You’ve been to Walt Disney World or Disneyland. Or maybe both! You are looking to take another Disney vacation but maybe with a bit of a twist to change it up this time. Most Disney-loving families turn next to a cruise vacation aboard Disney Cruise Line or a trip to Hawaii to Aulani, Disney’s resort on the island of O’ahu.
I hear a lot from friends and readers who aren’t sure whether Aulani or a Disney Cruise is the best next step in their Disney travels. I’ve had the good fortune to try both on multiple occasions over the years, experiencing them with my kids at different ages and stages.
Both are travel experiences I’d highly recommend. Although this post pits Aulani vs. Disney Cruise, there really isn’t a winner and loser here. Rather, one trip may simply be better suited to the ages of your kids or the way your family likes to travel. What I hope to do is point out those sweet spots where you are likely to get more out of doing one of these trips compared to the other.
But if budget allows and you have the interest, I sincerely hope Disney-loving families eventually do both!
Check out some of my introductory posts to DCL and Aulani first if you don’t know all the basics:
- Mistakes I Made on My First Disney Cruise
- Comprehensive Review of Disney’s Aulani Resort
- Tips for Disney Cruise Line with Toddlers and Preschoolers
- Disney Aulani Splurges Worth the Money
(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy linked in the menu at the bottom of this site.)
Similarities Between Disney Cruise Line & Aulani
Before I dive into the differences between these two vacations, let’s start with the similarities. Disney Aulani (which opened in Ko Olina on O’ahu in 2011) was very much modeled after Disney Cruise Line (which launched in 1998). In fact, Aulani was designed to bring much of the Disney Cruise experience to land. So it’s not surprising that the two have a lot more in common than they have different.
Both are luxury-level (translation: expensive) Disney vacations. If you are used to doing Disney on the cheap by staying in a value resort or an inexpensive off-property hotel at Disney World or Disneyland, you probably aren’t going to be able to do that with either Aulani or Disney Cruise.
To be sure, there are certainly ways to reduce the costs of both Aulani and DCL. But be realistic about the total bill you are going to be facing with either of these vacations.
Both Disney Cruise Line and Aulani offer a vacation experience that is very different from the Disney parks. A trip to Disney World or Disneyland means a lot of walking and logistics navigating theme park lines day after day. You’ll find a totally different daily schedule on an Aulani or DCL vacation.
The footprint and scope of both Aulani and the Disney Cruise ships are smaller. There are no attractions to ride. You can plan much less if you prefer. If you want to spend a day lounging by a pool or visiting a spa, there’s time for that. In fact, that’s really the point of these vacations.
Of course, there’s amazing Disney service and lots of Disney entertainment and characters to experience if you wish. But there’s far less theme park rat race. (Although I can’t promise you won’t encounter crowds and lines in several situations!)
Disney Cruise Line vs. Disney Aulani: Key Differences to Consider
So now on to the differences that matter between these two kinds of vacations. What factors should you consider in picking which one is right for you?
Where Are You Located?
Location, location, location. For families with limited vacation times and sometimes limited patience with little ones on planes, minimizing travel time is often an important factor in making vacation decisions.
For fellow West Coast families, the logistics of getting to Hawaii can be quite simple. And they are even simpler and cheaper now that Southwest Airlines has been flying to Hawaii the last several years. I’m a California girl and can travel to Hawaii on an easy 5 hour flight. As a result, Aulani feels “close” to me.
For families in the Midwest or on the East Coast, however, visiting Aulani is more of a challenge. A Hawaii trip can require multiple plane connections, maybe a redeye flight, and some serious jet lag and time zone changes. That may not be how you want to spend vacation – especially with babies or toddlers. I get it.
