Is The Disney Aulani Resort Worth It? And 9 Tips For Maximizing An Aulani Resort Vacation

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This November, we took the girls (ages 8 and 1) on their first trip to Hawaii. Lana’s been asking to go for years, and Chris and I have both been a few times, but not since our first babymoon. Technically, we’d booked this exact trip last year but canceled the week of when we all came down with, well…everything. I couldn’t fathom leaving my bed, let alone packing for a weeklong trip and getting us all onto an airplane (and I guarantee no one on the plane would have wanted us there, either).

It just wasn’t in the cards.

Disney Aulani Review: Is This Hawaiian Resort Worth It? (Spoiler Alert: Yes! But…)

Fortunately, this year’s trip turned out to be an absolute dream vacation — one that we’re already tempted to repeat annually, and I’m confident the biggest factor in its massive success was our specific destination: The Disney Aulani Resort on Oahu.

There are loads of blog posts out there outlining the ins and outs of the Aulani and ultimately attempting to answer the all-important question: Is The Disney Aulani Worth It?

But here’s the thing: while those posts are undoubtedly excellent for SEO (I mean, I found them while searching for just such answers — and really, this is a bit of a kettle/pot situation, if we’re being honest), when it comes to the Worth It? thing, they’re all going to tell you the same thing I’ll say right up front:

It…depends.
Ughhh, annoying, I know.

I’m eventually going to use this post to quickly share a few insights that I couldn’t glean from my extensive deep dive of others’ travel posts related to the Aulani. Tips, for lack of better word, that I can vouch for firsthand.

But what I’ll tell you first with regard to the value is this: if you’ve got the budget to make it happen, the Disney Aulani is absolutely worth it. If it’s going to be an irresponsible splurge that you’ll be second guessing the whole time — well, you probably already know the answer. (To be clear, that’s not a dig at the Aulani, specifically. That’s just…fiscal responsibility.)

disney aulani review. hawaii travel tips with kids

I am admittedly not a hardcore Disney person, but just like almost every other experience bearing the Disney name, the vibe at the Aulani can only be described as, well, magic. I’ve never been surrounded by more families who are just straight up happy. Having the time of their lives.

Is it the most luxury resort on the beach? No. You can literally go next door to the Four Seasons for that (as pictured, above) –which is honestly probably about the same price.

But while I can almost guarantee that no one at the Disney Aulani is looking at the Four Seasons and thinking man, we should have stayed there, I can’t say the same for the reverse. Especially if you have kids. For me, that feels splurge-worthy.

9 (Validated!) Tips For Making The Most Of Your Disney Aulani Vacation

So, with that clear-as-mud nugget of wisdom out of the way, let’s assume you’ve already committed to the idea of the Aulani and talk about how to maximize your time there.

Here are a few things I can share after our family indulged in an 8-night stay at the Disney Aulani Resort:

1. Travel in the off-season.

disney aulani review. hawaii travel tips with kids

I know. Duh. And I realize this is a bit of a challenge with school schedules. But we went the first week of November, and not only were rates about 30% cheaper, but the weather was a gorgeously mild 80-degrees all week long. And while I wouldn’t necessarily call the resort sleepy, it was just buzzy enough. Lots of families for Lana to befriend at the pool, etc., but it was easy to get same-day reservations for resort activities and meals, and finding beach or pool chairs was never an issue.

2. Spring for the Villa.

The rate difference between a Room or Studio and a Villa is vast, but for me, there’s no way this vacation would have been as enjoyable with all of us sleeping in one shared space for more than a week.

We stayed in a One-Bedoom Villa, and Chris and I slept in the bedroom with Elle (age 1) in a pack n’ play (included in the villa), while Lana (age 8) slept on the twin Murphy bed in the living room. (There’s a queen pull-out couch, too.) Having the girls in separate areas was helpful since Lana stays up later than Elle (especially on vacation), and the separate bedroom gave Elle the opportunity to take long, jetlaggy naps while one of us worked or watched movies or made lunch (the other was usually at the pool or beach with Lana).

disney aulani review. hawaii travel tips with kids
second child just living her best vacation life

It’s worth noting: there’s a separate area for the soaking tub between the bathroom and the bedroom that can be closed off completely, so you could theoretically put a pack n’ play in this “room,” too, for greater privacy. We opted to put all of our luggage in this room and use it as a dressing room, of sorts, so that we didn’t have to go in and out of the bedroom to get ready or grab things while Elle was sleeping.

