A vacation at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, in Hawaii is a bucket list trip for many family travelers. The magic of Disney plus the aloha spirit of Hawaii make for a luxurious and fun-filled travel combination. Of course, Hawaiian vacations are also pretty pricey. It is vital to spend your money wisely — to know what is really worthy of a splurge and what to skip.
Luckily, Aulani has a huge number of totally free activities included in a regular stay. There are definitely ways to experience a lot of action at Aulani without spending much additional cash once you get there.
For most people, however, a trip to Hawaii and to Aulani is a truly special vacation experience. Many want to splurge on some special “above and beyond” experiences. Disney has a lot of those as well. The key is knowing what extras are right for your family’s interests, the ages and stages of your kids, and your budget.
My family recently had the opportunity to return to Aulani with both of our kids, ages 8 and 4, as guests of Disney. A lot has changed since our first trip in spring 2013 was when I was pregnant with my now 4 year old son. The resort is larger and has many more activity and dining choices. We were able to experience a lot of the Aulani extra activities, meals, and events this trip. Some of these were as guests of Disney but we also put our money where our mouth is and spent our own cash too! It’s all in the name of research and blog content. 😉
Planning an Aulani vacation and need guidance as to what things to do? Here are some of the extras and splurges that we found truly worthwhile you may want to consider too.
VIDEO OVERVIEW OF OUR FAVORITE AULANI SPLURGES:
Disney Aulani Splurges Worth Your While
1. Snorkeling at Rainbow Reef
Rainbow Reef is a man-made saltwater lagoon at Aulani stocked with ocean life, set among the pools. Guests can rent snorkel equipment and dive in with the fish.
For family travelers with kids ready to snorkel and who can handle the colder water, this extra activity is simply a must-do. Look out for hidden Mickeys and menehune in the depths during your adventure.
Admission is $20 per adult ages 10 & up and $15 for children ages 9 and under for single day access. The price includes all day access to the snorkel equipment. Length of stay access is $39 for adults and $29 for children.
Best For: Kids ages 5-6+, Parents
2. Character Meal at Makahiki
For many Disney travelers, a vacation is not complete without a character meal. Luckily, there are now two options for character dining at Aulani at the Makahiki restaurant.
We tried both character dining experiences at Makahiki: the breakfast hosted by Mickey Mouse and Aunty (offered daily) as well as the newer Menehune Mischief dinner experience (offered approximately 3x a week).
Breakfast is a standard breakfast buffet with choices like Mickey waffles and an omelet station. There is some Pacific cuisine like fried rice in the mix. At breakfast, you’ll likely see Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy along with Aunty leading a musical parade.
At dinner, Donald Duck, Chip & Dale, and Stitch are regulars with Uncle leading the show. Dinner is a buffet filled with seafood, Asian-inspired dishes, kids options, and plenty of decadent desserts. From an extensive sushi bar to giant crab legs, it definitely is a sight to behold.
So which meal option is best? You can never go wrong with Mickey waffles, so breakfast is always a good choice. For kids who are foodies or a bit older, however, the dinner is probably a better option. It is lower key and less crowded than the breakfast where everyone is racing to the buffet to get to the pools and activities for the day. You can really get more value from the magnificent buffet with more adventurous eaters as well. But we are happy we did both!
Best For: Families with kids from babies to tweens.
3. KA WA’A Luau
Many major Hawaii resorts have luaus, but they are not all created equal. I’ve been to quite a few of them in my day. Aulani’s new luau, unveiled in fall 2016, was the best I have experienced. So many luaus have long lines and jam-packed conditions. Aulani’s felt spacious and relaxed. We especially enjoyed the numerous free pre-dinner activities for children like Hawaiian tattoos, paper art, and lei-making.
The storytelling within the show was powerful and more authentically focused on Hawaii, as opposed to many luaus which are more of a pan-Polynesia combination show. And of course, the food was plentiful and delicious, from the roasted pig to fresh fish to the extensive kid’s buffet options.
To be sure, all this quality comes at a price, making the KA WA’A luau a major splurge for families. General admission seating is $129 Adults/$79 children (ages 3 through 9). Children under 3 are free. VIP seating with early check-in, priority seating, included drinks, and an enhanced welcome lei is $169 Adults/$109 Keiki (ages 3 through 9).
Best For: Families of all ages, especially multi-gen groups.
4. Laniwai Spa
On my first trip to Aulani, I don’t think I even realized it had a spa. Luckily, I didn’t make the same mistake the second trip.
So many luxury spas are so fancy that they almost make me feel uncomfortable. Disney’s Laniwai Spa at Aulani somehow manages to have all of that same luxury while still feeling welcoming, unpretentious, and even a little whimsical. The highlight is the outdoor hydrotherapy garden Kula Wai where visitors can jump in pools of different temperatures and stand under a variety of rain-style outdoor showers.
