written quite a bit. First, I’ve got a full breakdown of the best luaus (and the worst) on Oahu. Then I’ve got complete reviews of Paradise Cove, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and Aulani’s Ka Wa’a Luau. And if you’ve narrowed it down to the top two most popular on the island and still can’t decide, here’s Paradise Cove vs Polynesian Cultural Center.
If you’re trying to put together an itinerary full of the best things to do, take a look at my best 5 day itinerary, and roundups of the best things to do in Waikiki, “secret” things to do on Oahu, plus my favorite things to do in Kailua and the windward coast, in Ko Olina, and on the north shore. And if you’re looking for food recommendations, I’ve got the best restaurants in Ko Olina and where locals eat in Waikiki.
And last but not least, some of my favorite things on Oahu like Jurassic Park at Kualoa Ranch, Shangri La and the Honolulu Museum of Art, tips for visiting Pearl Harbor, easy hikes on Oahu, and the best spas on Oahu. And everything you need to know BEFORE you go to Oahu.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
Also, if you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And please share my account with your friends that are headed to Hawaii! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!
P.S. If you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And share my account with your travel loving friends! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!