We’ve never been on a real family trip, if you exclude all the trips to LPA Regionals/Nationals and family visits. So when it finally came time to pick a location, we wanted to make it count. Dad wanted to go on a cruise due to fond memories from childhood while Mom thought a cruise would be snooze-ville. We tried looking at a Disney cruise as a compromise, but they are extremely expensive, especially during typical school breaks. Thankfully, we found an ideal compromise at the Disney Aulani Resort in Oahu. It has some Disney flair with Hawaiian elegance in a beautiful location and seemed like lots of fun. We had a blast and want to share some tips regarding accessibility.
Aulani Accessibility Overview
For the most part, Aulani was built with accessibility in mind. Built in 2011, it’s up to date with ADA and local codes. The Disney Imagineers obviously put a lot of time and energy into the design, meeting with Hawaii locals to incorporate Hawaiian mythology and traditions. And they also made navigating the resort generally easy for those with mobility impairments.
Aulani Room Accessibility
Our most important tip is that the standard Aulani rooms are not friendly to those with short stature or wheelchairs. The rooms are absolutely beautiful, and even have LP-friendly wooden, skid-free step stools already stowed away in the closet, but the beds are very high. Additionally the standard bathtub is very high for LP’s, even with a step stool.
However, Aulani offers some accessible rooms with a “roll-in shower”. We stayed in one of these 1-bed suites and it was perfect. The King size bed was a perfect height, the roll-in shower was easy to use, and even the door lock and peephole were lowered! Another nice touch was there were two clothes drying lines in the shower, one at standard height and a lowered one (about 4′) as well. The hand-held shower was also at an easy height. In short, the accessible roll-in shower room is a must and is perfect. If you’re willing to splurge, the pool-view room has a beautiful view of the grounds and also a partial ocean view.
The one downside of the accessible room is not unique to Aulani: the ADA height toilet. Yes, everywhere the ADA-compliant rooms are built to wheelchair standards. There is no “dwarf-compliant” room option, unfortunately. The solution here is to use a stool with the toilet. A minor inconvenience, which is solved with a call to guest services. They can provide a plastic step stool with skid-free footing.
Most of the available activities were very accessible. The grounds have plenty of ramps and are easily traversible, although there is a lot of walking to get around the site. In some cases the easiest way to go down to the beach is through the stairs, but there’s always an alternative route.
Aulani has one of three man-made lagoons in the resort area of Ko’olani, and theirs is beautiful. They have plenty of pool-style seating with umbrellas to escape the sun. And you can rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. We have never been kayaking before, so this was a perfect opportunity to give it a try. Even our LP son went kayaking with us! It’s perfect since they will push you to the water and back so you don’t need to lift a heavy boat. And if you ever get stuck, there’s a Disney employee in a kayak or a nice passerby who will help pull you in the right direction. There is also a couple of large water mats, close to shore that you can swim to and soak up the sun. As an Aulani guest, you can rent body/boogie boards and lifejackets for free. This is a great opportunity to try it out in the calm, clear waters of the lagoon. If you want to be more adventurous, there are snorkels you can rent or buy one at the nearby ABC store.
Aulani’s Rainbow Reef
Next to the pool is Aulani’s man-made reef with hundreds of local fish. They have snorkeling opportunities in there daily, but we both have had bad experiences snorkeling in the past when we inhaled water. Unfortunately scuba diving with a huge, heavy tank is not really a practical option for LP’s. But the hotel offers a perfect compromise, what they call “Supplied Air Snorkeling” (SAS). It’s basically a mini scuba tank with about 30 minutes of air strapped to a life jacket. So you can breathe freely without fear of drowning and if you go too far below the water, the life jacket brings you back to the top. Additionally there are some rock areas in the middle of the reef to stand on if you are uncomfortable. Our son was a little apprehensive, and the staff was wonderful as they let him hold onto their arm while he swam around the reef.
Auntie’s Beach House
One of the Aulani’s selling points is Auntie’s Beach House, a kid-only club from morning to night staffed by Aulani employees. Everything here is executed beautifully, from the required hand-wash station upon entrance to the step stools in the restrooms and the myriad of activities available. There’s a movie room with Disney movies playing, a game room with many computers, a Microsoft Surface table, and a beautiful outdoor play area with playhouses. The treehouse/play structure is a little bit of a climb, but there are plenty of other things to do. Our son enjoyed creating structures with the large, blue foam building blocks. Most impressive is the sheer number of employees always on-site to keep your children safe. Each child gets a RFID wristband that allows the staff to easily locate them within the facility, perfect for pickup.
