We recently returned from an incredible week at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, in Hawaii (we also spent a second fantastic week in Kona staying at the Hilton Waikoloa Village!) It was a once in a lifetime trip…that we can’t wait to repeat! We seriously had the most amazing time at Disney’s resort in Hawaii and it was totally worth the 12 hours of flying time it took to get there from Florida! We took our 3-year old, Harrison, and our 12-week old baby boy, Grayson. Like any Disney experience, Aulani can be a little overwhelming to begin with; there are so many things to do, places to eat, fun new things to try, and it can be a little hard to figure out where to begin- and traveling with a preschooler (and a baby) can present some challenges of its own! So here is my list of 20 tips for visiting Disney’s Aulani with a preschooler.
1. Get up early
For visitors coming from the mainland US, you will have to contend with the time difference and that usually means waking up earlier than you would like to! We were WIDE AWAKE at 5am the day after we arrived and there was no convincing our kids to go back to sleep. So instead of trying to force them back to sleep, we got up and got dressed and went for a walk around the resort. The sun had just come up and I figured we’d be the only people around, but there were so many people doing the exact same thing! The picture above was taken at about 6.30am; the infinity pool (the pool behind my little guy) was packed with people just a few hours later. The whole resort was calm and peaceful and it was so nice to just walk around with the kids (and a BIG cup of coffee!) and get our bearings. We ended up getting early almost every day to try to get in some quiet time before the resort got too crazy. So take advantage of the time change here!
2. Have breakfast overlooking the ocean
Aulani has two sit-down restaurants, ‘Ama ‘Ama and Makahiki. Of the two Aulani restaurants, ‘Ama ‘Ama is the more formal of the two, and overlooks the quiet waters of the Ko Olina lagoon. While we made reservations for the restaurants on some days, every day we decided to walk up at the last minute, we waited less than 15 minutes for a table. One morning we decided to go to ‘Ama ‘Ama for breakfast and it was such a nice way to start the day. Overlooking the ocean while eating incredible food (the pancakes with macadamia nut vanilla sauce were out of this world!) The kids menu was great, and our server was great about bringing the kids meal out before ours so Harrison could get started on his food. Some days were crazy trying to get pool chairs or packing for the beach, so this was a nice way to start the day a little more peacefully. Check out the highlights of ‘Ama ‘Ama here.
3. Eat breakfast at the character buffet
The second sit-down restaurant is called Makahiki, and it is a buffet restaurant that offers both breakfast and dinner. While the dinner is just a regular buffet, the Aulani character breakfast can be found here as well! Before you sit down, you get to take your picture with Mickey, and then Minnie and Goofy come around to visit the tables while you eat. Living within 30 minutes of Walt Disney World in Florida, we’ve been to our fair share of character meals, and this one was fewer characters than we are used to. But Minnie and Goofy spent a ton of time with the kids at our table, and were more than happy to take photos, sign autograph books, and generally just visit with everyone. The photos of with Mickey are not included on your Photopass card (more on that later) and a Cast Member will come around with a copy of the photos while you eat to see if you’d like to purchase them. One of the best things about this meal was that the food was delicious! Sometimes character buffets offer truly terrible food, knowing people will pay anyway to see the characters without long lines. But this food was fresh and tasty, with a great variety that kept everyone in our party happy. Take a look at Makahiki here.
4. Try all things pineapple!
I have a super picky eater on my hands, but I was determined for him to try some new foods while we were in Hawaii. The first one we attempted was pineapple juice. Now, he has been tricked into trying pineapple juice in the past (I might have told him it was just yellow apple juice to get him to try it) and since then he always clarifies with a server that he’s ordering “apple apple juice” and not pineapple juice! But the stuff they have at Aulani is fresh pineapple juice, and like nothing I have ever tasted. It was delicious and my 3-year old agreed! He also fell head over heels in love with Dole Whips, which are pineapple-flavored ice cream that have been made famous at Walt Disney World. They can be found at Aulani at Ulu Cafe and Little Opihi’s Beachside Kiosk, and they are just perfect – in fact there were many days when we skipped lunch and just had Dole Whips instead!
5. Make a splash!
The Aulani pools are fabulous – and crowded. If you’re not there within the first hour or two of the day, the chances of getting a pool chair are slim, and the recreation Cast Members will keep an eye out for chairs that are being saved, but not used. There are a number of different pool areas (including an adult-only pool that I could only look longingly at) but our favorite area was the Menehune Bridge. This is a huge structure with slides, fountains, splash areas, things that dump water all over you, and other things the kids were just going wild over. Harrison would go up the stairs, down the slide, under the water-dumping part, and back up the stairs to do it all over again endlessly without getting bored. The great thing is that the height limit to play is 48 inches, meaning the little kids are safe to explore without being bowled over by bigger kids running around. One thing to mention: that was was COLD! Of course the kids don’t care, but I sure did!
