Disney's Aulani Resort Review

If Julie Andrews was singing a song about my favorite things, both Hawaii and Disney would be mentioned in the first verse. And koalas. While I haven’t found a strong connection between all three of those things (yet), when Disney built the Aulani Resort and Spa in Hawaii, it’s like they were building it just for me. And it’s since become my home away from home.

In hotel review posts, I usually share a travelogue from the trip plus a list of things to do and tips for your stay, but since I’ve stayed at Aulani quite a few times now, I’m going to shake up the format and give you every single detail about staying at Aulani. The good, the bad, and the MAGICAL.

Disney’s Aulani Resort Review

Opened in 2011, Aulani (pronounced ow-LAH-nee) is located on the west side of the island of Oahu in the resort community of Ko’olina. If you’re not super familiar with Hawaii, Oahu is the main island (but not the “Big Island”) and where you’ll find Honolulu (the main city and state capitol) and Waikiki (a resort/tourist oriented neighborhood in Honolulu). Daniel K Inouye International Airport (HNL) is the airport you’ll be flying in and out of (whether you’re coming from the US mainland, a neighboring island, or somewhere international).

Ko’olina is about 20 miles west of Honolulu, but it feels like a world away.  While Honolulu and Waikiki are the pulse of the island, full of hustle and bustle and all manner of goings on, Ko’olina feels like a true island getaway.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

What to Expect at Aulani

If you know Disney at all, you probably have pretty high expectations. Disney is known for top-notch theming, world-class service, and that sprinkling of pixie dust, which is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. Well, good news folks. Aulani won’t let you down! But it’s a different kind of magic than what you’re likely used to experiencing at the Disney parks and on the Disney Cruise Line.

First things first, there are obviously no theme parks in Hawaii so it’s hard to make a direct comparison between a trip to Walt Disney World or Disneyland and Aulani. The big draw to Aulani is simply BEING in Hawaii. And honestly that’s not enough for a lot of mega Disney theme park fans. But for those who enjoy a more laid back vacation (or who have simply always wanted to see Hawaii), Aulani has a lot to offer. Namely, this:

  • It’s a world-class resort located in PARADISE. Hawaii has a reputation as being among the most beautiful places on earth and it’s not unfounded. It’s easy to say that all beach destinations are similar or that there are good beaches closer to home. Until you’ve been to Hawaii. There’s a magic to the islands, the people, and the culture that makes it like no place on earth.
  • For being some of the most remote islands in the world, Hawaii is a relatively convenient destination coming from the mainland. Of course being a state helps with this greatly. There’s no shortage of flight routes available (and it’s only 4-5 hours from California) making it much more accessible than places like Fiji, French Polynesia, the Maldives, or the Seychelles.
  • It’s Disney and that means it’s familiar. You just know what to expect to a certain extent when you’re dealing with Disney.
  • It has the very best theming and atmosphere of any resort in Hawaii. I stand by that statement. A lot of people say they don’t want to stay at Aulani because they didn’t come to Hawaii for Disney. They want the real Hawaii. I hate to break it to you Jack, but you’re not going to find another resort in Hawaii that has more authentically or  respectfully incorporated Hawaiian culture into the property or the guest experience. Most guests are impressed by the property in general, but it’s the locals that really appreciate what Disney has done with the details. I’ll be honest…you can find more luxurious resorts in Hawaii, you can find cheaper resorts in Hawaii, and you can find more adult oriented resorts in Hawaii, but you can’t find a resort that represents and integrates the culture of Hawaii any better than Aulani.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

  • It’s really fun! Aulani basically has an entire waterpark complex. Family pools, adults only pools, infinity pools (and hot tubs), water slides (even tube slides!), a lazy river, a kids splash area and playground complex, AND a manmade snorkel reef not to mention a tranquil and almost completely protected BEACH LAGOON. That’s enough to impress even the most jaded traveler. Add in Auntie’s Beach House (the kid’s club), character meet and greets, and a billion other activities and it’s possible to come and stay for the week and never want to leave the property.
  • It’s located on Oahu, which is the Hawaiian Island with by far the most things to “see and do” especially when it comes to attractions. Pearl Harbor, Kualoa Ranch (Jurassic Park), the Polynesian Cultural Center, the famous North Shore, and Waikiki are all top of most people’s don’t miss list in Hawaii and they’re all on the same island as Aulani.
  • But….it’s location in Ko’olina means that it’s waaaaay less crowded than staying in Waikiki. Waikiki is a busy city on a beach (albeit a beautiful one) and that’s not the vibe most people come to Hawaii for.  Staying in Ko’olina means it’s possible to see and do all the things on Oahu (which can be a very crowded island), while returning to the respite of a laid back resort community at the end of the day. Everything in Ko’olina is walkable (or there’s a shuttle). The four lagoons are connected with by a walking trail. There’s an upscale shopping center with plenty of restaurants across the street from Aulani (including a market), and there’s a Four Seasons and Marriott vacation club resort nearby for added amenities. You’ve got golfing, tennis, a marina, and the number one rated luau on Oahu all within walking distance. AND you feel like you’re approximately 5000 miles away from busy Waikiki.
  • Aulani is a Disney Vacation Club resort (Disney’s version of a timeshare) meaning in addition to the regular hotel rooms, you can also rent studios as well as one, two, and three-bedroom villas with full kitchens and washers and dryers in room.

