By Brandy Black
You’ve heard it a million times and probably said it a million more: a vacation with kids isn’t really a vacation. We all want our children to experience and discover all that the big, wide world has to offer. And there’s something undeniably special about the family bonding that traveling together allows. But, full disclosure: for me, at the exhausting end of each family trip, I simply can’t imagine doing it again.
And yet, I do. Every year. Not because I’m a glutton for tantrums and stress, but because I truly believe that the memories are worth it. I imagine my family decades from now, laughing together over all we did, reminiscing about all we saw.
And so I’ve searched far and wide for the right travel ingredients to make the perfect family vacation. One that wouldn’t leave me, my wife, or the kids in tears (this has happened more times than I care to admit). A trip that might even have us all –the parents and the littles- exclaiming on the way home, “Let’s go back!”
I found the perfect travel recipe with Disney, when we had the opportunity to stay at the Aulani Disney Resort & Spa in Hawaii. A flight to Hawaii with four-year old twins and a 7-year-old is daunting, no doubt. But once we arrived at the Resort, the entire family was in travel nirvana. Here are the ingredients that made our family vacation perfect in every way:
Aunty’s Beach House The best place ever for kids and parents alike! It’s free, supervised child care available all day, any day. This bears repeating: Free. Supervised. All Day. Childcare. Aunty’s is a kids-only getaway tucked in a beach house setting, complete with movies, computers, Wii and Sony Playstation video games, Hawaiian arts and crafts, dress-up clothes, interactive game tables, and an enclosed, secure backyard with a play structure. Vibrant, young Disney employees tend to the kids, culminating in a dream scenario for them all. My wife and I enjoyed so many dates during this vacation. So. Many. Dates. Quick cocktail hour? Drop off the kids. Spa? Drop off the kids. Romantic walk on the beach? Drop off the kids. The kids asked each morning if they could go, meaning we moms were super relaxed the whole time. This gem of awesomeness is available for kids age 3-12.
Waterslides Most of the time our twins are too young to do anything really fun on vacation, which is always a bummer for their big sister. When I heard the joyous screams of kids twisting and turning through the waterslides, I thought for sure there would be a height requirement restricting the little ones’ access. Nope, this is Disney guys, and they know kids (and parents) well. Our twins rode the slides over and over (and over and over and over) again, every single day of our stay. Their little faces were lit up as they stood in line with the bigger kids; you could just see that they felt brave, and included. The brilliant part about one of the slides is that the child stays on her raft, so she doesn’t go underwater when she lands. Best idea ever.
Starlit Hui Think “Luau”. The whole family sat under the stars enjoying Hula dancing, listened to beautiful music, and learned about the history of the island. The kids had Hula lessons (a highlight of their evening) and at the end of it all Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, et. al. joined everyone in a final dance party. The best part is that this fun-filled night is included in your entertainment for the stay, yep completely free!
Laniwai Spa I typically don’t go for spas at resorts because I find them overpriced and seldom worth it. But my wife wanted to spoil me with an unexpected treatment at Aulani. Upon entry, I was presented with a basket of rocks and instructed to close my eyes and choose one. On my rock the word “Strength” was inscribed in English on one side and in Hawaiian on the other. As the staff walked me through the oasis, they explained the meaning of Laniwai: “freshwater Heaven”. We stopped at a pool of water filled with rocks with a swinging prism above the water, where I was asked to bring my “strength” and energy into the spa while placing my rock in the water. It was a beautiful way to enter this sanctuary. The hydrotherapy garden was so relaxing and beautiful, I felt like I had been transported to another world. It should also be mentioned that Laniwai has a teen spa and spa services for little ones! I would not miss it and so want to go back.
Lazy River This was a huge hit, and not just because my kids were obsessed with it. I reached a breakthrough with my 7-year-old on the Lazy River. See, I am a bit of a helicopter mom. I have a lot of trouble letting her out of my sight for even a moment. So it was a bit of a shock to us all when my daughter asked if she could ride the river- which sprawls throughout the center of the property- by herself… and I said yes.
I don’t know if it was because I was so relaxed from the delicious Hawaiian air and the Aunty’s Beach House babysitters, or if I simply felt comfortable enough to let her explore on her own. What I do know is that it gave her a huge confidence boost. I admit I immediately started searching for her the second she went in the water, but even so I knew she was safe among the other kids and the many lifeguards around every bend. It was a giant step for me, a relief for my wife (who has forever been asking for this) and a profound moment for our daughter.
The Beach The beach was just the right size for my comfort level. Once again, I was able to relax my eagle eye and allow the kids to run free on the sand, jump in the water, and explore it all. We went paddle-boarding for the first time and the kids tried boogie boards. We built giant sandcastles, climbed rocks overlooking the ocean, and played ping pong. We drank delicious summer mocktails (in January!). But best of all, we star-gazed in the dark of the night, feeling the sand in our toes, with Hawaiian music serenading us from the restaurant above.
Scavenger Hunt I’m not a fan of scavenger hunts. I find them tedious, with very little payoff. So when our kids excitedly geared up to participate in the Disney Aulani Scavenger hunt, I went straight to the cafe for a coffee to gear up myself (But first, coffee). Not necessary with this hunt, which is led by videos on an iPad, and SUPER fun! Not only did we get to explore the property, but the. Things. We. Found! Items came to life right before our eyes; rock formations moved; water sprayed out of blow holes; and drums thundered from deep underground. And all of it only worked if the kids stood in the exact spot as designated in each clue. Do this.
Movie Night Under the Stars Ah, what a special evening we had under the stars (just as advertised), with a pizza from Ulu Cafe watching 101 Dalmatians. This was a relaxing start to our vacation, and it made the arrival all the more special.
The Rooms I love a hotel that accommodates bigger families. (Many Spa resorts don’t!) Our family of five always needs at least three beds and a bit of extra space for all of our stuff. I was thrilled with the 2-bedroom villa at the Disney Aulani and with the kitchen so that we didn’t have to go out to eat for every meal. In reality, it’s nice to relax at “home” and have breakfast or get take-out for dinner to alleviate the stress of having fairly young children in restaurants. (Is it possible that my kids are always the loudest?) Disney gets it right when it comes to configuring rooms for families of all sizes.
Snorkeling Experience This 3,800 square-foot saltwater lagoon was perfect for my 7-year-old daughter who had never tried snorkeling. She was so excited to swim with the fishies. The twins watched their big sister from the viewing window, pointing out where Sophia was and all the fish she was seeing. One said “I wonder if she will see Nemo in there!” It was truly unique and our daughter talked about it most of the trip.
You have to experience Hawaii with Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa. It’s the perfect recipe for a family vacation that’s truly a vacation. Mahalo!