6. Go snorkeling in the Rainbow Reef
This was something that my kids were too small for this trip, but definitely something we’d love to do with them if we’re lucky enough to go back. The Rainbow Reef is a 3,800 square foot pool with a huge variety of fish and other sights to explore. It’s a great introduction to snorkeling for those just getting started since it’s much calmer than the ocean, and the fish in there are all friendly. For those too small to snorkel, there is a viewing window across from the Lava Shack were you can get an underwater view of the fish.
7. Play in the pools until late
We were there in July, so definitely peak season, and this is something that doesn’t happen all the time. But while we were there, the advertised pool closing of 8pm never happened – they were open until 10pm every night! After dinner each night we’d let the kids food settle, then one of us would put Grayson to bed and the other one would take Harrison down to the pool to swim. He thought it was the neatest thing to be able to go swimming after dinner, especially in the dark! As I said, this isn’t something I’d count on, especially if you are traveling during a quieter time, but if the pools stay open late, it’s a great time to swim!
8. Rent sand toys and play on the beach
With such a great pool area, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the beach; we also had a 12-week old baby who we were trying to keep away from all things sandy! But there were a few times we ventured out there, and it really is a beautiful beach. The ocean is calm and tranquil, and there are free sunbeds and umbrellas. One of the best things for kids is that you can rent beach toys completely free from Makiki Joe’s Beach Rentals. We rented a huge bag of toys including buckets, spades, and fish-shaped sand molds, and all we had to give was our name and room number. Makiki Joe’s also rents snorkel equipment for $20 per day for those who want to check out what’s under the water in the lagoon.
9. Relax on the lazy river
The lazy river is part of the Waikolohe stream, which also includes the two slides. We didn’t go on the slides (Harrison heard people screaming on them and decided they were far too dangerous!) but the lines never seemed too long. The lazy river however was something we all enjoyed. It was so relaxing to float around in a tube in the beautiful sunny weather, even with a 3-year old climbing all over our laps!
10. Take advantage of Photopass
For those familiar with the Disney Parks, you’ll know all about Photopass. Photopass photographers are stationed all around Aulani ready to take your photo, which they then scan onto a Photopass card for you. At any point during your stay you can go into Kalepa’s Store (just off from the lobby) to take a look at your photos, add cute borders, and purchase individual photos or a package. You can also view your photos on the TV in your room! We found photographers at the pool area, on the beach, stationed with the characters at the meet and greets, and on the pathways around the resort, and any one of them will be able to give you a card showing where the photographers usually hang out. It was nice to get photos of all of us as a family, as well as some photos of the kids in cute poses we might not have thought of. We purchased about 10 of the photos that were taken but we had nearly 50 to choose from! This post by Travel with the Magic goes into more detail on utilizing Photopass at Aulani.
11. Take your own photos
While Photopass is an excellent resource, don’t forget to take plenty of your own photos. Aulani is just so stunning, there are great photo opportunities every where that you look. On our first day alone I took nearly 100 photos! I bought a cute Aulani photo album from Kalepa’s Store, and then went back to the next day to buy two more when it became obvious that one would simply not be enough!
12. Meet some characters
Living so close to Walt Disney World, Harrison has grown up meeting the Disney characters and to him, they’re old friends. So he was super excited to see that some of them had made the trip across the Pacific to Aulani too! There are only a handful of Disney characters to be found at Aulani (Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Chip & Dale, and, of course, Stitch in his natural habitat) but there are plenty of opportunities to meet them every day. The daily ‘Iwa, which is a schedule for all of the days activities, lists an extension you can call from your room phone to find out which characters will be where each day. One day Grayson and I were going for a walk and just stumbled across them on the Halawei lawn (behind the Ewa tower) and there was no line! Just Mickey, Minnie and Stitch hanging out with their handlers waiting to meet people. We managed to get the above photo and hung out with Mickey and Minnie for about 10 minutes with no one else around, which was an incredible experience!
13. Try the shaved ice
I had never had shaved ice before coming to Aulani; I always thought it just looked like sugary, colored slush, not particularly refreshing. But the shaved ice at Aulani was really good! You can get it from the Papalua Shaved Ice hut, and there are about 15 flavors to choose from. You choose your combination of flavors, and then, if you want, you can add condensed milk to the top. When I first saw that as an option, I thought it sounded bizarre, but it was actually really good!
14. Check out the kids club at Aunty’s Beach House
The kids club at Aulani is located at Aunty’s Beach House, at the end of the Ewa Tower, and it is completely free for kids three and older (as long as they are potty trained.) You can register your kids online before your trip, which is what we did, and you are prompted to pick three out of four activities that you think your kid would like to participate in. We picked Stitch’s Space Goo, Aunty’s Aloha Party, and the Keiki Hula. Aulani will then get back to you with scheduled times for your kids to participate in these activities during your trip. If the times offered don’t work for you, don’t worry; you can try to change them when you get to Aulani. There are also two premium experiences for $75 each that you can register for. The club is also open during the day so kids can be dropped off to play, make crafts, watch a movie, etc. The club is completely secure, with procedures for pick up and drop off, and there is a Photopass photographer who can take photos of your kids having fun! I’ll be honest and say that while we thought Harrison would LOVE Aunty’s Beach House, it turned out he was much happier playing in the pool and on the beach. Having said that, he was one of the youngest there, and I think we’d try again if we returned. I know plenty of kids who have had a great time there! Learn more about Aunty’s Beach House here.
