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.
Go to Page 2 for Saving Money at Aulani, Things to Do, and More…