Aulani Resort & Spa: The Super-Post

Today, I'm excited to talk all about my recent trip to Oahu, Hawai'i! To start, I want to talk about the place that was "home" for a week: Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa. My parents are Disney Vacation Club members, so when DVC opened a resort in Hawai'i in August 2011, we were all ecstatic to come out and see it. We were blown away by every detail, and it became obvious that we'd be coming here again and again and again. This year, in town for the Pro Bowl once again, we had my 5 year old nephew with us! We really had a chance to experience the resort with a kid-friendly perspective in mind and to see how it caters to a big family made up of different ages.

When you arrive, the lobby is breathtaking. Many resorts on the island (especially in Waikiki) greet its guests with a sleek and modern lobby. Aulani is much more rustic and pays homage to ancient Hawaiian culture. A cool, island breeze whisks in through all of the opened, floor-to-ceiling doors and just invites you to make yourself comfortable.

If you venture past the lobby, you'll come to what is essentially an enormous lanai. This terrace/lounge area overlooks Waikolohe Valley, a mixture of pools and beautiful landscape nestled between the resort's two towers.

One of my favorite parts about arriving at Aulani was that cast members greet you with a smile and a "Welcome home!" Anyone who has ever stepped foot on a Disney property knows just how much they pay attention to detail. Fresh and aromatic leis, necklaces, and refreshing beverages...We even received a limited edition Aulani pin at check-in and a piece of art in our villa. These last two "e komo mai", or "welcome", gifts were due to the expansion construction being underway. (If you're planning on visiting soon, the expansion is expected to be finished by Summer.)

We booked a 2-bedroom villa for our stay. While it can technically fit up to 9 people, our group of 6 was quite comfortable. For a full list of what each villa includes, click here. What really stood out to me was all of the storage space (i.e. roomy closets and a nifty hideaway spot for luggage) and the extra half-bathroom. (When you have a large group with multiple women, an extra bathroom is a godsend.)

In addition to the two bedrooms, the living room sofa converts into a queen-size bed and either the lounge chair or the entertainment center (it varies in different villas) converts into a twin-size bed for one. The chair/pull-out bed, though, seems best suited for a young teen or small child, as modeled by my nephew Jon. :)

My favorite part? The kitchen, of course. It comes equipped with stainless-steel appliances, including a dishwasher, stove-oven combo, and large refrigerator. The cabinets are stocked with the usual timeshare amenities, from pots and pans, to plates and utensils. I loved the fact that the kitchen had a rice cooker! (Next to the kitchen is a closet, where the full-sized washer & dryer are.)

Most Disney fans are aware of the "hidden Mickeys" that are scattered throughout the theme parks and hotels. This tradition definitely continues at Aulani. Seat cushions, bed comforters, carpeting...Just simple, subtle touches here and there. (Check out the surfing Mickey that only shows up when the lamp is on!) The Disney brand, however, still takes a backseat to Hawaiian culture, with carved-wood features, unique artwork on the walls, and even the use of stone poi pounders as lamps. All of the rooms are beautifully designed with a perfect blend of Disney magic and island flare.

Our villa was facing the mountains and the Halawai Lawn, which was ideal for listening to the Starlit Hui from our balcony and for catching the sunrise every morning. (Note: This is what we got for booking a "Island-Gardens" view.)

One morning, we decided to order from the Private Dining menu. Jon wanted to have breakfast on the balcony, and I wasn't about to argue with him. (Smart kid.)

He ordered Chocolate-chip Mickey Mouse waffles. Recognizing them as something he usually only gets at Disneyland, he was extremely excited for these waffles. You can also order them with fresh berries or bananas. Yet another simple touch of Disney magic! 

And me? I couldn't resist the island-style french toast! It. Was. Amazing. This french toast was the kind of decadent breakfast you look for when you're on vacation. The "haupia" sweet bread has a crisp coconut coating and is filled with chocolate, peanut butter, and sliced bananas. This dessert-posing-as-breakfast comes with a chocolate milk dipping sauce, as well. (I didn't have any because Jon took it for his waffles, so...)

Most days, though, we just cooked breakfast ourselves. There may be the dilemma of "I don't want to cook when I'm on vacation" for some people, but... My mom and I are not one of these people. If there's a kitchen, you can be sure that we will use it! It can be an advantage when you have a larger group, instead of going out for meals all the time. Also, being on a tropical island, you can explore different markets, bring home that fresh produce, and create your own delicious meals! (More on this later, actually...)

Then, when we finally got out of the villa, there was plenty to do. For starters, meeting characters! There may not be a theme park in Hawai'i, but the inclusion of these beloved characters was fun and exciting for the whole family.

Mickey & Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Chip & Dale are all featured, and it wouldn't be right unless they had Stitch. (But where's Lilo???) Aulani does a great job of rotating them every hour, so guests have a chance to meet as many as possible in one day. They even stay in the same spot, so they're easy to find. (*For the super-planner in all of us, the front desk has copies of a daily schedule with specific times.)

