TouringPlans welcomes guest author May Flaum.
When I plan a vacation to Walt Disney World my desk is like a war room complete with plans of attack, alternate arrangements, current restaurant menus, and more. I build and optimize touring plans, I read blogs daily, and I love every planning minute of it. That said, sometimes it is wonderful to plan a trip quickly, easily, and without multiple notebooks and Excel spreadsheets.
If my budget isn’t tight and I get to pick said vacation? My pick is Disney’s Aulani on the island of Oahu. It really is an ideal vacation place for so many people of all ages – and perfect if you want a Disney fix but travel with someone who doesn’t love the parks. As someone who has been fortunate enough to visit the resort a few times, I’d like to share with you my strategies for planning a trip to Aulani.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: budget. There are a lot of ways you can flex the cost of an Aulani trip. But the bottom line is this: Hawaii is an expensive and popular high-demand destination. Take a look at airline routes, costs, and Aulani (and other hotel) rates to begin your planning process.
If you’re able to swing a trip to Oahu but not stay at Aulani, you still might want to visit for a half day. You can book the character breakfast, shop the gift shops, and walk through the resort, out to the lagoon, and around the Ko’olina resort area. Note that character meets other than at breakfast, as well as all amenities, pools, and slides are for the exclusive use of registered resort guests.
If only a short stay is possible, or if you want to explore more of Hawaii, then save Aulani for last. Visit other areas of Oahu or even other islands first while staying at a less expensive hotel, apartment rental, or time share. Then head up to Aulani first thing in the morning and check in. Your room likely won’t be ready, but bell services will store your bags, there is a lounge with shower you can access until your room is ready, and you’re able to use all amenities including pools and slides. You are able to utilize all resort amenities all day on both check in and check out day – use that to your advantage.
If the budget allows of course, my ultimate recommendation is to stay at Aulani for as long as you possibly can and simply enjoy all that this marvelous resort has to offer.
What to book in advance?
If you plan on touring the island then you’ll need to do some more homework. The good news is there is a lot of plentiful information on tours, sites, and more available when you arrive, and generally we were able to get the info we needed once in Hawaii and go from there. Specific to Aulani there is one thing I recommend specifically planning in advance: the character breakfast. It does fill up, and it is very popular, so I always book a day/time during my stay about two months prior to our visit. Most other planning is optional and would include:
- Dining reservations at ‘Ama ‘Ama (fine dining, serves all meals) or Makahiki dinner buffet
- Spa appointment(s)
- Signing kid(s) up for (extra $) dinner or lunch special event in kid’s club
- Dining reservations for popular off-site (walking distance) restaurants
- Luau (Paradise Cove is up the street, or Aulani also has their own Luau)
- Excursions and tours
- Car service transfer for airport/car rental
I have scheduled all of these things in advance but also seen availability day-of as well. Keep in mind last-minute changes or day-of availability is never guaranteed. Another activity that you might want to book is golf tee time, if interested in playing the Ko’Olina course.
Not to oversell this, but every time I arrive at Aulani my jaw drops and I get chills. It is so beautiful, and the lobby is a true work of art. We have always been greeted outside, and if you did online check-in you don’t have to stand in the line at the front desk either. The outside greeter for online check-in will have information ready for you right there.
With your bags stowed and resort map in hand, step forward and outside to the overlook of the resort and soak in the view. Then sit down and study the resort map – and take a walk around to get to know the resort. It pays to know where you’re going and the layout of Aulani before or right when you begin your visit, and sometimes you discover something you’d have otherwise missed.
What to do?
While a planner at heart I do enjoy the flexibility and minimal “must” planning of Aulani. I recommend browsing the daily ‘Iwa (schedule of activities) each evening (night before) or in the morning. Activities offered at no additional charge include:
- Walking tours
- View fish feeding
- Fire pit storytelling
- Character meets
- Animation classes
- Movie on the lawn night
- Exercise classes
- Pool party with mickey
- Ukulele lessons
- Kid’s club open house
There are more, and there are things you can participate in within a more flexible time block versus a specific time. Have something in mind that is a must do or a character you simply have to meet? Make time for it when you see it on the schedule! Not everything will be offered every day.
Want to know what the “usual” is each week at Aulani? Before your visit head to the Aulani website where you can view the activity schedule for today and the next week or so. This will give you an idea how often things are offered, and what things are weekly versus daily.
Where to sit?
Getting a prime pool or beach spot is easier than ever before – there were good spots available until well after 10 am most days. I take towels, a good book, and my morning coffee down and stake out a spot soon as I wake up. I love sitting and watching the island and resort come to life, as well as chatting with fellow early birds. Here are factors you will want to consider:
- The sun moves. This sounds silly but watch the afternoon sun on your first day – and know where the shade goes!
- Note if you have young children: There are two “zero entry” pool areas, a water fountain play area, and a water play structure all perfect for the little kids. There are also chairs near all these areas – I recommend planning to sit at one of those areas.
- You don’t always need a chair for everyone in your party. Usually 2-3 chairs for our party of 4 works great.
- Can’t find a pool chair? Check the beach.
- If your party is all 18+ there are also almost always shady spots to be found in the adult pool area.
- Consider the walkways and views. We avoid busier walkways and spots next to the eateries and pools in favor of lagoon or resort views in quieter spots.
Be sure to really look around because there are loads of areas and hidden gem spots where there are only a few chairs.
What to eat?
Over the years Aulani has really improved their food offerings and there is something for every taste bud and preference. Our personal Aulani favorites are:
- Appetizers (watch those happy hour specials!) at the ‘Olelo room
- Poke bowl (‘Ama ‘Ama or Ulu Café)
- Dole Whip plain or swirl (Ulu) or with a slushy drink (lil ‘Opihi’s)
- Makahiki Buffet (expensive, but man we do LOVE this buffet!)
- Coconut Shrimp (Mama’s Snack Shop)
- Pork or Shrimp Tacos (Off the Hook/Poolside dining)
- Pina Colada donut (Ulu Café)
- DVC member “off menu” cocktail (‘Olelo room)
We do tend to eat breakfast in the room with supplies from the grocery shop across the street, as well as get some to-go food from the various off-site eateries and sharing entrees at times too to help with cost. The good news is whether you want quick food or fine dining – it’ll be there for you to enjoy.
What to pack?
We pack real light and wash clothes if/as needed to avoid baggage fees, because most days it’s swimsuit and go! We re-wear our dinner outfits (since they only come out for a few hours at most!) and try to pack minimally. Our Aulani-specific packing items are the same for a trip to the beach- you’ll want sunscreen, hats, swimming goggles, and a good beach tote bag. Note that Aulani (at no cost!) offers life vests, boogie boards, and sand castle building toys to borrow/use for the day. That can save you a lot of packing space!
With room, airfare, transportation, and any extras booked – go and enjoy! You can get in depth with menus, spa options, extras (they have amazing in-room amenities you can order!), and many activity options online in advance, but it is totally optional.
As my husband says – the hardest part on a trip to Aulani is deciding what I’m going to eat that day, and whether I start with the lazy river, pool, or ocean. It really is a place to go unwind, relax, and enjoy the island.
When May Flaum is not working on a craft project (her day job), you can find her researching the next Disney vacation for her family. She loves Mickey-shaped desserts, Big Thunder Mountain, and sharing her adventures at www.adventurelandgirls.com.