Thursday, September 24, 2015

Disney's Aulani Resort Review & Pics (Oahu)

Disney's Aulani Resort Review & Pics (Oahu)

Trip Report for July 2015

Number of people: 4 (2 adults, 2 children (ages 17/18 and 15))
Dates: 07/19/2015 - 07/24/2015
Travel: United Airlines, Alamo
Accommodations: Disney's Aulani Resort
Attractions: Aulani's Pool, Aulani's Rainbow Reef, Dole Plantation, Pearl Harbor, Sea Life Park, Waihiawa Botanical Garden 
Restaurants: Makahiki (Aulani), Duke's (Outrigger Resort, Waikiki), Poolside Service (Aulani), 'AMA'AMA (Aulani) 

High Points:
West Oahu's tranquility
Rainbow Reef
Pre-dawn walks
Concierge assistance
The water park within Aulani
My daughter's 18th birthday
Hawaiian covers of classic Disney music
Mickey Bar almost immediately followed by Dole Pineapple Whip
Majestic sights on Oahu's east coast

Low Points:
Bait and switch by Alamo
Dinner reservation system
Poor time management
Highway construction with traffic jams
Parking costs

Hawaii with a touch of Disney magic


Departure from Dulles (IAD) around 9:00AM was uneventful although we arrived at the gate only 5 minutes before boarding began.  This was a large aircraft, a Boeing 767-400 ER, where the ER stands for Extended Range and it takes a long time to load.  It's a direct flight to Honolulu (HNL) and about 10 hours in duration.  The Aulani Resort is on the leeward, or western, side of Oahu which is probably the least developed part of that island.  That is precisely what I sought.  I've been to the Hawaiian islands several times, but this was the first time for my wife and children.  Actually, one of my children became a legal adult during the trip.  This was her combination graduation and birthday present.  With only 6 days/5 nights, I limited the trip to Oahu.  The last time I was in Hawaii was 1986 and even then I recall how overdeveloped the areas close to the capital had become.

We hit our first snag at the car rental agency.  Alamo is the preferred provider for Aulani and I had booked though the Walt Disney Travel Company via their website.  

I had rented a mid-size because we had two large and several small pieces of luggage.  Our rental car was parked under the sign marked "Mid-Size," but it was a compact Toyota Yaris.  It should have been at least a Corolla, but that was all they had left so we took it.  The girls had to sit with a big bag in the middle of the back seat.  Later, I called WDTC about the bait and switch and they came through with a refund of the difference between the two vehicle classes.

The drive from the airport confused me somewhat.  The connection to interstate (yes, Hawaii has interstates) H-1 westbound seemed to require heading east and turning around.  This may have had something to do with the extensive highway projects including the addition of mass transit rail.

There was a spurious claim that this was going to be a monorail, but in looking at the photo gallery at the website, it's dual-tracked light rail.  If you want a Hawaiian monorail, you have to go the Pearlridge Center Mall.

Once outside the city, most of the traffic drops off dramatically,  The sightseeing along the south coast of Oahu paralleling H-1 is relatively unremarkable.  On the way to Ko Olina, many people bemoan the "oil refinery" at Barber's Point near the resorts.  It's more of an industrial complex with a dry dock for boat repairs, but it's not pretty.  Fortunately, most rooms at Aulani do not have a view of it.  Speaking of views, months earlier when I attempted to book a room, all of the lower-priced "standard view" rooms were already taken.  But, I was offered a 1-bedroom villa with a king bed, queen sofa sleeper, pull-down twin, two baths, two balconies and a full kitchen for the same price as an upgraded room.  My impression is that this was someone's timeshare that they were offering through the hotel.  

Aulani is stunning from the moment you first see it.  

