Here are my tips, tricks, and advice for having the best time at Disney’s Aulani, even during a pandemic.
Aulani Tip #1. Go on a Weekday
I cannot stress this one enough. My family checked into Aulani on Friday morning and left on Wednesday afternoon. The experience between staying at Aulani on a weekend versus during the weekday was like night and day.
The weekend was packed. Crazily so. True, it wasn’t busy like it would have been during a pre-COVID weekend. In fact, in order to force social distancing amongst their guests, Aulani removed many pool chairs. They also opened the (previously) adult-only Waikolohe pool to children. However, it still was busy enough that I would monitor the size of the crowd in the different pools and hot tubs. If the number of people in a specific pool seemed too high to be able to properly social distance ourselves, I told my kids that we couldn’t swim there.
But the weekdays were another story. Chairs were plentiful. We sometimes had a pool all to ourselves, and we had few concerns about being able to socially distance ourselves from other guests.
Aulani Tip #2. Obtaining a coveted Aulani pool chair (on a weekend) involves strategy
Note: set your alarm
There is no truer statement than “the early bird catches the worm,” when it comes to getting a pool chair on the weekends. My kids and I showed up at Aulani around 10 AM on Friday morning. We plopped ourselves in what may have been one of the last pool chairs left. By Saturday, our family was lucky enough to also score two of the last chairs available. However, this time we were there at 8 AM (or at least my husband was). On Sunday, we upped the ante. My husband went down to the pools at 7:30 AM and was able to get a chair next to the Menehune Bridge. However, by 7:30 AM all the chairs that came with umbrellas were already taken.
Once the weekend was over we were able to roll out of bed and head to the pool whenever we were ready for the day with no problems.
The rules for reserving chairs
Here’s the deal. The pool opened at 9 AM while we were there. That meant that at 9 AM you could get towels and your pool bracelet. Before then, if you left your chair, an Aulani Cast Members would scoop up your belongings and place them at the towel shack. The purpose of this was to give another guest access to the chair. Therefore, whatever time you decide to get there, be ready to keep your butt in your chair until after the pool officially opens.
Aulani Tip #3. Keeping your coveted Aulani pool chair also involves strategy
Aulani does not want guests to “reserve” a chair and then never use it. Hence, their pool chair policy. Aulani Cast Members will walk around and reposition your towel when you are not there. They will place your towel in a square at the top of the chair, much like a pillow. From the moment they do that, your clock is ticking. 1 hour after your towel is repositioned, they will remove all your belongings and place it at the towel shack. We noticed that the Cast Members did the towel repositioning continuously during the weekend, and never once during the weekday (as there were ample chairs to go around).
To get around this issue, all you need to do is “mess up” your towels. We would set a timer on our watch for 1 hour after leaving our chairs. My husband or I would return to the chairs before the hour was up. We would move the towel from its repositioned spot, so it was clear we had used the chair within the last hour.
Aulani Tip #4. If you are staying over on Sunday night and plan to use the pool on Monday morning, take a couple of pool towels back to the room with you on Sunday, just in case
To be fair, we were there on opening weekend so this may have been a kink that has since been ironed out. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry. As I mentioned, the weekends were packed. So packed that by Monday, there were no towels left to be handed out to guests as they were still being laundered. We were able to get 1 towel when we checked into the towel shack, but that was it. 1 towel for 4 people. They had a small replenishment of towels at around 11 AM but it barely made a dent in the people trying to obtain one. My family was finally the proud owners (or borrowers would be the better term) of towels by 1 PM.
Aulani Tip #5. Get the popcorn in a bucket on your first day there. It is ah-may-zing!
Boy oh boy was this a crowd-pleaser. Sure, I suffered a lot of mom guilt over the fact that the kids ate popcorn morning, noon, and night, therefore eating a lot less nutritional food. But it was such a lifesaver when lines to purchase food were long and the kids were whining that they were hungry. These buckets go for ~$15 and the popcorn can be refilled for $1.50. When it comes to refills, you don’t just get the bucket refilled. You end up getting a full popcorn bag, which after refilling your bucket is still about 1/4th filled with popcorn.
