Aulani Resort & Spa Trip Planning Guide

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.

Getting There

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

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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.

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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

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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!

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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!

Your Thoughts

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.

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54 Responses to “Aulani Resort & Spa Trip Planning Guide”

  1. Crystal says:

    I have not stayed at Aulani, we stayed in Waikiki last time I went to Hawaii, but decided to drive over to that resort area and eat lunch and spend an hour or so walking around. Our lunch was ok, but was more expensive than in the Waikiki area. What I found interesting was that it is in the arid section of the island, almost like they took an undesirable area, and created an artificial resort area.

    I would highly recommend a trip to Hawaii, but I think I liked Kauai better than Oahu and liked the Waikiki area since when we got home at night it was easy to walk around to tons of restaurants and bars.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Thanks for the feedback. For some people, the Waikiki ‘scene’ is definitely preferable. I like getting my party on just as much as the next person, but Waikiki just felt overdeveloped for me, and I don’t have a ton of interest in bars or shopping on vacation. I’d rather be out in the more ‘rural’ setting, and to me Ko Olina felt like it was really coming into its own in terms of development. A good amount of things to do in the general area, but not flooded with people.

      I know plenty of people LOVE Waikiki, so thanks for that perspective!

      • Crystal says:

        We were only ever in the Waikiki area at night – the rest of the time was spent exploring the island. I loved the North Shore area seeing all the surfers, the windward side is where we managed to see whales and I also enjoyed Pearl Harbor (We did it all, including the Heart of the Missouri tour). My 1st trip was to Kauai and I prefer the laid back environment of that island over Oahu. I think my next trip will be to Maui or Kauai again.

  2. Kayla says:

    Excited to read this guide and for more Aulani posts in the future! I’ve been pricing out Aulani trips since it first opened. So far it hasn’t worked out, but maybe in the next few years it will. I’ve only ever been to Hawaii in an airport with a layover, so our first trip will be split between the resort and exploring Oahu (with Aulani as our base). Tom’ requirement for going to Hawaii is Pearl Harbor. All the other big tourist destinations on Oahu I’m less committed to, so I’ll be interested if you do any of those type of reviews too.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I did the “Passport to Pearl Harbor,” which I really enjoyed.

      The vast majority of visitors to Pearl Harbor just do the USS Arizona, but that was actually my least favorite (it was still incredibly moving and worth doing) of the attractions included on the Passport. It took the better part of the day to do everything, but I would absolutely recommend it.

  3. James says:

    Good Post! It’s funny my wife and I were just there a few months before you in late March. It was also about the same as far as it was not very busy at all. We were there for about seven days and my wife is already trying to get me to plan another trip. You are right a week is just not enough time to get everything in.

    Unfortunately my wife follows you on Facebook and she read this post it has renewed her interest in going there again and she is trying to get me to plan another trip out there.

    One tip I have is to try to get a flight that is going to Japan after it stops over in Hawaii(they cost about the same). We had a flight from Atl -> HNL. The flight after went to Japan, because of that it was a true international flight so it was a larger aircraft(Delta Airbus A330) so we had more room, on demand video, and seats the turn into beds(in first class) on the way back we had older 747’s which did not compare the the comfort of the Airbus. It was a 9hr flight but it went quickly and much better then a bunch of layovers.

  4. Jason King says:

    We took a family trip to Oahu(family of 5). Waikiki was not for us and we spent about 2 hours total there. The rest of the island is so much more exciting to explore. The North Shore, many secluded beaches that are not well marked, hanauma bay to snorkel with sea turtles, Sea Life Park, Pearl Harbor of course and that us just to name a very few.

    What many may not know is that Aulani is on a series of public man made lagoons. One is completely public with no resort on it. The rest appear to be part if resorts because the resorts supply lounge chairs, but in fact, these are completely public lagoons and fabulous places to swim. One day of our trip was to the lagoons. After a few hours swimming, we all got dressed in our tourist garb and “crashed” Aulani. Basically the entrance from the beach has a room key scan and an attendant. Since we looked the part we walked right in after some others without a question. We checked out the resort and it is beautiful.

    With that said we booked a private house on the ocean on the less popular, but much more beutiful, leeward coast at $150 a night. Loved seeing Aulani and might stay a night or two, but as much as I love Disney, I would not want it as the focus of a Hawaii trip with so much beauty on the island. But with that said, we are not the type to stay at a resort. We are constantly moving and trying to see as much local culture as possible.