From articles I had read previously, the designers styled it to be bold on Hawaii and subtle on Disney.  The architecture combines elements of perhaps both the Polynesian Resort and the Animal Kingdom Lodge at WDW with a self-contained water park.  There was no trouble finding a spot in the parking structure most likely because of the $35/day parking fee.  I had been offered shuttle service, but unlike the Magical Express at WDW, transfers are not included with the stay.  I could have rented the car from the Alamo concession at the resort, but unless you plan to return it without parking it at the hotel, it's not really more economical especially when combined with airport to resort transfers.  
I had checked in online which saved a few minutes over waiting in line.  Our room was ready.  It was about 3:00PM local time or 9:00PM body time. I had a dinner reservation for Makahiki for their earliest seating at 5:00PM. Just like Advanced Dining Reservations for WDW, you can make arrangements online.  Unlike some places within WDW, none of the restaurants charge a deposit (yet).  They have an honor system for cancelling multiple reservations.  They know some people don't know when they will want to eat because of jet lag.  We had just enough time between check-in and dinner for a quick tour of our room and to get oriented with the resort's extensive facilities.

The 1-bedroom villa really qualifies as a 2-bedroom suite at most other hotels.  Along with the full kitchen, there was even a breakfast nook with a bench seat and tables and an over/under clothes washer/dryer.  The bathroom was subdivided with a bench shower stall in one part and a whirlpool bathtub in the other.  There are even some hidden Mickeys to be found here.  

Still, the first thing anyone wants to do is get out on one of the balconies and take in that view.

Our quick tour involved getting our bearings and receiving a briefing on how to obtain wristbands.  While most pool activities like the lazy river and tube slides are included, wristbands are still required to prevent non-guests from using the facilities.  The Rainbow Reef saltwater pool costs an additional amount, but allows you to snorkel with live fish.  I've been on two Disney cruises and Aulani models some of its activities and payment system like those on a cruise ship.  For example, the Disney Wonder has a Daily Navigator and Aulani has a Daily 'Iwa with the schedule of that day's special events.  Your room key can be coded as a charge card.  They also have the roving photographers who can link the images they take to PhotoPass. There is refillable mug option, but I did not take it.  I already have too many mugs and with the full kitchen, I could drive to a local supermarket and buy 2-liter bottles for much less.

Just prior to dinner, we stopped in at the Lava Shack snack stop and there it was, a Dole Whip machine.  They even offered a free sample.  Yeah, your first hit is always free.  Then, they have you hooked.  We also paid homage to the almighty Stitch.

It was a short walk to Makahiki and it was a good thing I checked in early.  Their system showed I had an 8:00PM reservation and not 5:00PM.  It was already 11:00PM body time and we hadn't eaten for a while.  They cleared up the error and brought us in soon after that.  Even at $42 per person, the buffet more than exceeded expectations.  The older of my two daughters is a strict vegan, yet she found plenty from which to choose.  In fact, the fruits like pineapple and papaya spoiled her for the same things at home because they were so fresh.  We were seated outside in a gentle breeze.  I cannot recall anything I got of the buffet that disappointed.  My family enjoyed it so much, that they thought we should do the morning buffet as well even though it's a character breakfast. Some in my party don't care for the costumed characters or the hordes of little ones they attract.  Why are there always so many kids at Disney? I had not thought of getting reservations for it for those reasons.  The character breakfast is the single most popular event at the resort and it's usually booked well in advance.  The only thing one can do in that situation is ping the website over and over and hope for a cancellation.  Usually, parents overbook by having multiple times on multiple days which violates the reservation honor system, but they do it anyway.  As a result, last minute cancellations do happen, but you have to snag them quickly.

As we finished dinner, everyone noticed the time difference kicking in.  Even though the sun had not yet set, the urge to sleep overwhelmed.