15. Go on a Menehune Hunt
Menehune are the adorable, mischievous little critters you’ll find all over the resort. You can rent a tablet from the Pau Hana room and go on an interactive hunt to find them around the resort. I wanted to do this but my husband thought it looked boring; well, he was the one who ended up in charge of the tablet long after Harrison had lost interest! This hunt is amazing and takes you to parts of the resort you might not have come upon on your own. You are asked to do certain activities, go certain places, and see what happens – some of the effects are really cool! I won’t spoil all of the surprises but trust me on this one, this is not something you want to miss!
16. Walk over to Paradise Cove
Paradise Cove is an area just a couple of miles from Aulani, and absolutely worth the walk. You used to be able to walk along the waterfront between the Ko Olina lagoon and the Paradise Cove beach, but that area has been closed off since the new Four Seasons Resort opened next door. It is still a short walk away, just a little less scenic. Walk out of Aulani through the lobby and head down the driveway to the left. Walk along the road (again, to the left), passing the Four Seasons Resort on the left and a local shopping district on the right (if you have time, stop at Island Vintage Coffee, they have great frozen coffee drinks!) Eventually you reach a parking lot and at the back of the parking lot is an opening in the fence with a narrow sandy path down to the beach. Why go to all this trouble? Well, because Paradise Cove is well known for having green sea turtles swimming around! We saw some each time we were there; they swam around in the shallows and we got to see them up close. We obviously gave them a wide berth and didn’t harass them in any way, but it was amazing to see them in the wild! We also saw an endangered monk seal lounging on the rocks. The beach itself is also beautiful and quite peaceful. It is well worth the walk to check it out!
17. Watch the Starlit Hui Luau
Aulani doesn’t offer a luau, but it does offer its own version called the Starlit Hui. This is a night time show offered on the Halawei lawn; it’s not offered every night so check out the daily ‘Iwa and make sure you plan ahead if you know you want to see it. It is basically the entertainment portion of a luau without the food; you pull up a straw mat on the lawn to watch performers sing, dance, and tell stories of Hawaii’s history. They even call the kids up to perform the hula they teach at Aunty’s Beach House! It’s a very cute show and not too long, so the kids didn’t get bored. Given that I’ve never been a fan of luaus, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.
18. Visit the spa
We flew from Orlando into Washington DC, stayed there overnight, then flew 10 hours into Honolulu. We were up every day at 6am with an excited 3-year old and a baby. Did I mention the 3-year old recently cut out naps? Yeah, I needed some time in the spa! My husband very kindly offered to watch the kids one afternoon so I could take some time for me, and it was wonderful! The spa at Aulani is called Laniwai and offers a variety of treatments, from massages to facials to salon services. They even offer treatments for men, teens, kids, and expecting mothers. Not surprisingly, it’s not cheap, but for me it was totally worth it to spend some relaxing time alone. My husband got his turn later in the trip when he went golfing, so I didn’t feel too guilty!
19. Rent a car and explore the island
This is something we didn’t do, and I still wish we had; it’s on the ‘to-do’ list for our next trip! If you’re renting a car for your whole stay, bear in mind that if you’re not a DVC member, you pay $35 a day to park at Aulani. What I would recommend doing instead, is renting a car from Alamo for just a day or two to explore; there is an Alamo facility right at Aulani so it’s very convenient, and we thought the rates were pretty good. There are plenty of places to go and explore; on the North shore, some places on my list for next time are Waimea Valley, Turtle Beach, Giovanni’s shrimp truck, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and Matsumoto’s shaved ice. Head towards Honolulu and it’s worth checking out Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head. If this is your first trip to Oahu, especially if you know you probably won’t be back, definitely do your research and plan a day or two outside of Aulani to go and explore the rest of the island. Check out this post by Driftwood and Daydreams with some great suggestions for what to see along the North Shore.
This is my number one tip! It’s very easy to get caught up in how much there is to do at Aulani, especially if you’re only there for a short time or if you want to see the rest of the island as well. The daily ‘Iwa, available from the front desk or downloadable to your device, has a huge list of things to do every day. For the first few days we were there, I found myself constantly looking at my watch, trying to see how much time we had until the next activity, because I didn’t want to miss anything. This is not the Hawaiian way, and not my idea of a vacation! After the first few days, I would only plan on doing a couple of activities every day; maybe a meal, or a character greeting, or a craft Harrison would enjoy. Other than that, we went with the flow. If we happened upon something fun to do, that was great. But otherwise we wandered from the pool to the beach to get some food and had a much more relaxing time. So my best advice is to pick a few things to do each day but otherwise, just get onto island time and relax! Remember, this is a vacation!
Tell me about your tips for visiting Aulani with a preschooler! I’d love to hear your ideas!