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 has now taken five trips to Aulani in the last decade, including our most recent visit in October 2022. A lot has changed since our first trip in spring 2013 was when I was pregnant with my now 9 year old son. The resort is larger and has many more activity and dining choices. Over the years, we have experienced nearly everything Aulani has to offer. So we have some thoughts about what has provided us with value and what activities fit families best at different points in time.
Planning an Aulani vacation and need guidance as to what things to do and where to spend money? Here are some of the extras and splurges that we found truly worthwhile you may want to consider too.
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. Kids enjoy looking out for hidden Mickeys and menehune in the depths during the adventure as well as admiring the many varieties of local fish. Both my kids participated for the first time when they were age 7. My more adventurous daughter could have handled it a few years earlier, but my more cautious son was definitely pushing his comfort zone a little bit at that age (but ultimately enjoyed it).
Admission prices have creeped up over the years, but this activity is still a relative value. In 2022, snorkeling at Rainbow Reef is $25 per adult ages 10 & up and $20 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 $45 for adults and $35 for children.
Best For: Families with elementary age kids and older, Adults
2. Character Meal at Makahiki
For many Disney travelers, a vacation is not complete without a character meal. There is thankfully a character meal available daily at Aulani: Makahiki restaurant for breakfast.
For one set price ($48 for adults, and $29 for kids ages 3-9), guests can order from a menu that includes classics like scrambled eggs, pancakes, or omelets and local favorites like loco moco. Kids meals have several varieties, including a Mickey and Minnie waffle plate. Servings on both the adult and kids plates are hearty. Baskets of pastries and a fruit platter are served as well.
There is a posed photo (usually with Mickey) before guests are seated for the meal, available to purchase separately at the end of the meal for an additional fee. Then most guests greet Chef Goofy for informal photos on the way to their table. Additional characters come by your table for photos and hugs. The characters have changed up a bit in recent years. On our last trip, we met Max and Pluto (previously, Chip and Dale and Stitch were regulars). A local musician also plays and sings during the breakfast.
Note that there have been quite a few changes to character meals at Aulani over the years. Breakfast used to be a buffet, but we confirmed on our most recent trip that the buffet is very unlikely to return. Aulani also used to offer a character dinner 3x a week (Menehune Mischief) but there are no plans for that experience to return either.
Aulani dining reservations open 30 days in advance online. Character meals are a very popular choice so I highly recommend setting an alert to make your reservation. In 2022, reservations open just after midnight Hawaii time, so yes that means a middle of the night wakeup for folks on Pacific time if you really want to make sure to get the day and time you prefer! But if you miss out, there is often some availability for character dining on site too. Check early and often with the hostess stand or concierge.
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 at this point in our Hawaii travels. Aulani’s luau, unveiled in fall 2016, is one of the standouts. We’ve now attended three times (once during a time of extensive modifications in summer 2021 which have largely been lifted now).
So many luaus have long lines and jam-packed conditions. Aulani’s feels 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 is 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 is 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 $170 Adults/$99 children (ages 3 through 9). Children under 3 are free. VIP seating with early check-in, priority seating, and an included welcome photo is $199 Adults/$119 Keiki (ages 3 through 9). Even at the increased price, we have found that VIP seating is worth the extra incremental splurge for the best seating. But it sells out very early, so I highly recommend booking luau tickets as soon as you are contemplating a trip to Aulani.
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 the resort had a spa. Luckily, we didn’t make the same mistake on subsequent trips. Laniwai Spa is one of the very best things Aulani has to offer and is a relaxing escape from the poolside hustle and bustle.
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 (and ultimately nicer than any other spa I’ve been to in Hawaii). A 50 minute standard lomilomi massage is $195 before tip.
