Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, was the last Disney property in the world to shut its doors way back in late March of 2020. The hotel, located on the island of O’ahu in Hawaii, reopened to the public on November 1, 2020 and has been operating ever since at reduced capacity. My family visits Aulani often, and we just returned from a 7 night vacation to Aulani at the end of July and early August 2021.
Like Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and other Disney properties around the world that have reopened, Disney’s Aulani is operating very differently in 2021 than it has on our family’s previous visits. The state of Hawaii is struggling with a record high number of COVID-19 cases right now in August 2021 and recently implemented some additional restrictions even since our visit. So it’s safe to assume that many of these modifications will remain in place for quite a while to come.
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So what was different at Aulani on our trip, and what differences should other visitors plan for in the foreseeable future? And with the modifications necessitated by the public health situation, was a vacation at Aulani still worth the cost for our family? Here’s everything you need to know about Aulani’s reopening changes in action.
9 Changes at a Reopened Disney’s Aulani in 2021
Testing and Vaccination Requirements for Hawaii Safe Travels
The most important change to Aulani vacations this year has nothing to do with Aulani’s rules and operations at all. This requirement comes by way of the state of Hawaii. The bottom line? Visitors to Aulani either need to prove they are fully vaccinated or will need to take a COVID-19 test before they head to the state.
For many months in 2020, Hawaii required anyone who flew in to quarantine for 14 days. Last fall when the state reopened its borders to tourism, presenting a negative test was permitted as an alternative to quarantine. Tests had to be administered by a designated partner lab and taken within 72 hours of departure.
Finally on July 8, 2021, the state created a vaccination exception to quarantine an alternative to testing. The current testing or vaccination requirements apply only to visitors ages 5 and up.
My husband, 12 year old daughter, and I are fully vaccinated, but we have a 7 year old son too young to be. So our family had to navigate both the vaccine and testing exemptions on our trip.
The procedures for demonstrating you are entitled to an exception from quarantine (whether by testing or vaccination) are set forth on the state’s website. Roughly speaking, you’ll create an account and register with the Hawaii Safe Travels program. You then either upload a copy of your CDC vaccination card or get tested at an approved partner lab and upload the negative test results to the site.
All visitors then also complete a health questionnaire less than 24 hours before their flight. The site then emails a QR code to present upon arrival in a Hawaiian airport (in some instances, you can present this at your departure airport if your airline offers Hawaii Pre-Clear). You’ll need to show your cleared status on your mobile phone again at Aulani’s check in desk.
Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe, but maybe not. For vaccinated travelers, this process is undoubtedly easy at the moment, but testing can still be a wild card. We were away from home in a more remote area without any local approved testing partners at the time when my son needed to test. I therefore arranged for one of the mail in tests (from Hawaii’s partner Vault) and dropped it at an approved UPS Store a 35 minute drive away from where we were staying. Worrying about getting results in time and arranging for backup options was nerve-wracking.
Now with the demand for testing increasing nationwide as cases spike, testing shortages and delays are becoming routine again. These shortages may make it more difficult to test from the limited number of Hawaii lab partners and get guaranteed results in the 72 hour window.
Reports are that Walgreens and CVS are often running out of the approved rapid tests and canceling some appointments. As a result, it’s essential to have backup plans if anyone in your family needs to test. In some instances, you may find yourself having to take a very expensive airline-offered same day test. It’s as much as $250 per person, for example, for the lab used by United Airlines at San Francisco International (SFO).
Because the Hawaii Safe Travels program requirements are always subject to change, check official sites for the exact procedures. The travel blog Beat of Hawaii is another great resource to follow for details.
New Aulani Mobile App
Disney has made major use of mobile apps at Walt Disney World and Disneyland for many years. But until recently, Aulani never had an app all of its own. Instead Aulani relied on its old fashioned newspaper style Daily ‘Iwa to inform guests of what was happening around the resort.