If you’re 1) traveling with kids, 2) a Disney fan, or 3) not the most frequent traveler, Aulani is 10/10 going to be the resort I recommend (assuming you’re staying on Oahu).

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

RELATED: Not very familiar with Oahu? Read up on the lay of the (is)land and where to stay plus my favorite beach resorts, budget hotels, condos, honeymoon resorts, family friendly resorts, luxury resorts, and boutique hotels.

My Aulani Trips

I’ve stayed at Aulani and visited several times since it opened. Usually my trips are shorter stays tacked on to longer trips to Hawaii (or staycations when I used to live there). I’ve stayed as short as two nights and as long as 5. I’ve traveled there with children and on adult only trips. I’ve done split stays on Oahu part of the time in Waikiki and part of the time at Aulani. And I’ve done split island trips staying part of the time on Maui and then finishing up the trip at Aulani. I’ve stayed in a regular hotel room and also in a villa. But mostly, I’ve traveled through Hawaii extensively (umm hi hello have you read my blog?) so I have a pretty good eye for comparing places to stay, how to get the best value, and how to make sure you enjoy your vacation at the resort while not missing out on the “real Hawaii.”

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

So as an accumulation of all of my stays at Aulani and experience traveling to Hawaii, I offer you this compilation of tips and information:

Everything You Need to Know about Staying at Aulani

Best Number of Days to Stay at Aulani: I never recommend coming to Hawaii for less than a week (it’s just so far). And I rarely recommend staying on any one island for less than a week. A lot of people come with grand plans to see all four main islands in 10 days and honestly that’s just absolutely nuts. So assuming you’re going to be on Oahu for a week…if you’ve got the cash to stay at Aulani the whole time, go for it! Plan to spend some days just hanging at the resort and other days out exploring the island (or half and half each day). If a week long stay at Aulani just isn’t in the budget, 3-4 nights is PLENTY of time to really experience the resort. I’m one of those people who can alternate between the beach and pool at a resort cranking through a book a day for weeks on end and never get bored so I could definitely justify a longer trip, but 4 nights is a really good chunk of time to spend at Aulani and get to play and have fun and still relax.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Rental Cars: As in, do you need one? Here’s what I do: I never get one! Every time I’ve stayed at Aulani, I’ve worked it so I stay there the last few days of my trip with absolutely no plans to leave the Ko’olina area. Meaning, I don’t make plans to tour Pearl Harbor, have dinner in Waikiki, or see the dinosaurs at Kualoa Ranch while I’m staying at Aulani. There was one trip that coincided with Billabong Pipemasters on the north shore so we rented a car at the resort just for that day and drove over to see it, but other than that I either take a shuttle from the airport out to Aulani OR I drop off my rental car at Aulani if I’ve been staying elsewhere on Oahu first.

Here’s how that works. If you fly into Honolulu and you’re staying somewhere else on the island and want to rent a car for a few days, you pick it up at the airport as normal but select your return destination as Ko’olina-Aulani. For a $50 fee, you can drive right up to portico and hand your keys to the bellman instead of taking it back to the airport. This works with Alamo for sure and maybe others. I always use Hawaii Discount Car Rental and when you put Ko’olina as your drop off location it will only show you companies that have this feature available.

Full disclaimer: I travel to Hawaii a LOT. I have seen and done and explored Oahu like you wouldn’t believe so I don’t feel like I have to get out and go and do when I’m staying at Aulani. But if you’ve never been to Hawaii, I do NOT recommend never leaving your resort. Whether you do a split stay and do your exploring while you’re staying somewhere cheaper, or whether you rent a car the whole time or just for certain days (you can do that right at Aulani), DEFINITELY MAKE A PLAN TO SEE THE ISLAND.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Get Lei’d: Aulani starts your trip off right with a fresh flower lei greeting upon arrival. Women get an orchid lei and men get a kukui nut lei. Children get some sort of necklace with Maui’s hook? If your kid would rather have a flower lei, ask for one.

