Parenting: Disney's Pacific Playground

Disney's Pacific Playground
September 12, 2012

It's no surprise that I'm familiar with these places. Disney owns 6abc and as a cast member under the broad Disney umbrella, my family and I are eligible for perks. These make visiting the theme parks and company hotels more affordable.

This time, however, I'm reporting on a new company venture that's even farther afield. The Aulani Hotel and Resort is located about twenty minutes west of downtown Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Let's clear something up right away. I realize that Hawaii is a very long, expensive plane ride away and that many families would have a hard time justifying the cost of travel. Honestly, I was in that boat too when I got a load of how much airfares from the east coast to the Hawaiian Island chain have gone up since the last time I visited in 2003. Airfares fluctuate along with the economy and one can never tell what the future holds. Plus, it's fun to dream, right? So, here we go!

A quick drive north

Disney's Aulani Resort opened in March of 2012 in Ko'lina. Its a fancy enclave of houses, townhomes and several hotels (there are two Marriott resorts on either side of the Disney property). It's close enough to the Honolulu International Airport that you can see the colors of the planes landing from the hotel's private beach (love that light blue Korean Airlines fuselage!). Its far enough away that you barely hear their engines. Unless you get snagged in Honolulu's infamous rush hour traffic, it's a 20-minute drive from the airport and the highway leads you straight there.

The hotel will be familiar to anyone who's stayed in the larger Disney resorts in Orlando. There's a broad, themed lobby with a pool area beyond it, tucked between two massive hotel towers. Its a design that is particularly reminiscent of the Fort Wilderness Lodge near the entrance to the Magic Kingdom in Florida.

Also familiar is the service. Some early traveler reviews knocked the staff, shortly after the spring start-up, for being behind on smiles and pleasantries so common at other Disney properties. As of August, it appears they've ironed-out those bugs. Even the grounds keeping staff usually had a smile for us. And those in positions of customer support, all of them with those trademark cast member tags on their lapels, were eager to enhance a guest's stay.

Every time we arrived from a day's drive, we were invited to sample the tasty pineapple-flavored water that was always on ice outside the entrance. Staffers positioned in and outside the lobby often asked us about our plans and made personal suggestions.

The one hitch was at check-in when there was a delay with our room (we had arrived early in the afternoon from the west coast). I would suggest that you get your swim trunks out before you check your bags and enjoy the pool if this happens to you, because the wait can be longer than they let on.

Keeping it clean

Being new, the physical plant was spotless and the staff seems anxious to keep it that way. The rooms were similar in size to the Orlando hotels, and richly decorated. However, Disney only allows four people in anything but the vacation villa rooms, so unlike many of the Orlando properties, if your family includes five or more, you'll be on the hook for a pair of accommodations. Also, the third adult incurs an extra one-hundred dollar per night fee, something to factor in as you weigh the cost. They do make it a little easier on parties of four however, by offering a free blow-up air mattress in case two kids don't want to share the sofa bed. The king worked great for mom and dad.

The least expensive rooms overlook mainly the dry mountainside and the parking garages. Some traveler reviews have mentioned obnoxious noises emanating from the garages at night like car horns and alarms. We experienced no such issues on the seventh floor. And by the way, as far as parking garages go, the Aulani's are fairly nice to look at.

The hotel towers are 16 floors high, so those with concerns have plenty of room to go up if they can secure the booking. Pool view or partial ocean view rooms apparently offer stunning overlooks for a price, but this wasn't the kind of place where we spent much time indoors, and I was fine with my mountain view (which actually did include a slice of ocean).

Pretty pools

The pools are the best of any Disney hotel I have ever seen (and that's saying a lot because the Yacht and Beach Club hotels near Epcot are pretty special). At Aulani, you have a marvelous lazy river beautifully designed by Disney's Imagineers, and two water slides, one for tubes, one for swimmers. Getting your hands on an inner tube can require some patience during the height of the afternoon, but the pay-off is that none of these areas are all too crowded. The main pool is large, but can still get a bit crowded at times. The water is warm and comfortable. Spend a few days in the water and you may start learning Japanese; about half the hotel guests when we were there hailed from the Pacific Rim.

Meals at the two main hotel restaurants are great, but expensive. Plan on at least $50 a head at the main location which overlooks the ocean. We actually only ate there once, however, and completely skipped the pricey character breakfast behind the pools. This was possible because, like many of the Aulani's sister hotels in Orlando, quick service dining is available for much less. A continental breakfast included yummy treats like pre-sliced pineapple wedges, bagels and almond-encrusted croissants. At night, poolside service included some great appetizers which made a meal for us one evening. You also have a choice of table service or counter service for One Paddle, Two Paddle, a less expensive option with salads and sandwiches that all satisfied.

Outside eating options

For those especially interested in saving dough, there's a recently completed town center two miles down the road toward Honolulu. The center includes an Outback Steak House, Pizza Hut, Denny's and every manner of fast food, all of which costs roughly the same as it does at home. You'll also find a Target and a Kmart here. Since there's a fridge in the room, you can buy supplemental items like juice and milk for far less here.

The hotel activities are plentiful, but not always free. Included in the price is beach access, beach lounge chairs, night time entertainment on a lawn near the beach (movies some nights, a live Hawaiian themed show on other nights), and story-telling around a fire pit below the pool. Paid activities include snorkel and watercraft rentals (we brought our own snorkel equipment and we did our snorkeling in the fantastic pubic areas on the northern and southern shores where there's more variety), snorkeling in a hotel aquarium that's loaded with tropical fish, and special events listed daily in the hotel program that's delivered to your room. We went for the $39 star-gazers activity and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Mouse around the house

Mickey and friends make an occasional appearance, but they don't overrun the place and it's actually possible to find spots where Aulani feels more relaxing than the typical hotel at Disney World. This is especially true on the beach, the lower pool terraces, or the secluded adults-only pool off behind the movie lawn. There are several bars with local beers and mixed drinks fit for rum lovers.

One of the best things about the Aulani is the location away from crowded Waikiki where most of the tourists stay. The hotel is close enough to various highways that you can get exploring with relative ease, especially with regards to the famous North Shore and Pearl Harbor. There are three concierge attendants on duty most of the time, which makes it easy to get directions and tips. However, there is no way around the Honolulu traffic. Get caught in their version of rush hour and it will double the time from downtown back to the hotel.

In closing, if you can afford it, Disney's new Aulani Resort is a luxurious, friendly base camp from which to explore the many beauties and rich history of Oahu. To save cash, I would recommend booking during the lower travel seasons when airfare and hotel rates tend to drop. Personally, I wouldn't fret too much over the ocean view versus non ocean view. There's so much to see on the Island and the pool and beach areas are so nice. Unless someone turns-up ill, I doubt you'll be spending much time in the room anyway, and the parking lot view is definitely more affordable.

I'm covering Oahu sightseeing and Pearl Harbor in two more separate blogs.

---David Murphy

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