We are parents in our 40’s with two teenage boys. We have travelled with our kids since they were small. We are lucky in that our boys have the same flare for travel and adventurous cuisine that we do. When they were very young, most of our vacations were short trips to the beach or down to Disneyworld due to convenience. As the kids got older and out of diapers, we took several very memorable trips with them. In our second post with this theme we will discuss a trip we took to Hawaii when the boys were 7 and 9.
My wife and I had wanted to go to Hawaii for several years, but as with our prior post about Alaska were waiting for the boys to be old enough to handle the 12 hour flight and also enjoy and remember the trip. We are Disney Vacation Club Members (DVC) and purchased points at Aulani on the island of Oahu in anticipation of this trip. Aulani is located in a more arid area of the island where they get approximately 20-30 inches of rain per year. June through September are the driest months, but rainfall, like many other tropical areas, can be unpredictable. We took our trip in early August, and the weather was beautiful for the whole trip. It is on the other side of Pearl Harbor from Honolulu and is an approximately 35 minute drive from the airport.
The resort is located across from a small shopping center and parts of Ko Olina golf course. It is built with many rooms facing the internal courtyard and the beach giving almost all rooms facing that direction gorgeous views of the resort and beach. When one arrives at the resort, in true Disney fashion, you enter a magical place full of traditional Hawaii art and architecture. You are met with flower or Kukui nut leis and enter a grand foyer with an open feel. The resort has Disney touches but they are not overwhelming.
The rooms are amazingly appointed, and we stayed in an ocean view deluxe studio with a queen sleeper sofa and a queen bed, a small refrigerator, microwave, toaster and a coffee maker. Aulani also has larger rooms with 1, 2 and 3 bedroom suites, but honestly, the four of us fit nicely in the studio room. The room is also full of Disney details — from Mickey surfboard lamps to Disney-themed Hawaiian art, and of course, all of the conveniences that Disney is known to offer. As it’s Hawaii, most of your time is spent outside, but the room was plenty big enough to accommodate naps and downtime as well. The fridge is also nice to fill with drinks and leftovers as it can be a cost savings, especially with the shopping center with store and restaurants across the street.
As far as experiences and amenities go, there are quite a few. Below, we will discuss what to do, what to see, and where to eat.
Aulani features so many great activities and adventures, but we will highlight a number we did.
One of our kids’ favorites was Aunty’s Beach House. For anyone who has done a Disney Cruise, think Oceaneer’s Club and Lab. It’s called Aunty’s Beach House because Aunty and Uncle are terms of endearment for men and women and that is because in Hawaii everyone is related by their experience. This place was great, and the kids loved to go there to experience the different activities. The most sought-after activities, though free, “sell” out early, so if possible one parent should stand in line early to make sure your kids get at least one of their best experiences, like the comedy show. This created great memories for my kids and allowed us adults to have some time alone to enjoy more adult areas and experiences the resort offers.
They also have a large pool complex called the Waikolohe Stream and pool. Waikolohe means “mischievous water” in the Hawaiian language and it has something for everyone. There is a Lazy River (perhaps the laziest we have ever been on). Just hop in the tube and let it carry you along a stream with details reflecting Oʻahu. There are also two exciting slides. The first, Volcanic Vertical is a body slide that we found to be the more extreme of the two adventures. The second, Tubestone Curl, is an open air tube slide for 1-2 guests.
I’m sure no one is surprised that being a Disney resort they have their own artificial snorkel lagoon right in the middle of the property. We skipped this experience, as we took our own snorkel gear and explored opportunities around the island that were natural, including the Marriott lagoon next door which is home to a sea turtle. (All beaches in Hawaii are public so you can enjoy any of the resort beaches). But for those less experienced, or that want to have some great snorkeling minutes from their room, Rainbow Reef is the ticket. It’s a 3,800-square-foot saltwater lagoon that is home to thousands of tropical fish, including butterflyfish, angelfish, surgeonfish and tangs. Hidden in the reef are also some Menehune statues for a little extra Disney flare and a viewing window for those who want to see the reef without getting wet. Children ages 11 and under must be accompanied by an adult.
For those who are musically inclined, or just want to learn something new, they have a free class to learn to play the ‘ukulele. My kids loved this, and I was amazed at how quickly the instructors got us playing. My oldest played so much he gave himself an ‘ukelele blister on his thumb, but to this day we own ‘ukelele and he still pops it out and plays it from time to time. It’s a very popular class, so be sure to check the Daily ‘Iwa (the newsletter with activities they put out each day) and sign up quickly as its well worth it.