2:00AM local time (8:00AM body time) - I'm wide awake.  Other members of my family are capable of sleeping up to 14 hours at a stretch.  I'm also regretting not forcing myself to make a grocery run the evening before, but I was just too tired.  So, what to do at Aulani in the pre-dawn hours?  You can go for a walk.  The perimeter around the pool and koi ponds remain lit although at a lower level than when the tiki torches are ablaze.  It's also amazingly quiet without hundreds of swimmers and sunbathers about.  The plan had been to eat breakfast at 'AMA'AMA at their earliest seating which was 8:00AM and would have felt more like a brunch.  That was wishful thinking.  I tried cancelling the reservation, but the cancellation window did not pop up properly on my phone, so I simply allowed the reservation to expire.  Later, I would report the mobile support glitch with management.

The other plan that went out the window was visiting the Dole Plantation early and getting back in time for some groceries and souvenirs.  It ended up being a very slow start to the day.  We ate breakfast in the nearby town of Kapolei which was in a shopping center with a Safeway supermarket.  This turned into a teachable moment.  My older daughter had already stated she might want to move to Hawaii after being there for only a few hours.  The price of groceries soon put a dent in that idea.  As far as anyone could tell, all produce in Hawaii is sold per pound and rarely by the piece.  Thus, a Thai mini-watermelon cost over $4 and was essentially a single serving.  We did discover some bargains such as house-branded cola and and a large bottle of water which could be used with powdered drink mixes.  The villa had a cooktop and utensils, so a half-dozen eggs would help avoid wasting time locating breakfast restaurants outside the resort.  Aulani sold soy milk, but only the sweetened kinds.  So, a half-gallon on the plain type would go in the full fridge back at the hotel.  During our stay, we noticed bell services wheeling in carts loaded with supplies that were delivered to guests.  These were most likely DVC members who had orders delivered to their quarters which were also equipped with kitchens.

By the time everything got squared away with those purchases and a postcard run, it was already 2:00PM.  We did not get on the road to the Dole Plantation until about 2:30PM.  

Oddly, that kind of worked out okay.  Most of the big crowds had already left except maybe for some bus tours.  While waiting for our train tour reservation to come up, we took in the garden tour.  The trees within provide plenty of shade as it was mid-afternoon in a tropical area.  Even with that, one can get mighty hot and thirsty.  Fortunately, the plantation's food court serves Dole Whip and they're very generous with the portions.

By the time everyone had finished indulging in one of my favorite treats anywhere plus a free sample of fresh-cut pineapple, it was almost time to board the train.  By the way, pineapple, or "halakahiki" in Hawaiian is not native to the islands.

It seems to me that the Dole Plantation has elements of Disney influence on it.  There's the obvious link between the two companies dating back to Dole's sponsorship of The Enchanted Tiki Room in the 1970s.  

Plus, the trains around the perimeter, the various themed attractions and, of course, a show with a sale all point towards to Walt.  When I had last visited, The Dole Plantation was more like a roadside stand by a large farm.  There are a lot more creature comforts now.  The audio narration during the train tour mentioned that workers had to wear heavy protective gear against the roughness of the plants even in high temperatures.  They did not sugarcoat the conditions field hands had to endure.

We were some of the last people to leave the facility.  In fact, the security guard at the door of the souvenir shop was waiting for us to finish our purchases so he could lock up.  While driving back along Kamehameha Highway, my wife phoned ahead to Duke's Canoe Club & Barefoot Bar at the Outrigger Resort on Waikiki Beach.  

Duke's is named for Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary athlete crediting with popularizing surfing.  His statue is visited by the characters in Lilo and Stitch at the end of the film. 

Duke's restaurant is very popular.  The guy at the reservation desk entered us in the standby line while we were in transit figuring we would arrive just in time for our name to be called.  He guessed right.  I also found out that when he said parking was $4, he meant $4 per half-hour and it's valet parking only.  Like Aulani, the all-day rate is $35, but Aulani has a self-park option.  Amazingly, Duke's extensive salad bar which includes items one might consider entrees like curried couscous is a relative bargain even for places other than Hawaii.  The roving musicians play kitschy Hawaiian classics, but you're in the middle of Waikiki, so go for it.

