DAY ONE (of 6) — I admit it. I’ve drunk the Disney Kool-Aid.
I’m ensconced in a two bedroom unit at the brand new Aulani Disney Resort and Spa (the name means” a messenger of the chief” in Hawaiian) in Ko Olina, Hawaii.
The resort sits on a beautiful lagoon just 17 miles from Honolulu International Airport and less than an hour from Waikiki Beach but is worlds away from the traffic and crowds and in fact feels more like being at an outer island.
There is the requisite water playground– Waikolohe Valley named for its “mischievous waters” –which include 900 linear feet that you can explore on two water slides as well as a lazy river. Young kids will love the Menehune Bridge, a huge 2,200 square foot interactive play area with three slides, climbing structure and all kinds of dumping waters.
Parents and grandparents will love the condo-like units like the one I’m staying in with an upscale kitchen, two bedrooms, 2.5 baths and both a sleeper sofa and chair that becomes a pull out bed—ideal for a multigenerational family with young kids. (There are also traditional hotel rooms. In fact, this represents Disney’s first resort to combine a traditional hotel with the Disney Vacation Club.
I love the Rainbow Reef Snorkel Lagoon with 40 species and some 1200 local fish which provides a terrific introduction to snorkeling…
There’s also the Maikai Preserve, a unique conservation lagoon home to a family of five brown stingrays (the lagoon is shaped like Mickey) and a portion of the proceeds from the stingray interaction will support conservation and research efforts in Hawaii.
But what I like most is that this big resort—when it is fully open it will include 359 rooms and 481 two-bedroom condo units—is that it will up the ante for family resorts in Hawaii and elsewhere, improving the family experience in the process.
“Always at Disney we want to break new ground,” says Paul Rivet, the activities and entertainment director here. Consider that there are 50 staff dedicated to youth activities when a typical resort has a handful, if that.
“It is like we took the cruise line off the water and put it on land,” said Tom Staggs, the Chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts. “It worked so well on the cruise ships we know it will work for our guests here.”
That includes the complimentary Aunty’s Beach House with morning-till evening activities for kids 3-12, the Painted Sky teen hang out and spa area and the Aulani Starlit Hui, a signature nighttime show that concludes with a DJ-driven dance party complete with Disney characters.
There’s no charge for the show nor is there a charge for the Sunset Gathering (the Po La’ila’l) where guests come together with “Uncle” to offer an original chant or for the Fireside Storytelling (Mo’oleolo) complete with ukulele tunes.
What sets Aulani apart, said Staggs, himself the father of three young sons, is that Aulani has been built “for the whole family from the ground up” –from the “family suite” for joint spa experiences to the Character breakfasts complete with Hawaiian songs and stories to the exclusive excursions led by Adventures by Disney guides. The beachside ‘AMA ‘AMA restaurant serves a special three-course children’s menu to mimic their parents’ choices but also can be the setting for a romantic evening while the kids have dinner and are entertained at Aunty’s Beach House.
Staggs notes that Disney, of course, is about making wonderful, memorable vacation moments for families. But the company recognizes that a successful vacation doesn’t necessarily mean a family is in lock step. “We want to bring the family together for shared experiences but that doesn’t mean every individual experience is shared,” he said. “It’s about forgetting the real world and getting into the experience…that’s what a vacation is.”
But you won’t find Mickey and Minnie front and center all the time. “We say it is more Hawaii It is Capital H for Hawaii and lower Case D for Disney,” he says
Indeed. Disney has taken what’s best and most successful from its cruise line and from its Adventures by Disney guided trips around the world and put it all together here. You’ll see that with the daily ‘IWA that is like a daily navigator you get on ship that lists activities for different age groups—everything from Hawaiian storytelling to where you will find Disney pals, ukulele lessons for teens or karaoke for teens.