The Beach House will provide a nice lunch and dinner to your children for a reasonable pre-paid fee, if you order ahead of time. Additionally they have some optional “premium” experiences your children might enjoy. Our daughter did the “Fish Are Friends” experience (yes, it’s pricey), where the children learn about the fish in the reef, make fish food, and feed the fish as well.
Menehune Adventure Trail
One of our favorite activities was the Menehune Adventure Trail. It’s an Android tablet-based scavenger hunt that takes you around the grounds. Disney built many interactive exhibits into the design of the lobby and outdoor areas. There are 4 parts to the scavenger hunt and you checkout the tablet for up to an hour each time. The app tells you what item to find on site and an approximate location and when you arrive, the magic happens. Unfortunately part of the scavenger hunt was not totally accessible (such as looking into a high-up “volcano”), but for the most part was a blast.
Dining at Aulani
Yes, food at Aulani is expensive, but it’s nothing beyond what you would pay at a 4-star restaurant. There are is a quick dining area, fast-food areas in the pool area, pool-side dining, and a fine-dining restaurant. The reviews for Ama Ama we read online were mixed, but the breakfast and dinner we had there were good and not out of line with other fine dining restaurants on the mainland. And you can’t beat the expansive ocean view at Ama Ama, a perfect place to view sunsets.
Upon check-in you will be encouraged to sign up for the Disney Character Breakfast. It’s a little pricey, but it’s a fun experience with Goofy, Mickey, and Minnie wandering through the restaurant to take pictures with you. Auntie also stopped by and led a conga line our daughter enjoyed. The breakfast is a buffet with nice hot items, including mickey-shaped pancakes. And the area with the children’s items is lowered as well. The staff was very accommodating to reaching food entrees.
If you want to save some money during your visit, especially if you have a villa with a kitchen, there’s an ABC Store across the street with typical grocery items. And Kalepa’s store in the lobby also has grocery items at a reasonable price. We had a car, so we drove into town and picked up groceries from Target, just 15 minutes away. There’s also a Costco nearby which also stocks an affordable collection of the typical Hawaiian take-home gifts such as chocolate macadamia nuts.
Aulani Starlit Hui
If you’re looking to do a traditional Hawaiian luau, there are plenty of places to go. Paradise Cove is just next door to the Aulani. But, if you just want the Hawaiian cultural performances, the Aulani’s Starlit Hui is perfect since it’s literally in their own backyard. One tip for accessibility: Get there early! With all the kids participating in the hula dancing and parents trying to take photos, it’s like going to a school play. Everyone is fighting to get to the front to take photos of their child, so they’re standing while you’re sitting on a mat. The great thing is that everyone (except those who cannot sit on the ground) is on the seagrass mats so there’s a clear line of sight to the stage. There are also activities in the back of the picnic grass area for those who don’t want to hula. They do demonstrations of other Hawaiian cultural arts and crafts.
Stars Above Hawaii
We have to give a shout-out to Stars Above Hawaii, a “star show” available on the Aulani grounds from a local astronomer. He brings out an 8″ computerized telescope and takes advantage of the clear skies to let you gaze at the planets and galaxies. Unfortunately, the night we signed up the clouds came in just before our show, so we were only able to view the Moon’s craters and Jupiter (but were given a refund). If you have a budding astronomer in your family, we recommend taking advantage of the opportunity. The show is at Aulani twice a week, but you can also sign up directly through the website (for a cheaper price) and visit a show in the Ko Olina resort a couple lagoons down from Aulani.
Other Activities Around Oahu
Oahu is notorious for traffic issues, so we were careful about when and where we drove around the island. Of course Waikiki is famous for beautiful beaches and considered a “must-see”, but we didn’t venture out to that side of the island. The Aulani amenities are enough to keep you busy and relaxed for at least a few days. But if you would like to venture out, the Dole Plantation is not too far away. Of course they are serving Dole Whip (with fresh pineapple chunks!) and they have a train ride through the pineapple plantation and a large maze for the kids. We planned to visit North Shore, but there are many beautiful beaches around the island.
Is Aulani Worth It?
Yes, Aulani is expensive. It is not a budget trip. Just the airfare from the mainland will be pricey. But if you are able to go in the off season (not during Summer Break or Spring Break Week), the rates are more affordable and sometimes special offers are available. For a splurge vacation, we had a great time and recommend the trip if you have children.