For us, the Villa was also a given since a kitchen is pretty much non-negotiable for family vacations longer than a night or two. With the exception of the Character Breakfast (more on that, below), we ate every breakfast in the hotel room. For an 8-night vacation, that not only saves a decent amount of money, but it also makes for much more leisurely mornings. We also used the kitchen for repurposing all manner of leftovers (Disney portions are generous), and having a dedicated dining area is always helpful with kiddos. The resort will also bring you a high chair upon request, which made meals with a toddler loads simpler. And the big table space was also great for playing, drawing, reading and hanging out.

3. Skip the $22 free-refills cup. Or don’t.

Every post I read online insisted that your first stop be to grab the $22 commemorative Aualani cup, which can be refilled with water, soda, juice and coffee for free throughout your stay. Cracker Jack! I thought. What a deal! I envisioned going full ham on vacation mode and indulging in poolside sodas and lemonades, nonstop.

disney aulani review. hawaii travel tips with kids

But here’s the thing. We’re a family that pretty much only drinks water. And even when I think I’m going to loosen the reins on vacation, I just can’t let my kids chase their shave ice and churros with Fanta. I can’t. And the majority of the time, they didn’t even want to.

Plus, since I’m kinda persnickety about my coffee and would rather spend $10 on a fancy frozen espresso thingie twice in one trip than drinking coffee coffee out of a plastic mug every day, we didn’t get much mileage out of that perk, either.

So we spent $22 on a plastic mug that we refilled with…water. Which is abundantly available for free (ice, too) for filling whatever water bottle you already brought from home.

Having said that: if you’re a regular drinker of soda, juice, and coffee (and don’t mind drinking the latter out of a plastic mug), this is undoubtedly a great deal. Or, heck, if you just want the mug, get the mug. But if you’re more of a Mostly Water Family, skip. The kid meals in the restaurants (and adult meals at Makahiki, the luau, etc.) include beverages, so you can get your fix that way.

4. Book the Character Breakfast. 

Since we’re not Serious Disney People, my kids weren’t particularly married to the idea of waiting in line for character meet n’ greets, which take place across through property throughout the day. (The characters with the longest lines were Mickey, Minnie and Duffy & Friends, which is a Disney character set spun off of Mickey’s teddy bear, Duffy, that is hugely popular in Asia.)

disney aulani review. hawaii travel tips with kids

That said, it wouldn’t have felt like a Disney vacation without at least a little character facetime, and everyone’s gotta eat, so we did the Character Breakfast the second morning we were there.

We took advantage of our jetlag and booked one of the first reservations of the morning, and it was an all-around awesome experience. It kicks off with photos with Mickey, then Minnie (the Disney Aulani staff are very cool about taking photos with your phone and are decidedly low-pressure when it comes to purchasing their photos) before you’re seated for a prix fixe meal and treated to visits from other characters while you dine. Stitch was a big hit with the girls, as was Max, and I was reminded, as I am with every Disney character experience, that the folks inside these costumes are extremely good sports.

Overall, it’s a somewhat pricey experience — $50 for adults, $29 for kids 9 and under, Elle ate off our plates for free — but worth it for the quintessential Disney vibes and genuinely good eats (I can vouch for both the kālua pig omelet and the loco moco). Plus, we took home enough leftovers for breakfast the following morning, too.

5. If you have a baby, set up camp near the splash pad.

The pool scene at the Disney Aulani is one to behold — multiple pools and hot tubs, a lazy river, two large water slides, a large splash zone-style play area with mini water slides for younger kids, and a baby splash pad. As such, there are loads of zones for lounging.

If you have a baby, or young kids that aren’t yet swimming, I highly recommend grabbing loungers by the baby splash pad. Not only is the area semi-enclosed (to be clear, there are no gates, but it’s surrounded by low walls with only two open entrance points), but it’s centrally located to a small bathroom and the Ulu Cafe where you can buy poke bowls, acai bowls, sandwiches, salads, fruit, snacks, hot entrees, kid meals, the iconic Mickey musubi — and there are fountains for refilling soda and ice/water, too.

We didn’t spend much time at our chairs*, so we weren’t concerned with trying to snag something with an ocean view, but this spot gave me tremendous peace of mind when we’d stop to rest, eat, or reapply sunscreen. I could easily keep an eye on Elle playing in the splash pad while Chris and I actually got to sit and even *gasp* have a drink, and since it tends to attract other families with littles, I wasn’t worried about her getting knocked around by rowdier big kids. It’s also on the (relative) quieter side, so if you’re intending to have babe nap poolside, it’s a great spot for that, too.

