photoby Eric Anderson

My family and I recently returned from a summer vacation to Disney’s Aulani Resort at Ko Olina on Oahu. Despite the many splendors of the area and the large number of activities, we still managed to find time to eat. If you’ve been to the Animal Kingdom Lodge at Walt Disney World, you will have a sense of the layout of the Aulani restaurants. There is the Quick Service location, Ulu Cafe; there is the buffet option, the Makahiki Room; and there is the upscale dining option, ‘Ama ‘Ama. We managed to hit all three multiple times during our trip, and have some hard-won knowledge to impart. Okay, “hard-won” might be an overstatement. We were not confronted with any Brady Bunch-style vindictive cursed tiki dolls, but I will talk about the prices…

Ulu CafeThe Ulu Café is close to the adults-only pool and opens at 6:00 a.m. for all those folks from the East Coast whose kids are up at 5 in the morning their first full day in Hawaii and clamoring to be fed. It’s a workable option. They have a lot of grab and go sandwiches, salads, and baked goods; plus a meal-specific hot-food cafeteria-style line that makes use of some of the local specialties – not every quick service place has a catch of the day option, after all. It is also a spot where you can refill your resort mugs (currently, good for the length of your stay) during its business hours. I didn’t go far beyond the salad offerings here for meals, but did sneak a taste here and there of some breakfast pastries (incidentally, they do have some gluten-free muffins, about half the size and half the price of the gluten-full varieties), and those were passable.

Makahiki RoomThe next spot is the Makahiki Room, Aulani’s buffet extravaganza. It’s the only character meal at Aulani (breakfast and lunch only), and is a pretty interesting blend of cuisines. Dinner includes a variety of sushi and sashimi on the buffet, along with other Asian-cuisine touches; a carving station; a kids’ section, that often had tater tots (which this young-at-heart diner wasn’t shy about enjoying); and a wide selection of locally- and distantly-sourced foods. I liked their Atlantic salmon dishes better than their Mahi-Mahi, but that was mainly a testament to salmon holding up better on a buffet and not getting dried out under a heat lamp like the Mahi did. The salad bar portion of the buffet was a welcome addition, because the Hawaiian style of meals seemed to focus on proteins and starches, along with some fruits, but green veggies were fewer and farther between than I would have liked.

Try the red stuff, it's delicious!

Try the red stuff, it’s delicious!

The Makahiki breakfast had the usual Disney suspects, but also included rice and tamago (sweet egg omelette usually used for nigiri sushi). POG juice flowed freely, and the overall quality of food was good. Again, there was a lot of protein out, including five or six different egg dishes. My older daughter loves her some tamago, and being able to get it without paying $2-$2.50 for each piece of nigiri with it on it was a big win for her. Aside from the food, the character interaction was okay, but not stellar. The whole scene is a bit more casual than the highly-regimented WDW character meal schedule, but we were able to get pictures with the characters (Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy, all in Hawaiian-style garb) with no problem.

Now I’m going to talk about price. Are you sitting down? You should be sitting down. Food in Hawaii is expensive. There is no getting around that. Add to that the usual Disney premium and you are not getting out of a table service restaurant cheaply. Our breakfast, for two adults and two children, clocked in at over $120. That’s about what you’d pay for four adults for a lot of the WDW character breakfasts. Our dinner (no characters), was over $180 for the four of us. About $20 of that was alcoholic beverages, but that’s still a steep tab for a buffet dinner. At Boma, it would have been about $120 for the four of us to get a more expansive (but less expensive) buffet.

'Ama 'Ama entranceThe most upscale restaurant at Aulani is ‘Ama ‘Ama. It features a lovely view of the Hawaiian sunset at dinner, and the usual beauty of the beach and breaking waves during the day. They serve all three meals here, which is nice, but we only did a lunch and two dinners. The menus are fairly different, with lunch pitched at a quicker pace, including a lot of sandwiches. The pick here for lunch is, I think, the Daily Local Plate Lunch. It costs about $22, but is a very large portion (my wife and I split it and a couple of appetizers and were very well fed). The appetizers include the ubiquitous tuna poke, and the sandwiches include the similarly ubiquitous kalua pork. Local Plate SpecialDinner is a bit fancier, but includes some of the lunch appetizer offerings. I had the catch of the day one evening (ok, but the fish on the Daily Local Plate Lunch was a lot better), and took a look at the vegetarian menu on our second evening. For the vegetarian meals, they mainly removed the meat and just served the sides from various entrees, but they did permit a little customization. That allows for a lot of flexibility, but suggests they aren’t all that invested in the overall dishes from the vegetarian side of the fence. Entrees run from $27-$47 at dinner (plus the market-priced Catch of the Day), with apps in the $12.50-$26 range (for a large seafood thing). Lunch apps were $9-$13, sandwiches were $13-$19, and entrees were $15-$Market Price for the Catch of the Day. Again, not cheap, but the food was good here, and they were definitely trying some interesting twists on dishes.

I mentioned alcoholic beverages a while back, but I would be remiss if I did not note the three bars on property. You can order food at all three, but the best place to do so, IMO, is the ??lelo Room, by the Makahiki Room. I said Kalua Pork was ubiquitous, but nowhere else do they put it on top of taro chips for a nice local nacho plate. The menu can be found here. For the price-conscious, they have a happy hour from 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. daily, at which you are likely to save some money with their app and drink specials in the $5-$7 range.

The other bar of note is the Off The Hook Lounge. Their food menu is a little more basic, but the kids’ offerings are more expansive, if you brought the kids along. To a bar. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. At all the bars, the menus feature the same list of cocktails. There are some unique selections, but I didn’t like a lot of the cocktails as written. Local beers play a role on draft, and are pretty big sellers, based on some intensive research (yeah, that’s right, research – where do I send the receipt for reimbursement again?) while the kids were at Aunty’s Beach House in the Kids’ Club.

Aulani-adjacent rainbowThe upshot of all of this is that they will feed you at Aulani, but you are going to pay more than usual for the privilege. Food all over Hawaii is going to be pricey, but combined with Disney’s usual premium, it can get pretty financially draining. Going outside the resort is an option, although most local restaurants are still in the pricey Ko Olina neighborhood that is home to Aulani. Monkeypod was the best alternative we found while there for wide selection of quality food. You could definitely get away cheaper than on property, with entrees topping out around $36 with some market-priced creations. A sushi place and a Mexican restaurant are in the same, walkable shopping center as Monkeypod, if those cuisines interest you. There are a variety of resort hotels in the same Ko’Olina area of Oahu, and they, too, have attached restaurants. Most of these can be reached by a short (less than a mile) walk from Aulani along the cement path that edges the lagoons. Still, this is an expensive neighborhood overall, and, with a car, you can reach cheaper places offsite. Anna Miller’s, in the Pearl City/Pearl Harbor area, is a Hawaiian take on a diner. They had the genius to create (as far as I know, I haven’t seen it elsewhere) a chili pot pie. They also have a plethora of dessert pies for your enjoyment.

Dole Plantation Dole WhipAnd, of course, if you have a car and can take the time to make the trip, the Dole Plantation gives you access to Dole Whips, along with a fairly sizable food menu, if, for some reason, Dole Whips did not crowd other items off your lunch menu. The options include a wide range of items, including local favorite loco moco: white rice with hamburger patties and chili. Expect to see pineapple included with a lot of the meals here. However, you can still get Dole Whips at Aulani, if you just want to stay put and enjoy paradise by the lagoon.

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