Disney’s new property in Hawaii—it opened just six months ago—proves to be both a prime location for meetings and events and a haven for any kids who might be along for the ride. The creators and builders of Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa have done a stunning job of incorporating Hawaiian art and culture into its design and its daily operations. The resort is located in Ko Olina, about 40 minutes from Honolulu and Waikiki, on the leeward, or dry side, of the island.
First, the meeting space. Located in a quiet enclave facing inland toward Oahu’s mountains, the 14,545-square-foot conference center is readily accessible from the main floor public area, yet secluded enough to give meetings and events the privacy they require. (President Obama used the conference center for a fundraiser in November after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.) An additional 35,000 square feet of outdoor event space makes the most of the island’s gentle breezes and the ocean views.
The 21-acre resort features 840 rooms, suites, and villas, with either a garden view or a view facing toward the Disney Imagineer–built Waikolohe Valley and the ocean beyond. Mimicking the landscape of Oahu, Waikolohe Valley is the property’s recreational hub—and it got plenty of use during the February school vacation week when I visited. Its centerpiece is a lava outcropping that looks like a mini-volcano, which encloses a water slide where kids and adults alike can begin their journey, in either single or tandem tubes, down the lazy river that runs through the Valley. For an additional fee, guests can snorkel in a saltwater lagoon stocked with hundreds of native fish. Waikolohe has two pools surrounded by beach chairs and private cabanas, four whirlpool spas, the Lava Shack for quick food service, and the Papalua Shave ice station. An adjacent pool area, close to the Laniwai Spa, is a quiet retreat. But if you prefer the real thing, step down onto the sandy beach and swim in the lovely saltwater lagoon.
The 18,000-square-foot Laniwai Spa has 15 treatment rooms and a tranquil 5,000-square-foot outdoor hydrotherapy garden with herbal pools, a reflexology path, and six rain showers. The area can also be utilized for al fresco evening receptions.
Aulani’s two main eateries are the buffet-style Makahiki restaurant, which opens onto Waikolohe Valley and features a rich and varied breakfast buffet. The ‘Ama ‘Ama offers fresh, local food with a focus on Hawaiian cuisine, and beautiful views of the ocean from both the breezy main restaurant area and the outdoor patio. (Sightings of humpback whales migrating just offshore during my visit were a special treat for diners.)
Also not to be missed is the ground floor ‘Olelo Room, a bar and lounge where all staff are fluent in Hawaiian and the décor features wood carvings showcasing Hawaiian words. The staff are warmly accommodating, happy to coach guests in proper pronunciation.
When it comes to entertainment, the Aulani’s got a lot. For kids, there’s the stupendous Aunty’s Beach House, where children can create, play, and explore for hours. The resort also offers separate teen and ’tween programs. After sunset, there are Disney movie nights under the stars. And twice a week, the excellent Aulani Starlit Hui revue features dancers and musicians, hula and ukelele, in 25 minutes of nonstop entertainment.
The 18-hole Ted Robinson–designed championship golf course is steps away, and Aulani offers groups a wide menu of off-site excursions ranging from rainforest hikes or cruising aboard a catamaran, to a journey to Kualoa Ranch on the windward side of the island for horseback riding or an ATV trek, and a ride through a lush, expansive valley where cattle graze and such film classics as Jurassic Park and King Kong were shot.
Aulani is about a 30-minute ride from Honolulu International Airport. Hawaiian Airlines offers direct connections from many West Coast cities and Las Vegas, and beginning on June 4, 2012, will offer nonstop service from New York City’s JFK International Airport.