It is pricey, but still fairly in line with what luxury spas in Hawaii charge. With 20% tip, a 50 minute massage will run just over $200. Of course, since Aunty’s Beach House at Aulani offers free included childcare for kids ages 3-12, there is not an additional babysitting cost for parents getting a break from the kiddos.
Best for: Parents who deserve a break, kids looking for a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique style experience.
5. Paddleboard Rental
On both of our vacations, we have rented a paddleboard, which has always been worth it for our active family. The calm lagoon water is simply perfect for beginners or for the more experienced who want to paddle around with their kids. My husband took my daughter out on the board with him and then we switched off during our hour so I could try as well. An hour was more than enough time for several family members to give the activity a try. Rentals are available at the beach activities hut, Makiki Joe’s, for $39 an hour.
Best for: Families with kids ages 3-4+ (kids can ride with an adult)
6. Catamaran Excursion
While we never left the resort the first time we visited Aulani, it is nice to get out and explore other parts of O’ahu. On our recent trip, we went on one of the off-site catamaran excursions that Disney offers. We left from a marina about 15 minutes from the resort and cruised for a half day to see dolphins and snorkel off the shore of one of O’ahu’s most famous and remote beaches.
These excursions are almost like miniature Adventures by Disney day trips because of the presence of an experienced Disney guide making everything run smoothly. Our guide was exceedingly knowledgeable and turned our day of sailing into a full fledged educational experience. He shared Hawaiian history and culture during our bus transports. During our snorkeling adventure, he even grabbed an octopus from the ocean depths and brought it to the surface for kids to view.
Like the luau, the excursions Disney offers are a major splurge – about $150 per person for the catamaran tour. But the full service experience from Disney is like no other and all the logistics from transportation to food are covered. (Other excursions, like ziplining, horseback riding, etc. are available from the activities desk as well).
Best for: Families with kids ages 6-7+ ready to snorkel in the ocean.
7. Refillable Mug
Many Disney destinations over the years have offered an all-you-can-drink refillable mug option. There’s one at Aulani too! For just $18 plus tax, you can purchase a mug that can be used for soda, coffee, tea, and hot cocoa for the entirety of your stay. Given the cost of beverages a la carte, this is hardly a splurge in the end. In fact, it may well offer you a value – it pays for itself after about 4 drinks.
Best for: Parents who need caffeine, even in paradise.
8. Villa Upgrade
You can’t go wrong with any of the accommodations at Aulani. The larger villa accommodations at Aulani, however, offer a lot of amenities above and beyond regular rooms that may well be worth the upgrade.
My family was able to stay in a one bedroom villa on our most recent visit. I think we may never book anything else after the experience (our first trip was in a studio villa when we had only one child). Our one bedroom villa had a full kitchen, stackable washer and dryer, separate sleeping area for the kids, an enormous bathroom with two sink areas and a separate shower and tub, and more.
VIDEO TOUR OF A ONE BEDROOM AULANI VILLA:
Of course, the price for this upgrade can be substantial. One bedroom villas regularly rent for $700+ a night or more while a regular room is more like $500. But you can often save big bucks by taking advantage of seasonal sales or renting villa accommodations for less by renting DVC points.
Best for: Families with 2-3 kids, families with babies or toddlers who need a separate sleeping space to get rest.
Last but certainly not least, I always highly recommend Photopass to all Aulani visitors staying more than a night or two. Too many guests don’t realize Photopass is available just like at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. They discover it too late to take full advantage!
There are photographers all over Aulani (often at character meet and greets and even in the pools!) who will take shots of your family. They will give you a little card with a barcode to track your photos later. You can then purchase all the photos from your entire vacation for just $99.
How can you maximize PhotoPass even more? Sunset beach photos. I highly recommend going down to the beach in the hour before sunset. Two or three Photopass photographers are usually camped out there to take family portraits for no additional fee. We managed to get a shot for our family Christmas card this way!
Best for: Everyone!
Honorable Mention: Aunty’s Beach House Premium Experiences
Our schedule didn’t work out to take advantage of the premium experiences at Aunty’s Beach House (Aulani’s “kids club”), but it’s worth mentioning for many Aulani visitors. Aunty’s Beach House offers two additional activities for a fee on top of the regular programming that is included in the cost of your Aulani stay.
I’ll have a full guide to everything Aunty’s Beach House coming soon, but here is why I think these premium experiences may be very valuable. If you are traveling to Aulani during a peak time when there is a risk that Aunty’s may occasionally reach capacity, booking a premium experience guarantees your child a spot in Aunty’s for the special programming and beyond that day. Since you can reserve these experiences in advance of your vacation, there’s no need to stand in lines the day-of, as other Aunty’s activities or meal reservations sometimes require.
Disclosure: Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, provided my family with complimentary accommodations, travel, and some activities and meals during our Aulani vacation. We incurred additional activity, dining, and other costs during our trip. As always, all opinions are my own.