Immersed in aloha at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa

|
Hanging loose in the Rainbow Reef, the resort's artificial saltwater lagoon, which has an area with glass panels for capturing Instagram-worthy shots.
Hanging loose in the Rainbow Reef, the resort's artificial saltwater lagoon, which has an area with glass panels for capturing Instagram-worthy shots. Photo Credit: Hector Fadraga

The water was a little cold for Mom's taste, but the kids -- in floatation vests and snorkel gear -- waded right in with the confidence of eager, pint-size aquanauts. And why not? The water was crystal clear, the current nonexistent and the prospects of spotting colorful fish were guaranteed.

This is because we were diving into Rainbow Reef, the artificial saltwater lagoon at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, which we visited on a four-night hosted stay in late November.

We had tried snorkeling as a family before, on a cruise excursion, but most of that outing was spent helping our kids, now 8 and 10, stay afloat and get water out of their masks. Our Rainbow Reef experience was much more rewarding -- and emblematic of our entire stay at the Ko Olina resort, every aspect of which was designed to help families craft lasting memories with as little stress as possible.

The lobby at the Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa makes an impression.
The lobby at the Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa makes an impression. Photo Credit: Hector Fadraga

Making a grand entrance

Arriving at Aulani is like arriving on Oahu all over again, thanks to its epic, airy lobby. The central area is ringed with a high mural depicting the cultural history of the Islands from before European contact to the present. And two statues, one representing masculinity and the other femininity, stand sentry at either side.

This design dichotomy is carried on in the two corridors leading to the resort's two towers, with murals depicting the goddess Pele and her favorite sister at the end of one hallway and the male gods Kanaloa and Kane at the end of the other.

Disney consulted with cultural advisors during Aulani's design, and touches of Native Hawaiian history and culture are everywhere. Yet the numerous artworks also connect to the present.

For example, the "Rainbow Wall" behind the front desk was created by students from across Hawaii who submitted photos each focusing on a single color.

The Waikolohe main pool area at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa features slides, hot tubs, a lazy river and several pools.
The Waikolohe main pool area at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa features slides, hot tubs, a lazy river and several pools. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Disney

Water, water everywhere

After settling in, we whiled away the afternoon in the pool area with light snacks and runs on the slides woven through the central "volcano" in the Waikolohe main pool area. A trip down the lazy river was a refreshing idyll, with birdsong and strains of ukulele wafting in the breeze and the occasional jet of water to cool us off. (Be sure to be on the lookout for carved animals on the rock walls and statues of Menehune, mythological little people said to be expert builders and crafters.)

The resort's pools are some of the most well-integrated and thoughtful I've come across at any resort. In addition to the main pool and the Rainbow Reef, there's the Ka Maka Grotto with its piped-in whale sounds and the Wailana Pool tucked in behind one of the towers and designed to deliver a quieter experience.

For the littlest guests, there's the Keiki Cove Splash Zone and the Menehune Bridge water play area with slides and plenty of hidden Menehune to spot. Four whirlpool spas (including one for adults only that overlooks the beach) complete the waterworks. That is, on land.

The beach offers more to experience, with complimentary boogie boards and life jackets for resort guests and snorkel sets available for $25 per day for adults and $20 per day for children that can also be used in Rainbow Reef. (Length-of-stay snorkeling passes are also available at $45 for adults and $35 for children.) We took out two paddleboards ($45 per hour each), with one parent and kid on each. Like the artificial reef, it was a low-stakes adventure that yielded a sense of accomplishment and some laughs (depending on who was attempting to stand).

Choosing colorful charms for a Mickey ears craft at the resort's Pau Hana Room.
Choosing colorful charms for a Mickey ears craft at the resort's Pau Hana Room. Photo Credit: Hector Fadraga

The family that crafts together

The next day kicked off with a delightful family bonding activity in the Pau Hana Room, a gathering space for arts and crafts, movies, activities, video games and board games. There we worked with hot glue guns to decorate Mickey ears with string lights, charms and flowers. Since our visit came just after Thanksgiving, our ears took a decidedly Christmasy look.

