If you’ve so much as seen a commercial for Disney’s Aulani resort on Oahu, there’s a good chance you’ve daydreamed about lounging by the pool while friendly lifeguards stand guard.
But then you wonder: Are there princesses around every corner? Are there Disneyland-like lines? And does everything cost extra?
The short answer? No, to all of the above. Aulani is a luxury resort that’s extremely kid-friendly, but you won’t find any rides or princesses. There are waterslides and character meet-and-greets, but there’s no charge and very little wait time for either. And refreshingly, almost every activity is free, which can help reduce the sticker shock of the daily room rate.
It’s not in-your-face Disney
I was a little concerned about the Disney factor. On one hand, Disney is known for its excellent customer service. On the other, Disney is known for intense branding, long lines, and, sometimes, over-sugared kids who turn villainous. We didn’t experience that at Aulani. Instead, the focus of the hotel is on Hawaiian culture, and it has one of the largest private collections of contemporary Hawaiian art in the world.
The customer service was excellent. At arrival, we were greeted with ice-cold citrus water and a gift — a lei for me, kukui nut necklaces for my husband, and a necklace with a Hawaiian figure on it for my daughter.
Plenty to do for free
At most resorts, there are alluring fitness classes, kids’ activities and movies — for an extra fee. At Aulani, I was shocked by how many free activities they had each day. To find out the details, pick up a copy of the ‘Iwa, or daily schedule, the previous night after 6 pm in the lobby.
The free activities on our stay included TRX workouts on the beach, movies under the stars, character meet-and-greets, kids “surf” lessons, hula lessons, sunset photography trips, and story time around the fire pit.
They also have free drop-in childcare for children ages 3 and up. The programming there is excellent, including science experiments, craft hours, dramatic play and more. The location is central and spectacularly clean with tons of friendly staff members. And there were so many free things to do, we spent very little money during our trip.
Timing is everything
When we checked in, we learned that our free “breakfast” credit that came with our room rate could be used any time of day in select locations. The breakfast lines were usually very long, so we opted to have breakfast in our room. Our standard room had a small refrigerator, water kettle and coffee maker, which meant we could have oatmeal or cereal with coffee, then hit the pool early. We typically used our free meal (which included coffee, soda, milk or water) at the poolside café for lunch or dinner instead.
Another issue with timing: child care. We noticed long lines for the free child care area right when it opened and before popular sign-up activities. By hitting the pool as a family early instead of heading straight to child care, we cut down on waiting-in-line time.
Keep an eye on promotional deals and book a package
Speaking of timing, being flexible on dates can reduce the cost of the trip dramatically. When I planned our trip, I searched for packages online that included airfare and hotel stay. Hawaiian and Alaska airlines both listed similarly priced packages, so I called both. The Alaska airlines agent worked with me for 45 minutes to find the best combination of dates (along with how to use our limited points most effectively for tickets) to help us book the most affordable trip. That one phone call saved us hundreds of dollars.
You don’t need a rental
Another thing that saved us money: We didn’t need a car while we were there. Aulani has a fixed-rate cab service agreement to and from the airport, so for this trip we opted to save the $35 a day parking fee.
There’s a grocery store and several restaurants just a short walk down the street for daily supplies and souvenirs, and plenty of fine dining options at Aulani and other resorts in walking distance. For day trips, there’s a car rental desk at Aulani.
Before you go
On our last morning at Aulani, I started planning our next visit. I’m not alone: We met dozens of parents who either return to Aulani year after year or have gone on Disney cruises or stayed at other Disney resorts. The fan base has spawned web sites devoted entirely to the ins and outs of each property. Spending a little time digging around on those sites can save both money and precious vacation time.