Welcome back to the final installment of our Disney Aulani musings and protips. Today’s wholly-unsolicited-but-largely-positive thoughts are on the pools, beach, entertainment and (amazing) spa. Dive in.
Pools & Beach
The pools and hot tubs at Aulani are set around the 'volcano' in the center of the resort; the volcano in question houses two waterslides and is surrounded by the lazy river. There are a few adults-only pools and hot tubs, while most welcome the whole family, but the distribution seems to be close to ideal; I never had a problem finding a calm, quiet, child-free zone when looking for that, and I also found plenty of room to take my kids into beautiful pools and hot tubs, some overlooking the beach and ocean, and one hidden in a bend in the lazy river. As with other Disney resort pools, you show your room key to get a wrist band for pool access and a towel (and vest, for the not-quite-swimming smaller child), though finding a place to put them while you're actually swimming can be a bit of a challenge. There are cubbies next to the snorkeling facilities at Rainbow Reef - also right in the center of the resort - but for the pools, you are left to your own devices to find an empty pool chair to set down your towel and anything else you might have (sandals, etc.). More cubbies would be wonderful; I rarely needed a chair, but would love to have had a convenient place to stash my sandals and towels near the pools.
That would have been especially useful for the (really quite long) periods of time I was watching my smaller child on the Menehune Bridge (more on the Menehune themselves below), which she thought was the best thing that has ever been created - she would have happily stayed there all day. Aimed mostly at the under-5 set, it's a climbing/splashing/sliding structure with a seemingly endless ability to hold the interest of young children. It's not especially restful for the adults, since monitoring kids on the bridge involves a lot of moving back and forth (there's not a single spot that gives you a line of sight across the whole structure, so it's not a question of just relaxing in a pool chair while they splash, especially if they can't swim) - you may be carrying all your things with you while they play. But given that you also have the option of dropping them off at Aunty's Beach House, this need not be your entire vacation, and the kids adore it.
I could have happily stayed on the lazy river in the center of the resort for hours if I didn't need to constantly re-apply sunscreen, and the Volcano Vertical waterslide was gentle-yet-exciting enough for the 3 year old to go on with me. We spent less time at the beach (though it was beautiful, and we did look at it frequently at it from the restaurants, pools and hot tubs), but it was also wonderful. Chairs (with umbrellas) are free for Aulani visitors, and you can borrow sand toys and boogie boards at no additional cost. The Four Seasons part of the beach, only steps away, was nearly always deserted, despite the calm, warm waters and beautiful setting; there seemed to be much, much more to do on the Aulani side.
Music & Entertainment
While I was not expecting a Love Boat-style luau - although that was probably my primary exposure to the concept as a child - I was very impressed by the performances at the (optional add-on) Ka Wa'a luau. Granted, this is Disney, and they generally do a great job of getting top-quality performers at the parks (and, of course, in their wildly successful Broadway shows), but it really exceeded expectations. There's just enough exposure to Mickey and Minnie to keep the smaller children happy, but the full performance is thoughtfully constructed and expertly performed; no one is phoning this in. The actor playing 'Uncle,' in particular, reminded us very much of Brian Stokes Mitchell, at least vocally - for Broadway nerds like us, this was fantastic. The more traditional parts of the performance were the highlights, and they even manage to work in some mild references to colonialism not being so amazing for the native Hawaiians; Song of the South this is not (although it is a little odd to hear a Hawaiian-language version of 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah' in the hotel elevators - I get that it's hard to repackage any intellectual property from Song of the South for a modern audience, but it's still a bit jarring to hear).
But back to Ka Wa'a - the food is also very good, and the pre-show activities, including taro pounding and 'tattoos' were very engaging for the kids (even the surlier teens); the performers do an amazing job of patiently dealing with children and adult tourists before putting on a physically-demanding show, as well as posing for photos before and after.
Hawaiian culture, filtered through Disney magic, is also aimed squarely at the kids via the Menehune Adventure Trail(s). There are two options: a shorter version that's largely indoors (mostly in the lobby), and a longer one that winds through the pools and gardens in the center of the resort. The conceit is that the Menehune, Hawaii's mythical craftspeople, are quietly working their magic around the resort, and that with the help of Aunty and some positive thinking, you can glimpse some of their hidden influence. Once again, the actors in what could have been a very cheesy prepackaged entertainment segment were really wonderful; fully committed to the storyline, and educating everyone along the way.
You check out a tablet from the Pau Hana Community Hall (between 10-7 for the shorter one, and 3-7 for the longer one - unless, of course, you are a DISNEY VACATION CLUB MEMBER*, and then you have more options - plus sparkly pool bracelets) and follow the video instructions from 'Aunty' to trigger the magical effects, many of which are really quite wonderful. You'll also learn a little bit about Hawaiian history and culture along the way. The indoor trail was just about the right length for a 3 year old, and while she enjoyed a lot of the outdoor effects (as did I), it was probably a little too long for her attention span; it would be great if you could pause and resume where you left off, but as the tablets are a little glitchy anyway, that's not currently an option. That point aside, it's really well-designed and absolutely worth doing, even for teens and adults.
We also enjoyed storytelling by the fire pit (both my children probably inaccurately consider themselves experts on Maui lore now) and there are a wealth of activities and talks on traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts in the Pau Hana Community Hall - another option I wish I'd had more time to check out.
Lanawai Spa & Gym
I am a spa nerd; I wish I had more time and disposable income to go to amazing spas all the time. Lanawai Spa is one of the best I've ever been to; it's very close to perfection. The spa at the Grand Californian (just to keep things in a Disney context) is very pleasant, but Lanawai is a proper world-class spa. The treatments are amazing, the staff top-notch and the water garden absolutely fantastic. I loved the range of soaking pools and showers outside, and appreciated the variety of relaxation rooms, both single-sex and co-ed, available for pre/post-treatment Doing Nothing. The infused waters were delightful, and the bite-sized snacks much appreciated. In addition, the tables in the treatment rooms were the most high-tech I've ever personally experienced - amazingly comfortable and versatile. The variety of scents and scrubs perfectly reflected the Hawaiian setting, without going overboard. I tried to talk my older child into the Painted Sky teen spa, but alas, he refused, despite the range of options specifically aimed at young gentlemen; perhaps another time.
The gym next door to the spa was also very well equipped, and surprisingly empty when I'd roll in around 5 am; I assumed it would be full of similarly jet-lagged people, but there was never a problem finding open equipment. The instructor-led fitness classes sounded fantastic, but were (relatively speaking) late in the morning; if I hadn't been doing the Aunty's Beach House lunch line or having an early character breakfast, I would have tried a few out.
Another would-be-nice – how about a runDisney race, since there aren’t any on the west coast for the foreseeable future? Between Moana and Lilo and Stitch, there should be enough locally-themed Disney intellectual property to support different characters for the 5K/10K/half marathon options (though I’m sure finding enough road for a half marathon would be problematic), but it would be amazing. Perhaps someday
This was the ideal first trip to Hawaii for us; as always, Disney made everything easy. On a future trip, we'd like to explore some other islands as well (and, indeed, other parts of Oahu), but Aulani offers a great introduction to Hawaiian culture. The balance of Hawaii-to-Disney is clearly very carefully weighed and considered, and on the whole is a very effective presentation. We’d happily go back any time we aren’t juggling work/school/preschool/etc. – it was, on the whole, a wonderful experience.