I have a lot of magical memories of Hawaii vacations I've taken over the years, but I'll have a hard time eclipsing the quiet bliss I found next to my 9-year-old son, Matthew, as we sat on the beach learning how to make leis.
The lei-making class was one of the myriad educational activities offered at Aulani, Disney's resort and timeshare property located in the southwest corner of Oahu, part of the 642-acre Ko Olina development.
Aulani, which recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, has undergone some small changes that have perfected this family-friendly getaway, including improvements to both the children's waterplay area and the adult pool as well as the addition of a luau, called Ka Wa'a.
As with many Hawaiian resorts, the property centers around an open-air lobby to take advantage of the ocean views. But here, guests get that along with a valley view.
The resort was designed with two wings that angle out and extend toward the ocean on both sides of the main building, creating an enclosed area that Disney calls the Waikolohe Valley.
Within Waikolohe, families have a bevy of options from which to choose: waterslides, a lazy river, restaurants, winding pathways and several pools, including the aforementioned children's and adult areas.
The beach surrounds a man-made lagoon, which is well-suited for families. Breakwalls are situated where the lagoon meets the ocean, stopping any swells from entering the shallow bay, and the gradually sloping, sandy bottom is great for beginner swimmers.
This lagoon, the westernmost of four such inlets in the Ko Olina development, is shared by Aulani and the Four Seasons next door, but it never felt even remotely crowded.
Aunty’s Beach House at Aulani, Disney’s resort located in Oahu’s Ko Olina development.
Beyond the expected
My family particularly enjoyed the Rainbow Reef, a private snorkeling lagoon that is also nestled in the valley.
The reef, stocked with thousands of tropical fish, is a saltwater experience where you feel as though you're swimming in a huge aquarium. This is one of the few areas in Aulani where there is an extra charge. You can either purchase a one-time entry or buy a pass good for the length of your stay.
Aunty's Beach House is the resort's supervised kids program, and children ages 3 to 12 are welcome daily from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Each morning from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., Aunty's has an open house, so the entire family can come see what the center is all about.
Participating kids wear a keiki band, which simplifies the check-in/checkout process for the parents and adds to the multiple security checks. As long as parents have a cellphone, they can leave the resort while their kids are checked into Aunty's, which is great if they want to golf or explore another part of Oahu on their own.
I was impressed by the diversity and scope of the areas and activities, such as Uncle's garage workshop and Aunty's dress-up area in the main house.
Aulani's spa, Laniwai, is the only spa that is both owned and operated by Disney, and it's well worth a visit. I think of spa time as adults only, but our visit there changed my outlook. My partner, son and I tried out the Ohana Family Treatment, and it was a lovely bonding experience.
A standard guestroom at the resort.
We were ushered into a large family suite, where we all enjoyed a back massage that incorporated the use of lomi lomi sticks, followed by a foot massage on the connected outdoor patio. Matthew was immediately hooked, and he's expressed interest in doing another treatment back home. Laniwai also has an entire teen spa area, called the Painted Sky, the only teen-oriented spa in Hawaii.
Food at the resort, while not inexpensive, was worth every penny. Our best meals were the character breakfast at Makahiki (Matthew wanted to come back every morning), which featured a bountiful buffet, and dinner at 'Ama'Ama, an oceanfront, table-service restaurant with a delightful assortment of fresh seafood, not to mention a pretty stunning sunset view.
I left Aulani with a real appreciation for how the resort approaches the Hawaiian culture. All the employees take this seriously, and were eager to talk about their own traditions as well as the stunning artwork in the public areas and the architecture of the complex.
Our taxi driver, a native Hawaiian, told us he felt it was one of the most authentically Hawaiian resorts in the whole state. From the firepit storytelling to the Menehune adventure trail (where kids rent consoles to help find these legendary little people) to the nighttime stargazing programs, we always felt that we were having vacation fun but also learning something new.