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Affordable Aulani: How to Vacation at Disney’s Hawaii Resort on a Budget

Aulani, the brand-new Disney Resort & Spa on Oahu, is not a cheap place to go for a family vacation. Disney spared little expense in creating an incredible destination resort for families, with its outstanding pools and water play area, Laniwai Spa, oceanfront location, magical kids’ club and plethora of family-friendly events and activities. The Walt Disney Company is in the business of creating outstanding family-vacation experiences; consumers have come to equate Disney resorts with top-notch facilities and excellent customer service. But to provide that, it takes money; room rates, menu prices and activity fees are set accordingly.

That said, if you have your heart set on bringing your family to Aulani, there are ways to trim a few costs from your vacation expenditures. Consider these tips for making it a little bit more palatable on the pocketbook:

No ocean view in this standard room, but great storage space under the beds, plus a small refrigerator, flat-screen TV and Pack-n-Play in the closet.

Forego the ocean view: A recent online check revealed that a standard room with a view of the Aulani parking garage starts at $399/night for a weeknight stay in January; with tax it’s $455/night. Indeed, this is not inexpensive, yet if you upgrade for a view of the mountains, pool or ocean (even partial views) the room rate escalates. You’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to enjoy the pool (and see the birds-eye  view of it from huge windows in the hallways in the room towers) and take in the beautiful blue ocean; no need to pay extra to see it from your balcony.

During my recent press visit to Aulani, in which I traveled solo, I stayed in a standard double-bedded room (#743) with a lanai facing the parking garage and the mountains – though I could also see the ocean in the distance — and it would have been plenty spacious for my family of four (and my kids are 9 and 11). Disney cleverly built beds high off the ground with a roomy area underneath for stowing suitcases (sort of like the smart storage found in Disney Dream staterooms). Take the standard room with the okay view; you won’t be in your room but to sleep and shower, anyway!

Don’t eat all your meals on property: My friend and Hawaii expert Sheila Beal of Go Visit Hawaii says that prices at Aulani’s restaurants for food and drink are on par with or even less expensive than other Hawaii resorts. Still, it’s Hawaii – a cheeseburger and fries at the casual poolside restaurant is $14, a glass of wine starts at $10 and the breakfast buffet is $27 for adults ($14 for kids 9 and under; it costs a bit more if you’re attending a character breakfast).

The Kalua-roasted pulled pork in steamed rice buns with field greens at ‘AMA’AMA restaurant is absolutely delicious, but the lunch meal will set you back $14 before tip and tax.

You can avoid these resort prices by walking across the street to Ko Olina Center, where you’ll find a Mexican grill, a BBQ joint and an ice cream shop. Your best bet is the Island Deli inside the Island Country Market, which sells fresh sandwiches and salads. For my final meal at Aulani I spent $8.79 on some yummy macadamia nut pesto pasta salad and a turkey and cheese croissant (contrast that with the grilled veggie wrap and field greens I bought poolside at Aulani for $12.56). The deli, which opens at 6:30 a.m., also offers breakfast items: hotcake sandwich for $3.25, baked ham croissant sandwich for $4.99, create your own omelet for $7.99.

The off-property market sells all sorts of fresh fruit, sushi and packaged snacks, plus milk, juice, beer and wine. Because all of the rooms at Aulani have a small refrigerator, you can stock up here and store fixings for breakfast and lunch in your room. Better yet, if you have a rental car, drive to Costco, Target or ask the concierge for other grocery-store options to purchase food items to keep in your room.

Buy Hawaiian souvenirs off property: Unless you need a Mickey Mouse key chain or a (darling) Disney Dooney & Bourke designer clutch, scoot across the street to the aforementioned Island Country Market, also an ABC Store. Towels, flip flops, T-shirts, plumeria body lotion and more!

Order a lot of shave ice: When your kids need a snack to tide them over until dinner, send them to the Papalua Shave Ice shack. It’s the best deal at Aulani: a generous portion of that quintessential  icy treat costs only $3.75. Yeah, I know it’s a lot for colored, frozen sugar water, but it’s an overall inexpensive way to make the kiddos happy.

Buy the refillable, insulated souvenir mug: If you and your family are big soda drinkers, and you’re at Aulani for a week, it’ll be worth the cost to pay $18.99 for a Disney travel mug, which you can use to refill with lemonade, iced tea and soda at self-serve stations around the property. Though I didn’t try this, I’m guessing you could fill up the mug and then take it to the on-site restaurants so you wouldn’t have to pay for individual sodas with each meal.

Hugs from Mickey at scheduled character meet-and-greets are completely free!

Do all the included activities: So many amenities and activities are included in the rate of your stay, that you could easily fill your day without charging anything to your room. Here’s a sampling:

  • Ride the water slides, play in the water-spray area or float down the lazy river in Wakolohe Valley
  • Snap photos with Mickey, Goofy or Stitch at scheduled character meet-and-greets.
  • Explore the interactive Menehune Trail with a cool Wi-Fi driven handheld device to experience all sorts of mischievous surprises in the pool area. (A must-do!)
  • Listen to talented storytellers, make a fresh flower lei or watch a Disney movie with your kids.
  • Send your teens to their own hangout space, Painted Sky, for free karaoke, ukulele lessons or Hawaiian bracelet making.
  • Play in the calm lagoon; swim to the floating foam “docks” to do cartwheels into the ocean or push each other off!
  • Attend the fabulous evening show with music, dancing, storytelling and ukuleles offered twice weekly.
  • Work off vacation meals with included fitness classes, including interval training in the lagoon, Beach Body Boot Camp or sunrise yoga.