Just before the reopening in fall of 2020, Aulani decided to get with the times and unveil its own app to improve contactless options at the resort. Guests can log into the app with their Disney account (the same one you’d use for My Disney Experience or the Disneyland app).
As of right now, the app isn’t as full-featured as the ones at Walt Disney World or Disneyland. There is no mobile ordering functionality which is a huge convenience at Disney parks when trying to grab food. But the app does allow guests to manage their reservations, start the check-in process online, view a complete map of the property, and scope out some activity times and offerings.
We found it most useful for mobile check-in which allowed us to entirely skip the long lines in the lobby when we arrived. Unfortunately the app does not list daily character meet and greet times (more on characters below) which seems like it would be a worthy and easy addition.
Note that if you buy Photopass at Aulani, you’ll actually use the Disneyland app for that feature – go figure!
No Aunty’s Beach House
For families, one of the major benefits of a vacation at Aulani is its amazing kids club, Aunty’s Beach House. My kids begged to be dropped off multiple times a day so they could see friends and participate in some of the amazing activities.
My husband and I loved having the opportunity for date nights and spa appointments while the kids were entertained and happy. And we especially loved that Aunty’s was included in the cost of an Aulani vacation. Unless we signed them up for one of the couple of paid speciality programs offered a few times a week, Aunty’s Beach House was totally free childcare.
Of course, with COVID restrictions, Aunty’s Beach House isn’t operating right now. There is no word on when it might be returning. And that removes a valuable Aulani benefit for families that travelers need to keep in mind, especially when Aulani is charging full prices as was the case on our travel dates. The lack of Aunty’s changes the value proposition for some would-be travelers considerably right now.
As my kids are now a bit older, we can let them stay in the room together. So we were able to enjoy an adults-only dinner during our stay even without a kids club. But we missed Aunty’s for other reasons too. My now 12 year old loved meeting kids her own age at the tween room last trip. Without the ice breaker of Aunty’s, she wasn’t able to find and connect with girls her age this trip. After a year of spending 24/7 with her little brother, she could have used a break from him on our vacation!
I had hoped Aulani might have some alternate outdoor kids programming (like perhaps a build-a-sandcastle on the beach contest?), so kids could meet others their same age. But there are no group kids activities on the calendar at the moment. This is definitely something to consider if you have gregarious kids (especially tweens and teens) who might want to take a break from 100% family time.
Closed Restaurants & Modified Dining Experiences
Aulani reopened with a very limited number of restaurants in 2020, but the vast majority of restaurants have thankfully opened since that time. All of the restaurants had returned by the time of our visit in July 2021, except one: the fine dining restaurant, ‘AMA ‘AMA. (Private dining is unavailable as well at this time.)
Open restaurants include the following:
- Ulu Cafe
- Off The Hook
- Poolside Service
- Wailana Pool Bar (including Wailana Coffee Bar)
- Pāpālua Shave Ice
- The ‘Ōlelo Room
- Mama’s Snack Stop
- Little ‘Opihi’s
- KA WA‘A Lū‘au
Keep in mind, however, that some of the restaurants that are open are operating in modified ways. And as of early August, capacity at all restaurants has been reduced by Hawaii state law to 50%. This makes demand greater than supply and may increase already pretty long wait times at peak meal hours.
Makahiki, the restaurant where character dining is offered, traditionally offered a buffet, but that has been suspended for now. While we enjoyed a character breakfast there as always, we found the lack of a buffet took away from some of the fun – which used to include sampling a wide variety of unique Hawaiian and Asian dishes in addition to Mickey waffles and bacon and eggs. At over $200 for my family of 4 with tax and tip, it was a pricey breakfast for a much more limited a la carte menu (and also more limited character experiences).
(Note that character dining at Makahiki is limited only to Aulani resort guests at the moment. Your hotel reservation must be linked in your Disney account when you go in to make reservations for this meal.)