Daily ‘Iwa: If you’re a Disney planner, you’re going to live for the Daily Iwa. This printed daily schedule is the holy grail of information for what is scheduled to happen at the resort every day. If you’re familiar with Disney at all, you know that even when things appear spontaneous, they’re not. They’re carefully planned. Every activity from fish feedings and yoga to movie nights and dance parties are listed in the Daily ‘Iwa. It designates locations for events and activities as well as what’s complimentary and what has an additional charge plus what requires a reservation. They usually start to put out copies of the next day’s Daily ‘Iwa around the lobby the night before. Here are a few things to keep an eye out for: the Menehune Adventure Trail (a high tech scavenger hunt), yoga (and other fitness classes) on the beach, resort tours, and the hours (and happenings) in the Pau Hana Community Center (where they have group activities AND movies that you can check out to watch in your room).

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Character Meet & Greets: Did you even go to Disneyland if you didn’t meet Mickey and Minnie? Well, in Hawaii it’s more like…did you even go to Aulani if you didn’t meet DUFFY AND SHELLIE MAY??! More about Duffy and Friends in a bit, but yes, you can meet Disney characters at Aulani and just like the parks, yes it runs on a schedule. While the info isn’t printed on the Daily ‘Iwa, the schedule does include the phone number to call to get the daily character line up. Character schedules are announced each morning at 8AM and it’s pretty exciting. There’s something novel about having to call the phone number and listen to all of the listings. Remember when we used to do that for movie times?? If meeting characters is high on your list, I strongly recommend calling each morning to see who will be out and about (and when and where). Not every character is out every day and some meet in locations that you might not naturally stumble upon. The schedules change often (and availability is somewhat seasonal to meet demand), but generally Mickey, Minnie, and Moana are available most days while Donald, Goofy, Daisy, Stitch, and Chip and Dale seem to alternate every other day. Duffy and Shellie May are out less often (maybe once or twice a week?) but this seems to fluctuate based on travel patterns as they’re more popular with visitors from Japan.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Gift Shop: I’m not ashamed to say that my first stop at Aulani is ALWAYS Kalepa’s Store (the gift shop). There are two gift shops at Aulani (one a traditional Disney gift shop and one a bit more upscale) and they are both AMAZING. Aulani carries a lot of exclusive merchandise that you can’t find anywhere else. Besides Aulani specific merch, they stock a lot of Stitch items and DUFFY AND FRIENDS merch.

Which brings me too…

Jump on the Duffy Train: If you know, you know and if you don’t, well then let me introduce you! Duffy and Friends are a set of Disney characters that originated in the Asian parks. I think of them as Disney’s answer to Hello Kitty. They’re cute little stuffed animals (all with their own backstories) and in Asia (and now Aulani!) you can buy absolutely everything you can imagine with their faces on it. Let me break it down for you: 1) Duffy is Mickey’s teddy bear. Mickey was going on a long trip and Minnie made the bear for Mickey to take with him. She put him in Mickey’s duffel bag aaaaand…Duffy was born! 2) Shellie May is Minnie’s teddy bear. Duffy’s girl. She has blue eyes and a large bow and she’s my queen. 3) Gelatoni is a cat that Duffy met on his travels. He wears a beret and paints with his tail (with gelato of course). 4) Stella Lou is a purple bunny ballerina that dreams of dancing on a Broadway stage. 5) Cookie Ann is a yellow puppy with a passion for the culinary arts (and the color pink!), AND 6) Olu Mel is a ukulele playing turtle who is the first of Duffy’s friends to be exclusive to Aulani! If you’re scratching your head, I’ll just tell you it’s a “thing” and while Duffy and Friends have never been popular in the US parks (Duffy was briefly in Epcot years ago), these characters are SUPER popular in Asia and since Hawaii has so many Japanese visitors, Aulani is really the only place in the US to find Duffy and Friends merchandise AND meet Duffy and Shellie May.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Here’s an insider tip: Even if you’re not that into Duffy and his friends, if you see on the schedule that they’ll be meeting during your trip, walk over and just watch all of the interactions. The Asian guests get sooooo excited to meet these characters (not to mention it’s some of the best character interaction I’ve ever witnessed-Shellie May in particular) that it is high key entertaining. Don’t believe me? Watch my video on Instagram!