What is a little tricky at the moment when it comes to spa appointments for parents with younger kids is childcare. On previous trips, we relied on the kids club, Aunty’s Beach House at Aulani, to watch our kids while we got a massage. But as of fall 2022, Aunty’s has extremely limited hours available only in pre-set 1.5 hour or 2 hour (premium) blocks – likely not really enough to enjoy a full spa treatment and the included hydrotherapy gardens and hard to align perfectly with a spa appointment time. Parents likely have to trade off care for kids or hire an outside babysitter until Aunty’s makes a fuller return. (Insider tip: the trusted Disney nanny service Nanny-Land has recently expanded to Aulani. Find out more about their services here and be sure to use Crown Code: TWT for $80 in savings off registration!)
Best For: Parents who deserve a break.
5. Painted Sky
Next door to Laniwai Spa is Painted Sky, which bills itself as a “HI Style Studio.” Essentially, it’s Aulani’s answer to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where kids ages 3-12 can get a makeover.
Instead of princess dresses, the outfits available are a little more Hawaii style. For girls, there are beautiful Tori Richard Hawaiian dresses and some Moana-inspired options. For boys, there are lots of handsome Hawaiian shirts as well as some bathsuit/rash guard combinations. Many guests make an appointment for their children early in the day before a luau reservation or before a sunset family beach photo shoot. Prices for these packages in 2022 are $120-$145.
My daughter has been to Painted Sky twice and it is once of her favorite things to do at Aulani. She did a full makeover when she was 12 but also returned this past trip when she was 13. For older kids as well as adults, Painted Sky offers a hairstyle only appointment for just $40 where guests can get one of several pool or luau-ready braid designs.
Reservations for Painted Sky open 180 days in advance, so plan ahead if you want an appointment that works before a luau evening. Same day appointments are often available for hair only styling.
Best For: kids looking for a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique style experience.
6. Paddleboard Rental
On many of our Aulani vacations, we have rented a paddleboard at some point during the trip. Each and every time, this splurge has 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 has taken each of our kids out on the board with him and then we often switch off during our hour rental so I can get in some time as well. On our last trip, big sister even took her brother out for the first time.
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 $45 an hour.
Best For: Families with kids ages 3-4+ (kids can ride with an adult)
7. Hawai’i Excursions
We never left the resort the first time we visited Aulani, but soon figured out how important it is to get out and explore other parts of O’ahu. On our subsequent trips, we almost always have taken at least a partial day to see something else outside of the resort. Of course, it’s entirely possible to explore on the cheap by renting a car and exploring on your own. But a lot of families like the convenience and sure thing of an organized tour.
A few trips ago, we went on one of the off-site excursions that Disney offers through its concierge desk with one of the preferred contracted vendors. The specific options change over time, but usually there are offerings like historical tours at Pearl Harbor, water adventures, land adventures like zip-lining, and more.
We took a catamaran excursion at the time. 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 – often several hundred dollars a person. But the full service experience from Disney is like no other and often all the logistics from transportation to food are covered.
Best For: Families with elementary age kids and older open to a little adventure.
8. Refillable Mug (& Popcorn Bucket)
Many Disney destinations over the years have offered an all-you-can-drink refillable mug option. There’s one at Aulani too! For just $22.95 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.
If what you really crave is a snack instead of a drink, there’s a refillable option for that as well – popcorn buckets! They cost $10 for an initial purchase of a plastic bucket (that is shaped like a sandcastle pail) filled with popcorn. Subsequent refills are $3. We got a refill each and every day on our most recent trip and found it was a cheap and filling snack that several members of our family could share.
Best For: Parents who need caffeine, even in paradise. Hungry kids who are always asking for a snack.
9. 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 has stayed in a one bedroom villa on two of our trips. Once you have experienced it, it’s hard to go back to the smaller hotel rooms or studio villas! A one bedroom villa has 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 $1000+ a night or more while a regular room is more like $600-700. But you can often save big bucks by taking advantage of seasonal sales or renting villa accommodations for less by renting DVC points from a company like David’s Vacation Club Rentals. For even more of a splurge for larger families, there are two and three bedroom grand villas at Aulani too.