There’s no extra charge to play in the beautiful blue ocean lagoon in front of the Aulani resort.

Decide before you go which “premium experiences” you’ll pay for: Some of the more outstanding activities and services will cost extra. Here are some examples:

  • Snorkeling in the man-made saltwater lagoon ($20/adults; $15/children for the day). I heartily recommend this activity, as you can also use the snorkel, mask and flotation device in the ocean lagoon during your daily rental (you can also rent equipment for the week for a moderately higher price). Plus, it’s a wonderfully safe and calm environment for young children to learn how to snorkel.
  • Stand-up paddleboard lesson ($39)
  • Kayak rental ($20/hour)
  • Interactive stingray experience, where you learn about stingrays and other marine life from a trained naturalist, and then pet and feed the stingrays ($50/adults and $45/children for 45 minutes; a portion of the fee does go to local wildlife nonprofits)
  • Beach umbrella rental ($20 for the day)
  • Double chaise lounge on the beach ($40 for the day)
  • Excursions, such as surfing lessons with Hawaiian Fire ($154/adults, $184/kids ages 5 to 10; highly recommend!) or a rainforest hike ($119/adults, $104/kids); excursions do include transportation, gratuities, water and snacks and you’re accompanied by a Disney guide.

Note that except for the off-property excursions, you will not find pricing on the resort website for “premium experiences” — which also include more intricate craft lessons, temporary tattoos, Chip n’ Dale dinner and games in the kids’ club or make-your-own body polish in the teen spa. If you have any questions about what will cost extra once you arrive at the resort, ask detailed questions of a concierge on the property. Reach the hotel operator here: (808) 674-6200.

Outdoor playset and turf ground at Aunty’s Beach House.

Enroll the kiddos in Aunty’s Beach House: This kids’ club is totally complimentary for potty-trained children ages 3 to 12 and it’s housed in a wonderful cottage-like environment, chock full of included activities for young guests. “Aunty’s side” of the cottage is geared toward ages 3 to 5, with a plethora of Disney dress-up clothes, interactive game tables, board games and crafts. “Uncle’s side” has interactive game tables and board games for older children, plus crafts geared to their age level. An outdoor area has a huge yard with playsets and hula hoops.

Different special activities are scheduled throughout the day at Aunty’s Beach House, such as storytelling with Aunty, making Stitch’s Space Goo, learning to hula or a volcanic island science experiment. Trained youth counselors are prevalent, and many have recreation or teaching backgrounds. I was impressed that all kids and adult guests are asked to wash their hands with soap before entering the facility.

Snacks and drinks are served regularly, but if you would like to have your children eat lunch or dinner while they’re there, you’ll need to order off of a menu for them and pay extra for that. Aunty’s Beach House hours vary daily: some days it’s 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., other days its 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. — either way, there’s plenty of time for Mom and Dad to enjoy a kid-free, guilt-free excursion or meal by themselves!

Every little girl can be the Belle of the ball (or Cinderella or Princess Jasmine) at Aunty’s Beach House.

Stay at Aulani for two nights, not ten nights: One surefire way to lessen the cost of your vacation would be to book a room at Aulani for a limited amount of time. There are surely less expensive condominiums and hotels on Oahu (Outrigger and Aqua Resorts properties come to mind). Frankly, I’d love to bring my entire family to Aulani for a week, but I don’t see that happening unless a windfall descends from the sky. For our next Hawaii trip, I’m thinking I’ll book two nights in a standard room at Aulani, and enjoy all of the wonderful service and amenities this luxury resort has to offer, and then figure out a condominium situation elsewhere on the island. With the ability to cook meals in a full kitchen, a vacation rental is often the way to save money on meals.

All Hawaii vacations are expensive vacations, with airfare to Hawaii from the continental U.S. or Canada, not to mention the cost of a rental car if you’d like to explore islands on your own. It might be worth it to shave a few dollars off the price of your Aulani vacation (following the tips above) if you are on a vacation budget and would like to experience this special Disney resort sooner than later. However, you might also consider waiting to book your Aulani trip until you’ve saved up a few more dollars so you don’t have to worry so much about spending the cash on additional Disney excursions, on-property restaurant meals, special experiences or an ocean view.

No matter how you do it, I do hope you and your family can visit Aulani soon. It’s truly a magical place!

Mahalo to Aulani for hosting my stay!

19 Responses to “Affordable Aulani: How to Vacation at Disney’s Hawaii Resort on a Budget”

  1. 1
    Sheila says:

    Aloha Kara —

    Great meeting you in Hawaii and thanks for the mention!

    Excellent Aulani budget tips!