Also, I mentioned in my intro that I have yet to find a way that Disney, Hawaii, and koalas all intersected, but I’ve decided that this is where it needs to be. Duffy needs a KOALA FRIEND. Disney if you’re reading this…can this happen???

The Food Situation: I vacillate on what I think about the food situation at Aulani. Some of it’s great, some not so great, but here’s basically what you need to know: There’s a huge buffet restaurant (Makahiki) similar to what you’d expect from Disney (i.e. Chef Mickey’s, Boma, etc).. For breakfast it includes characters and for dinner SOME nights it includes characters but not all. There’s the “signature” restaurant (think California Grill, Napa Rose, etc.) AMA AMA that sits right on the water and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s a quick service spot called Ulu Cafe which has grab and go snacks, poke bowls, acai bowls, flatbreads, and daily specials. There’s a food stand at the pool that serves mostly baskets of fried foods (Mama’s) and a shave ice shack. There’s a snack stand down by the beach, a coffee kiosk, an evening lounge, and a pool bar (Off Da Hook) which also does pool chair service. Besides these options there are three other large resorts within walking distance that all have restaurants plus a shopping center across the street that has a handful of restaurants plus a small market. Those are the basic facts…now onto my opinions!

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Makahiki (Character Dining): I’ve done it three times now and every time I say I’m not going to do it again. The food is actually pretty good. My reluctance to return probably has more to do with the price tag and the fact that character dining kind of stresses me out. With tax and tip it ends up being $50/adult. You stand in line after you check in to meet Mickey (there’s a photopass photographer there), and then 2-3 other characters come to your table once you sit down. It’s usually Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto. There’s an “auntie” that roams around with a ukulele and a microphone singing songs and trying to get people to engage. There’s napkin waving, loud parades with children (I honestly can’t even remember if they’re shaking shakers, beating drums, or pushing coconuts around the floor with brooms, oh wait no that’s at WDW), and auntie singing songs to people celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Geez, it’s not as bad as I’m making it sound but if you’ve been to Ohana, Chef Mickey’s or the Hoop Dee Doo at Walt Disney World then you already know what to expect. Kids love it. If I go back again, it will be to try the dinner buffet without characters. All you can eat seafood is so hard for me to turn down.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

‘AMA AMA: This probably isn’t a popular opinion, buuuuttttt…I’m not a big ‘AMA AMA fan. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just not as good as other comparable places. Especially for the money. This is the high end, check your kids into Auntie’s (the kid’s club) and have a nice romantic dinner at sunset place. The food isn’t bad, but I’ve never had anything particularly phenomenal there. If money isn’t a serious concern, then definitely have dinner there. And make sure your reservatio is before sunset because if you show up after dark, you’re missing out bigtime. But if you’re only going to have one really nice meal on your trip, skip it. I’d head over to the Four Seasons instead. Or Haleiwa Joe’s (the one in Kaneohe) or Mama’s Fish House (on Maui). However, I do REALLY like ‘AMA AMA for breakfast. The prices are a LOT better and in general it’s just really hard to mess up breakfast. They also do lunch, but I can’t usually be bothered to leave the beach or pool for a sit down lunch.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Ulu Cafe: If you’re a frequent Disney traveler, you know the Disney quick service food scene. Ulu Cafe is on par with what you’d expect at a deluxe resort like the Grand Floridian or Polynesian and not like what you’d expect at a value resort or in the theme park. It’s fairly small and there’s not an enormous selection (some of it does vary day to day) but what they have is good. There are usually a few different kinds of flatbreads and a daily special or to. The poke bowls and acai bowls are both pretty decent here and there’s Dole Whip. And then there’s a grab and go section with treats (so many of them Mickey shaped). The Mickey Musubi is a must try. There is covered seating at the cafe, but it’s also easy enough to grab your food and take it back to your pool chairs. Ulu Cafe is also where you can get your refillable mugs filled (they’re about $20 and you’ll get unlimited refills on soda, coffee, tea, water, etc. for the length of your stay).

