Aulani – A Disney Resort & Spa is a resort hotel on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. This trip planning guide covers the basics for planning a visit to Disney’s Aulani, from when to visit to how long to stay at the resort to what to do while you’re there. It also discusses whether Aulani might be right for you in the first place, and how you can make a visit more economical.
Unlike most other Disney destinations, Aulani is a bit of an odd duck. It’s not attached to a theme park or part of a more comprehensive trip or experience put on by Disney, but it’s not “just” a hotel, either. The most apt comparison we can think of is to other resort complexes on Oahu, or in other tropical settings that offer a multitude of things to do on the premises, but really are best enjoyed alongside other experiences in that locale. It’s also somewhat like a cruise ship on land.
Aulani is a great place for guests to stay who independently want to travel to Hawaii, but it’s difficult to recommend to Disney fans as a “Disney Destination” if those fans aren’t also interested in visiting Hawaii. The good news is that Hawaii is an amazing place in its own right, so most people contemplating a stay at Aulani are probably not solely interested in Aulani. The bad news is that a trip to Hawaii is very expensive, so even being a Disney fan plus being curious about Hawaii may not be sufficient for justifying the trip.
We’ll explore that all below, for now let’s dig into the Aulani – A Disney Resort & Spa planning guide…
Is It Worth It?
We’ve already started to explore this question above, and there’s really no direct answer we can provide to you. In terms of the hotel/resort itself, Aulani is incredibly nice. I want to keep this trip planning guide manageable in length, so you can read our separate Aulani 1-Bedroom Villa Room Review to get an idea of the quality of the rooms, themselves. Suffice to say, Aulani is our new favorite Disney hotel.
That Aulani is incredibly nice should come as no surprise. It’s virtually brand new, has staunch competition from real-world luxury hotel brands on Oahu, and does not benefit from its proximity to a Disney theme park as a convenience-advantage. To the contrary, it’s a bit removed from Honolulu and Waikiki Beach where most of the major players are (having stayed in Waikiki and the upstart Ko Olina where Aulani is located, I’ll take Ko Olina any day of the week). Plus, in the more adult market of Hawaiian vacations, the Disney brand doesn’t have quite the same pull as the name does for families traveling to theme parks.
In other words, Disney had to come out swinging for the fences with Aulani in order for the resort to be a success. Fortunately, Disney did exactly that, and while the resort does command the typical Disney premium, arguably for what you are getting, it offers a significantly better value than any of the theme park-adjacent hotels in the United States.
To be abundantly clear, it ranks right up there with hotels like the Grand Floridian and Grand Californian in terms of cost (or exceeds them), but it also offers a lot more. The rooms are incredibly nice, and successfully blend luxury with themed accommodations. This is something with which we find Disney constantly struggles, and the balance is not an easy proposition. Aulani just works in both regards. The rooms are artfully and tastefully decorated, feeling culturally appropriate, but also with the type of high quality furnishings, fixtures, and design that you’d expect of a luxury hotel. It’s exceedingly rare for us to say this about Disney hotels, but Aulani’s rooms nail both luxury and theme. You can see just how gorgeous the resort is in our “The Beauty of Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa” post, which features a lot of photos.
Of course, room quality is not the only consideration in terms of whether a resort is worth it. Most people aren’t going to visit Hawaii and spend a ton of time in their room, honeymooners excluded. Again, Aulani excels in terms of both the overall resort quality and the available amenities. From the resort’s impressive Hawaiian art collection to the amazing Waikolohe Valley pool area (including my favorite thing about Aulani, the lazy river) to the daily events and activities, there is plenty to do, see, and enjoy at Aulani. If you’ve ever done Disney Cruise Line (or another ship, for that matter), it’s sort of like that in terms of activities. We did a ton of these activities at Aulani, and will cover them in more detail in subsequent posts (we’ll add links to this post to those “break out” posts). For now, we want to focus on the high-level elements of trip planning.
The other part of the equation is whether Hawaii, and the island of Oahu in particular, is worth visiting for you. We cannot answer that. Your best bet, before even booking a trip, is to watch some travel specials on Hawaii and pick up a couple of books on Hawaii/Oahu. If things like Pearl Harbor, hiking, beaches, or island culture (among many other things) interest you, chances are a visit to Aulani will be worth it for you. While we think Hawaii is a better couples’ destination than it is a family vacation spot, Aulani is a great place to get a mix of both. The kids can have fun with the activities geared towards them, and the adults in the family can enjoy a romantic experience.
