Aulani Disney’s Hawaii Resort Trip Report – Part 1

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Disney is like a drug. With all drugs, it always starts out innocently (well, relatively speaking) enough. In the case of that innocent start with Disney, it’s usually opting to purchase an Annual Pass instead of a 7-day ticket and then scheduling your annual trips to fall within 11 months of one another rather than a full year apart. That’s the gateway drug, so to speak, and 12 months later you have a moment of clarity where you look back and find you took 4 trips that you justified with that Annual Pass. The good thing, in the case of Disney, is that while this drug costs money like all the rest, that’s the only adverse effect to the ‘happiness high.’ (Well, unless you are addicted to Disney Turkey Legs, in which case there are other negative side effects, but still, Disney is a good drug as compared to the rest.)

Like with any addicts, we always find an innocent excuse to take our Disney addiction further. (I should be abundantly clear–this is all metaphor, we aren’t addicted to any other drugs besides Disney.) In this case, that excuse was that one of our friends told us that he was taking his grandpa to Aulani to celebrate his birthday, and offered us a stay in his room. With this on the table, we fell over ourselves finding ways to justify the exorbitant costs of airfare, food, rental cars, etc. For us, it quickly became a case of “we can’t afford not to do this!” Whether you’re in as deep as a pin collector who easily justifies buying that 1,453rd pin or simply someone who justifies buying a cupcake despite being full because it’s brand new and you have to try it, I’m sure fellow Disney fans understand what I’m saying.

I’ll be blunt: before our visit here, Aulani didn’t have much appeal for me. I’ve been to Hawaii before, and while I wanted to go back, I figured Disney wouldn’t compete with the myriad of real-world resort brands on Oahu. I know this seems harsh given that Disney does some amazing things with the parks, but I think when it comes to the resort hotels, Disney has fallen behind the pack of the world-class brands. At Walt Disney World, Disney has the advantage of location, so there’s really not such a “need” to keep up with the competition. In Hawaii, where most of the top tier hospitality chains have a flagship location, Disney wouldn’t have that proximity to theme parks as an advantage, and would have to run with the big dogs.

I figured we would make a trip to Aulani eventually, but probably as a day-visit while staying elsewhere on Oahu just to check out the resort. After hearing fairly mixed reviews about Aulani and many complaints about pricing and food quality, and how the Disney Vacation Club side of the resort had seriously botched the annual dues, I thought that Aulani was going to have serious issues. (Spoiler alert: all of my preconceptions were totally wrong.)

Even prior to committing to this trip, I did a lot of research about saving money at Aulani, and discovered that there were other restaurants nearby and a grocery store within walking distance of the resort. Although we wouldn’t have to pay for the room, we wanted to keep the costs of the trip down, especially if the food at Aulani would be an overpriced disappointment. We also found really good deals for airfare out of Indianapolis, so it seemed like–as far as trips to Hawaii go–this wouldn’t be too much of a financial stretch.

So, we agreed to go…

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Although it was on the long side, the flight to Aulani wasn’t bad. From the East Coast, most flights to Hawaii are probably going to have a layover in Los Angeles or some other West Coast city, which breaks up the flight nicely. The ability to watch (free!) movies or television shows on the flight across the Pacific really makes that leg go quickly. So, if you’ve ever been apprehensive about taking a long haul flight, it’s really not nearly as bad as it seems. The approach to Hawaii was picturesque. I didn’t get any good DSLR photos of our arrival, but I clandestinely took the shot above with my iPhone.

We landed in Hawaii mid-afternoon, took a shuttle over to the rental car place and were on our way to Aulani. This is another thing I had researched prior to the trip, as I was hoping not to rent a car, but the public transportation options out to Ko Olina seemed like a real hassle.

After checking in at the resort, we went up to our 1-Bedroom Villa in the Disney Vacation Club wing. I’ve already done an Aulani 1-Bedroom Villa Review that includes a lot of photos of the room, so I’ll just share a couple here.

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Here’s the kitchen…

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Despite us being the free-riders in the room, our friend let us stay in the bedroom. I don’t think our friend wanted to cuddle up with his grandpa.

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The main living room. The couch becomes a bed and the area in the other direction pulls out to be a bed.

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Doors in both the living room and bedroom opened to a large balcony with this view.