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Food and Snack Stands: There’s a handful of food stands around property. Mama’s is your best bet if you want to walk up and get something while at the pool. Burgers, chicken tenders, friend shrimp etc. can all be found there. The shave ice stand is right next door. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a major shave ice fan. That being said…I don’t think the shave ice at Aulani is the best I’ve ever had, but it is the cutest! You can add little Mickey ears for $1. There’s a small snack stand close to the beach that’s not particularly notable but they do have Dole Whips and usually soft pretzels. There’s also a coffee kiosk near Ulu Cafe which is where you’ll find your more high end caffeinated beverages.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Off Da Hook: I really like this pool bar. It’s a nice step up from Ulu Cafe without having to leave the pool. Food’s good, drinks are good, but the main thing you need to know are about the giant pineapple drinks. This is where you get them. They’re not cheap. But they’re fun! When I got mine, I think it was about $27 including tax and tip.You pick the drink you want and then I believe the pineapple was about $10 extra.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Olele Lounge: If there is one food and beverage related experience you definitely shouldn’t miss, it’s after dinner drinks at Olele Lounge. The inside is cool and tells the story of the Hawaiian language (there’s often a linguist on hand), but outside there’s live music every night and I’m not going to lie…it’s often the best music I’ve heard ANYWHERE in Hawaii. I say “often” because they rotate different acts and they’re all great, but one night it was a duo playing traditional Hawaiian music and it was unbelievably good. The music usually starts around 6:30 and goes until 10 or 11. It’ll be printed in the Daily ‘Iwa.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Dining at Other Resorts: The Four Seasons is right next door and the Marriott is a short stroll away. You can dine at either without staying there. Mina’s Fish House at the Four Seasons usually has a great happy hour and there’s also an opulent weekend brunch that I have not been able to try yet but it’s tippy top of my list for next time. The Marriott has a Longhi’s (there’s a couple on Maui) and it’s definitely worth a try. There’s also a Roy’s on the golf course.

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.

Ok, I tried to give it a fair shake and while food at Aulani isn’t exactly bad, I’m always left a bit at a loss for dinner. So usually I go to….

Monkeypod: I used to live on Maui and we went to the Monkeypod for happy hour sooooo often so when they built the one in Ko’olina I was THRILLED. Here’s the deal…it’s just always good. Food, service, atmosphere…check, check, check. It has some haters (I think mostly because so many people rave about it that there’s bound to be some naysayers), but every night it’s where I gravitate towards. Their mai tais are legendary and the atmosphere is always a party. But like the kind of party it’s ok to bring your kids to. The only downside is that it’s usually pretty crowded. So make a reservation or show up early for happy hour (there’s a late happy hour too) when drinks are $9 and appetizers are half price.

There are also a handful of restaurants across the street from Aulani (in the same shopping center as the Monkeypod) to try. There’s a pizza place, taco place, breakfast place (Eggs n Things) and an Island Vintage Coffee.

Groceries: If you want to pick up some simple groceries, bottles of water, or liquor for making your own drinks, you’ll find all of that (and cheap souvenirs) at the Island Gourmet Market/ABC Store in the shopping center across the street. If you have a car and you need to do a serious grocery run, there is a Target and Costco in Kapolei just about 5-10 minutes away. All of the villas (one, two, and three bedrooms) have full kitchens so if you’re trying to save money it’s possible to do quite a bit of cooking.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

What the Beach is Like: I get a lot of questions about the beach at Aulani and that makes me think it’s because it’s a topic of conversation ; ) It’s not a great beach but it’s not a bad beach! There are four lagoons in Ko’olina (they’re actually man made) and Aulani and the Four Seasons share lagoon #4. It’s a little crescent of a beach with calm water. It’s almost entirely protected from the ocean which makes it GREAT for kids. I can’t imagine going out there to snorkel (it’s literally all sand), but there are always people out there and they say there are a few fish. I think it just depends on what your expectations are. I wouldn’t call it “real” snorkeling. So some people really like the beach (hey, locals come out to Ko’olina with their kids or to sunbathe) and some are disappointed. When I stay at Aulani, I’m not there for the beach so it doesn’t bother me but if you’ve never been to Hawaii then definitely plan to spend time out exploring the island because there are some truly amazing beaches on Oahu. I will say, at pretty much any time of day and time of the year, you can always find good chairs on the beach. That is hardly ever the case for the pool.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