Waikiki used to be the happening place when I first visited Hawaii as a kid.  I have distinct memories of standing on the balcony of a room at the Sheraton and hearing nothing but cranes and the backup warning systems of construction vehicles.  The current traffic reminds me of Boston.  Staying on the leeward side at Aulani was the right call.  We still got caught in a horrific jam on the way back from dinner caused by the shutdown of 3 of the 6 westbound lanes of H-1.  

While my wife and kids were doing their thing back at the hotel, I had an opportunity to use the concierge service desk in the lobby.  Stephen was extraordinarily helpful.  He arranged reserved tickets for the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, mapped out the various rush hour traffic, and obtained some additional instructions for an upcoming experience at Sea Life Park on the east side of the island.   The "Disney cast member" concept extends even to Hawaii.  I put in a commendation for Stephen when I turned in my customer survey from the resort.

On my way back to the room, I stopped off at the Kālepa's Store where they have Mickey Bars and pins.  The skimpy selection of Aulani-specific pins disappointed.  Then, I noticed a Haunted Mansion effect being used in a room off the lobby.  It's a menehune (mythical Hawaiian little person) statue that follows you as you walk past very much like the busts of the ghostwriters in the HM's library.  

Once in the room, I used the TV to conveniently review our PhotoPass pictures.  

Several walking loops encircle the resort and some of the adjoining properties.  Aulani's presence on the leeward side of Oahu with a ridge running nearby limits sunrise viewing.  Still a morning walk can be spectacular and avoid some of the hotter parts of the day.  Apart from one brief downpour that caught us while bringing groceries from the parking structure to the hotel, we had been exceptionally lucky weatherwise.  While on walkabout, we saw a variety of birds and even the plural of mongoose.  The mongoose is not only an invasive species, but also its introduction led to an overly thorough destruction of the snake population.  Invasive species are a huge problem in Hawaii.  There's only one endemic land mammal and it's the Hawaiian hoary bat.

Stephen the concierge had obtained reserved tickets for 2:00PM at Pearl Harbor to take the boat to the USS Arizona Memorial.  That left plenty of time to take in the huge new visitor center that had been constructed since my last trip.  There was an unusual structure afloat when we visited.  It was the SBX, a sea-based X-band radar system built atop a mobile drilling rig.

 Even though more than a half a century has passed since the attack here, I found myself caught up in the emotional wave that sweeps over so many.  I found the gift shop stocked with oddly awkward items like a USS Arizona Memorial jigsaw puzzle.  I didn't quite get the connection.  

I had thought of doing something truly touristy on the drive back from Pearl Harbor.  My siblings stated that I've never visited Hilo Hattie's before, but I have a distinct memory of it.  That's probably because none of them accompanied me to Hawaii in 1986.  It's more upscale than I remembered and, as a result, not as much fun. Sure, they have the biggest variety of Hawaiian shirt patterns I had seen the whole trip, but there are no real price breaks.   I bought a Hawaiian print tie in one of only three styles available.  The clearance rack at Aulani's Hale Manu boutique was less expensive and they were offering a sort of Hidden Mickey print.  There was something strange I began to notice in several places offering clothing.  The only sizes left in many styles were either XS or XL and nothing in between. 

We took advantage of the pools, the Pacific Ocean and the other water attractions before going out for a quick dinner and some additional food shopping at Down to Earth, an organic supermarket that pleased my vegan daughter.  Back at the hotel, I was pleased by the Hawaiian arrangements of class Disney melodies that play within the resort.  Sometimes, I wanted to keep riding the elevators.

I am the father of an adult!  My daughter turned 18. Mickey left a signed birthday card photo in the room.  I know it's genuine because it's the same signature that's in the autograph section of my travel diary from WDW.

