The boys have had a Hawaiian calendar up in their room for the last year, a gift from a friend of mine who lives in the islands. Several times over the last few months, Sidekick has pointed to one of the streaming waterfalls or sandy beaches in the photos and asked if we can visit. “One day,” I promised, “I'll take you to Aulani and we'll use all the Aulani tips to make sure you see ALL the special things about where I grew up.”
To me, it's important that my kids know where their mom and dad came from so they can understand where they came from. Why we parent the way we do, why we family the way we do. When it came to Hawaii, though, I was never sure how I could convey the impact that this place had on my life. I lived on Maui until I was 6 years old and returned for annual visits until I was a teenager. Those years made an indelible impression. I was forever shaped by island life and the fact that every person you meet is ‘aunty' or ‘uncle.' That's something I will carry in my heart forever, and something I've struggled to explain to the kids. Conveying that message is important and meaningful to me, and I didn't want to do it halfway.
And then Disney called and invited us to come visit Aulani.
Talk about putting your intentions into the world!
The timing lined up perfectly. Just as we were about to pull off that last November page, our Hawaii dreams were coming true. We were headed to the place they call Aulani. Directly translated, “the place that speaks with deep messages.”
Must-Know Aulani Tips
To get the full force of Hawaii takes a bit of preparation. It can be overwhelming when you first stumble into the resort: thrown off by the time change, neck laced with an intoxicating lei. Do yourself and your family a favor and maximize your time with these Aulani tips!
Register for Aunty's Beach House online.
Aunty's Beach House offers an incredible (free!) on-site childcare experience for kids ages 3 to 12. Registration needs to be completed at least 2 days before check-in, otherwise you'll have to check-in in-person and won't be able to pre-register for activities. If you miss the advance registration window, you can still wait in line each morning to try and nab one of the spots they reserve for same-day registrations. Some of the really neat experiences they offer include Stitch's Space Goo and Keiki Hula. Every special activity is listed out in the Daily ‘Iwa, which you should plan your whole visit around. With or without appointments for their special events, you can always drop your kids off for free play anytime Aunty's Beach House is not full to capacity.
Book restaurant reservations ahead of time, too.
The character breakfast at Makahiki is wildly popular, for good reason. Make sure to book that ahead of time, as well as a nice dinner at upscale Ama Ama. You can walk in or go to the low-key Ulu Cafe for any other meals. Take the time change into account. 8am will likely feel like 10 or 11am to you, so you may want to keep snacks in your room and book early meal times. You can even get a villa with a refrigerator, stove and washer/dryer if you want to make meals in your room!
Learn the resort layout using the Menehune Scavenger Hunt.
Pick this up at Pau Hana community hall, which is also a great spot for family activities, board games and free movie rentals. You can also sign up for ukulele lessons in the space! The nice people behind the desk will give you a tablet that will guide you all around the resort searching for the mischievous Menehune statues. The Menehune are said to be little people who live deep in the jungles. They're responsible for all sorts of activity around the resort. Word on the street is that they built the silly Menehune Bridge in the kid's water play area in a single night. They had to rush a little, which is why it's a little wobbly – and leaky!
Eat Hawaiian food.
Get some Loco Moco for breakfast at Ama Ama or Makahiki, and don't miss out on mochi. It's my favorite Hawaiian specialty, and they have it as a butter mochi pastry at Ulu Cafe or as a fancy desert at Ama Ama. Be sure to get a Mickey shaved ice poolside at Papalua, and a beachside drink in a pineapple from one of the waiters who circle around the cabanas! Order early – they have a limited supply of hollowed-out pineapples each day.
Listen to the language.
Aulani has almost 40 fluent Hawaiian speakers – that signifies a huge revival for a language that was almost dead when I was a kid. At the ‘Olelo room, every single staff member is required to speak fluently and there are 150 sculptures with 150 Hawaiian words. You can swing in for appetizers, listen to authentic Hawaiian music by some of the best artists in the state, and pick up a few fun phrases from your server. In the elevator, Aulani plays classic Disney songs translated into Hawaiian on their personally-commissioned CD that actually won several prestigious awards for Hawaiian music. You can buy it at the gift shop (Kalepa's Store) which features another Hawaiian tradition in their 40 displayed photos of mom and pop shops. Hawaiians tend to gather at small shops throughout the islands, so when the resort was being put-together, one of the cast members took it upon themselves to photograph dozens of shops as their own special passion project.