  5. Jason King says:

    Also, Aloha Stadium Swap meet is a great tip. Aside from Aloha wear, it is a great place to buy locally made art and freshly grown produce and other foods. Lots of cheesy stuff to avoid, but plenty of unique items to make the trip to the stadium worth while.

  6. Rob Stevens says:

    The Laniwai hydrotherapy garden was the highlight of the trip for me. For my wife, it was a close second to only the lazy river. If they still offer a day-pass to the hydrotherapy garden, DO IT. You won’t regret it.

    • James says:

      I second this, Laniwai was nice. We booked a one hour couples massage. It was overpriced but the hydrotherapy spa helped to make it a little more worth it. Laniwai is definitely a must try at Aulani.

  7. Melinda says:

    I can’t wait to read more about your trip – the sneak peeks on instagram had me so excited. Next, please review the camera lens that could make me look like Sarah does in these photos… just kidding! Looks like you guys had a wonderful time. Keep the Aulani tips coming!

  8. Amanda says:

    I have to disagree a little with your suggestion on when to go. The highlight of both of my trips to Hawaii was whale watching. The whales are typically there November through mid-May.

    I’ve been to Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island and I would say spend a couple days in Oahu and then move to the Big Island. It was more relaxed. Although if you like the party scene Oahu is the place to be.

  9. James says:

    Tom, great article, I love your site. I have question about your preference. My wife and I love Hawaii and are planing to return soon. However, this time around we will be going with our son, who will be 7. We have never been on a cruise before and we are trying to decide between a Disney Cruise during spring break or a visit to Hawaii/Aulani during the summer. Which one do you recommend? Chances are we will eventually do both but I wanted to see if you if you had a compelling reason to do one over the other (besides price). Thanks!

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I can’t say I have a “compelling” reason to recommend one or the other, but Sarah and I both preferred Aulani to Disney Cruise Line. Don’t get me wrong, we really like Disney Cruise Line, but the experience at Aulani just “felt” better to us. I really can’t entirely say why that it, it just is. Perhaps part of it is that we haven’t done a Disney Cruise Line itinerary that involved places that really wowed us. Ask me again after we do an Alaska trip on Disney Cruise Line and my answer might be totally different!

  10. Aly says:

    I’m so excited to read your reviews about Aulani! I hope this post is the first of many.

    Question — Do you think you’ll do a trip report? I would absolutely love to read one about Aulani.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I’m not sure. I don’t know what a trip report would bring to the table that the individual posts I plan on doing will accomplish. It would probably just have a lot of “floated around in lazy river again,” and as much as I’m sure you’d all love to read my deep analysis of that lazy river, I’m not sure it’d be *that* entertaining.

      Plus, I still owe you all a Hong Kong Disneyland trip report, and (hopefully) a May 2014 Walt Disney World trip report…

  11. Tiffany says:

    I was waiting your take on this after seeing you were there on Instagram.

    We have been to Hawaii three times and been to all four major islands. Our four year old was asking to go, so we went this past September for our first trip with the kiddos (ages 4 and almost 2). I completely disagree that Hawaii isn’t a family destination. We had the most amazing time, and both girls actually shed tears on our last day; we have been pestered since with questions of when we are going back (and only put them off by reminding them of a planned Guatemala trip next Spring). There is so much to do, and Oahu is the island I would definitely recommend to families. We didn’t go to Waikiki at all this trip, I should note. We spent very little time there on our last trip and no desire to return.

    Both trips to Oahu, we have stayed in Ko’Olina. First at the JW Marriott Ihilani, and last trip, at the Marriott Ko Olina Vacation Club. We loved both places, and the lagoons are perfect for small children.

    I had wanted to go to Aulani originally, as we enjoy Disneyland and Disneyworld so much. But in the end, I couldn’t justify the cost comparison when we could get a full two bedroom unit with kitchen at a Marriott hotel for just a little more than a single bedroom at Aulani. I did book the character breakfast for us, with mixed feelings. I was sure I would regret that we weren’t staying at Aulani. The opposite happened, actually. I was so glad we hadn’t! The breakfast was the most hectic and stressful I have experienced, and we are no strangers to character dining. The pool areas were so crowded and we could hardly move through the area. All the extra “stuff” they put in completely blocked the natural view. I couldn’t wait to scurry back to our hotel where we could swim with a lovely view of the ocean and not fight through such crowds. Our lagoon was also far less crowded. We could easily walk down to the even less crowded one after ours, too, which isn’t near a hotel. I should note we were there at low season in September.