But not all restaurants are operating in ways that change their value proposition. Ulu Cafe has minor modifications like no refillable drink stations and one way entrances and exits, but still has the best lunchtime poke bowl in the area. Guests who enjoy live music will be happy to know that The ‘Ōlelo Room is currently able to offer it nightly (with the help of a little plexiglass). We dined there four nights during our visit! With appetizers and shared plates, it’s the best value and variety on-property for table service at the moment.
The absence of a fine dining restaurant on property also didn’t turn out to be an issue at all. There are excellent dining alternatives nearby that we’ve frequented in addition to ‘AMA ‘AMA over the years. We can particularly recommend Roy’s Ko Olina which is about a 10 minute stroll from Aulani. It’s expensive but the menu and service are both just fantastic. We also ate dinner one night at Monkeypod, a more moderately priced local restaurant in the shopping center across the street from Aulani that has been one of our favorites off-property for nearly a decade.
New Character Meet & Greets
While Aulani initially reopened with sparse and very distanced character appearances, that has changed in a major way. In fact, we found the current 2021 character meet and greets we experienced an improvement over “normal” operations.
There are two places that you can find characters at the resort right now. The first is on one of the side lawns behind the Ewa Tower (usually the Hālāwai Lawn where the luau is held, but also occasionally on the smaller lawn by the Alamo Rental Car desk). Photopass photographers are usually on the lawn for most meet and greets so you can capture quality photos.
Because these locations are out-of-sight, out-of-mind for guests unless they make an effort to walk to that side of the resort, lines are usually quite short. Previously, so many of these meet-and-greets were poolside, drawing very long lines when guests in their lounge chairs spotted a character walking out. We found we never waited more than about 5 minutes to see any character in these new spots. In fact, most of our greetings were a complete walk-up experience.
The schedule for these character greets is not in the app, but if you call extension 2447 from your room phone each morning after 8am, you can get the full daily character lineup.
The other location characters appear daily (and not on a set schedule or with official Photopass photographers) is on a bridge overlooking several bends in the lazy river. These characters wave and talk to guests floating by, making the greetings a casual experience where characters really feel integrated into the resort.
Reduced Entertainment & Activities
Disney’s Aulani is known for its robust activity and entertainment options in normal times. While many of these offerings have slowly returned, some remain closed in 2021.
So what is open? Currently available offerings as of August 2021 include:
- All pools and hot tubs (note that the former adult pool has now been converted into an all ages pool)
- Waikolohe Stream lazy river
- Both water slides (Tubestone Curl and Volcanic Vertical)
- Menehune Bridge (a favorite of my kids as toddlers/preschoolers – see my guide to Aulani with babies, toddlers & preschoolers)
- Keiki Cove splash zone
- Rainbow Reef (one of my family’s most recommended Aulani splurges)
- Menehune Adventure Trail
- Make Your Own Mickey Ears
- Daily pin trading
- Ohana Painting Party
- Laniwai Spa (no steam room and sauna at the moment)
- Painted Sky
- KA WA‘A Lū‘au
- Fitness Center (but no instructor-led classes)
We found enough to keep us busy for a full week without spending a day leaving the property, but pretty much did everything offered – some multiple times! We were especially happy to be able to do the free ukulele lessons that just returned during our visit (those have already sadly been canceled due to Hawaii’s August 10 change in restrictions).
That said, there were a few activities we missed not having – particularly the outdoor movie nights on the lawn on non-luau nights, which seems like they could surely be done in a safe and distanced way. Several of the activities traditionally offered via the Pau Hana room have been paused as well, such as hula lessons.
Guests should also be aware that the Luana Lounge – an area where guests with flights later in the day after check out time could shower or freshen up – is currently closed as well.
Masks & Face Coverings Required
While mask requirements were lifted for some of the summer at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Aulani has never lifted its indoor mask mandate. The state of Hawaii continues to mandate masks inside in public places for everyone ages 2 and up except when dining indoors, and Aulani naturally follows those rules.
