KO OLINA, Hawaii —
On leeward Oahu, it is 85 degrees, and the trade winds are blowing. Beyond a towering volcanic outcropping, the Pacific Ocean, at a steady 70 degrees, beckons. Honeymooners sip tropical drinks under a thatched-roof hut as the afternoon sun begins its lazy descent.
This is Hawaii. Do you really need Disney?
My wife, Nancy, and I and our 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, traveled to Disney's new Hawaii resort to see whether Mickey Mouse & Co. could improve on near perfection. Aulani sets out to replace the tourist cliches with a celebration of Hawaii's history, legends and cultures with just a sprinkling of Disney's trademark pixie dust.
And, for the most part, it succeeds. This $800-million resort delivers on its promise and its considerable marquee name.
Aulani opened in late August with 359 pricey hotel rooms and 460 time-share units. The 21-acre resort, about 30 minutes from Waikiki, is worlds apart in look, feel and spirit from that tourist mecca of high-rise monoliths.
"It feels like we're on a different island even though we're still on Oahu," said Michelle Blake, visiting Aulani with her family from nearby Waipahu. Perhaps that is its magic, one or two missteps aside.
Three A-frame thatch huts greet you when you arrive at Aulani, along with a pair of towers that rise like modern interpretations of a Hawaiian fishing village. Telephone pole-size timbers support the lobby's cathedral-like vaulted ceiling.
In our 382-square-foot room we found whimsical touches throughout, including the pineapple-patterned quilt woven with hidden Mickeys, an outrigger canoe motif in the headboard and giant hand-carved fishhooks framing the wall mirror.
A flat-screen TV with a Blu-ray player (loaner DVDs were available in the community room for a fee) and hookups for video games (brought from home) sat atop a six-drawer dresser with a hidden mini-fridge. A table for two featured the only overt Disney reference in the room: a lamp with a ukulele-playing Mickey Mouse.
In the bath, a mirror with a wave-motif frame flanked by seashell sconces stood above a single sink vanity with six cubbies for storage. Island art on the walls and floral-print throw pillows added aloha flavor.
Once we had settled in, it was time to start exploring.
Just as it does in Hawaiian life, water plays a central role at Aulani in such features as the water-park-like pool, the hot tubs, the saltwater snorkeling pool and the adult and youth spas.
The centerpiece of Aulani's pool is a man-made volcanic outcropping where hidden stingrays, squid and crabs are carved into lava-like rock. Two water slides — one a zippy body slide through the dark and the other an inner-tube slide with plenty of airtime — start at the top of the peak.
Hannah loved riding down the slide with me on the two-person inner tube.
Her favorite part of the Aulani pool complex was the 900-foot-long lazy river.
But she had one complaint: "This lazy river is too lazy," said Hannah, who didn't realize the meaning of island time.
The saltwater snorkeling lagoon, an 8-foot-deep pool filled with 1,000 angelfish, tangs and butterflyfish, was the most interesting part of the pool area. Hannah held tightly to my arm as we explored the man-made volcanic caverns and coral reefs as fish swam around us.
It was a fine introduction for a first-time snorkeler like Hannah and a second-time amateur like myself. An all-day fee ($20 for adults, $10 for kids) included use of the snorkel equipment in the protected cove just beyond the Aulani's beach.
Nancy, meanwhile, had been looking forward to the resort's Laniwai Spa, choosing the $45 day pass. Her first stop was a fragrant steam room, which proved a bit too steamy. Out in the garden, she tried the seaweed and eucalyptus vitality pools. Next she sampled the six "rain" showers, each with varying flow levels. Her favorite: the mist shower with upward-spraying water jets.
Next door to Laniwai, Hannah got her first massage at the Painted Sky teen spa, choosing the 25-minute chair massage ($50).
"She massaged my face, my arms, my legs, my feet and even my toes," Hannah said. "It was awesome."
What wasn't quite as awesome for Hannah was not fitting in with the teens or the younger kids, both of whom had their own hangouts.
The age at Aunty's Beach House, a kids' club featuring a host of activities such as hula lessons and island crafts, topped out at 10, and at 11, she felt a little old for that crowd. She preferred the Painted Sky Spa, which doubled as a teen hangout and offered movie nights, pool parties, beach bashes, stargazing, among other activities. Disney counselors welcomed her warmly at both locations.
At the Pau Hana community hall near the pool, we checked out a modified cellphone that doubled as a GPS for the Menehune Adventure Trail, a treasure hunt game in which hotel guests search for menehune, Hawaii's mythological mischievous little people.
About 300 menehune statues were scattered throughout the resort, and spotting them quickly became Hannah's favorite pursuit.
On the menehune trail, we used the way finder to track clues leading to them. By speaking into the phone, we caused the menehune to pop out of the rocks, blow conch shells and even start fires with the help of Disney magic. The finale sent us into a dark cavern where volcanic lava began to flow (on a cleverly disguised LCD TV screen).
For all that was good about Aulani, there were a couple of things that didn't work as well.
Disney generally went light on theatrics, but an afternoon poolside party was an exception. A Disney employee, using a public address system, extolled swimmers to scream, splash and hop up on deck for a hula contest. The pump-up-the-energy vibe shattered the calm and made me cringe.
I would have dismissed it as one-off overexuberance if not for the Starlight Hui, the resort's marquee event. In an effort to avoid the usual pan-Polynesian luau common at many resorts, Disney produced a tradition-rich show that paid tribute to Hawaii, its people and customs.
At the show's end, a youth counselor jumped onstage and called up all the Disney characters one by one. The show quickly devolved into a disco, with the characters leading the crowd in the "Electric Slide." I was dumbstruck but decided to jump up and boogie with Hannah, who could have cared less about thematic inconsistencies.
The other issue was the restaurants. They were expensive and limited.
On our first night, we tried 'Ama 'Ama, Aulani's signature beachside restaurant. Dinner for three with cocktails came to $200, before tip, for what was pretty standard hotel fare.
For lunch, our choices were either high-end 'Ama 'Ama or poolside service, with $19 sandwiches and $21 burgers.
On our second night we had reservations at the Makahiki buffet, which was our favorite meal at Aulani, though, at $43 a person, it was more expensive than any buffet we had ever tried. (Hannah paid the full adult rate, because the $21 kids' price was only for those 9 and younger.)
On our last night at the Aulani, Hannah watched "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" under the stars while Nancy and I went for pub grub at the 'Olelo Room, the resort's etymological-themed bar. Surprisingly, the most Hawaiian room in the resort offered the least Hawaiian fare.
What Aulani needs is a casual sit-down restaurant.
In the end, the Aulani was not unlike going to Disneyland: It's a fun-filled fantasyland that ends up being far more expensive than you expected. But we did go home with memories that can last a lifetime.
IF YOU GO …
Disney Aulani Resort & Spa, 92-1185 Aliinui Drive, Ko' Olina, Kapolei, HI 96707; (714) 520-7001, resorts.disney.go.com/aulani-hawaii-resort. Doubles from $399, suites from $1,038.
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