We tried to sign up for beach stargazing, but reservations are required and an additional fee is involved.  It was a same-day signup and we had to get on the road all the way to the east side of Oahu during a weekday.  Most people said that the rush hour traffic dies down after 10AM, but we were not sure.  My daughter's big request for her birthday was to live out the dream of swimming with a sea lion.  Sea Life Park allows it for a relatively large sum of money which mercifully includes park admission.  Other restrictions apply such as the need for biodegradable sunscreen which is conveniently sold in the the park gift shop.  It's neither particularly effective sunscreen nor cheap.  Still, if my daughter swims with a sea lion here, she might not insist on going to the Galápagos in the future.

Was the sea lion program worth it?  I suppose it was.  Were there any rip-off extras?  Yes, there were.  We couldn't use our waterproof film camera inside the sea lion enclosure unless someone stayed outside the pool area in the grandstands.  They provided their own staff photographer, but a family photo was not an option.  That meant buying at least 4 images from the photo center.  We ended up with 8 total because there was some price break involved.  They were all good photos, but someone thought out how to garner the most profit from people.

Oddly we spent more time at the park's aviary than anywhere else.  Sure, we saw part of a dolphin show or two and visited some of the other aquatic enclosures, but the birds were certainly the most fun.  The park has a Pink's Hot Dog concession, but no one was really interested in it.  By the time we wrapped things up, the traffic for the afternoon rush westward out of Honolulu was going to start piling up. 

The recommended route was to head up the east coast along the H-3 highway, then travel west to pick up the H-1 near Aloha Stadium.  We benefited from this greatly.  The east coast is where the waves crash spectacularly below and the craggy ridges loom above.  Earlier, we thought of stopping at Diamond Head, but the parking lots were completely full.  The northerly route up H-3 also provides a fringe benefit.  You get drive through a volcanic mountain range.  

Once at Aulani, we tried finishing the roll of film on the underwater camera by signing up at Rainbow Reef.  We were informed that it was closing for a special DVC members-only event.  Nowhere did that change in schedule appear in the Daily 'Iwa.  It also smacked of the elitism that Aulani tends to reward DVC members more than other guests.  

We took advantage of poolside food service which was tasty.  This is also when some confusion arose over what was offered in some of the restaurants.  My vegan daughter spotted bamboo steamers being carried around the deck which implied to her that there would be a simple steamed vegetable dish available.  She assumed they were coming from 'AMA'AMA and insisted on dinner reservations for the following night.  I was able to get them through my phone.  It should be noted that my phone automatically connected to Aulani's wi-fi because I had previously used it at the Polynesian Resort in November 2014.  It took me a while to figure out that the steamers were coming from Off the Hook, but they were just a practical decorative item.  The bamboo steamer trays are heavy enough to prevent food from being knocked over by breezes.  I kept the reservation.  In fact, I wound up with two of them because a later seating became available and I still couldn't cancel one of them with a mobile device.

This was our last full day in Hawaii.  Since we had spent a bundle on the birthday celebration, it was time to take advantage of some of the nearby free attractions.  Waihiawa Botanical Garden fit that requirement beautifully.  

Waihiawa is towards the center of Oahu, but it's a relatively short drive from the resort.  In fact, we had come this way earlier to visit the Dole Plantation. Strolling down to the valley floor is like boarding a time machine.  By the time you reach the bottom, the scenery is like something out of Jurassic Park.  

We were warned that if it started raining, the water flows downhill rapidly and makes the walkways treacherous.  Once back on the valley rim, we continued walking about the somewhat prehistoric vegetation. While here, I was reminded about something I had heard at Dole Plantation about native palm trees.  The only types native to Hawaii are the loulu palms.  

Everyone had wondered what the locals do to compensate for the extraordinarily high cost of living.  While looking for a snack, we stumbled upon a local bakery in Waihiawa which was family owned and operated.  A box of pastries including ones with haupia, a coconut milk pudding, was one of the most reasonably priced treats we had had all trip.  So, some of the cost of living mystery was solved.  They also offered a macadamia cupcake. Like the pineapple, the macadamia is not native to Hawaii either, but it's still delicious.