If the resort experience or Hawaii don’t really interest you, and you’re primarily a passionate Disney fan who is thinking about visiting Disney’s newest destination, it’s tough to say Aulani will be worth it for you. Aulani is not a theme park experience, and really is only “Disney” in terms of some character motifs and the overall quality and attention to detail. Unless money and vacation time are no object, we do not recommend Aulani to Disney fans who otherwise aren’t interested in visiting a luxury resort in Hawaii.
Another category for whom Aulani may not be worth it is those passionate Disney fans on tight budgets who are interested in the Aulani experience and visiting Hawaii, but would have to forgo an annual visit to the theme parks in order to afford Aulani. Unlike Tokyo Disney Resort, which we strongly advocate skipping the US parks for a year (or two) to experience, Aulani is unlikely to satisfy those looking for a Disney theme park “fix.”
We absolutely loved Aulani, but we want to try to be objective in analyzing who will enjoy the experience the most. Aulani will be an amazing destination for a lot of people, but it also won’t appeal to a lot of people–just like virtually any vacation destination out there. Of course, without knowing you and your interests specifically, we can’t say definitively how you’ll feel about it, but hopefully this section gave you an idea of how it might appeal to you.
When to Visit?
Hawaii essentially has high seasons dictated by two things: winter and school breaks. The latter is especially true at Aulani, which is a mixed family and couples’ destination, rather than primarily a couples’ destination like the rest of Oahu (this isn’t to say families don’t visit the rest of the island–they certainly do–but anything you add the “Disney” name to something, you’re disproportionately drawing families). The former is generally true at Aulani and throughout Hawaii, as many guests flee cold weather for a dose of paradise.
There’s also weather to consider. Hawaii is pretty warm year-round, but it gets even hotter in the summer. No matter when you visit, you can except highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s or 70s. Still, the better times for weather in Hawaii are generally the spring and fall.
Based upon all of these factors, we estimated the “sweet spots” for trips to Aulani are late-April through mid-May and September through October. Our reasoning is that you avoid all significant school breaks with these dates, and you’re also outside of the range of snowbird season. Plus, these are good seasons as far as weather goes. Please note that these are educated guesses on our part based upon things we read and travel intuition, and are not at all observation based. Frommer’s seems to agree with us, but note that they’re working off of Hawaii travel trends in general.
Our educated guesses paid off with our early-May visit (just after Japan’s Golden Week–we’d probably go a week later next time to avoid this popular travel week for Japanese visitors, but crowds were still light), as the we were told that Aulani was less than half-full, Pearl Harbor had no significant crowds, and the weather was excellent. Your mileage may vary—do your own research into dates to confirm our speculation isn’t just crazy. (Everyone on the internet is an expert on everyone, and the opinions are worth about as much as you pay for them!)
How Long to Visit?
Let’s break this down into two separate questions. First, how long to visit Hawaii, in general. Second, how long to stay at Aulani. We recommend no fewer than 7 days in Hawaii, with time on Oahu plus one other island. I’ve done the Big Island twice, so that’s my default recommendation, but Maui also looks intriguing to me. Hawaii is an incredible state, with a wide array of offerings. The islands are small, but there’s truly something for everyone. On my first visit to Hawaii, I spent 14 days there and didn’t run out of things to do. On our more recent visit, we were in Hawaii for 6 days, and it was not nearly enough time. Listed below are just a few of the things you can do on Oahu alone.
- World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (Pearl Harbor)
- Diamond Head Hike
- Polynesian Cultural Center Luau
- Visit Kualoa Ranch
- Koko Head Crater Hike
- Visit ‘Iolani Palace
- Manoa Falls Hike
- Visit the North Shore
- Drive the Leeward Coast
This is just a partial list of things that actually interest us. It doesn’t even include the beaches, spas, shopping, dining, entertainment, and nightlife for which Hawaii is known. Many of these things we haven’t done (yet), so we aren’t actually recommending them, simply listing them as possibilities you should research for yourself.
On the Big Island, my strong recommendation is a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is one of my favorite National Parks anywhere. Read our “Things to do in Volcanoes National Park” post on our non-Disney travel site. You should definitely consider island-hopping while in Hawaii. Round-trip flights between the islands are about $150-200/person, or you can do one-way flights for half that, and head back to the US out of a different airport in Hawaii than the one into which you flew. This is what I’ve done, and recommend doing both in terms of cost-savings and time-savings.