For the young at heart, there is also a free hunt and puzzle (similar idea to Mickey’s Detective Agency activity of the Disney Fantasy and Dream) where you work together or separately to solve riddles, and search for statues along the Menehune Adventure Trail. Check out your tablet at the Pau Hana community center and you are ready to begin. Solving a clue makes the scenery come to life, and you learn about the Menehune—the legendary “little people” of Hawai‘i who are known for their magical powers and mischief. The Menehune are said to be gifted—possibly magical—craftspeople that are capable of mighty feats of construction overnight. It was a lot of fun and we completed it over an hour or so. Definitely a great way to kill some time and have fun as a family while waiting for a reservation, etc.
One night we took part in the ‘Imi Loa Nāa Hōkū (Explore the Stars) Adventure. It has a cost associated, but was well worth it. You learn how ancient Polynesian voyagers navigated to Hawai‘i using the stars as a guide. They bring local experts and powerful telescopes on to the property. We saw the International Space Station, the rings of Saturn, and learned about many constellations and important waypoints in the sky for early explorers. The kids enjoyed it, and they definitely keep it moving to allow kids of all ages to stay interested.
One of our favorite experiences was the Mo‘olelo Fire Pit Storytelling. The fire pit, which is in a prime location where you can see and hear the ocean, features Uncle several nights a week where he entertains the audience with Hawaiian legends and lore. You will see Uncle at many events around the property and he is truly a master storyteller. We think we enjoyed this as much or more than the kids.
The resort also has specific activities for older kids, breaking them up into a 10-12 years old group and a 13-17 years old group. There is also a shack called Makiki Joe’s with a wide selection of beach essentials. Many items are complimentary for Aulani Resort Guests, including Boogie boards, sand toys, and life jackets. You can also rent snorkel sets and stand up paddle boards there as well.
Other activities we enjoyed were family beach games (which we won, just as an aside), but I skinned my knee sliding in the sand to garner the win so maybe we broke even. We also made an outrigger canoe and raced it in the ocean versus other families but we did not win that competition. Last, but not least, for the adults, there is a world class spa, Laniwa, with treatments for men, women, and couples and an over 21 pool.
Places to Eat
There are several restaurants/quick service places to eat at the resort and all of them are great. We also went to Roy’s at Ko Olina golf course for lunch and to a place called Monkeypod across the street from the resort for dinner. Both were fantastic but we’ll focus on the good eats on the resort.
One night we went to the KA WA‘A Luau experience. This is a great way to learn and experience Hawaiian traditions, including traditional arts such as flower arranging and paʻi ai taro pounding, Lū‘au introduction, and oli welcome. The experience lasts about 2 hours and includes a three-course plated dinner featuring fresh local produce, island fish and many other Hawaiian favorites, plus kid-friendly selections and a decadent trio of desserts. The night ends with a Lū‘au performance and some expert ‘ukelele playing. Overall, it’s a must do in our opinion.
Another excellent venue to eat at is O’Lelo, a bar next to Makahiki. O’Lelo is the Hawaiian word for “word,” or “to converse” and the lounge is set up as a place for people to share an appetizer and have a conversation about the adventures they had that day. Overall, the food and drinks here are great and its definitely a place to experience at least once while you are there.
Makahiki —The Bounty of the Islands is a casual, family-friendly, preset 3-course dinner featuring fresh, local ingredients and chef-inspired dishes. It’s a nice place to eat and some nights they have a family buffet and some friends come around to entertain the kids while they eat. If your kids aren’t big eaters, this is one you could skip, as the food here, though good, wasn’t as good as the next restaurant.
‘AMA ‘AMA is set in the most beautiful location on the property where you have beautiful views of the ocean and can feel the nice island breeze as you enjoy contemporary twists on classic Hawaiian dishes, with locally sourced ingredients. Our kids are adventurous eaters and this was the best place we ate all week.
Other great lunch locations were the Off the Hook Bar, Ulu Café (quick service), and the Wailana pool bar. These were great spots in and around the pool to grab a quick bite and for those who want a cold dessert, Pāpālua Shave Ice is the place to visit.
You can rent a car on site and pick it up and drop it off right in the garage on Disney property so you can explore the island.