Today was the makeup day for Rainbow Reef.  We opted for day passes for the two children only.  The parents would go to the observation area and take photos from the outside while the kids took photos from the inside and used up the remainder of the underwater camera's film.  

Actually, we still had a few frames left even after that, so we got some other wet shots at the lazy river and the ocean. The younger of my two daughters found a hidden Mickey that's probably only visible to swimmers in the reef area. 

While waiting for the kids to finish up at the reef, Pāpālua Shave Ice served me a multi-flavored treat at long last.  I chose the exotic combination of green tea, haupia and lilikoi (passionfruit) which was as refreshing as a waterfall.

One of the few children's activities of which my daughters took advantage was lei making down at the beach.  

But, my older daughter left because she had just turned 18 the day before.  She's ethical to a fault.  While waiting for my younger daughter, I miraculously snagged a breakfast reservation for the last seating at Makihiki for 11:00AM.  Persistence paid off.

Dinner was at 'AMA'AMA and the chef was more than accommodating to my daughter's vegan dietary restrictions.  He even apologized because he had been notified in advance and forgot to create a special vegan dessert.  He comped us an artfully arranged plate of sliced fresh fruit which was exactly was she wanted anyhow.  I tried their tofu dish and told the waiter that I have never been able to achieve what the chef did with the balance of flavors and textures.  The waiter said he too had attempted to replicate it at home and failed.  'AMA'AMA runs higher than the other places to eat, but as a final dinner, it really capped things off well.


With an 11:00AM breakfast/brunch, we didn't have to rush to pack.  I was surprised that by using up expendables like sunscreen and edibles from home, we still had only two checked bags even though we had plenty of souvenirs.  Check-out is 11:00AM, so we had to say farewell to the luxurious villa around 10:30AM and jam everything into the little Yaris.  

Even with the last seating, the character breakfast at Makahiki remained crowded. In addition to the traditional big brunch breakfast items including Mickey waffles, there were also Stitch waffles and several Japanese breakfast items.  I tried nishime, the Japanese vegetable stew, but it wasn't quite what I was hungering for in the morning.  I had to ask them to bring out some extra pineapple without li hing mui powder on it.  It is ground up dried salty plum and it's become far too common in Hawaii.  

Even the Dole Plantation put it on their free samples while trying to sell a bag of it as a flavor enhancer.  I do not care for it at all.  Good, fresh pineapple needs nothing extra.

There was an opportunity to have a photo with Mickey, but there was some confusion over linking it to PhotoPass.  

I was told that I would have to buy the prints before they would link the image to PhotoPass.  This is apparently a standard procedure.  The bags were packed and in the car and I did not want to carry prints with me in my carry-on, so I passed.  As compensation for the lost image, Disney guest services eventually sent me a $25 gift card so I could download a couple of the other PhotoPass images with their compliments.  Also, one could use his or her own camera for candid shots with roving characters.

I had forgotten that the lunch service starts at noon, so they do want you to leave relatively soon after finishing the meal.  

Our flight was scheduled for 3:45PM which gives the false impression that we could squeeze in a few more hours of sightseeing or shopping, but that's not the case.  Alamo had warned that in addition to clearing security at Honolulu International, we would also have to factor in enough time to transfer from their return lot to the terminal.  So, it was time to pick up a few snacks for the long journey back to Dulles and we also needed fuel.  One good thing about the Yaris is that it's a fuel sipper.  I feared the gas prices in Hawaii would be astronomical, but I found the best place to buy it, Costco.  Their member prices were about the same as the commercial station prices in and around Washington DC.  Traffic along the highway was manageable, but they were right about leaving sufficient lead time to get to the gate.

Because of all the time zones, we departed on a Friday and arrived on a Saturday.  Jet lag was far worse going east.  Still, we all got to savor the memories of a really great vacation. 


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