Disney Aulani: Getting There, Eating & Drinking There

Beautiful jet lagWe’ve just returned from a much-needed (if barely-planned) trip to Aulani, Disney’s Hawaiian resort. Although we’re relatively recent coverts to the Disney vacation lifestyle, having a bit of Disney-specific knowledge helps make the vacation even more stress-free and relaxing for the whole family. In that spirit, I offer more than a few entirely unsolicited protips and suggestions.

Setting & Rooms
Aulani is a 20-ish minute drive from the airport in Honolulu; we used the recommended Hele Hele shuttle, which is essentially the equivalent of the Disneyland Express bus that runs from LAX and John Wayne airports to the Disneyland and ‘good neighbor’ hotels. It’s not a large, branded bus, but a van (carseats are included for the smaller kids); the service was prompt and friendly. We arrived at night, and the resort is lovely even in the dark – the tree-hung lanterns and torches created a positive impression, even on very tired children (and adults). Despite the late hour, we were warmly greeted with leis and infused water (we didn’t notice the Hidden Mickey in the water until the next day), and check-in was very speedy.

The lobby, largely open to maximize the warm breezes, is amazing day or night, though during the day it’s possible to take a tablet-driven self-guided tour of the art and design features that provides much more detail and context. Aulani has the world’s largest collection of contemporary Hawaiian art, and it’s thoughtfully displayed everywhere in the hotel. There are, of course, even more Hidden Mickeys – and Menehune (more on them, and the art tour, later) – to be found all over the property.

We booked at the last minute, so had relatively few room options, but even our standard room with ‘limited’ ocean view had a great vantage point from which to see the ocean and the amazing pools and landscaping below. We ended up with two queen beds, which was a little tight with two kids with a huge age/size gap (and they don’t have the extra sofabed that similar rooms have in the Grand Californian – though perhaps we’ve always just lucked out?), but certainly very do-able for our short stay.

Our flight home was late at night, well after check-out, but the luggage room is very straightforward and there’s a suite with lockers to shower and change, so you can fully enjoy your entire day (and you can still charge things to your room until midnight, so no need to carry around your wallet if you’re swimming – have that last Dole Whip).

Food & Drink
Olelo Room delightSpeaking of Dole Whips, Aulani offers the Dole Whip Twist, which cuts the pineapple with vanilla, and it rather was wonderful – I wish they offered them at the Disney parks. At the resort, you can get them poolside or beachside. But perhaps my favorite spot at Aulani was the ‘Ōlelo Room; only open in the evenings, it had amazing cocktails and food – even great vegan tacos (and I say this as a non-vegan who happens to like good vegan tacos).  The Hawaiian-language theme and design of the Ōlelo Room was well thought-out and beautifully-executed, and I enjoyed their specialty drinks that weren’t available at the other resort bars (or, for those that were available at the poolside bars, were much more expertly mixed and presented – the others weren’t actively bad, just not quite up to the same standard).

There were one or two reasonable Hawaiian beers from Maui Brewing Company there as well, but most of the ‘locals’ were from Kona Brewing Company, and no different from their mainland offerings. For more interesting beer, you had to LEAVE THE RESORT and go across the street to Monkeypod, which had friendly, knowledgeable staff and a good selection of locally-brewed beers. I was intrigued to see more brown ales, stouts and porters than I usually see in the Pacific Northwest, so that was a pleasant surprise. There were a few other restaurants and shops in the same complex, so it was handy for cheaper sunscreen and basic groceries.

But back to Aulani: the Ulu Café, the quick-service restaurant, has quite decent breakfast wraps, and the quality of the tea was another positive surprise – it was rather good! It was even good enough to drink without milk or cream, which is important when your ‘cream’ option is of the shelf-stable cartridge variety, so perhaps best skipped. For the caffeine addict, you can buy a refillable mug for $18.99 that gets you ‘free’ refills on tea, coffee or soda throughout your stay (soda refills are located throughout the resort; tea and hot water are at the Ulu Café checkout, and coffee is outside the café); we did find this useful, given the 3-hour time change.

Your dining viewWe went to ‘Ama ‘Ama for a few of our ‘fancier’ meals, both with and without our smaller one (it’s right next door to Aunty’s Beach House, discussed in an upcoming post, so very easy to manage a child-free meal) – the brunch was outstanding, and the lunch and dinner options were also wonderful, though just enjoying the beach view from the tables (some covered, some open) was a major factor in enjoying the meal.

While I’m not normally a fan of buffet-style dining, Disney usually makes the effort worthwhile – and the breakfast and dinner buffets at Makahiki were both fantastic. We did a character breakfast, as is our wont at any Disney property, but this had much, much better food than the versions at either the Disneyland Hotel or Grand Californian; of course, there are the standard Mickey waffles, but the Hawaiian breads (and the French toast made with them – with amazing coconut syrup) made things a little more interesting, as did the Asian breakfast options. It’s possible we have now developed a need for taro bread. We enjoyed seeing Mickey, Minnie and Goofy at breakfast, and an appearance by ‘Aunty,’ leading the smaller children in song, dance and activities around the restaurant was incredibly well-done. Across the board, the performers at Aulani are outstanding.

The dinner buffet was also excellent; the mix of Western, Hawaiian and Japanese options made it more interesting than usual, and the food was well-selected and properly-prepared, which I rarely find to be the case at non-Disney buffet restaurants. The range of desserts was amazing, and I appreciated that they were (nearly) bite-sized; it made it easier to try more of them. As with the rest of the resort, Makahiki has striking Hawaiian artwork throughout, and once again, I’m glad we were able to take the art tour to find out more about the artists and their inspirations for the pieces.

Taro bread joyAnother Disney protip: make dining reservations, especially for character breakfasts which are often packed, before you travel; while this is a lot easier at the parks via the app (again, more on that in a future post), don’t be the party of 10 that showed up behind us without a reservation. Yes, you’ll need to call (or arrange it when you arrive), but it’s good to be prepared. There are plenty of places you don’t need a reservation (Ōlelo Room, ‘Ama ‘Ama,Ulu Café, the poolside bars), but for Makahiki, call ahead.

Of course, this is Hawaii, so you can also get a shave ice (with or without Mickey ears, though the Mickey ears option isn’t amazing when it comes to structural integrity); I can only compare to the slightly-less-tasty ones I’ve had in Seattle, but I was pleasantly surprised by the flavors – yes, they were sweet, but they weren’t overpowering, and there were more than a few more unusual options to add that made it well worth seeking out. An extra towel from the pool area may be useful if you are supervising a small person with the Mickey ears version.

All told, you can eat and drink well without leaving Aulani – and there’s still much more to talk about.

Up Next: Aunty’s Beach House + other activities