Next, we had to explore the resort's Waikolohe Valley. Resort guests are required to check-in at the tents next to Menehune Bridge (the play area for kids). After receiving our colored wristbands indicating we are, in fact, guests and all the towels that we needed, we were free to wander around. Parents can also borrow, free of charge, a life vest for any little ones that need it.

An entrance to the lazy river, Waikolohe Stream, is right next to Menehune Bridge. My nephew loved, loved, loved tubing. (I love tubing, too.) The stream is less than 4' deep and drifts you along at a very relaxing pace.

Well...that is...until you get to the "Creepy Cave", as Jon likes to call it. You don't speed up or anything like that, but as you travel through the cavern, water rushes down the walls and cascades from the ceiling. The water underneath you also bubbles rapidly, as if a volcano is about to erupt!

The main, lagoon-shaped pool has plenty of room to move around and even a zero-depth entry point. No steps. Just walk right in like you're at the beach. It should go without saying, but... A little note: This pool is meant for families with children. It's never deeper than about 4 feet. In the afternoons, there are "Pool Parties" that include music, games, and Disney characters.

(In the photo on the left, you can see a part of the "Volcano Vertical" water slide in the background. I still haven't had the chance to go on it, but I've heard it's a popular feature!)

Now, stay with me here, we're not done yet. If a member of your group isn't comfortable snorkeling in the open sea or you want a little one to be in a more contained environment, Aulani has its own Rainbow Reef. This private reef has no tide to worry about, is filled with plenty of colorful fish to gaze upon, and has a lifeguard on duty.

This last activity that I'm going to talk about actually closed when the expansion construction began, but I still think it's worth mentioning. Aulani used to have an interactive sting ray experience at the Makai Preserve, across from Rainbow Reef. With a small group, I got into the water with the sting rays and had the opportunity to feel their "wings" and feed them. The trainers were friendly, extremely informative, and ready for any question. When I went back for a photo with them after the experience was done, they invited me to get back in by myself and feed the other rays!! It was an awesome experience (feeling a sting ray brush up against you is pretty awesome, right?) and I hope Disney brings it back in the future!

When you want to take a break from the Valley and have a nice treat to wind down, Papalua Shave Ice is the best solution. I love that Aulani incorporated its own shave ice stand into the resort. Shave ice can literally be found all over the Hawaiian islands. Here, they let you pick up to 3 flavors and add ice cream or a "snow cap" of sweetened condensed milk. Jon bought one. Every. Day.

Finally, the beach. The thing I love about the lagoons in Ko Olina is how secluded they are. Although they're still technically open to the public, the beaches here are much quieter and calm, especially when compared to Waikiki. The next-door Ihilana Resort & Spa is the only hotel that shares a lagoon with Aulani. As for beach rentals, lounge chairs and umbrellas are complimentary to resort guests. The "casabellas", the wooden lounges with an expandable awning, can be rented for a half or full day and for an extra fee.

The boogie boards and sand toys are complimentary to resort guests, as well. This was perfect for Jon! In addition to all of that, snorkel sets, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards are available to rent for an extra fee. The rental and snack shack are conveniently located right next to each other on the beach.

Servers will also roam the beaches. They'll bring your tropical cocktails and meals right to your lounge chairs. I went with the Lilikoi (Passion Fruit) Mojito, a Pineapple Ginger Mist (made with pineapple vodka, ginger, and lychee) and a Turkey & Cheese Wrap. For sides, you can choose between a cup of fresh fruit or french fries. Everything was tasty and filling.

On a related note, if you take a break from swimming and order poolside, servers bring your food out in small bamboo steamers. Pretty adorable.

And, speaking of taking a break... These lounges outside the lobby are, hands down, the proverbial "best seats in the house". They are so comfy. You can sit here, look out over the valley, and enjoy the soothing sounds of the water fountains. Jon and I loved coming down here at night, when they had the tiki torches fired up and live music played from The Olelo Room. It was a great spot to lay back and relax...and play around on our Kindles...

Jon's other favorite spot to end the day was at the fire pit, just a few steps down from the pool. Here, a storyteller plays the ukulele or tells old legends that teach kids about Hawai'i and the ocean. Jon had a blast listening, jumping in to answer questions, and laughing along with all of the other kids.

Afterwards, we'd watch the sunset. (Tip: The infinity-edge whirlpool spas are an amazing spot to watch the sunset.) It's the perfect way to end a pool-lazy-river-beach-and-snorkeling-filled day. You can even order cocktails and small bites at the nearby Off the Hook bar & lounge. (Five words: Build Your Own Seafood Platter.)

I've spent a combined 14 days at this resort, and I still haven't experienced everything. The character breakfast at Makahiki, Disney movie nights on the Halawai Lawn...a massage at the Laniwai Spa...I still have so much to cross off my to-do list! Aulani is a gorgeous and fun-filled resort that kids and adults can enjoy together. It's luxurious-yet-homey and a great place to experience Hawai'i. If you're looking for a resort for your next family vacation or you're a DVC member, I would absolutely recommend Aulani! :)