The Pool! The Pool! The Pool!: The main attraction at Aulani is definitely the pool. I wouldn’t call it a pool so much as a complex. It’s almost a waterpark. There are pools for families, adults, small children, EVERYONE. My personal favorite spot is the family infinity pool. I like to be able to see the ocean from the pool and it’s a great spot for that. There’s also an adjoining hot tub. There’s an adults only area, but I’m not crazy about it. It is MUCH quieter than the rest of the resort so that’s a bonus, but it’s tucked away in a corner and I feel like I spend most of my time there just staring at a wall. I mean, it’s a nice wall but in Hawaii I much prefer the ocean. To each their own. The main pool has zero entry so it’s great for kids and it’s close to the pool bar/restaurant and has easy access down to the beach. There’s also an adults only infinity HOT TUB nearby which looks out over the ocean and that is hands down my favorite place to be. But while there are a few chairs it’s not really a place I’d want to set up for the day. It’s a great place to watch the sunset though! Definitely don’t miss the lazy river and the slides (there’s a body slide and a tube slide). I think you can skip Rainbow Reef. It’s essentially a large fish tank you can snorkel in for an extra fee (it’s a lot like Shark Reef at Typhoon Lagoon if you’ve done that). There are a lot of fish, but it’s not terribly big and the water is COLD. It’s $25/adult and $20/kid for one-day access and $45/adult and $35/kid for length of stay access. When my friend and I took her daughter (age 7) we were all ready to get out about 15 seconds after we got in and still to this day laugh about that time we thought it would be a good idea to go in there.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

You can pick up towels and wristbands from a few kiosks spread out around the pool deck and you must have a wristband to do pretty much anything. Including sit down on a pool chair. Which brings me to…

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

The Pool Chair Situation: All of you little Disney planning nuts are going to LOVE this. One does not simply show up poolside at Aulani and plop down in a chair. Planning is involved. Alarms need to be set. Dads must be loaded up with the family’s possessions and sent down to the pool early in the morning to secure the family’s basecamp.

All jokes aside, here’s the deal…while chairs are pretty easy to come by down at the beach, the pool is by far the most popular spot at Aulani and those chairs fill up fast. I’ve seen so many people come down around 10 or 11 and not be able to find chairs in the main pool areas (Waikolohe Pool and Ka Maka Grotto Infinity Pool). There is often more availability in the more kid oriented sections (where the water feature/playground and splash pads are) and the adults only area. The pools don’t open until 8 AM but many people come down early to get prime spots. There are signs posted saying that if you leave items on chairs unattended BEFORE 8 they will be removed. So if you go down early, you’ll have to hang out with your stuff. There are also signs warning that if you leave your chairs for over an hour, they will be marked by the staff and if you don’t return in another hour, your belongings will be removed so that others can use those chairs. And I’ve seen this happen a few times.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Lest this sound like a crazy Disney thing, I can assure you that this happens at every resort with a desirable pool around the world. Even at the classiest, most high brow joints. Dads can be found lining up at a nondescript gate with their family’s possessions ready to throw an elbow to ensure that they snag the most desirable spot at the pool. It happens at Disney, it happens at the Four Seasons, it just happens everywhere. So if having a good spot by the pool is important to you, definitely plan to show up early.

The good news is that with the time change, most people coming from the mainland are up and at ‘em pretty early anyways. Also, the pool chair situation does seem to fluctuate with the season. During slow season when the resort isn’t at capacity it may be a LOT easier to find a place to sit and they may be more lenient about clearing your items away if you’ve been gone for a while.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Leave the kids at Auntie’s Beach House: Disney runs some of the best kids clubs in the world and Auntie’s is no exception! Drop the kids off while you go to the spa or to dinner, and I guarantee you they’ll be begging to spend the rest of their vacation there. Auntie’s is free (you can stop in and check it out most mornings before drop offs stop), but there are some premium activities that cost extra.

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.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

How about a Luau?: Going to a luau is at the top of most people’s Hawaii bucket lists. Good news: if you’re staying at Aulani you’ve got plenty of good options. Disney has their own luau (Ka Wa’a Luau) on property several nights per week but also…the #1 rated luau on Oahu is just down the street at Paradise Cove. So I get a LOT of questions about which luau is better. The honest truth is…they’re just totally different. The Aulani luau is smaller, has better food (prime rib!) and feels a bit like a backyard party. The lush garden setting is beautiful and there are quite a few activities and cultural crafts to participate in before dinner and the show starts. A major thing to note is that while it’s not over the top Disney, there ARE some Disney elements. Moana comes out to start the show, Mickey and Minnie lead the children’s hula lesson, there are Moana cupcakes, etc. Overall, I’d say it’s probably better for younger kids. My 7 year old professional luau reviewer had a GREAT time. Read my full review of the luau here.

And watch our video review below!