The majority of Americans will be much closer to a Disney Cruise Line vacation than an Aulani one. In that case, Disney Cruise may be a smarter choice. DCL currently has five ships (the Disney Magic, the Disney Wonder, the Disney Dream, the Disney Fantasy, and the new Disney Wish). There are two more on the way (the Disney Treasure and a yet-to-be-named ship that will be Asia-based). Chances are one is stationed closer to you. Itineraries currently include the Caribbean, Europe, Alaska, the West Coast of Mexico (Mexican Riviera), Australia, and several more.
Within just North America, cruises set sail out of Florida (Port Canaveral near Orlando, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale), Galveston, New Orleans, San Diego, Vancouver, and New York City. Indeed, even as close as Aulani is for me, DCL’s San Diego sailings are much closer!
How Flexible Is Your Travel Schedule?
Even though DCL sailings are closer geographically, there is one countervailing factor to consider. Cruise itineraries start and end only on specific days. As a result, it may be harder to find a DCL sailing that fits your ideal schedule constraints. This is especially true given the fact that most travelers fly in a day before a cruise starts to minimize the risk of a flight delay making them miss the ship.
We are encountering just this very challenge as we plan for our Thanksgiving travels. One of my kids doesn’t have the full week off of school this year. We found there simply isn’t a Disney cruise that we could travel to and sail on in the time allotted without having her miss at least one day of school.
Related: Tips for Missing School to Travel
In contrast, Aulani offers the ultimate in flexibility. Guests can arrive and depart on any day of the year at any time. This has meant we’ve been able to squeeze in a visit to Aulani even on a long weekend where a nearby cruise simply wouldn’t have aligned with the kids’ school holidays. So for travelers who need flexibility, Aulani may ultimately be the more flexible of the two.
Do You Want a More All-Inclusive Experience?
Many families prefer to take all-inclusive vacations. They can take a lot of the guess work out of budgeting. Others much prefer to pay a la carte for what they actually consume and value. (For what it’s worth, I’m pretty ambivalent personally about this choice. I usually find myself on a la carte vacations most of the time.)
If you are the type of traveler who values the all-inclusive model, Disney Cruise Line is much closer to an all-inclusive vacation than Aulani. Food and a number of on-board activities and entertainment options are included in the cost of a cruise. There are extras like many drinks, shore excursions, and tips to watch out for, but they are fewer and farther between.
Aulani, on the other hand, is much more like a standard resort vacation. You pay for the room, but all of the food and drinks are an additional expense. Aulani has number of free activities like the amazing pools, waterslides, lazy river, and beach (and kids club – more on that below). But most of the premium experiences cost extra, including an evening show, Aulani’s Ka Wa’a Luau. And as you might imagine, everything else is simply more expensive in Hawaii.
Does Anyone in Your Family Get Motion Sickness?
This may seem like a small consideration but it matters in a big way. There is a small portion of the population for whom cruising is just not a realistic vacation choice thanks to motion sickness or related health issues.
I have a friend who took her 8 year old on a Disney Cruise for the first time only to discover that his stomach was radically incompatible with cruising. He was terribly seasick on the ship for four days straight. In fact, they headed straight to the ER to rehydrate him after docking. He didn’t have any history of other types of motion sickness so this reaction was quite an unfortunate surprise.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether any of your family members will be affected by cruises until you take one. The vast majority of people who don’t already have known motion sickness or related problems will be fine on any cruise, especially with a little Dramamine or SeaBands for backup. I personally have vertigo and have no problems even on small ships in big waves, although my father with Meniere’s disease can no longer cruise. But if this worries you and you have not cruised before, I’d steer clear of a long open water DCL itinerary as your first trip. It’s not much of a vacation for anyone if even one member of the family feels poorly.
If you have someone with known motion sickness issues of any significance, a cruise may be a gamble you just don’t want to take.
Do You Have a Big Family or Need more Space?
If you have more than two kids, you are probably already used to the challenge of standard hotel rooms. Most of them are built for four – if that. Upgrading to larger accommodations or even booking two rooms brings major increased costs.