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Here’s another confession of a Disney addict: I haven’t bought shampoo in the last 5+ years. Every day we stay at a Disney hotel, I snatch up all of the toiletries so housekeeping replenishes them, and then repeat the process the next day. Don’t judge me…I’m betting more than half of those reading are nodding their heads in agreement. So you folks judging are in the minority! 😉

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We were starving after the flight, so we quickly headed down to Off the Hook Bar for quick drinks and light snacks before heading out to get groceries.

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More drinks…

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Fruity drinks are not my alcohol of choice, but I figured ‘when in Rome…’

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Perhaps it was just because we were so hungry, or perhaps things have changed since Aulani first opened, but all the food we had at Off the Hook Bar was excellent.

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Or, perhaps all of the alcohol “enhanced” the flavors.

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The sushi was probably the least impressive appetizer, but even it was good.

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Drinks + sliders + Hawaii = recipe for a good time. These were really, really good.

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I’ve found that having a few drinks in the parks often “enhances” my photographic creativity, but the problem is that it does the exact opposite with my technical knowledge. There have been a few times where I’ve reviewed my photos from the World Showcase where I’ve shot some really cool perspectives, but the photos are totally unusable because my settings made no sense. ISO 2000 at f/4 for 30 seconds while shooting on a tripod? Really?!

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In this case, I only had one of those fruity drinks, so I was good to go.

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I am awful at photographing flowers–I really should have rented a macro lens for the trip, as there were some beautiful flowers all around Aulani.

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With a treasure trove of details all around the resort, there is no shortage of subjects at Aulani for photographers.

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Disney characters are infused throughout Aulani to give it a “Disney” feel, but the overriding tone of Aulani is of Hawaiian history and culture. I was really impressed by the restraint.

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After eating, we headed up to the room to settle. Since our food was so good at the bar, and because it “made sense” to keep eating at Aulani restaurants so I could do reviews, we decided to try at least another meal at Aulani before doing the grocery thing. See…more justification for our Disney addiction!

Also, I stepped outside the balcony and saw a nice sunset brewing, which I wanted to photograph at the resort, not as some random strip mall.

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The clouds were really dramatic, so in editing my photos from that evening, I tried to keep that tropical moodiness to them, rather than over-brightening the shadows (as I often do). I really like the way the lady at the edge of the pool in the shot above just seems mesmerized by that sky.

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I didn’t have a chance to properly explore the resort before sunset, so I was running around like a madman trying to find good vantage points to shoot the sunset. The top of the water slide seemed like a good vantage. Not only was it not (see above), but I also got some odd looks as I ran up the steps of the slide, fully clothed, carrying a bunch of camera gear.

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Finally, I ran to the vacant lawn on the far side of Aulani and shot back at the hotel with those dramatic clouds overhead.

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While I was running around, I stopped briefly to snap a shot of the actual sunset over the ocean. There were tons of guests standing on the beach shooting this with cameras ranging from iPhones to DSLRs.

My tip for the day is to not focus on this photo of the ocean; not just at Aulani, either. This type of water-in-the-foreground, sunset-in-the-distance photo is by far the most common type of ocean photo you’ll see, and aside capturing the mood of the sunset, it’s pretty lacking. Everything is flat in the distance, there’s no context as to where it was taken, and it’s pretty much interchangeable with any other ocean sunset photo ever taken. Instead of getting a shot like this, move back or shoot from an angle to put something unique to your location in the frame.

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As the sunset light was fading from ground level, I ran back to our room to see if there was any good lingering light from a higher vantage.

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I then headed back down to do some blue hour shooting with my tripod. These lights would become a popular photo subject for me, and are one of my favorite things about Aulani. I’ll discuss them in more detail later, because it wouldn’t be a Bricker trip report if I didn’t endlessly obsess over lighting! 😉

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The first Hawaiian sunset we experienced was pretty nice, but for me, blue hour was the “magic” time at Aulani. Then, the lights came on around the resort, illuminating everything from the trees to the lazy river, and the blue of the sky nicely complemented the orange of resort lighting.

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I am a total sucker for lighting. I am drawn to it like a raccoon is to shiny objects. We got this cheap mood lighting bar from IKEA to put behind our television, and I have to admit that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time entranced by it. It’s the simple things in life…

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I ran all around the resort looking for cool angles. This was out by the parking garage.