Before our recent trip, we checked out several guidebooks from the library. Most of these weren’t all that helpful, but we liked Fodor’s Hawaii 2014. Even it was a bit too superficial for my liking, but the other guides we looked at were worse. Unfortunately, a detailed look at all of the other things to do in Hawaii is beyond the scope of this post, so consult books, Google, etc. for additional ideas.
As for Aulani, we dedicated 2 full days to enjoying and exploring Aulani and felt that was not enough. Three days probably would have been perfect for us. Aulani offers a lot of entertainment, activities, etc., and it’s difficult to do these all in a couple of days, plus enjoy their excellent pools, hot tubs, spas, etc. If the entertainment really interests you, or you love lounging by pools or in lazy rivers, you could spend even longer at Aulani. If neither of those things interest you, maybe 2 nights will suffice. Basically, what we’re saying is that only you know what you enjoy doing, so we can’t make a definitive recommendation because we don’t know you. Adjust our 3 day recommendation up or down depending upon how you feel about Aulani’s offerings.
Whether you should just spend the duration of your stay on Oahu at Aulani largely depends upon your budget and priorities in Hawaii. Even by Hawaii standards, Aulani is pricey. While you will find high prices at just about any resort in Hawaii, many are much less expensive than Aulani, and offer a high caliber resort experience. Cheaper still are basic hotels and motels that you won’t want to spend time “enjoying,” but instead might function as good shower/sleeping bases for the days you explore the rest of Hawaii. As mentioned, Aulani is a bit of a haul from Waikiki and other “hot spots” on Oahu. From a logistics standpoint, if these places are a priority for you when you’re visiting Hawaii, you might want to do a split stay at Aulani and one of the Waikiki hotels.
Still, there is something to be said for the convenience of just staying at one hotel in Oahu, and having that hotel be a resort to which you can come back in relax in a nice hot tub or enjoy other entertainment at the end of the day in Hawaii. In our view, if money is not a significant concern, stay at Aulani for the duration of your visit to Oahu. If money is a concern, spend 2-3 nights at Aulani and stay elsewhere the rest of the trip. If money is somewhat of a concern, let convenience (or lack thereof) of Aulani as a home base when looking at your general Oahu itinerary be the deciding factor that pushes you off the fence one way or the other.
Unless you’re an incredibly strong swimmer or an Olympic canoeing champion, you’re going to be flying to Hawaii. Honolulu International Airport is nearly halfway between Los Angeles and Tokyo, so you’re in for a long flight (approximately 9 hours from Chicago). Flight prices vary widely depending upon your city of origin and season, but expect to pay over $600 per person, and in some rare cases over $1,000. Redeeming frequent flyer points for tickets to Hawaii requires more miles than an average domestic flight on most major airlines, but can be worth it.
If you’re considering visiting Tokyo Disney Resort and/or Hong Kong Disneyland, Hawaii can be a free stopover. If you’re visiting both of those Asia resorts, we recommend an open jaw from Hong Kong to Tokyo, and book a separate flight on an Asian value carrier to get from Hong Kong to Tokyo to minimize airfare costs. More on how to do all of this in a future post.
Once you’re on the ground in Honolulu, you can either take public transportation, a shuttle service, or rent a car to get to Aulani. Be aware that Aulani is farther from Honolulu International Airport than traditional tourist spots on Oahu, like Waikiki Beach hotels. It takes about 25 minutes to get from the airport to the Ko Olina area where Aulani is located in no traffic.
Whether you should rent a car at the airport is a tough decision. If you’re not a Disney Vacation Club member, parking costs $35/night. If we were not Disney Vacation Club members, this would make the decision very easy for us: we would not rent a car at the airport, and instead take the public transit to Aulani. Since we believe a big part of a trip to Hawaii is seeing things outside of Aulani, we would rent a car from the Alamo Rent-A-Car location at Aulani a day or two and establish those days as our days for exploring Hawaii outside of Aulani. $35/night for the duration of a stay is just unreasonable for parking (it’s not as if Ko Olina is exactly cramped for space, either) in our estimation.
However, since we are Disney Vacation Club members, parking for us was free, and the $15/night Hotwire rate we got at the Honolulu International Airport made the decision easy for us (especially given that renting a car for only a couple of days at Aulani would’ve actually cost more than the duration of our trip—so make sure to price both rental spots!). Even though we only used the car for 2 days, plus getting to and from the airport, the freedom that a rental car offers was a plus for us.