I heard that DVC members get the popcorn refills for free, which is pretty cool. Since our room came with a microwave, we ended up getting a box of microwavable popcorn and popping a bag in our room each morning to take with us (in the bucket) to the pool. Next time we return to Aulani, we are definitely bringing a box of microwavable popcorn (and our bucket) with us.
Aulani Tip #6. Skip the option of getting ice cream with your shave ice
My shave ice order hasn’t changed since the moment I was introduced to it as a toddler. I want a rainbow shave ice with ice cream in a cup. No ice cream? I’m not interested in getting shave ice. But I highly recommend you pass on the ice cream here. The reason being, it’s very unlikely that you’ll get it. The workers are just too busy. Even on weekdays when the lines aren’t as bad, there is a fair number of people clamoring for shave ice. Scooping the ice cream is something that you don’t have a good visual on. Therefore, it’s hard to spot if a worker forgot it until you have made your way through your shave ice and discovered there is just more ice underneath.
Sure you could complain, but the last thing I wanted to do was stand in a very long line with two kids in tow just to get a couple of dollars knocked off my order. The other specialty item offered (condensed milk) was also usually forgotten. However, since that gets poured on top of the shave ice, it was easy to remind the Cast Members that you paid for condensed milk before leaving the shave ice shack.
Aulani Tip #7. Want the cutest Instagram pic? Opt for the add-on Mickey Ears to your shave ice. Want a good eating experience? Feel free to pass.
Truth be told, the $1 add-on on Mickey Ears aren’t going to break the bank. But the shave ice just isn’t as pleasant to eat as opting to go sans ears. To make sure the ears keep their shape, the ice chips are compacted together. The ears almost turn back to ice cubes with barely any taste of the shave ice syrup after awhile.
I was actually going to skip sharing this tip, assuming it was just me being very high maintenance about shave ice. Just in case you couldn’t tell from tip #6 above, I am super high maintenance about my shave ice. However, my daughter, who ordered a shave ice with Mickey Ears every day, commented on the last day, “I don’t think I want to order the ears when we come back.” I never told her why I didn’t order the add-on ears for myself. However, she correctly identified the problem and thought the shave ice might taste better without the ears.
Aulani Tip #8. Bring a hydroflask with you to the pool
Bring hydro flasks, bring hydro flasks, bring hydro flasks. I realize that this is a bulky item to carry for anyone that is flying into Hawaii, but consider it anyway. (I’d say hydro flasks are clutch for flights, but I’m not sure if the water fountains at the airports are still working during the covid pandemic.) In a pre-covid Disney Aulani world, there were amazing refillable drink stations. You would pay $18 for a cute Aulani cup and reuse it at the refillable drink station free of charge. There were also classy water dispensers near all the pools. Thanks to the pandemic, that is all gone now.
You can ask a Cast Member for water (free), but there’s a chance it could take a while for you to get your tiny cup. We were at Aulani in November and it was still hot enough for us to be guzzling water nonstop. It was so easy to have hydro flasks filled with ice and water on hand all day long.
Aulani Tip #9: Make sure you order your lunch early. Don’t wait until 12 PM to decide what to do.
This is another tip that is probably only necessary for the weekends. But plan your meals early. On Saturday we didn’t really think about lunch until 12:30 PM. Baby L was hungry and it was almost his nap time. The line for Ulu Cafe was probably about an hour long. Baby L wasn’t going to last in that line without doing some major damage to other people’s eardrums so my husband and toddler headed back to the room for a delicious meal of dry cheerios.
My daughter and I finally realized that we were hungry around 1 PM. The line for Ulu Cafe was still about an hour long and while my daughter would hopefully not burst anyone’s eardrums, it was not going to be a good time for either of us. So I decided to be fancy and order food off the poolside menu. I was eager to try some of their drinks and that way Em could continue to swim in the pool. The waitress was so nice and energetic, but they were severely understaffed. It took until 3:30 PM for us to get our meal. From Sunday onward, I made sure to start the lunch ordering process before 12 PM.
