The new Aulani Resort and Spa in Ko Olina, Hawaii, is Disney's first dive into a full, stand-alone resort without a theme park nearby to keep guests busy. Yes, you'll still find Mickey, Minnie, Stitch and Goofy, but no attractions, snazzy stage shows or booming fireworks. So, with none of the usual "Disney" activities to keep your family busy, what can families expect when visiting Aulani?
"Our hope is that families will go beyond what their expectations are for a Hawaiian vacation and find more," Tom Staggs, President of Disney Parks and Resorts, told me on my recent visit. The resort, from the magnificent open-air lobby to the protected lagoon, has been designed with families in mind.
Disney was smart in their approach to this new venture borrowing many of the elements that work well for traveling families from their wildly successful Disney Cruise Line. Top on that list of clever ideas is the Daily 'Iwa, which is just like the Daily Navigator you'll find on Disney cruises. A new one left in your room nightly, it provides families with a specific itinerary of the next day's events, like where to find characters, craft activities or special exercise programs.
Another feature at Aulani that's lifted straight from the decks of the cruise line is their model of complimentary childcare. I can hardly bring myself to call it "childcare" because it's so beyond the notion babysitting children. Aunty's Beach House is modeled after the Oceaneer's Club on the cruise line, but I'd note at Aunty's the experience is more intimate and homey. From what I hear, kids tell their parents they have to go say goodbye to Aunty and Uncle before they leave the resort for home.
"We are hoping families take a different look at Disney. We want to create the kind of vacations families are looking for," said Staggs, a father of three boys himself who spent time with them at Aulani before our interview. "We've geared it so there's something for everyone in the family."
Here is a quick hit of just some of the many family activities available at the Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa.
Aunty's Beach House: At Aunty's Beach House kids are securely checked in and brought into Aunty and Uncle's house to play dress-up, do crafts in Uncle's garage, romp outside on the expansive green grass lawn or in treehouses, and listen to Aunty tell stories and sing songs. They can even eat a meal with their new friends for a small fee ($12).
Waikolohe Stream: The stream winds through Waikolohe Valley and I'd say the most beautiful and creative "lazy river" you'll ever experience. Not only do you feel like you're floating through a lush tropical garden, but Walt Disney Imagineers have thought to carve animals in the lava rock along the way. Every trip through the stream will surprise and delight kids.
Menehune Bridge: The Menehune are Hawaiian mythical creatures who come to life at night to create mischief. Aunty describes them as "Hawaiian elves." Even though they're rascals, they are industrious little guys and one night they built the Menehune Bridge inside the Waikolohe Valley.
Pool areas: The pool area offers a beach-like side for little kids and then scrolls around the lower part of the Waikolohe Valley with lots of twists and turns. Also in the pool area you'll find a Hawaiian shaved ice, the Lava Shack– for snacks and refills on soda–and two of the resort's jacuzzis.
Rainbow Reef: For a small additional fee kids and adults can snorkel in a 3,800 feet water wonderland. I hadn't ever done anything like snorkeling in my life and took to it like…dare I say, a fish to water (sorry!), and spent a good half hour splashing around with tropical fish and a few undersea Menehune. There's also a lookout at poolside in case you don't want to brave the cold waters of the reef.
Starlight Hui: Steeped in Hawaiian tradition this hui isn't like anything you've seen in Hawaii. The evening starts with kids participating in making Hawaiian crafts. Then the show which includes both traditional and contemporary hulas along with the ukulele innovator "Heart and Soul." These two guys will change the way you think of the ukulele FOREVER. The evening ends with a Character Dance party (READ Mickey and Minnie grooving on the beach with the kids).
Here is my video of Heart & Soul from one of the first Starlight Hui's. These guys are phenomenal.
Lagoon/Beach: Guests at Aulani can enjoy the benefits of the protected lagoon that is connected to the resort. Families will love that there are no waves–thanks to the natural rock breakers–so little ones can splash away at the shoreline and older kids can enjoy paddle boarding and swimming out the the rafts placed in the middle of the bay.
Aunty's Breakfast Celebration (Character Breakfast): Offered a few times a week at the Makahiki restaurant. Aunty hosts the interactive fun inviting kids to join in the dance line and sing along to Hawaiian songs. Served buffet-style breakfast offers what you'd expect from a Disney kitchen–Mickey Mouse waffles–but also has some Hawaiian specialties liked baked fish and fresh tropical fruit.
Menehune Adventure Trail: Pick up your Adventure Trail iTouch at the Pau Hana Room. Aunty will show kids where to go using maps and clues she'll give you in a video from her store. The young explorers will make rocks move, drums play and trees light up when they follow Aunty's directions. Every adventure is different so kids will not have the same experience twice.
Disney has packed Aulani with family activities keeping in mind all families are different. Some like to just kick it on the beach all day and some like adventure and lots of activity. The Daily 'Iwa really comes in handy when you're a family like ours that likes to pick and choose what we're going to do that day, depending on our mood and energy levels.
There's so much more to Aulani than I covered here, so look out for more mosts from me this next week. All the photos posted here are taken by me. For more photos, check out my Flickr photostream, here.