Everybody’s known for something right? You’ve got your friend who always does marathons and races. Your friend who’s obsessed with wine. The one who’s been to every single Taylor Swift tour.
Well most of my life I’ve pretty much been known for two things 1) Disney and 2) Hawaii. Especially online, I’m kind of the go-to Hawaii girl. And people that have known me in real life since I was a kid remember my awkward phase of carrying around Disney World guide books everywhere I went ; )
So anyways….when Disney built its 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. I mean really…Disney AND Hawaii. What could be better???
Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa Review
Usually when I write hotel reviews, I’m basing them off of one particular trip, but I’ve stayed at and visited Aulani many many times, so this is a bit of a compilation of all of my experiences. Enjoy.
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.
Lobby & Check In Experience
Aulani makes a great first impression. The drive up to the portico feels pretty grand and the valet staff is always super prompt to greet guests and help with bags. They also seem to know/expect many guests to show up with grocery bags (or a trunk full of loose items from Costco) because they have large plastic bins that they unload your car into to take to your room.
You’ll also be greeted with flower leis for the ladies and kukui nut leis for the gentlemen plus there’s a nice water station at the entrance.
The lobby’s vaulted ceiling and open air atmosphere is pretty grand and rich with details, but it all gives way to what you really came for…the view.
The check in desk is over to the side and like everything Disney does, it’s pretty orderly. Staff is always pleasant and they try to move everyone along as quickly as possible since there’s often a high volume of guests checking in.
And if there’s a bit of a line, there’s a convenient little room with kids chairs and a tv playing cartoons just beside the desk.
Technically there are two different sides of the Aulani resort, the hotel side and the Disney Vacation Club (timeshare) side. If you’re booking through the resort and paying cash, all room types are open to you.
The standard rooms on the hotel side are, well, pretty standard hotel rooms. Two queen beds or one king with a bathroom that’s pretty nice.
On the DVC side, they’ve got studios and one, two, and three bedroom units. The studios are fairly comparable to the standard hotel rooms but have a minibar situation and some have a pull out bed instead of a second queen.
The one, two, and three bedroom units all have full kitchens, living rooms, and washer and dryers.
I’ve stayed in rooms on both sides of the resort (regular hotel rooms and one bedroom units on the DVC side) and there’s not much that separates them as far as quality or decor. I’d just book the type of room option that suits you best.
A couple of notes about beds…I’m not terribly fussy about mattresses and I’ve never noticed much personally about the beds at Aulani, but a LOT of people say that the beds are really hard and uncomfortable.
Also something good to know…all of the one, two, and three bedroom units have pullout beds in the living room couches (as well as a small pulldown bed under the tv that’s a good size for a kid) and while at most hotels I avoid pullout beds like the plague, the Disney ones aren’t bad at all.
They have the same type of pullout beds in all of their DVC properties and they all have a platform that opens/slides out that a foam mattress rests on top of (instead of a bar and spring situation) so they’re actually not uncomfortable at all.
In general, the service at Aulani is pretty good and works exactly how it’s designed to. To clarify, while Aulani is expensive and a GREAT hard product, it’s not a luxury resort. So you’re not going to get true luxury service like you would next door at the Four Seasons.
While there are plenty of cast members (what Disney calls their employees) around who are always super friendly and ready to help, a lot of the amenities at Aulani are designed for you to serve yourself. Examples: you get your pool towels and wristbands at a kiosk, go to quick service places and windows to get food and drinks, etc.
In my opinion, dining is where Aulani has the biggest room for improvement. They still haven’t returned to “normal” since the reopening so here’s to hoping for some improvements in the coming year or so, but in the meantime, here’s the situation:
The strongest dining option is Makahiki. This was previously a buffet for breakfast and dinner and it’s not yet returned to that, but when it is a buffet, it’s GOOD. A lot of options and well done.
I don’t think I would pay the prices for the preplated version that they’re currently offering though.
For breakfast, Makahiki has characters which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you like.
The resort’s “signature” restaurant (aka fancy) is AMA AMA and while it has an undeniably gorgeous location, I’ve never been terribly impressed. The food isn’t bad, it’s just not outstanding and for the prices (and other options within walking distance) it needs to be. Since the reopening, it’s now a $125/person (not including alcohol, tax or tip) prefix menu which I don’t love the idea of. For that kind of money, I want to order exactly what I want.
AMA AMA used to be open for breakfast, which was a GREAT option, but that hasn’t reopened yet.
The quick/counter service options are all centered around the pool and they’re solid and kind of the most reliable part of Aulani’s dining scene. They serve the audience (families spending all day at the pool) well.
A huge “pro” to the food situation at Aulani are all of the off property options within walking distance. The Four Seasons next door is where you’ll find the best higher end restaurants plus the shopping center across the street has a lot of casual options and my personal favorite restaurant, the Monkeypod.
Facilities & Amenities
This is where Aulani shines. Aulani’s pool complex is second to none. Multiple pools including zero entry options for families, an infinity pool overlooking the ocean, an adults only pool and hot tub, a kids play area, a huge lazy river, multiple slides (including one with tubes), and a saltwater reef snorkeling experience will keep you busy for days.
Not to mention the beach lagoon.
There’s a great luau on site and the spa facilities are some of the best on the island. Even if you’re not a “spa person,” you may want to consider checking it out.
And Aulani just does sooooo much with entertainment. Besides regular meet and greets with your favorite Disney characters, grab a copy of the Daily Iwa to find out the schedule of all of the daily activities.
I know a lot of people dismiss Aulani because they want an “authentic Hawaiian experience” and not “Disney in Hawaii” but I’ve got to tell you…the style and design of Aulani are so on point. The way that they’ve represented Hawaiian culture and history is, in my opinion, the most “authentic” you’ll find anywhere in Hawaii.
It’s not a “Mickey Mouse version of Hawaii.” The designers consulted and worked with so many experts in aspects of Hawaiian culture and history (from linguistics to architecture and design to flora and fauna) to get it just right and a lot of locals were really impressed with what they came up with.
It manages to feel grand and immersive but really relaxed and welcoming at the same time.
Value for the Money
This is what it all comes down to, right?
Well, frankly, Aulani isn’t cheap. It was hard to find it for less than $500/night before the pandemic and those days seem long gone. It’s hard to tell when or if prices will normalize, but I will say that while Aulani is expensive, it’s not out of line with the price of other resorts in Hawaii (especially outside of Waikiki).
Would I pay Aulani prices if I’m on Oahu to see and explore the island and spend the majority of my time away from the resort? No.
Would I pay Aulani prices for a few days for a nice resort vacation where I’m fully committed to taking advantage of all of the property’s amenities? Yes.
I’ve written a full post on whether or not Aulani is “worth it” here.
If you’re looking for the full resort experience on Oahu with all of the trappings to keep you busy for days on end (ESPECIALLY if you have kids), you’ll be hard pressed to find a better resort than Aulani.
Where to Book
Click here to book and check rates at Aulani.
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!