If you are considering a rental car for the sake of being able to purchase groceries and other supplies to avoid the high prices at Aulani, don’t bother. A reasonably-priced (relative to Hawaii) mini-mart is located across the street from Aulani, and is easily within walking distance. More on this in the saving money section below.
If you elect not to rent a car, our understanding is that the best option is the Ko Olina Transportation Shuttle, which will drop you off directly at Aulani. Public “TheBus” transportation is a cheaper option, but it requires a long walk (nearly 2 miles) and a transfer. Not advisable with luggage.
Saving Money at Aulani
This section was originally titled “Aulani on a Dime,” but we decided against that, simply because you can’t do Aulani on a tight budget. While you can save money (potentially thousands of dollars) on your trip to Aulani, it’s still varying degrees of expensive. The room prices alone guarantee this, with a rack rate of over $400/night on the cheapest room during the lowest season. That doesn’t even factor in airfare, which for anyone living outside of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a few select other cities can cost as much as some international flights.
So, it’s important to go in with the mindset that you are going to spend a lot of money on a trip to Aulani. This is just the nature of the beast, and if you’re on a tight budget or are gasping at the bill each time you do one activity or another, it’s going to put a damper on your trip. If you are traveling on a budget, you also should build in a bit of a cushion, because we found ourselves with more unexpected minor expenses in Hawaii than many other locations we’ve visited.
Now, just because Aulani will cost a lot doesn’t mean you can’t save money on the trip. (There seems to be this misconception that people who spend a lot of money on things don’t like deals, but we’ve found that big spenders are some of the most value-conscious people out there!)
Aside from splitting your stay between Aulani and another resort as mentioned above, the biggest thing you can do to save money at Aulani is renting Disney Vacation Club points versus paying rack rates for rooms at Aulani. Of course, renting Disney Vacation Club points won’t always be an option if availability isn’t there, so your mileage may vary on this one.
The single biggest tip that everyone can put to use is to walk across the street to the grocery store, Island Country Markets (by ABC Stores). It’s about a 5 minute front door to front door walk, and the store has great selection. It’s pricey, but not nearly as pricey as eating at Aulani’s restaurants, or (worse yet) ordering Aulani’s booze. We don’t recommend eating every single meal and making every single drink in your room, but you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars by making some meals and drinks in your room, depending on your party size. This can make a huge difference.
Finally, don’t book your excursions through Aulani. It might be appealing to have an Adventures by Disney guide or have “free” transportation (hint: it’s not free if it’s built into an inflated cost) from the hotel, but if you’re looking to save money and be in control of your own destiny, rent a car and book the same experiences directly with the service provider. In some cases, the experience is something like hiking, and the “service provider” is nature. You can save a lot of money on these premium excursions by just doing them yourself. Hawaii is not some exotic, foreign country–it’s the United States–you can do all of these things without Disney and a guide there to hold your hand!
What to Pack
There are two things you should strongly consider packing for your trip to Hawaii that you might not otherwise consider: quality water shoes and waterproof hiking shoes. You’ll want the water shoes because the pavement around the pool areas at Aulani can get hot. You’ll want the hiking shoes if you plan on doing any hiking in Hawaii without ruining your normal shoes, because it’s a tropical/rain forest environment, which can tend to have mud and other things that can ruin tennis shoes. I use these Tevas–they look totally dorky, but they are comfortable and keep the water out.
It might also be wise to pack an underwater camera. If you’re anything like us, you’ll be spending ~50% of your time in one of the various pools, so check out our Underwater Camera Buying Guide for tips on choosing the right waterproof camera for your circumstances and budget.
Aside from the obvious stuff like swimsuits and sunscreen, we’d also recommend packing Hawaiian shirts or floral dresses. Now, these probably aren’t items in your regular wardrobe (unless you’re a big fat party animal ;)) so you might want to buy them before you leave. Aulani sells some nice island-wear, but it was priced around $60-100+ per article of clothing. If you have time, the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is a much better place to find inexpensive Hawaiian items. We recommend getting in the spirit and wearing Hawaiian attire to meals and the nightly activities!
Additionally, the items on our Unique Disney Packing List will be helpful in any of the Disney theme parks. Since the weather can be really hot, things like Frogg Togg Chilly Pads will come in handy!