    Two not miss beach areas on Oahu: the North Shore and Kailua Beach. The latter was one of the most phenomenal beaches I have ever seen and not a popular tourist destination.

    Just my opinions, though. There are certainly many, many people who love Aulani, and I didn’t stay there, so my opinion is really only based on cost, pictures, and how I felt in the public areas. But speaking as a huge Disney parks fan, I think we will stick to other hotels in Oahu.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Just to clarify, I’m not saying Hawaii isn’t a family destination. I’m saying it’s not as much of a family destination as Walt Disney World or Disneyland. It’s still a good spot for families (depending upon interests), but not as good as the parks, in my opinion.

      Interesting perspective on the other nearby hotels versus Aulani. I think next time we will book one of those for a night or two so we can do a fair comparison. We didn’t experience any of the crowding issues you mention at Aulani, but obviously the season plays a huge part in that. I know Aulani wasn’t even close to capacity during our visit.

      Thanks for the feedback and recommendations on other places to visit! :)

  12. Jessica says:

    A great post! We are considering visiting in the next year or two. I’d love to see reviews of the rooms/villas and restaurant reviews.

  13. Julie Ann says:

    After reading your post on renting DVC points a few months back, we booked Aulani for our first DVC stay to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary this fall with a 3 day stop for our first trip to Disneyland on the way back.(Was not able to book DVC rental at GC and paid more for a pool view at Disneyland Hotel than our ocean view studio at Aulani). Looking forward to more reviews and photos of the restaurants and activities at Aulani as well as offsite activities. Keep the Aulani posts coming!

    • Tom Bricker says:

      That sounds like it’s going to be an incredible 30th anniversary trip. Please report back on how you enjoyed it! :)

  14. Heath says:

    My wife grew up in Hawaii and we’ve visited twice. Our most recent trip was this past February. We priced out Aulani and we’re non-DVC so our choices were to rent points for a villa or book a rack rate hotel room. Either way it was too much. We ended up staying at the iconic Hilton Hawaiian Village on Waikiki Beach, which was not quite what we’d hoped for. Waikiki is definitely worth a visit for a first timer, but we find it way too urban to truly be enjoyable. Sure you can walk to lots of things, but there’s a lot of traffic and a lot of shopping that we can do at home. We don’t plan to stay in that area again.

    Being Disney fans, we wanted to at least visit Aulani for the day while in Oahu. We booked lunch reservations at Ama Ama, and ate an amazing meal overlooking the lagoon- actually one of the better meals we had on our trip! We spent an hour or two exploring the public areas of the resort, but in our experience, the resort staff was on the lookout for non-guests. Despite our Disney attire and the fact that we had a one-year old, when we took a seat at an empty lounge chair while waiting for our table, we were approached in less than two minutes and asked if we were hotel guests! (Hotel guests get wristbands like at SAB and there are people looking for them!)

    While they will allow you to park for free (with validation at the restaurant) and enjoy restaurants and gift shops, resort hopping to Aulani is nothing like resort hopping at WDW! If you’re not a paying guest, you’re not setting foot near most of the amenities. We had planned to walk down to the beach, but to get back to the resort it was keycard access, so we didn’t end up doing that.

    That being said, the grounds are beautiful and relaxing- very reminiscent of Animal Kingdom Lodge. It truly felt like “vacation.”

    One other note- as has been noted, Aulani is pretty far from many tourist areas and is pretty remote. At least when we were there, it also seemed to be hotter on this part of the island. While the temperatures in Waikiki were closer to the mid-70s the whole trip, our few hours at Aulani were closer to the mid-80s. Not a huge difference, but noticeable.

    From what we saw, we are definitely considering Aulani for a future Hawaii vacation.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Interesting about the staff and wristbands. Maybe it was because we were there during slow season, but we often didn’t have wristbands at the pool (we only got them when we finally picked up towels) and no one ever said anything to us.

      Good to know that our experience wasn’t the norm–thanks for sharing.