The only downside, perhaps, is that it doesn’t have great visibility of the other pools, so if you’re trying to keep an eye on older kiddos, you may have to accompany them to those attractions. Fortunately, Lana was super content taking breaks here between doing the water slides or the lazy river together, so it worked out perfectly for our family.

*The Disney Aulani pool chair policy is well-documented across the web, but in case this is your first stop, here’s the gist: you can reserve chairs before the pool area opens at 8am, but they need to be actively in use. After 8am, if your chairs appear unused after about an hour, an Aulani staff member will drape your towels over the back of your chairs. If another hour elapses without any activity, they’ll collect your belongings and free up the chairs for new guests. So if you return to your chairs and your towels have been neatly draped over the back, rustle ’em up to prove you’re still using them. We followed this protocol, checking our chairs periodically, and didn’t encounter an issue once, but it might be enforced more strictly during the busy season.

Ok, while we’re on the topic of the pool areas…

6. Get tomorrow’s pool wristband today.

That’s it. That’s the tip. If you happen to be in the pool area in the afternoon (there’s no distinct time, but we saw them handed out as early as 3pm), you can get the next day’s pool wristband, usually without any lines. You’ll still need to get towels at some point, but this way you can get right into the pool action the next day as your schedule allows.

7. If you do one paid resort activity, make The Ears.

This was such a fun activity, and you end up with a souvenir that’s not only totally fun to wear while you’re at the resort, but my girls have worn the heck out of them since we got home, too. Not to mention they’re gorgeous and so unique to the Aulani.

disney aulani review. hawaii travel tips with kids

It’s a good value for the quality of the experience and the product, too. You can choose from plain ears ($25) or lighted LED ears ($35 — which are extra fun to wear in the evening, if you’re doing a luau), and then you get to decorate them with bows, artificial plumeria, leaves and wooden trinkets.

Lana and I made the ears together one day while Elle was napping, and it was such a sweet little date. Randomly, it also introduced me to the idea of cordless mini glue guns! I now proudly own this one. Game-changing for simple crafts.

8. Make Time for the (Free!) Menehune Adventure Trail

Disney goes to great lengths to honor Hawaii and island culture throughout the resort, and one of the most whimsical ways they do it is through stories revolving around the Menehune. Legend says that the Menehune are shy, mischievous, and potentially magical craftspeople who can create great feats in short amounts of time, and evidence of the Menehune are scattered like Easter eggs throughout the resort.

The Menehune Adventure Trail is a scavenger hunt that interweaves stories of the menehune with tablet-activated features across the property. You can check out the tablet for free from the Pau Hana community center, one hour at a time, and if you don’t finish the hunt in one session, they’ll save your progress and you can return to it again throughout your stay.

The video clues can start to feel a little long at times, but they’re genuinely interesting, and it was the ideal activity for me and Lana (age 8) when we needed a break from the pool. The scavenger hunt really takes you back and forth across the resort’s main outdoor area, so it can take some time to get through it, but some of the interactive exhibits are especially novel and fun enough to repeat again and again.

Aside from the Adventure Trail, it’s worth asking staff members at the front desk if there are other fun Menehune finds around the property. We were clued into one as we were literally rolling our suitcases to checkout, and it felt like the perfect little parting gift. (I don’t want to spoil it, but take a peek into the keyhole of the upright chest across from the general store in the Aulani lobby, and you’ll see what I mean…)

9. Take advantage of the Ko Olina shopping center across the street. 

Again, this is talked about all over the web, but there’s an upscale (if tourist-driven) shopping center across the street from the Aulani that has everything you’d need in a pinch, plus some tasty eats and drinks if you want to mix up your resort dining experience.

Some of our faves from the Ko Olina Shopping Center:

  • mochi donuts at Island Country Markets, which is an expanded ABC Store (pictured above, offering everything you’d need from a convenience store plus beach toys and snorkels, loads of souvenirs, Hawaiian snacks and treats, basic groceries and prepared foods)
  • poke bowls at Tropic Poke;
  • acai bowls at Farm To Barn (our favorite was the hapa bowl, with a base of half acai and half vegan coconut sorbet — it might not be on the menu but can be requested);
  • mai tais at Monkeypod Kitchen

There’s also a Starbucks that got very busy at times but was worth it for a latte fix (everything but the frozen coffee drinks at the Aulani leave something to be desired). I ordered via the Starbucks app every time so I could skip the lines.


Ok gang, that’s it from me. As I write, I literally have a tab open exploring dates for next fall, so I think it’s fair to say, we’re official Disney Aulani fans now. If you’ve been, I’d love to hear your tips and takeaways, too. I can’t imagine we maxxed them all out on our first round.

xo!
Em

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