Aulani Tip #10. Disposable masks for the win
I’m a big proponent of (safe) cloth masks. I have designs to represent Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, my (real) high school, and my (dream) high school (Slytherin House at Hogwarts). My daughter has a lot of Disney princess masks as well as a ton of masks to represent her own alma mater. That being said, the disposable masks were clutch for our time at the pool in Aulani.
I bought those blue disposable masks for us to use in Aulani because I didn’t want to bother keeping track of our cloth ones. I also didn’t want to worry about washing and drying our cloth masks if they got dirty. It was so easy to have a box (or two boxes, one for adults that my husband and I used and one for kids that my daughter used) right next to the door of our hotel room. We would just load up our bags (and faces) with them every day.
Aulani Tip #11. Cast Members may be looking the other way on the 48″ rule for the Menehune Bridge.
The last time we were at Aulani, the Menehune Bridge was closed for renovations. I had however read a lot of comments regarding the fact that the Menehune Bridge was only for children that were 48″ or shorter and that Cast Members were readily upholding this rule. Despite how this sounds, I’m not a rule breaker. I’m pretty straight-laced. But this rule does not make sense to me.
My daughter Em was 48” tall by the time she was 5-years-old. Baby L, while currently measuring on the height percentile chart even higher than Em, is obviously short enough at 18-months to meet the height requirement. But at 18-months he certainly wouldn’t be able to enjoy the Bridge without parental help. This means that at 18-months and 6-years, neither of my kids would be able to enjoy the Bridge under Disney Aulani’s original rules. Rules set up to allow children a place to play.
I’ll admit I was pretty miffed by this rule until I realized that no one seemed to be following it. So Em was free to roam the Menehune Bridge to her heart’s content and I took Baby L all around it. I was actually stopped by a Cast Member, but all she told me was that while I was allowed to be on the Bridge, I would not be allowed on the slide. Since I don’t think I would fit on the kid-sized slide anyway, that was fine by me!
How to enjoy the Rainbow Reef Experience
I loved, loved, loved the rainbow reef. It was my favorite thing about Aulani. It was also closed the last time we visited so it was such a treat to experience it on this trip. However, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind if you want your kids to enjoy it too.
Aulani Tip #12. Water in the rainbow reef is cold
I found the coolness of the water very refreshing. Em, not so much. We had brought a (mini) wetsuit with us just in case the pools were cold. It definitely came in handy. Once she had her wetsuit on, she still complained about the temperature but was able to handle it.
Aulani Tip #13. Do / use what makes your kids feel comfortable
The rainbow reef experience comes with a mandatory life vest and an optional snorkel set. The life vest is reminiscent of what you would wear on an airplane “in case of a water landing”. You blow up the vest and it goes over your head with a strap around your back. They have them in adult sizes and junior sizes. They also have children’s life jackets that cover your entire chest and back.
Em was big enough to be issued the junior life vest, but she hated it. Although she is (almost) water safe, she is used to swimming back and forth in a pool. She’s used to touching the side of the pool wall every couple of minutes. She is not used to floating over areas she considers deep. The life vest just didn’t make her feel very safe. After the first day, we opted to request the children’s full-chest life jacket, which helped ease some of her fears.
Em also hated snorkeling. She’s tried it before in a pool but only for fun, not as the only method for breathing. It only added to her fear level. So after day one she just used her swim goggles and held her breath. (We actually forgot to pack goggles but had bought a cute princess-themed one from the Lava Shack (a gift shop next to the pool) earlier during our stay.)
Aulani Tip #14. If you plan on snorkeling for multiple days, make sure you sign up for the experience early in your stay so you can take advantage of the length-of-stay option
Disney Aulani offers a 1-day Rainbow Reef experience at $25 for adults and $20 for children. Alternatively, you could purchase the Rainbow Reef experience length-of-stay option and go as many times as you want during your stay. This is offered at $45 for adults and $35 for children.