  15. jennifer says:

    So thrilled to read about your trip to Aulani! I visited last March with my husband and 4 year old daughter. We have a favorite spot on Maui we visit every few years but after our week at Aulani we may be giving it up for Disneys Hawaii. I really am not a fan of Oahu my least favorite island but Disneys Aulani is so fantastic we may have to change islands, atleast till we get enough of the Aulani. Disney did an amazing job and put my two favorite places together,Disney and Hawaii,so it is about perfect in my book. Restaurants are mediocre but other ones walking distance are fabulous especially Roys across the street! We love the beach and pools but most of all the ability to swim all day and then listen to some of the best live Hawaiian music every night. Each evening the hotel brings different performers in from all parts of the island and by the end of the week you have heard some of the best Hawaiian music ever! Their free Hawaiian show is also amazing. For some its a long way to travel, but we feel its really worth it, and definately as enjoyable as a Disney cruise. For all those Disney world vets, this is a nice mellow change of pace and as always Disney does it so well!

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I didn’t mention it in this article (that’ll be coming in the entertainment one), but I totally agree about the Hawaiian music being amazing! Such great performers.

      If you don’t mind, what do you recommend on Maui (both for things to do and the favorite spot to stay?). Any other restaurants besides Roy’s near Aulani that you recommend? Thanks in advance!

      • James A. says:

        Hey Tom I thought I would comment on this one since when we were there we tried to make a point to try as many “local” places as we can.

        Sushi Bay
        One of my favorite places on the trip was about 5min drive down H1 Called Sushi Bay. It is a conveyor belt sushi place. That looks like a little hole in the wall(in a little strip mall), but everything was very fresh and tasted amazing. I tried “The Don” which is a very large bowl of rice topped with tuna and spicy tuna that I could not finish myself and it only costed about $8.00. It was the freshest best tasting tuna I have ever tried.

        Highway Inn
        Heard about this one on Dinners Drive-in’s and Dives. We wanted a place to try the traditional “Plate Lunch” and this place was recommended. It was a very nice plate and very tasty.

      • Tom Bricker says:

        Awesome–thank you for sharing these!!! :)

  16. Chris says:

    So cool that you guys were here recently. I live about 15 minutes away from Aulani. We’ve been meaning to stay there for a weekend, but even the kama’aina rates are a bit much for us.

    Did you and Sarah try any plate lunches from anywhere on the island? Good eats for a good price. Especially from the lunch (food) trucks.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      We didn’t eat anywhere *good* outside of Aulani. Basically just one place near Pearl Harbor, and that definitely doesn’t bear mentioning. Next time we want to explore some of the near-to-Aulani off-site dining options so we can recommend our favorites of those. If you have any we should try, please share them!

      • Rob Stevens says:

        Oahu is small, so everything is “Near to Aulani.” 😉

        That said, the drive along the North Shore has some amazing shrimp trucks, several of which are highly recommended. I stopped at Giovanni’s, and had some incredibly spicy shrimp.

        In downtown Honolulu, Helena’s Hawaiian Food is a little hole in the wall joint, and you know it’s good as the place is always packed with locals. I chatted with Helena on our last trip … or I should say, she talked my ear off about her new great granddaughter, who she was very proud of. The food came out fast, and was incredibly good.

        Lastly, while the Dole Plantation is a total tourist trap, it’s fun to stop and get a Dole Whip for that Disney-esque experience. I got mine in a plastic souvenir pineapple that doubles as a piggy bank.

  17. jennifer says:

    Sorry for the delay in reply. We always stay at the Mauian Hotel on Napili bay. Its very simple but clean and newly renovated our room is always about 6 ft from the sand.Please read the reviews on Tripadvisor most feels its Maui’s best kept secret. Also we usually never pay more the 250 anight and they have special lowe prices in May and September. When we first visited Maui we did all the tourist things drive to Hana Biking down from the volcano, but now we spend our days swimming and evenings visiting our fave restaurants. Mama’s Fishhouse is the most romantic and beautiful restaurant in the world,and I have been around. Its worth a trip to Maui just for dinner and I can’t say that about to many places! At the Aulani we dined everyday at Roys had dinner across the street at the front restaurant in the shopping center, can’t remember the name but it was good. We also had a local hawaiian plate from bbq place in shopping center and it was also good. Most local food in Hawaii is always superior to standard hotel fare. Though we did enjoy the small plates at Aulani’s bar while listening to all the great music!