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Then I went to the road and I saw it. The greatest tree ever. “The Dreaming Tree.” I don’t think that’s the tree’s official name, but I couldn’t find its actual name online, so I’ve taken to calling it that. When I saw this tree, I was instantly reminded of a Joe Rohde lecture about Aulani during which he discussed how a “name dreamer” was brought in to come up with the name “Aulani” and other inspiration for the resort.

This tree looked gorgeous in the blue hour light with the resort behind it and those beautiful lights hanging from its branches. Like the human raccoon that I am, I stood there by the edge of the road, awestruck for way too long. I’m probably lucky I wasn’t so overwhelmed by the awesomeness of this tree that I collapsed and stumbled into the road. I can see the next day’s newsstory now: “Idiot Tourist Stares at Random Tree Too Long, Inexplicably Falls into Road.”

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Speaking of lighting, the lights in the lazy river were also pretty spectacular.

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I am a lazy river aficionado, and lazy rivers that have cool lighting combine two of my passions (re-reading that sentence, I realize just how ridiculously uncool I sound…oh well).

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Unfortunately, Aulani’s lazy river closed a little less than an hour after sunset. Unlike some pools that “close” at a certain hour at Walt Disney World, but are really just unattended, this pool had a firm, enforced closing time. I learned this later in the night after changing into my swimsuit trying to get in some late night lazy river time.

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After taking way too many photos of that lazy river (I’ll spare you the rest), I decided to head over to the main pool, where there was a great view back at the hotel with stars overhead. I think this is a scene that really encapsulates some of the great things about Aulani. You’re away from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach so you can actually see the stars while swimming in this warm, island paradise.

I’m not totally satisfied with this photo, and I wanted to retake it after adjusting my angle and settings. However, after I set up in this spot–when no one was on this side of the pool–a couple swam up and sat right under my camera. This was no problem for me, as I could easily clone them out, but about halfway into my exposure, they turned around and gave me a dirty look, as if I just showed up and started taking pictures of them in their swimsuits. Nevermind that I was using a wide angle lens so it’s not as if I was zoomed in on them in their bathing suits…or that they came up to me…but I opted to move on without retaking the photo. I had a few more nights of tripod-photography ahead of me, and I didn’t want to potentially draw the ire of security early on.

This is one thing about taking photos around pools or water parks with a DSLR. No matter how careful you are or innocuous your photo subject, there is a 99.9% chance that you will somehow come across to someone as doing something creepy. That’s simply the nature of the beast when you have a big camera and they are in swimsuits. You can’t really blame people for not liking it.

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From there, I headed over to the koi pond to do a bit more shooting. I figured koi wouldn’t be creeped out by me taking photos in their swimming pool, and even if they were, they were stupid fish who couldn’t verbalize any such complaints. Take that, fish!

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While I was shooting there, our friend who was down at the bar saw me and called me over. Instead of going for the fruity stuff, I ordered my drink of choice, a Manhattan, and enjoyed the live band play a mix of authentic Hawaiian music and Disney songs with a Hawaiian twist.

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We also got some Kalua Pork Nachos. Relaxing there in the warm weather under the stars with a drink and nachos in hand while listening to live music was one of those almost-perfectly relaxing moments that I never wanted end. The only thing that would have made it better was if I were sitting in a raft on the lazy river during the moment, but I’m pretty sure they would have frowned upon me taking the drink and nachos into the lazy river, so I guess this was perfect in a different way.

It was a great way to end that first day in Aulani, and although I had only seen a little of the resort and didn’t really have a chance to let much soak in as I was running around most of the afternoon and evening trying to get photos, I was already starting to fall in love with Aulani, and it was obvious that my preconceptions about Aulani were totally wrong…

We’ll pick up there in Part 2.

If you are interested in seeing more of my best Aulani photos, check out my  Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa Photo Gallery.

If you are planning a trip to Disney’s Aulani Resort & Spa in Hawaii, we highly recommend reading our Aulani – A Disney Resort & Spa Trip Planning Guide for comprehensive advice for Aulani and beyond!

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Your Thoughts…

Have you been to Aulani? Agree or disagree with my initial take? Do you have a Disney “addiction” that has impacted your life? 😉 Interested in visiting Aulani? Anything about Aulani that you’d like to see addressed in this trip report or future posts? Please share them in the comments below!


39 Responses to “Aulani Disney’s Hawaii Resort Trip Report – Part 1”
  1. Beth June 5, 2016
  2. Deb May 7, 2016
  3. Beth April 27, 2016

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