09 Apr 2024

Disney Has a Resort in Hawaiʻi — and It's Just As Magical As You'd Expect

aulani hawaii

Source: travelandleisure.com

This Disney resort offers a world of magic without the theme parks.

In August 2011, Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, opened in the resort community of Ko Olina on the southwestern shore of Oʻahu. As a longtime Disney fan and Travel & Leisure’s resident theme park expert, I’ve been curious about this Hawaiian resort; after all, what would it be like to stay at a Disney resort without rushing off to theme parks each morning and seeing the fireworks every night? I found my answer during a family trip to Aulani this February.

Upon arrival, I spoke to Kama Hopkins, Aulani’s Hawaiian cultural advisor, about the relationship between Disney and Hawaiian culture, and he pointed out one fundamental commonality: “Both are storytellers. Disney is one of the most well-known storytellers there is. But for us, in Polynesia and through the Pacific, we like to say that we were people who didn’t have any written language, so we had to tell stories. We come from storytellers.”

At Aulani, storytelling is integrated into every design aspect, with thoughtfully created touchpoints for visitors to engage with Hawaiian history and culture. The resort has one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary Hawaiian art; a lounge celebrates ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, or the Hawaiian language; and architectural details, big and small, highlight the history and modern culture.

Immediately upon entering the lobby, guests are greeted with a 360-degree mural that depicts Hawaiian history from ancient to modern times and soaring archways that mimic the design of traditional Hawaiian canoes. The layout of the entire resort is inspired by the ahupuaʻa division of land that typically stretches from the mountains to the ocean, illustrated in water features, landscaping, rock work, and design as you walk from the lobby to the beach. Programming for all ages provides more ways to engage with the local culture; I spoke to youth activities manager Kanoa Kawai, who described the host of Hawaiian language-focused crafts and activities they offered for Hawaiian Language Month (February). “At least if they learn anything, they learn about aloha. They know how to share aloha and love with their family and friends,” said Kawai.

Of course, you can find Mickey and pals (plus some rare characters typically only found at the Asian Disney parks) at character meals and meet-and-greets, Disney music, and Minnie Mouse ears throughout the property, too. Aulani is genuinely packed with fun things to do for all ages, though it’s particularly great for families with young children, and we felt that after three nights, we’d barely scratched the surface of all there is to do and see within the resort.

Room at Aulani

The Rooms
At Aulani, accommodations are split into two general categories: traditional hotel-style rooms and suites and Disney Vacation Club villas. Hotel-style accommodations include standard two-queen or king rooms and one- and two-bedroom suites. Most of the resort’s accommodations are Disney Vacation Club villas, but don’t worry — you don’t have to be a member to book these rooms (more on that membership program below). One-, two-, and three-bedroom villas include separate bedrooms, full kitchens and dining areas, and a washer and dryer for home-like conveniences, while deluxe studios offer a more traditional hotel feel. We stayed in a one-bedroom villa, and we loved having more than 750 square feet to spread out, a full-size fridge to keep leftovers and snacks in, and a washer and dryer to do some laundry.

No matter what type of room you stay in, you can expect thoughtful, island-inspired designs with natural materials and Hawaiian art and decor. Like the rest of the property, you can find adorable Disney touches throughout the rooms — like a wooden ukelele-playing Mickey lamp — but the design focuses primarily on Hawaiian influences and the natural beauty of the area rather than the cartoon characters you’d find at many Disney theme park hotels. I highly recommend booking an oceanview room with a balcony (request a high floor if you can!) to enjoy the gorgeous nightly sunsets from your room.

Food at Aulani

Food and Drink
Aulani’s dining experiences range from multi-course dinners with sunset ocean views to quick-service Hawaiian poke. And Disney parks fans, take note: you can get the ever-popular Mickey waffles for breakfast at multiple locations, too. AMA‘AMA is an upscale open-air restaurant with a thatched roof and stunning sunset views, offering a four-course prix-fixe dinner featuring Hawaiian flavors and local ingredients. An optional wine pairing is also available. Makahiki is a lively restaurant themed to the Hawaiian celebration of the harvest, and it serves daily character breakfast with a prix-fixe menu featuring tasty dishes, including malasadas (Portuguese sugar donuts), kālua pig omelets, and pancakes with macadamia nut-vanilla sauce.

For dinner (sans characters), guests can pick from fresh salads, steaks, pasta, seafood, and more during a prix-fixe three-course meal. For a more casual dining experience, guests can stop by Off the Hook for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; I loved the ahi poke and crab cake BLT for a tasty poolside bite. The ‘Ōlelo Room serves up coffee and malasadas in the morning and transitions to a cocktail and sushi bar by night in a space that celebrates the Hawaiian language.

Ulu Cafe is a fast-casual spot for all-day dining and snacks; it’s the perfect spot to grab an acai bowl for breakfast, a poke bowl for lunch (I had both the classic and spicy tuna bowls multiple times, and they were delicious), and other grab-and-go items throughout the day. Ulu Cafe is also where you’ll find one of Aulani’s most sought-after snacks: the Mickey-shaped spam musubi. These sell out quickly, so grab one when you see it if you want to try one of the resort’s most popular snacks. (They even make Mickey musubi merch, available at the hotel’s gift shop.) Mama’s Snack Stop is another quick service stand serving classic poolside eats like chicken tenders and coconut shrimp.

And you can’t visit Aulani without getting the iconic Mickey-shaped shave ice from Pāpālua Shave Ice or a fresh fruit Dole Whip sundae with watermelon or pineapple from Little ‘Opihis by the beach.

All these delicious things considered, the resort’s best dining experience isn’t found at a restaurant. The KA WAʻA lū‘au is a must-do when you visit Aulani. The three-hour experience includes pre-show demonstrations, where you can learn about taro pounding, ukulele playing, traditional tattoos, and more, followed by a buffet dinner featuring tasty seafood, prime rib, and plenty of macaroni salad. The lū‘au performance is truly incredible, with singing, dancing, and storytelling all about Hawaiian culture and history. While Mickey and Minnie make an appearance, the lū‘au is centered around the incredible beauty of the culture and the people.

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Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa
92-1185 Aliinui Dr, Kapolei, HI 96707
For Room Reservations Contact +18 (664) 434-763
Visit: disneyaulani.com
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