In all outdoor spaces, mask are optional. The state of Hawaii used to have an outdoor mask law that applied to beaches, but that was lifted back in May 2021. That means that guests can now enjoy all outdoor spaces on resort and nearby public property without needing a mask.
Gaiters, bandanas, and valved masks are not allowed at Aulani. The requirements for face coverings are as follows:
- Be two or more layers
- Fully cover the nose and mouth and secure under the chin
- Fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face
- Be secured with ties or ear loops and allow guests to remain hands-free
We found the vast majority of guests to be very respectful of the mask rules. On the few instances that guests weren’t wearing them, it was usually accidental (because someone lost their mask poolside and were running back to the room for a new one).
Modified Cleaning & Safety Procedures
In addition to masks, Aulani has implemented a number of safety and cleaning protocols to keep things safe around the resort. Many of these kinds of precautions have been mostly ditched in other vacation destinations (including at Disney World and Disneyland), but that is not the case at Aulani.
We experienced and saw the following:
- Hand sanitizer stations strategically placed in common areas of the resort (we still saw plenty of these at restaurant entrances, in the lobby, and at other high traffic areas and always found them operational/full).
- Light housekeeping of all hotel rooms only every other day (can be declined if desired and remember that DVC rentals have an even less frequent cleaning schedule).
- Reduced contact menus (signs at quick service restaurants and QR codes at table service restaurants).
- No refillable mugs or self-service beverages.
- Plexiglass or other barriers separating cast members and guests in many locations.
- Social distancing stickers and reminders, including signs for 1 party per elevator.
In addition, the resort is only operating at roughly 70% capacity at the moment, giving everyone a little more space by the pool and in common areas.
To be sure, not all of the COVID-19 precautions necessarily always made sense. For example, while the resort rents snorkel equipment at Rainbow Reef (that guests breathe and spit into!), it currently isn’t loaning out sand toys on the beach, citing sanitization concerns.
We also felt the limited every other day housekeeping was more sparse than was needed, especially considering room rates were not discounted at all during our stay. The cleaning was limited to an every other day replacing of towels and toiletries, taking out trash, and wiping kitchen and sink counters, but nothing else. With kids eating in our unit, we could definitely have used a little vacuuming and sweeping.
All that said, generally we very much appreciated the resort’s focus on safety. It definitely helped us to relax and enjoy the vacation knowing that precautions were in place.
Planning and Booking Much, Much Earlier
Last but certainly not least, one of things my family loved about an Aulani vacation in the past was that it was the most flexible of all Disney destinations. No dining reservations? No problem. Want to do something last minute? Just sign up or show up.
With things at reduced capacity and demand high, that is simply not the case anymore – either at Aulani or elsewhere in Hawaii. You need to book many activities and meals as soon as possible. Otherwise, you may find them sold out for your travel dates.
For example, in order to get a table at Roy’s Ko Olina for dinner (at 5:45pm on a Tuesday night, mind you), I had to book more than a full month in advance. It took multiple phone calls over the two months prior to my trip to snag a luau reservation.
Here are things to try to book ASAP – many as soon as you settle on dates for an Aulani vacation:
- Rental car: shortages are common all over Hawaii and prices are sky high. See my tips for rental cars in 2021.
- KA WA‘A Lū‘au: 3rd party online booking system is iffy – I recommend calling if you have issues
- Makahiki character breakfast: reservations open 30 days in advance at 3amET – link your hotel reservation and book online with your Disney account
- Pearl Harbor tickets: this popular Aulani day trip has limited capacity with the National Park Service, so scope out and book early
As for other activities on-site, I highly recommend visiting the Pau Hana Room on your arrival day to find out what is being offered and how exactly to sign up. My husband did that on the first day of our trip and learned that free ukulele lessons were making their return to the resort during our stay (sadly those have since been discontinued due to Hawaii’s recent rollbacks).