Big families will likely find that both Aulani and Disney Cruise Line present the usual challenges. As you can probably imagine, however, space is a little easier to come by on land than on sea. Larger suites and condos are ultimately a bit more readily available at Aulani.
Aulani has some more flexible options for larger families because of its abundance of Disney Vacation Club (DVC) villas (Related: Find out how we rented at Aulani using DVC points and saved big or rent from David’s Vacation Club Rentals yourself). One bedroom villas sleep up to 5 people. Families of 6 or more will need to upgrade to the two or three bedroom villas. To be sure, these premium rooms do not come cheap. But the villas have full kitchens and washer/dryers that make them very convenient and even cost-effective for larger families.
Disney Cruise Line does have some options that work for bigger families as well. DCL ships have a number of cabins that sleep 5. They are more limited in supply and may sell out before the rest of the cabins do, so early planning is required. And they are a tight squeeze even when you can find them.
Many larger families often opt to book two connecting cabins on Disney Cruise Line for more space. This limits the cabin types available to you depending on the ship, but can work well. And on cheaper itineraries like those in the Caribbean, this strategy often isn’t prohibitively expensive, although it can be to some destinations.
Do You Want or Need Childcare?
Both Disney Cruise ships and Disney’s Aulani Resort have complimentary kids clubs. (Truthfully, the clubs are built into the cost of the room/cabin. But I prefer to celebrate them as free.) While some of the DCL and Aulani childcare offerings used to be similar, that is not really the case anymore. It’s important to get up to speed on what the parameters are in 2023 to determine what will work best for your childcare needs.
Disney Cruise Line offers two connecting kids clubs, the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab, included in the cruise cost. Kids ages 3-12 are permitted to visit as long as they are potty trained. No reservations are required, and I’ve never yet seen a club reach capacity. The clubs are open for long hours that give parents a lot of flexibility any time of the day.
All the DCL ships also have a nursery aboard in addition to the kids clubs. The nursery takes kids from 6 months old through age 3 (note that 3 year olds can do either the Oceaneer Club & Lab or the nursery). At $9 per hour, this childcare option isn’t free, but it’s a good value for what it offers.
Aulani has never had a nursery for babies and toddlers like Disney Cruise Line, but it does have a kids club called Aunty’s Beach House. Aunty’s used to operate much more like Disney Cruise Line’s clubs. Parents could drop kids off on a whim for any length of time. Unfortunately, it no longer works this way in 2023.
Aunty’s currently admits kids ages 4-12 only (it used to take 3 years olds too). Reservations are essential and book up weeks in advance online. Kids are limited to one free 90 minute pre-set session per day, at either 8am, 10am, or noon. Aunty’s also is not open in the evenings, so it’s not an option for parents who want to use it for an adults-only date night.
My kids adored Aunty’s in the pre-2020 times. You can probably sense my frustration at the current pared back state of affairs. If you need or want meaningful included childcare, Aulani’s offering doesn’t make the grade at the moment. If you simply want a break from the kids here and there and can plan ahead, it will suit just fine.
The bottom line? If you have a baby or toddler who is younger than 4, there is no Disney-operated childcare option for you at Aulani. And for kids 4-12, the options are more limited at Aulani than on Disney Cruise Line. If you are like my family and often use kids clubs, this difference between Aulani and DCL can be a crucial tie-breaker.
Trips With Tykes Tip: Need a sitter for younger kids or a date night at Aulani? There’s an outside service we recommend with background checked nannies that serves the resort. Find out more about Nanny-Land’s services here and be sure to use Crown Code: TWT for $80 in savings off the registration fee.
Do You Have Teens?
When I first published this post, my kids were still in elementary school, so I had no experience yet with the teenage point of view on Aulani and DCL. But I just recently took a Disney cruise with my daughter for her 14th birthday and we visited Aulani a few months before that. So I grilled her hard on what she thought about both experiences for teens.
Both offer a safe atmosphere where parents can let teens roam and explore independently. While Aulani will always be her first love, she thought Disney Cruise Line currently delivers far more for the teen set.