Aulani Tip #15. Don’t count out the Rainbow reef just because your kid is too young to swim in it.
The family member who probably enjoyed the Rainbow Reef as much as I did was Baby L. There is an observation window for the Rainbow Reef. Left to his own devices, Baby L would have spent the entire day there, transfixed by the fish.
Aulani Tip #16. Bring your Chase Disney Visa Card with you
I would never recommend using your Chase Disney Visa Card to pay for your stay at Aulani. There are so many credit cards out there that will get you much better travel rewards than Chase’s cobranded Disney card will. That being said, the reason a Disney Visa Card is such a good card to have, is that they give you 10% off (if you spend over $50) in some of their shops and dining establishments. The hotel shops at Aulani are included in that discount. If you don’t have this card, but you spend money at any Disney store (including shopdisney.com), you should definitely get it as it has no annual fee. Here is my referral link.
Aulani Tip #17. Don’t buy all your meals from Aulani
Buy groceries and eat a few meals in your room. Except for the first night, we ordered take out from various restaurants in Kapolei. Had we known that we were going to be upgraded into a 1-bedroom villa (which comes with a full kitchen), I would have brought groceries to cook dinner each night. However, all hotel rooms at Aulani come with a minifridge, which could store a lot of breakfast and snack items. I cringed when I saw the total amount of money we spent on food. I chalked it up to the fact that we didn’t go grocery shopping until our trip was almost over. When we go back in 2021, I plan on serving breakfast and dinners in our room and eating at the pool for lunch.
Aulani Tip #18. Always look for discounts before booking.
The DVC option
Everywhere I turn, another friend has a DVC (i.e., Disney’s answer to timeshares). I’m pretty anti-timeshares. I just don’t think they fulfill what I’m looking for in my own travel plans. However, I’ve been ogling a DVC for some time now. I can’t imagine there being a year in the foreseeable future where my family wouldn’t want to spend time at Aulani and I’m very keen on figuring out the cheapest way to stay there. After staying in a DVC 1-bedroom villa, I also can’t imagine going back to a regular hotel room, at least not until the kids are older and have the same bedtime as each other (and us). However, given the huge discounts currently being offered, a DVC still doesn’t seem worth it to me.
Calculating if a DVC is really worth it
For example, as a Kama’aina (i.e. Hawaii resident), I can stay in a 1-bedroom villa next year for 50% off. I have been looking at resale DVC’s at the Grand Californian because I think that would make the most sense for us. That DVC has the added bonus of annual maintenance fees on the lower end of the DVC fees scale.
I came up with a price per DVC point by dividing the cost of the purchased timeshare by the years left in the contract and adding the annual maintenance fee cost per point to that number. Then I multiplied the DVC cost per point by the number of points I would need to stay in the 1-bedroom for a night. It turned out that the 50% off discount I can get just by reserving the villa as a non-member, was cheaper.
I ran the scenario using DVCs at WDW (typically the purchase cost for the DVC was lower but the maintenance fee was higher) and using a DVC at Aulani (higher purchase cost DVC and higher maintenance fees). I actually do think that a DVC may be worth it to us once the pandemic ends. Hawaii’s tourism industry took a drastic hit because the state was effectively closed to tourism for 7 months. These discounts are a way to entice people to come to Aulani during the pandemic. Once Aulani turns their profits around, I’m sure these discounts will go away and I’ll be back to scouring resale DVC options.
Monitoring Aulani’s social media pages for discounts
While I have never seen 50% off discounts for Aulani before, even before the pandemic, we stayed at Aulaniduring a 35% off sale. Aulani seems to offer a lot of off-peek discounts (in addition to room prices just being lower in general during the off-peak time period). Therefore, if you have any flexibility, try to stay during a time that Aulani deeply discounts their rates. They are pretty upfront about these discounts on their Facebook and Instagram pages so I just follow both of them and see when something good pops up.