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After three years and millions of dollars (Disney won’t say how many, exactly), Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, opened in late August in the west Oahu development of Ko Olina. Besides bearing the Disney stamp, the 21-acre property is also generating interest because it’s the first major Disney resort not attached to a theme park. Fortunately, after a recent visit, it’s clear that Aulani is so loaded with options for kids that it lives up to the hype.
The resort’s amenities and activities include a water playground featuring pools, water slides, the Waikolohe Stream lazy river and an elaborate water-play area known as the Menehune Bridge. At Rainbow Reef, a 3,800-square-foot manmade snorkel lagoon, guests can try out snorkeling in a safe and protected environment and interact with some of the fish that inhabit the waters around Hawaii. There is also a sting ray experience that allows guests to pet and feed the intriguing sea creatures.
Perhaps the best amenity for children, however, is the resort’s kids’ club. Called Aunty’s Beach House, the club is designed to resemble the fun-filled home of a Hawaiian Aunty and Uncle. Different rooms of the house are used to host various activities for kids — messy arts and crafts take place in Uncle’s garage, while cooking fun and other crafts happen in Aunty’s kitchen. My favorite room is the rainy-day room. Because at Aunty’s house movies are saved for rainy days, Disney Imagineers created a cozy home theater where make-believe thunder is perpetually heard outside and rain constantly streaks down the windows.
Another amenity, the Laniwai Spa at Aulani, is the first spa operated by Disney (instead of an outside company), and it is clear that Disney has put a lot of energy into making it a success. The spa features 15 treatment rooms — including a family room where everyone can get a massage at the same time — and an outside water treatment area with specialized showers and Jacuzzis. There is also a spa designed for teens called Painted Sky, where guests can get manicures and pedicures, makeovers and even create their own facial creams.
Disney paid special attention to families when creating Aulani’s guestrooms. When the final construction is completed (scheduled for 2013), the two towers of Aulani will feature 359 hotel rooms, including 16 suites, and 481 two-bedroom Disney Vacation Club villas. All the rooms were built with multiple configurations in mind, making Aulani ideal for multigenerational groups. In my Deluxe Suite, in addition to the king bed, there was a pull-out sofa and a Murphy bed. Rooms feature ocean and partial-ocean, poolside garden, island garden and standard views.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on my visit was Disney’s attention to Hawaiian history and culture. When completed, Aulani will have one of the largest collections of Hawaiian art in the world, and the resort’s interior design features wood and colorful patterns inspired by Hawaiian kappa cloth. In the Aulani lobby, designed to resemble a Hawaiian hale (canoe house), guests are welcomed by a 200-foot-long mural that is a tribute to Hawaiian history.
Each night, guests can gather around the Moolelo talk-story fire pit to hear Uncle, the Hawaiian elder, share stories of Hawaii. Also, in the Olelo Room, guests will find the Hawaiian names for many objects cleverly carved into wooden shadow boxes all along the lounge’s walls. (Olelo means “word” in Hawaiian.) The servers in the lounge speak Hawaiian and are happy to teach guests a few words too.
The two main on-site restaurants are the buffet-style Makahiki restaurant, which serves traditional island dishes in addition to other family favorites, and Ama Ama, a sophisticated beachside eatery with ocean views. Disney character dining is available at Makahiki restaurant.
While there is ground transportation to and from Aulani and the Honolulu airport (17 miles away) — and there are escorted excursions available to other sites on the island — agents should probably advise clients to rent a car, especially if they are going to be staying for more than a couple of days. Many visitors will want to get off property at some point, and there are not a lot of services within walking distance (besides golf). It takes approximately 30 to 45 minutes to get to Waikiki Beach.
With Disney’s attention to detail and commitment to entertainment, agents should have no worries about sending families to say aloha to Aulani.
Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawaiiwww.disneytravelagents.com
Rates run from $399 to $2,449 per night. Commission: 10 percent.