We had made reservations before we left to go surfing one day. We chose West Oahu SUP and it was a great choice. We can’t say enough about the service and care they showed our whole family. By 30 minutes into it, we were all surfing. We had 3 instructors for the 4 of us, so the attention was beyond individualized. An instructor surfed with our boys until they got the hang of it and even got the boys to hang 10 on the board at the same time. What a great experience.
We rented a Mustang convertible one day as well, and drove the whole island. We stopped at a shrimp shack along the road for a quick snack and visited some of the sites. One stop was at the Dole Plantation. Originally operated as a fruit stand, the Dole Plantation opened to the public in 1989. The Dole Plantation is now one of Oahu’s most popular visitor attractions with more than one million visitors a year. There are many things to do there, including the Pineapple Express Train Tour, the staple of the visit, which we did. There is also the Plantation Garden Tour and the Pineapple Garden Maze, which we did not take the time to do as we wanted to see the whole island. There is a store there and if you’re hungry for something extra tasty, they sell the world-famous DoleWhip® right there.
Next stop was North Beach, and it’s said that if the perfect wave exists, you will find it here. Your first stop along the North Shore will be the charming surf town of Haleiwa which is filled with local style, country ambiance, surf shops and boutiques. One of the most well known spots is Waimea Bay Beach Park which is a great spot to stop and get your feet wet. The waves are huge here in the winter, but in the summer when we were there, they were just large (6-8 feet). This was the perfect amount of excitement for the family to body surf a couple waves and dry off before heading down the road to Waimaea Falls and Botanical Gardens where we took a swim at the base of the falls. Then it was on to the windward side of the island.
A trip to the Windward Coast reveals the slower-paced side of Oahu, and some of the most stunning natural beauty anywhere in all of Hawaii. Driving along the two-lane highway you can’t miss Mokolii, the tiny island fondly known as “Chinaman’s Hat.” We stopped here and took a few pictures, and as the day was getting late, didn’t spend too much time before heading through the Koolau Mountain Range tunnel back toward the resort. For those with the time and the gumption, the island is accessible during low tide, it is possible to walk right over, though most people who go there come with a kayak, surfboard or small boat. Just keep an eye on the tidal chart. Once on the island, which has sea caves and two small beaches you can climb up to the top for a stunning view of the majestic Koolau Mountains and the windward coast.
One of the most remarkable things on the island is the massive change in vegetation from the areas near the mountains, especially on the windward side which is truly lush and tropical, and the leeward side of the island which is almost like a desert climate certain times of the year.
Though the resort is spectacular, we very much recommend taking the time to explore the island at least a little. All the beaches in Hawaii are public so even the beach at the resort and the local military base is public. So feel free to stop almost anywhere and enjoy the beach, the scenery, and a swim.
We loved our time at Aulani, but all good things must come to an end. We stopped over at Disneyland on the way back for 3 days to get in some extra family fun and also break up 3 hours of the 6 hour time difference for us, as we live on the East Coast. We stayed at the Grand Californian and it was amazing. We will discuss Disneyland and the hotels and parks there in a different post but needless to say it was a great way to end the trip.
What made this trip great:
- There were planned and unplanned experiences that kept everyone interested and added to the adventure.
- Aulani was an amazing place to stay and exceeded our expectations. The people were amazingly friendly and truly made you feel like part of the family. From aloha to aloha we felt at ease and relaxed. The culture is truly amazing and the luau was a great introduction.
- The room accommodations were spectacular and the activities well run and had something available for everyone — from the stargazing to beach games, to learning and succeeding at playing the ‘ukulele, it was nonstop fun.
- The food was great both on and off the resort, and the close proximity to Monkeypod and the grocery store made everything so easy.
- The ability to rent a car on the spur of the moment right on the resort was also key, as we had not planned to do as much off the resort, but that convenience allowed us to make changes at the last of moment.
- The surf lessons with West Oahu SUP were the adventure of the trip for us all.
What do we wish we had done that we didn’t: wish we had spent an extra couple days and went to Volcano National Park on the island of Hawaii. Besides that, we think for the time and budget we hit this one out of the park.
Was this truly kid appropriate and kid approved: Definitely. The kids still remember much of this vacation and honestly we would all love to be able to go back and experience it with teens. 7 and 9 were just about the perfect age for what we did. I think the perfect age for this trip is 7-11 with an appreciation range of 6-13.