  18. Jay says:

    I was there this past December for the first week of a two week stay on the Islands (our second trip to Hawaii). We were there just before the holiday crowds started. Surprisingly, my wife enjoyed the resort so much, she did not want to leave. It’s not that she just wanted to stay longer. Once there, she lost interest in further exploring Oahu (not even to walk across the street for Dole Whip). If I knew that was going to happen, I would not have rented a car. Our experience was that the resorts on the Mainland have a great deal to learn from Aulani,from the level of service on up (that said, quick service dining is quick service dining no matter where you are). Having previously been to Waikiki, I would recommend staying elsewhere, even if it is no at Aulani. I would disagree that this is an “odd duck” compared to other Disney Resorts. DVC does have two other resorts not attached to the park. That said, the naming of the resort does set forth some differences. That is, look at how other resorts are named: “Disney Vero Beach Resort,” “Disney Hilton Head Island Resort,” “Disney’s Grand Floridan Resort and Spa,” etc. This is “Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa.” There is an intentional change in emphasis to put forth Hawaiian culture first, and Disney second (part of the battles/debates/discussions Disney had when putting this concept forward). And yes, it is expensive (but so is Hawaii, in general, and this is Disney). Can wait to read the rest of your review.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      While we haven’t done Vero Beach or Hilton Head, my understanding is that they don’t offer quite the ‘all-inclusive’ type experience as Aulani. Could be wrong, on that, though.

      Great point about the naming difference–I do think that little ‘detail’ alone speaks volumes about the direction of Aulani.

      • Jodi says:

        We have been to Vero Beach 2 times & it sounds like it is very much like Aulani. However, they do not have as many eateries so unless you want to eat at the same places over & over again, you are forced to eat outside of the resort. There are plenty of local places to go to eat (chains & local restaurants). So maybe not as exclusive (most likely not). They have key access to the beach & pool – and they check! Also, there are many activities to do as well that will keep you & your family busy. I did feel that the resort was over priced but I rented DVC points to stay there while visiting my grandmother who lived less than 5 miles away. It is also only 1.5 hours from WDW; we tacked 1 of our stays on the end of our WDW trip :)

        I am planning a trip to Aulani for 2016 either over the New Year or Spring Break. I need to do research so your reviews come in handy & are very timely! Gotta start saving! I know it’s going to be expensive to go to Hawaii alone!

  19. Bronwyn says:

    I stayed at AuLani for a week in January and regretted it from beginning to end. Not only was it insanely expensive the service offering was dreadful, we flew in late and couldn’t get room service, we couldn’t get transfers to other tourist spots and we couldn t even get a shower cap at $450 a night. The dining was woeful, the fast dining was like what I imagine a prison is like, lining up for ages, soggy paper plates and a choice of coffe or juice (not both) on the breakfast menu. The whole place is a cynical grab for cash. Take a disney cruise instead, you will love it.

  20. Jay says:

    Your assumptions about the Veto Beach and Hilton Head resorts are correct, it is a very different experience. My wife and I enjoyed both resorts (we’ve been to Veto Beach three times), but Aulani is a whole othereexperience. Several cast members pointed out the name difference,as well as the emphasis of Hawaiian culture. The story behind the characters at the hotel is supposed to be that Mickey and company are also guests there. It was easy to believe when we saw Goofy playing in the lazy river.

  21. Karin J. says:

    Wow! Great review of Aulani. We just returned from a visit ourselves. We stayed there for part of our first trip to Hawaii in mid-May. I have been following your blog for several years now and was thinking for a while that you two needed to get out there so I could hear what you thought and see some amazing photos. So, thanks! We did love the resort as well. We rented DVC points to make it less expensive, as you suggested in your post. Loved that we had free parking with the rented points also. We also stayed in Waikiki for part of our trip, and while it was more convenient to some things we did – like hiking Diamondhead – we definitely preferred Aulani. Loved the music they play throughout the resort (available on itunes!) and the top-notch service. We also made a trip to the Big Island for two nights, focusing on the Volcanoes National Park area. Amazing! Well worth the extra time and expense. We have three boys and they will never forget it.

  22. Karin J. says:

    The restaurant Jennifer mentioned across the street from Aulani is Monkeypod, I believe. We ate there and loved it. Nice happy hour specials, too. Two other places we enjoyed were the Grass Skirt Grill on the North Shore (Haleiwa) and Leonard’s Bakery (truck between Aulani and airport or main location near Waikiki) for malasadas.