Paradise Cove is a serious operation. The luau grounds are enormous (and right on the ocean!) and they offer soooo much entertainment. There’s an emu ceremony (where they pull the pig out of the ground), a hukilau (pulling the nets in from the ocean), the shower of flowers (where a guy climbs up a palm tree and showers the onlookers with flower petals), hula lessons and so much more. There are several crafts/activities that have a separate fee and there are a lot of booths and kiosks with things to buy (which I’ve heard some people don’t like that vibe). The food and drinks are ok (not great), but on par with most large luaus. Paradise Cove is probably the best overall luau on Oahu. Read my full review here.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Chill at the spa: The Laniwai Spa is one of the most spectacular spas in Hawaii and definitely not to be missed. The outdoor hydrotherapy garden in one of a kind! Read more about my trip to the spa here.

Check Out Time: Check out is at 11 AM but a lot of flights to the US mainland don’t leave until much later. No worries! Check out, store your bags with bell services, spend the day enjoying the resort, and when you’re ready to get cleaned up, bell services will give you a pass to the Luana Lounge where there are lockers and showers. I love going back on the red eye (or at least a late flight) so I can take full advantage of that last day.

Getting to the Airport: Disney contracts their airport shuttle service with Speedi Shuttle. You can often book a package at Aulani that includes airport transfers. It’s nice because they know what time you’ll need to leave the resort to get to the airport depending on the time of day. If you’re driving yourself, don’t underestimate how long the drive is with traffic. Generally traffic is worse going into Honolulu in the mornings and coming back to Aulani in the evenings (it follows commuter patterns) and even though the airport is only 20 miles or so it can take an hour or more with traffic. The Honolulu airport is also really hit or miss with crowds. It seems like groups of flights leave all at once which can create bottlenecks at the check in counters and security so leave plenty of time.

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Is Aulani a Luxury Resort? I get a lot of questions comparing different resorts and people asking if certain things are “worth it” and quite frankly this just all comes down to your expectations.

If you are a seasoned Disney traveler, you will likely find that Aulani is like a “deluxe resort” on steroids. Imagine the Grand Floridian or Animal Kingdom Lodge but a larger property with more entertainment. The rooms are what you’d expect from Disney as is the service. If you’re a Disney traveler that normally stays at moderate or value resorts or (gasp) off property, your mind will probably be blown by the Aulani experience and how nice it is.

If you’re a seasoned traveler in general (not just Disney) and you’ve experienced true luxury resorts (Four Seasons, St Regis, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, etc.) you should go in knowing that Aulani is not that. The theming is incredible and the staff are extremely friendly and helpful but this property (like all Disney resorts) is designed to be more serve yourself style to accommodate the sometimes high number of guests. Concrete examples: 1) at the pool you’ll get your wristbands and towels from a kiosk after showing your room key, 2) pool chairs are first come first serve and you do your own set up, 3) food and drink service poolside is spotty at best. Sometimes I’ve noticed servers occasionally going around with menus but most often not, 4) nobody is going to bring you water or complimentary snacks to your chair, 5) if you’re standing in the lobby it’s unlikely that a staff member is going to approach you to ask you if you need anything, 6) while there are sometimes rumors of turndown service, I’ve never experienced it, 7) rooms are nice but not overwhelming.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

None of this translates to bad service or amenities, it’s just the way this place is designed to work. And whether you’re happy with that or not is largely determined by your expectations. If you’ve never stayed at a resort where 1) you give your name at the pool podium the first day and they remember you for the rest of your trip, 2) someone follows you around the pool until you find the perfect spot and then they set your chairs up with covers and towels, or 3) someone regularly comes around to fill up your water glass or hand you slices of pineapple, then YOU’RE GOING TO LOVE AULANI. And if you’re used to that level of service, you’re not going to get it at Aulani.

Now, while Disney is not usually considered a luxury brand, they do have a reputation for high levels of service and the price point at Aulani is definitely in the ballpark as other luxury resorts in Hawaii (it’s comparable to the Four Seasons next door) so I don’t want anyone to get confused about what to expect or not to expect.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Is Aulani Good for a Honeymoon? I also get this question a lot. Here’s what I usually tell people: would you go to Walt Disney World or Disneyland on your honeymoon? A lot of people would (and do) and a lot of people wouldn’t (and don’t). I’d honestly use the same rule of thumb about Aulani. It’s a lovely resort and it does attract a lot of honeymooners, but there are also a LOT of kids and noise and at the end of the day it’s a family resort. It depends on your personality and the vibe you like on vacation.

How Do You Afford Aulani? 