Take a sunset photo.
This was high on my list. I wanted to get that perfect series of sunset photos early on so that my vacation wasn't spent with me stressing over getting the quintessential Hawaii memory shot. The sandy beach area in front of Ama Ama makes for a stunning backdrop. We setup this Moana-themed photo with a Maui hook, some temporary tattoos, Hawaiian leaves and a shark necklace that we got on Amazon! If you're not confident with the camera, you can track down one of the photographers on-site and buy a Disney PhotoPass to let someone else capture those moments for you.
Go to the fire pit.
Uncle's enchanted stories at Mo'Olelo will add colorful context to your stay. Pro tip: go to one of the stories after sunset. The experience is really magical with the flames of the bonfire lapping against a dark ocean backdrop.
Take an excursion.
We got to go snorkeling with sea turtles and spot dolphins off the deck of a catamaran! The tour guide entertained us with colorful stories throughout the afternoon, and I was thankful that my kids got to see a bit outside of the resort. As phenomenal as Aulani is, you absolutely can't leave Oahu without taking a jaunt around the island.
Splash in style.
Feel like snorkeling? Aulani has a private snorkeling lagoon where you can get close-up encounters with colorful fish in a calm, wave-free environment. If the pool is more up your alley, don't miss the lazy river, splash zones, tunnel slides, zero-entry pools and hot tubs. Feel like bumming it beachside? Aulani has all the (free!) sand toys, boogie boards and floaties you could possibly need.
Visit the Laniwai spa.
Laniwai is the very first Disney-owned and operated spa. Laniwai means fresh water, so they have a strong focus on healing water with their amazing hydrotherapy garden. Clear your schedule for this – you can arrive early for your spa appointment to unwind in their vitality baths and rain-style showers, and stay after your appointment ends to continue the relaxation. I booked a family Lomilomi massage and was so impressed with their treatment of my boys. Sidekick has been having some health issues lately, and he spiked a sudden fever before our appointment. It was so sweet to see the ladies doting on him, and he totally ate it up. Some Boy flat out refused to participate, but they chatted with him and plied him with tasty Hawaiian candies to keep the peace while I got to enjoy the rest of the session. It was absolutely perfect.
Experience the luau.
I've been to a lot of luaus. Aulani's Ka Wa'a was one of the best, and it was by far the most appealing for kids out of all that I've experienced. You'll have a chance to pound poi, get temporary ink tattoos, make leis, dine on incredible Hawaiian food, and hear the cultural roots of canoe exploration that originally led Hawaiians to this area.
If you can carve out time, I highly encourage everyone to take a free tour of Aulani and have the guide tell you how the resort came to be. Disney initially set out to create a hotel sharing the traditional Minnie and Mickey experience in Hawaii, but they quickly realized that the real story was the Hawaiian people themselves. They hired a panel of Hawaiian people to ensure that the culture was properly reflected in the property, and that's why it is often referred to as “Oahu with pixie dust” as opposed to “Disney in Hawaii.” Even the name, Aulani, came to one of the panel members in a dream! That's how much Disney relied on Hawaiians to tell their own story in the creation of this place. If you look closely, you'll find numerous touches of Hawaiian families all throughout the resort. When you first check-in, for example, the photos behind the front desk that form a rainbow were taken by children across the state in a competition years ago. It's such a fitting welcome and goodbye (aloha!) for families from afar who are often greeted by rainbows when they first touch land in this special place.
Overall, Aulani was the perfect way to show my children exactly what I mean when I tell them that “ohana means family.”
If you're looking to gift this experience to a family member, Disney JUST unveiled the ability to give the gift of an Aulani vacation! You can also save up to 30% on stays of 5 nights or more with their current special. Check out this page for all their latest offers, anytime.
Has your family spent time at Aulani? Do you have any Aulani tips to share?