If at first you don’t succeed in getting reservations because you are seemingly too late, keep trying. Fellow Disney podcaster Brian of the DCL Duo (who was there during my visit) told me his family was able to get an extra cabana day simply by asking and snagging someone else’s last minute cancellation for the following day. Our family was similarly able to snag an on-site Alamo rental car reservation by going to the counter (we ultimately cancelled it). With more people cancelling Hawaii trips in even the last week or two as the public health situation as shifted, you should be able to find reservations if you are persistent.
The Bottom Line
So with all of these changes, is Aulani worth it right now for a vacation? Back when it first reopened and the offerings were much more limited than what they are now (and it was more of a hassle and cost to test an entire family), I was skeptical of the value. I’m ultimately glad we waited until summer of 2021 to return.
By the time we took our trip, we did feel it was ultimately worth it for our family. A vacation in paradise after this terribly long and difficult past year was just what we needed this summer. Like a lot of travelers, we were content to pay more for less just to finally enjoy travel at all!
That said, we definitely missed a few things and felt like the value proposition was of course different than on our previous vacations. This was especially true as we paid summer full rack rate prices which we never had before! We also couldn’t help to compare our vacation to previous Aulani ones and wish for a few minor things back. First time Aulani travelers who wouldn’t have that ability to compare would likely have never noticed the little differences – other than the absence of the kids club, they were mostly indeed minor.
With all things in travel right now, the situation at Aulani and in Hawaii generally continues to evolve rapidly. Naturally, the value proposition will too. As the fall approaches and the public health situation seems to be taking a turn for the worse in the short term, would-be travelers have new value calculations to make. Aulani is offering a 30% off discount for the fall, making the price more reasonable.
But with those discounts comes the risk of further restrictions from the state as well as a potentially less safe vacation. Many travelers like my family won’t be as willing to travel with unvaccinated kids at a time when the school year is the priority. For that reason, I can see some real value right now for vaccinated singles and couples who wouldn’t even miss amenities like the kids club. And for anyone still homeschooling or working remotely, Hawaii is still one of the safer states to visit for a getaway. For Hawaii locals, there could be some opportunities to visit and take advantage of local Kamaʻaina discounts.
For travelers planning longer term – for the winter holidays or spring break of 2022 – none of us of course knows what the future holds. Some restrictions at Aulani are still possible then. But it seems likely those will diminish in a few months’ time, so I’d feel confident starting to plan for later dates at least. (I might be keeping my eye on a spring break 2022 trip. Just saying!)
Where to Book Your Aulani Vacation (& Get Discounts!)
If you are going to book an Aulani vacation, the best place to do it is with Trips With Tykes partner Get Away Today. You’ll get the same generous cancellation policies plus the expertise of an experienced travel agency that knows Aulani. Get Away Today is committed to keeping up with the news and updating guests as things change. And, they also offer a price guarantee that automatically books you better pricing when any new seasonal discounts are released that apply to your reservation dates!
Fill out this form for an Aulani vacation quote request from Get Away Today (and if you prefer to talk to them on the phone, tell them Leslie at Trips With Tykes sent you).
More Aulani Information
Want more information as you plan your Aulani vacation?
- My friend Marcie of Hawaii Travel with Kids has an amazingly detailed Oahu with Kids travel guide available for purchase on her site that is updated for 2021 (she visited the island of Oahu again not long before I was at Aulani). This guide will take a lot of the planning and guess work out of your trip.
- My friend Dusty at MiceChat has a Facebook video tour of the property taken on November 2, 2020.
- 9 Aulani Splurges Worth Your Money
- Disney Cruise Line vs. Aulani: Which is Best for Your Family
- How to Rent DVC Points at Aulani to Save Money
- A Comprehensive Review of Disney’s Aulani Resort
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article discussed Disney’s MagicBands being used at Aulani as a room key alternative in 2020-2021. Unfortunately, the tech rollout of MagicBands did not play well with Aulani’s systems. Aulani has now turned off MagicBand functionality at the resort indefinitely.