The fire roared in front of us as we reclined on our sun lounges watching child-sized silhouettes splashing in the lagoon beneath the palm trees. As the sun crept closer to the Pacific Ocean ‘Uncle’ appeared from behind the fire, looking every bit the Hawaiian storyteller, with his ukulele and long white beard. Circling the stone fire pit, he shared stories of his ancestors with his intimate audience, enchanting them with tales of love, family and adventure, keeping all of the children literally on the edge of their seats. The Mickey Mouse-shaped cookies my boys had been excited about just minutes earlier, sat in their hands without a single bite taken as they hung on his every word.
This Fireside Mo’olelo – a sharing of traditional tales, was our introduction to Hawaiian culture at Aulani, Disney’s island paradise on Oahu’s west coast. The stories were mixed with songs, actions and audience participation that had the kids (and adults) enthralled. The journey came to an end just as the last glimpse of sun disappeared, and it was only then that the boys finally realised there were cookies to be eaten.
It’s this kind of immersive cultural experience that Aulani does so well. There’s a certain irony in travelling across an island – cities, villages, and suburban backroads, only to find that a place you expect to be filled to the brim with a merchandising mouse is where you learn the most about the local culture. But details are what Disney does best.
From its conception, the resort has incorporated local tradition into every aspect possible, going to great lengths not to ‘Disney-fy’ the Hawaiian culture. The name Aulani means ‘messenger of the chief’, and from the architecture to the cuisine, the activities and the entertainment, just about everything you come across at this resort truly is a message about Hawaii.
With seven acres of water-play areas, the hardest part of our first morning was choosing where to start. The sight of the Menehune Bridge, a huge interactive water-play zone, was too tempting for the boys and they ran straight in, climbing and splashing. A little jealous that they were having all the fun in the kids-only area, we convinced them to hit the waterslides with us, and while my first time down the pitch-black Volcanic Vertical was also my last, the open air Tubestone Curl had us all hooked as we glided into the Waikolohe Stream in our floating tubes.
For me, it was the very definition of relaxation. The kids racing each other in their tubes, my husband and I getting carried along by the current, through caverns, tropical plants and natural springs, Goofy in his board shorts waving to us from the edge of the pool. OK, that one caused a quick double take and me to jump out of the water for a photo, but it was worth it, and before long I was back to my blissful floating.
After we’d had our chill fill, we headed to the lagoon for some kayaking, snorkeling, and what can only be described as ocean-trampolining. While we were keen to check out the selection of eateries, we didn’t want to stray from our watery fun, so we hit Mama’s Snack Stop for a simple poolside lunch and recharged with some shaved ice in the Waikolohe Valley area that has been perfectly designed to replicate Oahu’s famed North Shore.
With the resort’s recreation area recently undergoing a major expansion, we were keen to check out what the buzz was about. While the kids skipped through the newly opened Keiki Splash Zone, we made our way into the new oceanfront Ka Maka Grotto infinity-edge pool to watch our new favourite sunset. This was followed by some obligatory unwinding in the spa while the kids enjoyed some evening hide-and-seek among the thousands of sparkling grotto lights. Tempting as it was to stay there for the night, we had a starlit date and I was in need of an indulgent bath in our luxurious parlor suite first. After all, we were a long way from the usual bath time chaos at home and I wanted to soak up every minute of it.
Collecting our family-sized lauhala mat and securing a spot on the Hālāwai Lawn, we were greeted by Hawaiian dancers who took photos with us and taught the kids a hula move or two before heading to the stage to dazzle us all as part of the Starlit Hui – a cultural spectacular mixing traditional and contemporary music, dance and storytelling, with Hawaiian surf culture and guest participation. This was followed by an appearance from Mickey and a few friends – led of course by Stitch, ready to keep the moves going with a Disney dance party.
Despite their late night, all giant hands were on deck and ready to mingle with guests at the character breakfast the next morning. Aunty got the kids involved in the traditional songs and games, while Mickey, Minnie and Goofy stopped by for some happy snaps, hugs and high-fives. To work off our waffles, we decided on the Menehune Adventure Trail next - a high tech treasure hunt, which took us around the resort grounds, uncovering hidden Hawaiian wonders that were revealed with the press of a button as Aunty talked us through their cultural meaning on-screen.
The big test for us though, was Aunty's Beach House – the resort kids club and something my boys were dreading. I explained their anxieties and reluctance to the staff, who were very reassuring and whisked them away for some cultural activities while we shuffled off to wash away the guilt under the rain showers and enjoy a couple’s massage at the lavish Laniwai spa. Relaxed and refreshed, we collected our surprisingly content kids just in time for Mickey’s Shake-A-Shaka Pool Party and, sadly, our last Aulani sunset.