Disney Cruises simply have so much more for teens to do. They have an abundance of night time programming and exclusive tween/teen clubs, Edge and Vibe. At Aulani, there used to be some programming for teens before 2020, but it hasn’t returned to the schedule. In my experience, Aulani appears to be drawing more families with little ones in recent years than it did before, so there may not be the demand for it ever to return. On our last trip to Aulani, we had a lot of family bonding and fun together, but my daughter grew a little restless not having an organized way to meet kids her age.
That said, Aulani would still work well for teens on a vacation with extended family and friends and built-in socialization. But DCL is better when traveling with just your immediate family because it is easier for teens to make and meet friends on board.
The verdict? If you have an active teen who likes to socialize, the safer bet is DCL. Further reading from fellow travel bloggers who have done both vacations with teens too:
Do You Have a Passport?
As someone who has been lucky to travel internationally since I was a child, I sometimes forget that most Americans don’t have passports! At $130 per adult and $100 per child in 2023 (+ a $35 acceptance fees for new applicants), they are a big cost that can really add to a trip’s budget.
You obviously don’t need passports at all for an Aulani vacation (for the geographically challenged – yes, Hawaii is a US state). But passports are needed or at least highly advised for most Disney Cruise Line itineraries.
Technically, there are a few exceptions. You and/or your kids may be able to make do with a passport card (only $65) or ID and birth certificate if you are taking a closed loop cruise to many Caribbean countries, Canada or Mexico.
But I don’t recommend this approach at all. If your ship is diverted to a new port due to weather, you might not be able to get off. It’s also risky to travel internationally without a standard passport in the case of a medical or family emergency.
So, if you and your kids are not yet passport holders, definitely factor the cost of a passport into your Disney Cruise Line vacations as you make your travel decisions!
Do You Want to Do More than Disney?
One of the reasons many vacationers choose an Aulani or Disney Cruise Line vacation is that they offer so much more than Disney travel. They come with tried and true Disney service and amenities that families can trust to meet their travel needs. But they aren’t merely a theme park vacation. They are both much more focused on the destination.
It is certainly possible to do either of these vacations and stay entirely within the Disney bubble if you wish. You can go straight from Honolulu Airport to Aulani and never leave until it is time to go back to the airport. If you choose a DCL itinerary that doesn’t have many or any ports of call other than Castaway Cay (or if you don’t get off the ship!), you’ll have a mostly Disney-centric experience as well.
But it’s also possible to explore a lot more on either of these vacations. Aulani is a short skip and a hop away from Pearl Harbor. You can spend a day driving to the North Shore or visiting Waikiki Beach or hiking Diamond Head. You can even combine a few nights of an Aulani vacation with a stay elsewhere in the Hawaiian islands to both save money and see more sights.
And even if you do stay only within the resort, you’ll still learn plenty about the local culture. Disney has worked diligently to make Aulani authentically Hawaiian in its offerings. It’s more than just character meals and pixie dust.
With Disney Cruise Line you can quite literally see the world. Opt for a tropical vacation with a Caribbean or Mexican Riviera itinerary. Or you can explore culture and history in Europe or experience outdoor adventure in Alaska. The numerous options make a DCL trip even more of a destination-focused vacation that just happens to have magical Disney touches.
Frequently Asked Questions about Disney Cruises and Aulani
Still have questions about the Disney Cruise vs. Aulani debate? Here are a few more queries that may have crossed your mind.
Can I take a Disney Cruise TO Aulani?
If you want to have your cake and eat it too by taking a Disney Cruise that includes an Aulani vacation, is that possible? Not exactly.
As of 2023, Disney has added Hawaii to its cruising schedule, but only in a very limited fashion. One ship, the Disney Wonder, stops in Hawaii as it repositions from its summer Alaska itineraries down to Australia in the fall (and then as it returns to the West Coast in spring 2024).
