Aulani is Disney’s resort & spa hotel (that’s an understatement!) in Oahu, Hawaii. This trip planning guide offers tips for planning a vacation at 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. We’ve now visited Aulani three times, and last updated this post on March 12, 2017 based upon our last visit a couple of weeks ago.
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 Aulani 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 had a blast just enjoying the resort.
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 (although we offer some insight in the “Things to Do Beyond Aulani” section of this post). If things like Pearl Harbor, hiking, beaches, or island culture (among many other things) interest you, chances are a visit to Aulani and Oahu 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 love 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. 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, the “sweet spots” for trips to Aulani are late-April through mid-May and September through October. 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. 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.
Things to Do at Aulani
Let’s break this down into two separate questions. First, what to do at Aulani. Second, what to do beyond 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:
- Ka Wa’a Luau
- 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. 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 is no more. Part of me wants to preface that with “sadly” since I really loved this show–and because the replacement for this free show costs over $100 per person, but the new Ka Wa’a Luau is a full scale luau.
Previously, many Aulani guests who wanted the full luau experience had walked 5 minutes down the road to Paradise Cove, where a similarly-expensive full luau is held. We attended that on our most recent trip and enjoyed it (see our full Paradise Cove Review & Oahu Luau Tips post); it’s cheaper than Ka Wa’a and is a fun show. There is potential for Ka Wa’a Luau to be a nice addition; it just stinks to lose a free experience for something that costs extra–and a lot extra at that.
One thing to note is that Ka Wa’a Luau is held on Aulani’s Halawai Lawn, so if you request a room overlooking that lawn, you will be able to see the luau from your balcony for free. Obviously, not the same as attending it…but much cheaper!
Things to Do Beyond Aulani
You’re hopefully not going all the way to Hawaii and staying at a Disney resort the entire 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
- Paradise Cove or Polynesian Cultural Center Luau
- Visit Kualoa Ranch
- Koko Head Crater Hike
- Visit ‘Iolani Palace
- Manoa Falls Hike
- Visit the North Shore
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. You’ll want a guidebook to help plan what else you should do on Oahu. We like Oahu Revealed, which is written by a local and is not superficial fluff you could find on TripAdvisor (I’m looking at you, other Hawaii guides…).
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.
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 for more on this. (Notwithstanding Aulani, we both actually prefer the Big Island to Oahu.)
If you want more insight into what we’ve done in Hawaii, things we enjoyed (and did not our Hawaii category of postsenjoy–which includes a really popular tourist spot), check out on TravelCaffeine.
How Long to Visit?
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. Sarah and I have been to Hawaii 3 times together, and only stayed at Aulani one of those times. On our more recent visit, we were in Hawaii for 7 days split between Oahu and the Big Island, and it was not nearly enough time.
Dedicate at least 2 full days to enjoying and exploring Aulani. The resort 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. Also, you’re spending a lot of money to stay at Aulani, so you should make it a priority to enjoy the resort.
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.
Whether you should 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.
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. We have a post that explains how to visit multiple Disney destinations (including Aulani) on a single airfare.
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.
Parking at Aulani is free for Disney Vacation Club members (or rather, your annual dues pay for it), so if you’re a DVC member, we highly recommend a rental car. If you’re not a Disney Vacation Club member, parking costs $37/night. If we were not Disney Vacation Club members, we would probably take a shuttle/Uber to Aulani.
Don’t worry, you can still explore Oahu if you do this, as there is an Alamo Rent-A-Car location at Aulani, and it’s cheaper to rent a car for a day or two and establish those days as our days for exploring Hawaii outside of Aulani. $37/night for the duration of a stay is just unreasonable for parking and really adds up over the course of the trip. If you elect not to rent a car, the best option for getting to Aulani is Uber. There’s also 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, What to Pack, Where to Dine, and More…