    I especially like that you can get a day pass to the spa water garden for $45. Bargain! The water garden was really one of my favorite parts of the my spa experience.

    I’m not sure, but I believe that the buffet breakfast is $32 on the character breakfast days and $27 otherwise. At least that was how we were charged. They don’t make it obvious, but they also offer an a la carte breakfast menu with some “cheaper-ish” breakfast options. Andy fell in love with the milk-chocolate dipped french toast with haupia bread and peanut butter from the a la carte menu for about $18. Andy shared a bite and it was delish!

    I like your offsite dining suggestions. One more to check out next time is Roy’s, which is within walking distance of Aulani. Go hungry and take advantage of their 3-course set menu that includes their famous molten chocolate dessert for $41 per person — a fine dining bargain in Hawaii.

    • 1.1
      ColoradoGal says:

      So nice to meet you, Sheila! And you’re correct. The prices for the buffet do differ whether you are doing the character breakfast or not. I’ll amend my post. Now that I think about it, $27 really isn’t horrible per adult, especially if you eat enough for two meals’ worth – make it brunch!

      I’ve stayed at Four Seasons or Ritz-Carltons where a brunch buffet is upwards of $50 per adult before tax and tip. No way could I eat my money’s worth. ;-)

      Here’s the Makahki buffet breakfast menu, if anyone would like to check it out:
      http://resorts.disney.go.com/media/resorts/pdf/menu/WDPRO_Makahiki_Breakfast_Menu_5-23-11.pdf

      Thanks for the other tips, too! Good to know about Roy’s. Had no idea it was in the Ko Olina area…

  2. 2

    Other freebies: no resort fee and free wifi in all guest rooms! Great tips for saving money at this fabulous resort, Kara!

    • 2.1
      ColoradoGal says:

      Excellent point, Colleen. For those of us who do work on vacation – or just bring along a laptop to be able to Skype grandma, or check sports scores readily – it’s key that wifi is free in all guest rooms here. And there is no daily resort fee to use the fitness center, wifi, etc.

  3. 3

    Thanks or the review.

    To bad that your family wasn’t able to go with you.

    But, that said, so happy you went because that was a…

    Very detailed blog on the resort, that we enjoyed reading.

    The fact that they include all fitness activities is a BIG plus! oh, and of course wifi, can’t live with out that. :-)

    Thanks again,

    Nancy & Shawn

  4. 4
    Natasha says:

    So happy to have found this down-to-earth review. Loved your off-site dining ideas, especially good for first-time visitors.

    You have provided more info than the Aulani Resort website, to be sure. I could find no prices listed for any of the spa treatments, premium or not. I hope they fix their website quickly; several of their video displays break off after 30 seconds, and many of the info links (eg. disabled guests) send up red flags saying that the site uses an expired security certificate, and therefore my browser cannot verify that it is secure. (I decided not to trust it.) There is no labeled map of the resort, so I couldn’t check on the distances between the guest rooms, dining areas, beach, etc. It is their first week after all, and like all new hotel ventures I guess they must go through growing pains until all the kinks get worked out. It would have been good if they’d offered a sizable room discount for the first few months!

    Three questions come to mind to ask of you:

    1. Is there an airport shuttle service to the Aulani (none listed on website)?

    2. Did you take the Shopping Shuttle? Daily service? Cost?

    3. I was wondering what your thoughts were on bringing my 84 year old mother along with us. I am sure she’d love the place, but would they be gracious and accommodating to a ‘senior’ senior? Lots of stairs in the outdoor areas? Are the walking distances exhausting? There probably weren’t any kids staying at the Aulani on your industry preview visit, so you won’t be able to comment on the inside behavior of the little guests, but were the rooms (and hallways) pretty soundproof at night?

    Thanks for your insight, and helping us ‘know before we go’.

  5. 5
    sherry says:

    i love disneyland resort!!!!!!! i think i truly found the place where my whole family was out of the house! both of my little girls sierra and maggie dressed as belle and jasmin. plus they got to see mickey mouse! also, me and my husband, derick, went on a romantic honeymoon and then we went to the spa! thank you disney for bringing this wonderful resort to us!!!

  6. 6
    Emily says:

    Thank you for the tips, very helpful. We loved our stay at Aulani.

    I should let you know they have stopped the $45 spa pass, which is a shame, and you can’t get into the spa for less than a 50 min. facial or body treatment (i.e. a pedicure won’t do it), which are at least $100. It was a great spa day, though.

    I will add that the frozen yogurt in the teenage spa (Painted Sky) is a great hidden gem…healthier and more filling than the shaved ice and not too much more in price.

    Cheers!

  7. 7
    Lea Marzo says:

    I am actually staying at a neighboring vacation rental (Ko Olina Beach Villas) because it’s much cheaper… can outside guest pay a fee to do things at the resort such as the excursions or entertainment or is there like someone there who checks for room keys etc to get on the property?

    • 7.1
      Kara Williams says:

      You must be a guest at Aulani to enjoy the entertainment and the Adventures by Disney excursions. There is a guard at the entrance to the grounds/pool area stationed at the beach — at least I recall one or two when I was there.

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