    Also wanted to add that we had a fairly rainy trip, but it seemed nice at Aulani most of the time. I believe that it is on the drier part of the island. Maybe hotter as was mentioned, but in May the drier was helpful to us. We loved the timing of our trip because of the low crowds you mentioned, but we did have rain at some inconvenient times unfortunately (like our last day when we wanted to enjoy the beach and eat at Duke’s Canoe Club in Waikiki, our luau, and during our visit to a black sand beach on Big Island). Oh, well. It was still an amazing time! We’d had snow at home just a couple weeks before our trip, so any Hawaii weather was better than our weather. Just not as sunny as we had expected…

  23. Jenny says:

    These are all great things but it’s interesting the things I felt we valued and liked the most may not have been mentioned….We have stayed only one night at aulani but the awesome thing was that they let us check in as early as 7am the day of our reservation to be able to start using the resort. We have family in honolulu so we thought we’d drive over and see aulani.. Well we ended up falling in love and booked a room for the following evening. They told us we could come at 7am the next morning so we did! We were even able to check into the room because it was low season. We did sunrise yoga on the beach at 7, then had breakfast then went for our pool wristbands. So great that we had two whole days to spend at the pool and were able to do both AM workouts that they offered. We had lowest rate with military id and local discount and still around $400…

    Lastly my fav fav thing is the spa. Even if we don’t stay at aulani we come to the spa when in Hawaii. I’m a spa snob.. Been to some of the best spas in the US and the level of service at laniwai still surpasses most in terms of attention to detail. I have a very detailed review on yelp (Jenny L from Albuquerque)…but basically they think of everything and more .. Heated scented neck pillows and three types of tea, homemade macaroons, jelly to awaken you after your massage,custom scented bath scrubs, plus the kinda cheese Hawaiian word that u take home on your bath salts.. Plus great services!
    So my two takeaways are arrive as early as possible and go to the spa…

    Now that we are dvc I look forward to some 2 night stays next time we are in Hawaii to get away from the in-laws!

    • Jenny says:

      Just realized “cheesey” autocorrected to cheese.. ^

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Good tip about check-in, and this is actually the standard at every Disney hotel we’ve visited. While your room won’t always be ready (it certainly helps if it’s low season), if the front desk is open, you can check-in and drop off your luggage.

      Great to hear that you enjoyed your stay at Aulani. My wife LOVED the spa, too. She’ll be posting on it fairly soon!

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  25. Mike says:

    We’re planning on staying at the Aulani for a week starting 12/17/14. We booked a 1 bedroom Villa. Is it going to be jam-packed? I know that’s the start of the busy season. After reading the blog my concern is obviously the chairs and being able to relax and enjoy Hawaii..



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  27. Piper says:

    Have you checked out The Big Island Revealed guide book? I found it to be invaluable for the Big Island. They make versions for the other islands, but their Big Island book was the first and was what created their following.

  28. Tobin Nelson says:

    Parking at the Aulani
    I will be there with my family for the week of Nov 9 th 2014. Is there any Disney Vacation Club members who would be willing to sponsor me for car parking for the week? It would really help out.

  29. Amanda says:

    We are heading to Alauni Feb 25th. What should we expect for weather? Are the 60 degree mornings and nights chilly? My 80 year old mother is going with and she gets cold easily. What is a recommended form of public transportation? We want to get around the island but are not renting a car.

  30. belle says:

    All of this sounds interesting and it might be nice but to be honest, I am NOT a Disney lover and the thought of Disney characters in Hawaii turns me OFF! Maybe I should just do the standard visit? It will be my first time in Hawaii.

    • Ellen says:

      There are tons of great hotels in Hawaii that provide a high level of service with no Disney. You may trade off that the kids programs are extra cost, and aren’t as robust. i’ve had the good fortune to travel to Hawaii several times, and been able to stay at lovely hotels that don’t do Disney. I would be hesitant to recommend Aulani to someone who isn’t in to Disney, just because there are so many other options across the islands.

  31. Ellen says:

    In regards to the price of Aulani, one thing families should take in to consideration is that the child program is included in the room rate. We recently stayed at the Hyatt on Kauai, which had a children’s program that was less robust than what it appears Disney is providing, for 80/day per child, no meals. We have two children and both my husband and I like to do a lot of water sports that are not amenable to children (my husband loves to open ocean SUP, I like to snorkel, etc) and having child care is HUGE. We are planning a fall trip, and my husband is planning several days of serious paddling. Being the primary parent who can drop the kids off for a few hours while I run, spa, snorkel etc, is huge to me, and well worth the gap in cost. Honestly, for the hotels in Hawaii that provide similar amenities, Aulani’s rack rate is not any worse, and may be better considering all the add ins. (Tho the parking is bananas, I’m not thinking about it….)

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