I get some version of this question whenever I post about staying at a fancy resort.  Yes, it’s expensive. In my experience, when high end resorts come up, people fall into one of three categories 1) money is no object so it’s not a decision factor. Let’s book the best! 2) I would/could never in my life pay that much money to stay at a hotel. That’s obscene and not possible for me. 3) Wow…that’s a lot of money, but it’s a once in a lifetime trip for us and we’d like to splurge on the best…so if this is really it then we’ll book buuuuut how do we get the best deal and how do we stretch our dollar while we’re there.

The next bit of this post is for those that fall into category 3 (categories 1 and 2 don’t need any tips or explanations ; )

Split your stay: Most people that are traveling all the way to Hawaii, while wanting a beach vacation, also want to SEE Hawaii. If this is you, I suggest splitting your trip and spending the first part of your trip at more affordable accommodations while you do the majority of your activities and exploring. Stay in Waikiki and do all the big attractions at the beginning of your trip, and then move to Aulani for the end of your trip so you can spend several days just relaxing and laying around the resort and taking full advantage of the beach and pool and nearby activities. It’s no fun being off trekking through the jungle, swimming under waterfalls while regretting how much money you’re paying for a resort that you’re NOT EVEN AT.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Pick your dates strategically: The price of any hotel can change pretty drastically throughout the month and even the week. While September is pretty much the cheapest you’ll find rates at any resort in Hawaii, there’s still a lot of variation at other times of the year.

Here’s an excerpt from a post I wrote about finding a “good deal” at the Four Seasons Maui (and it will work for Aulani too!):

Here’s my hack for finding pockets of days where the price is sometimes over HALF OFF:

Google the name of the property you’re thinking about. Let’s do “Four Seasons Maui.” While there are a ton of results that come up, the one we’re most interest in is the Google listing in the sidebar. You’ll see a date box to check availability and pricing with different booking agents (directly with Four Seasons, Expedia, TripIt, etc.) and this will give you the cheapest price for those specific dates (there’s not usually much variation), but it won’t tell you the cheapest dates. Below those, click on “view more rates” and then click on the “check in date” box at the top. A monthly calendar will pop up with the average price EVERY NIGHT for many months into the future.

Clicking over to the month of January (several months from now), I can start to pick out which days would be cheapest. So if I’m interested in staying at the Four Seasons for 3 nights in January, choosing Jan 18-20 ($2,574) would save almost 50% from choosing January 26-28 ($4,745). That’s probably the difference between a stay at the Four Seasons being doable or not. If you just put in random three night dates, the pricing may be so high that you decide you can’t afford the Four Seasons when really you can’t afford the Four Seasons during those dates.

So why does the price fluctuate so much? It could be demand pricing meaning dates around holidays or peak travel times are more expensive or it could mean that standard rooms are all booked for those nights and all that’s available is a suite.

HERE’S A SECRET: You’ll see those prices on the calendar dip down into the $500s in pockets of September (shhhh!) so if your dates are flexible you could save some BIG money.

Watch for Discounts & Packages: Because Aulani is Disney, they tend to run better specials than a lot of the other resorts (or they just publicize them better). It’s not unusual to find 30% off offers in the fall, bonus nights on longer stays, and even WDW/Disneyland Annual Pass discounts!

Rent “Points” Through Disney Vacation Club: Just like most timeshares, members can rent out their weeks or “points” at a muuuuuuch cheaper rate than if you’re paying cash. If you know a Disney Vacation Club member, you could broker a private deal. Otherwise there are several reputable companies who will work out the logistics for you. If you’re willing to plan far enough in advance (usually at least 6 months), you can often get rooms at Aulani at least 50% off if you go this route. Try Dave’s DVC Rentals.

THE GRAND FINALE: The Hawaii travel blogger in me feels the strong urge to remind you that while I’m a crazy Disney fan, there is absolutely more to Hawaii than Aulani. Check out my archives for everything you need to know about traveling to Hawaii.

Disney's Aulani Resort Review

Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! It’s always my goal to provide a TON of value to YOU. To that end, lately I’ve been packing my Instagram (@hula.land) FULL of content and adventures that you might want to check out. A lot of my post captions are like mini blog posts with travel info, I’ve got IGTV review videos for luaus and excursions, and helpful story highlights like grocery store prices and hotel reviews. Not to mention that my feed is pretty much the ultimate tropical eye candy! You can follow me here and share my account with your friends! Your support really helps me to keep this blog running!

Also, if you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m in there answering questions every day and there are 5000+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!

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