Best For: Families with 2+ kids, families with babies or toddlers who need a separate sleeping space to get rest.
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 by or 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. We actually found, however, on our most recent 2022 trip that if we loaded the photo card barcodes into the Disneyland app (Aulani’s app doesn’t have Photopass functionality), we could purchase one week Photopass for just $78!
How can you maximize PhotoPass even more? Sunset beach photos. I highly recommend going down to the beach in the hour before sunset. A couple of Photopass photographers are usually camped out there to take family portraits for no additional fee. We have managed on most trips to get a shot for our family Christmas card this way. (Be sure to be on the lookout for Photopass photographer Glenn from Okinawa – he takes amazing photos and has been there on several of our more recent trips!)
Best For: Everyone!
11. Aunty’s Beach House Premium Experiences
Aunty’s Beach House (Aulani’s “kids club”) isn’t yet back operating normally in 2022, so now may well be the time for a splurge for families who want a little more childcare coverage. Aunty’s Beach House currently admits kids ages 5-12 for one free 1.5 hour session per day. But Aunty’s Beach House also offers an additional 2 hour session per day for a fee on top of the regular programming.
At $63 per child per two hour session, these premium experiences are very expensive but they do include a special activity and very nice souvenir. Characters come by for visits as well, and Photopass photographers capture images you’d never be able to get yourself (images are included in the cost of a general resort Photopass purchase). Currently three options are available: Kakamora Chaos with Moana, Becoming Sea Creatures, and SURF’S UP! A Surfin’, Fishin’, Dancin’ party.
The free activities book up almost the moment the Aunty’s Beach House reservations system opens 2 weeks in advance. But premium activities are available much more last minute because of the extra cost. So if you missed your chance to book free Aunty’s sessions, paying for some kids club time is a solid backup option. Or if you simply find your children love Aunty’s and they want to spend more time there, it’s nice the paid option usually has availability.
Personally, I’d much prefer if Aunty’s would open for more free hours with more flexibility, as was the case in 2020 and earlier. But under the current system, paying a little extra is a hack that some families may find valuable.
Best For: Families with kids ages 5-12.
Honorable Mention: Cabana Rental
Probably the only extra my family hasn’t paid for at Aulani is a cabana rental. But I know a lot of friends who have tried them over the years and most rave about the experience. So it deserves a tip-of-the-hat in this honorable mention spot!
Poolside cabana rentals are a major splurge at $550 per day in 2022. They include a shaded area with seating for 7, a fridge, and complimentary water and fruit. Other private areas are available to rent as well, including the Executive Lanai ($350) and the ‘AMA’AMA veranda casabellas ($175-$250), with somewhat different amenities.
Who might find this splurge worthwhile? This is likely the best fit for guests who love spending a full day lounging by the pool but who don’t want to fight in the morning rat race over lounge chairs (which can be substantial!).
Cabana rentals may not be a good fit, however, for families with non-swimming kids. Most cabanas are tucked away in nooks and crannies far from view of the pools with the exception of the two right next to Menehune Bridge. If you want to keep an eye on little ones swimming for safety, the vantage points might not be ideal. On the other hand, for families with babies and very young toddlers, a cabana can be a perfect shaded place for little ones to nap without having to make a parent go back to the hotel room and miss out on afternoon fun.
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).
Disclosure: This post was originally published in 2017, when Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, provided my family with a trip that included complimentary accommodations, travel, and some activities and meals. All our other trips to Aulani over the years (and the vast majority of our splurge activities) have been at our own expense. As always, all opinions are my own.
Read more Aulani tips and travel advice:
- Complete Guide to Disney Aulani
- How to Rent DVC points to Save on an Aulani Vacation
- 29 Tips for an Amazing Aulani Vacation (from StuffedSuitcase.com)
- Disney Cruise vs. Disney’s Aulani: Which one is right for your vacation?
- Tips for Disney’s Aulani with Babies, Toddlers, & Preschoolers