The Pau Hana Room is also the place to start the interactive Menehune Adventure Trail, a sort of scavenger hunt that takes youngsters on a search for the carved mythological beings that dot the resort. The indoor version of the trail is perfect for the odd rainy afternoon on Ko Olina.

Next, the kids visited Aunty's Beach House for Kakamora Chaos with Moana, one of the premium activities available for a fee at the otherwise free kids club. Aunty's is split into spaces for different activities, including crafting, video games, a movie room and a shaded backyard. It got four thumbs up from my two kids.

The Aunty's experience has changed from prepandemic times, with the drop-off kids club for children ages 4 to 12 becoming more structured. Parents are now required to reserve 1.5- or 2-hour play periods on an Aulani website.
Advisors should be sure to get their clients registered for Aunty's ahead of time. As with many activities at Aulani, spots fill up fast.

Ama Ama, the resort's signature restaurant delivers expansive views of Ko Olina lagoon and stunning sunsets.
Ama Ama, the resort's signature restaurant delivers expansive views of Ko Olina lagoon and stunning sunsets. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Disney

What else is new?

Another place that has seen changes since the pandemic is the resort's signature Ama Ama restaurant, which underwent a full renovation with a decor inspired by marine life and traditional Hawaiian fish baskets. The last bit of the resort to reopen, doing so in October, Ama Ama still delivers expansive views of Ko Olina lagoon and stunning sunsets, but it no longer serves breakfast and lunch.

Our four-course tasting menu with paired wines was a feast for the senses, while the kids enjoyed a three-course keiki (children's) menu with fun touches like a Mickey-eared musubi starter.

Another of Aulani's restaurants also emerged from the pandemic era slightly transformed. The family-friendly restaurant, Makahiki, was a buffet before. Now, guests should expect a three-course meal. The restaurant, which takes its name and decor from the ancient Hawaiian new year festival, is home to the resort's popular Character Breakfast, which we enjoyed on Day 4.

After family photos with Mickey and Minnie, we feasted on mouse-eared waffles and loco moco (rice and a burger drenched in brown gravy and topped with eggs). Chip and Dale came over for tableside photo-ops, and Dad got to show he knew something about a Disney character the kids didn't. (Dale is the one with the red nose.)

The Ka Waa luau is a feast for the senses.
The Ka Waa luau is a feast for the senses. Photo Credit: Hector Fadraga

Loving the luau 

Our final night at Aulani closed with the resort's spectacular Ka Waa luau. Before the show, guests can try a selection of hands-on cultural activities, including pounding taro into poi, getting temporary tattoos, crafting flower leis and playing the ukulele. 

The performance itself takes the form of a buffet feast, where the guests are hosted by a very talented family of storytellers who regale them with tales and songs about the mythological and historical origins of Ko Olina and Hawaii. Lights, sound and special effects create a truly immersive experience that had us all entranced -- even our children, who can scarcely get through a meal without a screen in front of them.

As for the food, Aulani's attention to the needs of families is carried over here, with the kids receiving a bento box rather than parents having to make multiple trips to the buffet to figure out what they might eat. The bento box included the requisite Disney touch -- a Mickey-eared marshmallow -- but also mac and cheese, veggies, braised pork and a mini-cupcake.

Meanwhile, the adults feasted on a wide selection of Hawaiian dishes, including ahi poke, lomi lomi salmon, poi, teriyaki chicken, guava cake and macadamia brownies.

As is the case with Aunty's Beach House, the luau fills up fast, particularly since it's also open to nonresort guests. Reservations should be made as soon as possible after booking a stay. 

Comments

From Our Partners


From Our Partners

Exclusive Experiences with AmaWaterways
Exclusive Experiences with AmaWaterways
Register Now
The Luxury Advisor
The Luxury Advisor
Read More
Your insider’s guide to Margaritaville Island Reserve, Margaritaville St. Somewhere, and Margaritaville Beach Resort Ambergris Caye
Your insider’s guide to Margaritaville Island Reserve, Margaritaville St. Somewhere, and Margaritaville Beach Resort Ambergris Caye
Register Now

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI