(This arti­cle may or may not con­tain affil­i­ate links. What does that mean?)

A Cultural Guide For Adventurous Families (VIDEO)

I was pret­ty cer­tain, at that spe­cial age when every­thing is mor­ti­fy­ing, that attend­ing a luau in Hawaii is a type of embar­rass­ment specif­i­cal­ly reserved for tourists. I was 14 and I knew it all.

So smart

This appraisal of trav­el in Hawaii stayed with me until my own lit­tle fam­i­ly vis­it­ed Ko’Oli­na, a resort town on the west­ern side of Oahu, in Hawaii.

Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa

A deep­er under­stand of the islands’ actu­al cul­tur­al life began when we stayed at the Aulani, a Dis­ney Resort and Spa, set on 21 gor­geous, ocean-front acres in Oahu. The name of its lob­by, Maka’ala, trans­lates to eyes wide open, and those eyes, in the form of floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, dis­played  lava rocks float­ing in fil­i­grees of turquoise water.

I can look at this all day — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

To our sur­prise, instead of the expect­ed theme park’s pri­ma­ry col­ors and crush of Dis­ney char­ac­ters, the Aulani dressed in earth tones, pol­ished wood­en beams and blocks of stone that graced the floor and curves of the lobby.

Over­head, smooth wood pulled into the shape of a canoe that trav­eled down the ceil­ing much like the canoes that con­nect­ed the ancient peo­ple of the Hawai­ian Islands. Where the canoe line end­ed, Artist Mar­tin Char­lot’s 200-foot mur­al of ancient war­riors, farm­ers and dancers remind­ed vis­i­tors what Oahu once looked like.

MAKAÔALA LOBBY -- With its fun recreation features and restaurants, its comfortable rooms, and its combination of Disney magic with Hawaiian beauty, tradition and relaxation, Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in HawaiÔi, offers a new way for families to vacation together on the island of OÔahu. (Paul Hiffmeyer/Disney Destinations)
MAKAÔALA LOBBY — A vision of an ancient world — Pho­to © by Paul Hiffmeyer/Disney Destinations

The Dis­ney Aulani resortdesigned by Imag­i­nar­i­um exec­u­tive, Joe Rohde, is divid­ed into two parts, I learned all this and more on a tour avail­able to vis­i­tors. One side of the resort devotes its art and dec­o­ra­tions to hon­or the males of its ancient soci­ety and the oth­er pays trib­ute to the females. On the female side, god­dess Pele´ dances with her dis­ci­ples in a framed fres­co, on the oth­er, war­riors head off into bat­tle. This theme, we found, extend­ed into the rooms as well.

Ancient life blends into mod­ern times — pho­to by © Rina Nehdar 

Although we did glimpse our favorite Dis­ney char­ac­ters strut­ting around palm-tree lined paths in beach attire, the resort makes every attempt to stay true to Hawai­ian life.

What’s up bra? — pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

“We worked with a cul­tur­al com­mit­tee to ensure we were hon­or­ing authen­tic Hawai­ian cul­ture,” said Noriko Hari­mo­to, Pub­lic Rela­tions Man­ag­er for the Aulani.

A cel­e­bra­tion of that cul­ture is every­where, includ­ing the kid’s club, which is apt­ly named Aun­ty’s Beach House. Islanders believe that even if a per­son is not of your blood­line, they are still your ohana, your family.

Because of that kin­ship men­tal­i­ty, adults are referred to as Aun­ty or Uncle by keiko, the chil­dren. The Aun­ties and Uncles at the Beach House extend­ed that hos­pi­tal­i­ty to my boys, ages 7 and 9, through­out our stay. Our boys pro­claimed it was the best kid’s club they’d ever visited.

Waikolohe Valley

In the heart of the Aulani resort is a 7-acre water park called Waikolohe Valley, which translates to mischievous waters.
There are many options for all ages at Aulani’s water park — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

In the heart of the Aulani resort is a 7‑acre water park called Waikolo­he Val­ley, which trans­lates to mis­chie­vous waters. Our favorite part of it was the two, curvy water slide tubes.

The first time we tried it, the four of us trudged up the stairs with our dou­ble rafts and plopped them into the top of the plat­forms. My hus­band and I got in one raft, our backs to the boys, who were in anoth­er. We wait­ed for the green light to sig­nal the time to push off, plung­ing us into the dark abyss.

The tubes ampli­fied our screams as we slid from side to side, not know­ing when each bend would rock­et our bod­ies into the next curve. Water splashed into our mouths and eyes as our fin­gers gripped onto the straps of our raft. The tube spit us into a pool of cool water, sec­onds before our boys got there. Their hands reached around our necks, laugh­ing, scream­ing, and promis­ing swift revenge.

Clos­er to the beach is anoth­er pool, the Kama­ka, a place to chill under a water­fall. It was fun sur­pris­ing the boys when we told them to go under­wa­ter. They came up with mouths shaped like big Os after hear­ing the songs of whales under the water!

Not to be for­got­ten, babies and tod­dlers can relax in the mel­low, zero entry Waikolo­he pool.

Not to be forgotten, babies and toddlers can relax in the mellow, zero entry Waikolohe pool.
Com­pli­men­ta­ry life­jack­ets are avail­able for all — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

Rainbow Reef

Rain­bow Reef is an exot­ic fish habi­tat stocked with 40 vari­eties of local fish. Each per­son gets an inflat­able vest, so even non-swim­mers can enjoy the fun. With­in the safe­ty of the huge aquar­i­um and the rent­ed snorkel gear, we gazed as the tech­ni­col­or fish swam around our bodies.

Snorkelers wave to spectators from the window to the Rainbow Reef marine sanctuary at Aulani: A Disney Resort and Spa - Knox Nehdar, Caitlyn Kelly and Kaleb Nehdar
Snorkel­ers wave to spec­ta­tors at the Rain­bow Reef marine sanc­tu­ary — Pic­tured left to right: Knox Nehdar, Cait­lyn Kel­ly and Kaleb Nehdar. 
Pho­to by  © Rina Nehdar

It was nice not hav­ing to fight cur­rents to swim with ocean life. There’s even a win­dow, set with­in the water tank, to wave at less adven­tur­ous spec­ta­tors or ador­ing grandparents.

Dining with Locals

The ‘AMA’AMA open-air restau­rant was a good spot for lunch. They have pool­side ser­vice with all the usu­al kid favorites, and offer more sophis­ti­cat­ed options for adults.

 the 'AMA'AMA restaurant at Aulani Disney, a resort and spa
A Table With A View — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

We enjoyed break­fast there most morn­ings because they have Dis­ney-style kid options and a vari­ety of inter­na­tion­al adult fare to discover.

Breakfast favorites at AMA AMA - Aulani's Disney resort and spa
The Usu­al — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar
AMA AMA - Aulani A Disney Resort and Spa Japanese Breakfast - Misoyaki Island Catch, Tamago, Miso Soup, Steamed Rice, Dried Seaweed, and Pickled Vegetables
Japan­ese Break­fast — Mis­oy­a­ki Island Catch, Tam­a­go, Miso Soup, Steamed Rice, Dried Sea­weed, and Pick­led Veg­eta­bles — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

In the evening, the ‘AMA’AMA trans­forms into a more for­mal din­ing area over­look­ing the ocean.

'AMA'AMA – Contemporary Island Cooking
‘AMA’AMA dressed up at night. ©Dis­ney
'AMA'AMA Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa at night.
Come on in, the food is warm — pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

One night, we spoke with sev­er­al locals about their take on how tourism is affect­ing Hawaii. Kevin Kel­ly, Pres­i­dent of Tri­ton Corp., said he thought the resorts spring­ing up around Oahu were a good thing. “They pro­vide jobs,” he said.

His wife, Irene Kel­ly, a biol­o­gist for the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Asso­ci­a­tion, wor­ried about deplet­ing the island’s nat­ur­al resources.

“The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment does­n’t have the means to man­age all the things need­ed to main­tain a healthy ecosys­tem,” she said.

Luck­i­ly, she told us, a pro­gram devel­oped over two decades allows com­mu­ni­ties to part­ner with state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments to pro­tect the health of their island.

“In Hae­na, Kauai, the Com­mu­ni­ty Based Sub­sis­tence Fish­ing Area (CBSA) was devel­oped so com­mu­ni­ties could enforce their own envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions,” she said. This was done in response to dis­ap­pear­ing fish.

Her hus­band agreed, “It’s like the Lorax,” he said. “Some­one finds some­thing nice and then oth­ers have to get as much of it as pos­si­ble, even if that means using it up until it’s gone.”

But with CBSA as a role mod­el for the oth­er islands, that can be pre­vent­ed, the cou­ple hopes.

Dis­cussing this ear­li­er, Hari­mo­to told me, “We are a big H and a lit­tle d.” In hon­or­ing that big H, to pre­serve island life, Dis­ney is the first resort in Hawaii to earn the  LEED sil­ver award.

While the adults were dis­cussing the fate of the islands, the kids noticed a near­by camp­fire with Uncle and Moana telling island tales. They ran to join the group sit­ting around the fire and learned about island folk­lore in the inter­ac­tive presentation.

Uncle and Moana share island tales with guests around a campfire. Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa.
Uncle and Moana share island tales with guests around a camp­fire. Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

By engag­ing the chil­dren’s hearts through sto­ries, we watched as Dis­ney cre­at­ed the next gen­er­a­tion of con­ser­va­tion­ists who will hope­ful­ly con­tin­ue to pre­serve island life.

More Fun Stuff

The next day, with the warm staff at Aun­ty’s Beach House enter­tain­ing the boys, we enjoyed the Lani­wai Spa, the first spa cre­at­ed by Dis­ney and built with alo­ha mag­ic. It sur­passed its name, which trans­lates to fresh­wa­ter heaven.

Lomi Lomi involves foot long gua­va wood sticks, essen­tial oils and bliss. We learned that every Hawai­ian fam­i­ly has with­in it some­one des­ig­nat­ed as a heal­er. This heal­er prac­tices mas­sage and nat­ur­al reme­dies with­in the fam­i­ly to keep every­one at their best.

Lomi Lomi involves foot long guava wood sticks, essential oils and bliss. We learned that every Hawaiian family has within it someone designated as a healer.
Tools of the Trade — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

Divid­ed into an out­door hydrother­a­py gar­den and an indoor sanc­tu­ary with a mind bog­gling (150!) array of treat­ments, the most­ly adults-only spa is a retreat from your retreat.

A slice of heav­en — Pho­to by © Disney

How­ev­er, if more fam­i­ly time is what you crave, there’s also an Ohana Lomi Lomi mas­sage for fam­i­ly to enjoy together.

Now, if the kids are done with fam­i­ly time and are crav­ing their “me time,” the Paint­ed Sky: HI Style Stu­dio offers them the chance to become their favorite Dis­ney island char­ac­ter, if they are between the ages of 3 to 12, or trans­form into a more adven­tur­ous ver­sion of them­selves with cos­tumes, makeovers and acces­sories. This is new and was­n’t avail­able when we went. I bet the boys would love to wear a loin cloth like Maui though. We’ll find out next time!

At Painted Sky: HI Style studio, boys and girls ages 3-12 can choose from a variety of magical makeover packages, which include hairstyling, makeup, costumes and accessories — all infused with hints of Hawaii and a playful sense of Disney fun! Kids can transform into a mermaid, dress for an adventure across O'ahu or even style in the fashion of Moana of Montunui. (Disney)
The mag­i­cal makeover pack­ages include hair­styling, make­up, cos­tumes and acces­sories — all infused with hints of Hawaii — Pho­to by © Disney

One morn­ing, I got some of that “me time” dur­ing sun­rise yoga on the dewy lawn over­look­ing the still dark ocean. I said alo­ha to the sun, as it peeked into the sky, with pos­es and salu­ta­tions . I watched the day unfold under lay­ers of crim­son, salmon and sun­flower while reflect­ing on how lucky we were to be enjoy­ing this. In my busy boy life, it was a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty of qui­et, and I made a men­tal note to try and bring this moment home with me.

Yoga on the lawn of the Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa
A per­fect place for sun salu­ta­tions — Self­ie by © Rina Nehdar

Four Seasons Adventures

A short walk past the Aulani is its neigh­bor, the Four Sea­sons Resort. In front of the Four Sea­sons is a stretch of pub­lic beach called Lanikuhonua. This was an ancient vaca­tion spot for Hawai­ian royalty.

Now a vaca­tion spot for roy­al sea lions — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

Today, it is home to a kahu, or spir­i­tu­al guardian. Kahu Aun­ty Net­tie is the old­est liv­ing res­i­dent in Oahu. Here, she bless­es vis­i­tors in an ocean cer­e­mo­ny. After my bless­ing, I asked her what she thought about the chang­ing island. She said she was pleased with the hotels on Oahu because they pro­vid­ed jobs that kept the kids close to home.

Kahu Auntie Nettie blesses a guest at Lanikuhonua Beach in front of the Four Seasons Resort in Oahu.
Kahu Aun­tie Net­tie bless­es a guest at Lanikuhonua Beach in front of the Four Sea­sons Resort. Her son assists — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

The Four Sea­sons has its own offer­ing of island adven­tures that include a guid­ed hike to Ka’e­na Point, a half hour away from Ko’Oli­na, led by Kumu Hula La’akea Per­ry. Once used by the Unit­ed States mil­i­tary, it is now unin­hab­it­ed. You may see a ran­dom car rust­ing below the cliffs where a sil­ly per­son had tried to dri­ve it.…

…oth­er­wise, the land­scape is large­ly still wild.

Swimming holes on the hike to Kaena Point
Jump In to Cool Off — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

Swim­ming holes and a teardrop-shaped rock fac­ing the ocean are the pay­off. Kumu Hula La’akea Per­ry shared sto­ries about the area (the best being the ori­gin of the sha­ka sign — he told us the secu­ri­ty guard ver­sion) and the rock, called Leinakauhane Point, which trans­lates to leap­ing of the souls. It’s a sacred spot where islanders believe recent­ly depart­ed souls tran­si­tion to the oth­er side.

The rock is called Leinakauhane Point, which translates to leaping of the souls.
The Cross­ing Point — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar 

Then Per­ry and his part­ner, per­formed a sacred hula (see video below) that told the sto­ry of Hi’i­a­ka (the favorite sis­ter of Pele´) and showed a deep respect for this part of the island.

Waikiki Beach

If you decide to ven­ture away from Ko’Oli­na, you won’t want to miss Waiki­ki Beach. Known for its white pow­der sand and long, fat waves, it’s about an hour from the resorts. We rent­ed surf­boards and now can say we’ve surfed Waiki­ki, even though not all of us stood up on the surfboard.

Surfboards are available to rent in Waikiki. Photo by The Aulani is a family-friendly Disney resort on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Photo by Rina Baraz Nehdar
Surf­boards are avail­able to rent in Waiki­ki — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar
Surfing Waikiki - Photo by © Rina Nehdar
Surf­ing Waiki­ki — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

The boys def­i­nite­ly got into the island spir­it pos­ing in front of a bronze stat­ue of leg­endary surfer and Olympic Gold medal swim­mer, Duke Kahanamoku on Kuhio Beach.

bronze statue of legendary surfer and Olympic Gold medal swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku on Kuhio Beach.

Not Just Another Luau

Our edu­ca­tion end­ed at Aulani’s “Ka Wa’a” (canoe) Luau. Aun­ties and Uncles wel­comed us with keep­sake leis of Kakui nuts and tiny moss col­ored Mon­go seashells. The boys received demi-god Maui fish hooks.

Aunties and Uncles welcomes us to Aulani's Disney resort and spa
Not like any aun­ty or uncle I ever had 

Island war­riors helped pre­pare the feast by show­ing kei­ki, how to pound ku’i kalo, taro root, into a pasty poi.

Hon­orary junior war­rior — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

The hour before, the Aulani ohana had set out mounds of pig, fish and salads…

A roasted pig cut up for Aulani's
There were veg­e­tar­i­an options too — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

…then they guid­ed the kei­ki in lei mak­ing, applied trib­al tat­toos and taught them hula dancing.

Keiko are shown how to make leis at the Ka Wa'a Luau at the Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa
Aun­ties show keiko how to make leis at the Ka Wa’a Luau — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar
Tough island guys drink­ing their Shirley Tem­ples — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar

Through sto­ry­teller Noa and the dancers, we learned the his­to­ry of the Poly­ne­sian peo­ple’s migra­tion by canoe from Tahi­ti to Hawaii and their evo­lu­tion into the present. The sto­ry involved fires and scream­ing and spec­tac­u­lar move­ments all set to a windswept island soundtrack.

It was noth­ing like the luaus I remem­bered. Or. Maybe it was, but this time I saw it through open eyes.

The Abridged Version:


  • Try the char­ac­ter break­fast at least once. Yes, all the sug­ar will turn your lov­ing chil­dren into crazy beasts but the food is col­or­ful and comes in awe­some shapes. And, it’s where all the cool Dis­ney char­ac­ters hang out. Despite their age, your kids will love when they stop at your table and pose for pic­tures with them. There’s din­ner shows at the buf­fet too.
Disney Character Breakfast at the Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa
Break­fast of cham­pi­ons — Pho­to by © Rina Nehdar
  • Try the snor­kel­ing and SUP in front of the hotel. The water is calm and you could plop your younger kids on the front of your board while you paddle.
  • Keep an eye out for the mis­chie­vous Mene­hune, Hawai­i’s lit­tle “mag­i­cal peo­ple” hid­den around the resort. There’s even an adven­ture trail, that’s sort of like a scav­enger hunt, to find them.
  • Every­one loves snow cones. Espe­cial­ly when they’re shaped like Mick­ey! Next door to the Rain­bow Reef is your hook-up.
  • And final­ly, since you’re on the island to explore a bit of his­to­ry & cul­ture, why not inves­ti­gate the parts of the island that refuse to stay in the past by vis­it­ing some of Oahu’s most famous haunt­ed spots? Every­one loves a good, scary story.
haunted island
Pho­to by Samuel Zeller