Otherwise, you can purchase pretty much everything you need from the grocery store across the street from Aulani, so don’t worry if you forget something!
Things to Do at Aulani
If you’ve ever done a Disney Cruise before, you know that it’s kind of a go at your own pace, do as much or as little as you want type of thing. Aulani is the exact same way. Like the Disney Cruise Line, there are daily newsletters printed out with schedules of daily events, and there’s pretty much a scheduled event every hour of the day. The schedule is definitely lighter than Disney Cruise Line’s personal navigator, but considering that everyday you have numerous pools and other on-site options, plus the whole of Oahu to explore, it’s pretty full of activities.
Some of these activities are repeated every day, every other day, or at some random interval, but some may happen only once per week. We definitely recommend reviewing the sample schedule online so you can plan meals and other day trips around the schedule events at Aulani that are must-dos for you.
Listed below are a few things you can do at Aulani:
- Starlit Hui
- Laniwai – A Disney Spa
- Fireside Mo’Olelo
- Ho’ Okani Pila (Learn the ‘Ukulele)
- Menehune Adventure Trail
- Morning Beach Yoga
- Rainbow Reef Snorkeling
- Aunty’s Breakfast Celebration at the Makahiki
- Character Meet & Greets
This is just a partial list of things that we did do at Aulani, and doesn’t include ordinary stuff like lounging around the pool, taking dozens of laps around the lazy river, wandering the grounds, or hanging out at the bars. It also doesn’t cover activities specifically for kids and teens (and there are a lot of those activities!). It’s also worth pointing out that there were about 5-10 other daily activities we would have liked to do, but simply didn’t have the time. We’ll cover some of these activities in future posts if you’re interested in learning about them in more detail.
The only thing you definitely need to know about at this point is the Starlit Hui, which is an absolute must-do. I had previously seen the luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center several years ago, and while the Starlit Hui is not technically a luau, I found it far superior. I am far from an expert on authentic Hawaiian culture, but the Starlit Hui just felt more authentic to me, whereas it seems like the Polynesian Cultural Center luau was skewed towards pop culture perceptions of Hawaiian culture, even if it was also more or less accurate. Regardless of authenticity, the Starlit Hui is an amazing show that is not to be missed.
A lot of the other stuff is great, too, but again…more on that in future posts. We just had to hit on the Starlit Hui now because it’s that “important”!
Dining at Aulani
One thing that concerned us prior to visiting Aulani was its reputation with regard to dining. Essentially, the reputation is that its restaurants are universally overpriced and not very good. Still, we decided to try every restaurant and see for ourselves, and we’re glad we did. We will have detailed reviews of each Aulani restaurant and bar in the near future, but for now, here’s our general thoughts with regard to Aulani’s restaurants.
The dining at Aulani is expensive, and it’s probably not the best food you’re going to find on Oahu. Most of what we had was good to very good, but a lot of the food was an Americanized take on Hawaiian foods, and I’m sure we could have found better, more authentic foods had we ventured off-site for our meals. For us, it was worth it to trade convenience for a marginal (possible) improvement in the food. Since we were very pleased with all of our meals at Aulani, we feel this was the right decision for us. Had we stayed at Aulani for a full week, we definitely would have ventured off-site for meals. ‘AMA‘AMA (click here to read our ‘AMA ‘AMA Review) and Makahiki — The Bounty of the Islands (click here to read our Makahiki Character Breakfast Review) were both very good, but not places we would feel the need to repeat on a single trip.
We actually would give higher marks in terms of value to some of the bar food and quick service. During our stay, ‘Ōlelo Room was doing a $5-7 happy hour special on appetizers and drinks, and there were some very good values in this mix. We’re not sure if this is exclusively an off-season thing, but definitely see if it’s available during your visit to Aulani!
Some of this could be further fleshed out with details about specific entertainment and options at Aulani plus more info about the rooms, but we think it’s probably best to save that information for separate posts based on questions you have.
If you are thinking of staying at Aulani – A Disney Resort & Spa, we recommend that you request a quote from a fee-free Authorized Disney Vacation Planner. They can find you all of the current discounts, and help you plan the details of your trip!
What other questions do you have about Aulani – A Disney Resort & Spa? Want to know more about Laniwai? Interested in reading/seeing more from the Starlit Hui? Restaurant reviews? Have you been to Aulani? What additional feedback and tips of your own do you have? If you have additional questions, please leave them in the comments.