The ship doesn’t stop at Aulani (and in fact, only the fall itinerary includes Honolulu). And these one way trips are 10 days each and quite pricey.
Conceivably, you could DIY an itinerary to do both DCL and Aulani, as follows:
- Depart on the Disney Wonder on October 3, 2023 from Vancouver to Hawaii.
- Debark the Disney Wonder on October 13, 2023 in Honolulu.
- Transfer to Aulani for a stay of several nights.
- Fly home.
But realistically, this isn’t going to work for the vast majority of family travelers. Sorry to disappoint!
What costs more: a Disney cruise or an Aulani vacation?
As you can probably imagine, there is no definitive answer to this question. A lot depends on the date you would like to travel. And for cruises, the price can vary based on the destinations involved and the ship.
To help illustrate general costs, I priced out sample 4 night vacations for a family of four on the same dates. Since Aulani doesn’t include food like DCL, I budgeted $250 for a family per day. Believe it or not, this is a reasonable Hawaii food budget if you plan to eat out most dinners but also plan to get some groceries or grab and go food at other times.
For a trip right after Labor Day this year (September 4-8, 2023), here is what the least expensive room/cabin runs for each:
- Disney Magic 4-Night Bahamian Cruise from Miami (inside cabin): $3452
- Aulani $2242 (standard room with current 25% off fall discount) + $250/day food budget = $3242
Here’s another example for early next year (January 8-12, 2024) that includes higher end accommodations (a veranda cabin on Disney’s newest ship vs. a one bedroom villa at Aulani):
- Disney Wish 4-Night Bahamian Cruise from Port Canaveral (veranda cabin): $5063
- Aulani $4100 (1 bedroom villa) + $250/day food budget = $5100
As you can see, the prices for Aulani and Disney Cruises are generally in the same ballpark. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. For example, Disney Cruises to Alaska tend to be quite a bit more expensive than other cruise destinations. Disney Aulani also tends to run more published seasonal sales where you can sometimes snag a lower nightly room price if you are very flexible.
At Aulani, you can also book a shorter stay to save money. A lot of travelers on a budget who still want to experience Aulani may want to book a one or two night stay and spend additional nights at a more moderately priced hotel elsewhere on O’ahu. Disney Cruises in North America, in contrast, are a minimum of a three night price commitment.
And of course, you also have to consider airfare costs and other add-ons your family might want to experience when making the full cost comparison.
Aulani vs. Disney Cruise: The Final Word
Whatever you decide between Aulani or Disney Cruise Line, I’m fairly confident you will experience a memorable family vacation.
We have enjoyed our times immensely at each and plan to return to both. Aulani was probably a better fit for kids when they were preschoolers/grade school age and Disney Cruise is working a bit better now as our kids get into the teen years. But that could change as both DCL and Aulani make adjustments to their offerings.
Let me know which one your family is choosing (or has chosen) first and why!
Disney Cruise Line & Aulani Vacation Deals!
If you aren’t renting DVC points through David’s Vacation Club Rentals for the Aulani villas, consider using Trips With Tykes partner, Get Away Today, to book your vacation package with additional perks. Get Away Today specializes in Disney travel and knows Aulani and Disney Cruise Line well (in addition to their bread and butter, Disneyland) so you can take advantage of their expert advice while snagging some deals.
For DCL, they’ll be able to score you the best in discounts and other perks. For Aulani, their agents constantly monitor new sales and will apply deals and discounts if they are announced after you make an initial booking. Fill out this form for an Aulani vacation quote request from Get Away Today and this form for a Disney Cruise vacation quote request (and if you prefer to talk to them on the phone, tell them Leslie at Trips With Tykes sent you).
Disclosure: Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, and Disney Cruise Line has provided my family with complimentary and/or discount accommodations and activities during some of our vacations to Aulani and aboard Disney Cruise Line. Most of our Aulani and DCL trips have been at our own expense. As always, all opinions are my own.