If every movie or television show set in Hawaii is to be believed, a visit to the Aloha State begins with a lei being put around your neck the moment you touch ground. Indeed, no sooner had we stepped out of the car in the porte cochere of the Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa on the island of Oahu than we were each greeted by a pair of outstretched arms bearing one of the traditional floral necklaces. What my cynical mind assumed was a contrivance meant solely to delight tourists, in fact, symbolized so much more. Leis are given to visitors as a sign of affection and respect, a gesture that says, “Welcome to our ‘ohana — welcome to our family.”
For many Hawaiians, the idea of ‘ohana is something strongly felt. It includes not only blood relatives but also an extended family of in-laws, friends, and neighbors whom they often lovingly refer to as aunty, uncle, cuz, sista, or brah. And, for the duration of our stay at Aulani, we were certainly made to feel as though we were ‘ohana.
For LGBT travelers, the feeling that you are welcome — let alone family — can be elusive in many parts of the world, and even in many parts of the United States, for that matter. And since I had brought a member of my own family with me on this trip, this gesture of reassurance did not go unnoticed. In a 2014 survey, the Census Bureau counted more than 780,000 same-sex households in the United States (an increase of nearly 25 percent from 2010). Of those homes, 17 percent reported having children, and that number is growing. That means there will be more and more LGBT families traveling together in the very near future, and those families will undoubtedly seek out destinations where the adults can relax, the kids can keep busy, and everyone will feel like ‘ohana.
Set on more than 20 oceanfront acres, Aulani offers guests of every age the opportunity to immerse themselves in Hawaiian history and culture against the backdrop of a thoughtfully conceived lush, tropical paradise. And, although it’s hard to escape the fact that this is Hawaii as seen through a Disney lens — there’s a character breakfast each morning — its particular brand of magic feels much less overt than at any one of Disney’s theme parks. In fact, Disney wanted to honor the traditions of Hawaiian architecture and respect for the land and worked closely with local advisers to ensure they offered as authentic an experience as possible.
Aulani owns one of the world’s largest private collections of contemporary Hawaiian art, with more than 50 pieces on display at the hotel. Guests can brush up on the correct pronunciation of humuhumunukunukuapua‘a (the name of the state fish) or learn other useful phrases while sipping tropical cocktails at the ‘Ōlelo Room lounge, where all of the bartenders are fluent in Hawaiian. Ukulele lessons are offered in the Pau Hana community room, and Uncle brings local lore to life through his storytelling sessions at the Mo‘olelo fire pit.
The seven-acre water playground, with its many pools, waterslides, the Waikolohe Stream lazy river, and the Rainbow Reef snorkel experience, are the focal points of the property and are sure to keep any adventurous member of the family busy.
When it comes time for the adults to enjoy some time to themselves — enjoying the outdoor hydrotherapy garden at the on-property Laniwai Spa, for instance — they can drop off the kids (ages 3 to 12) at Aunty’s Beach House for supervised play.
The Aulani certainly offers enough activities to keep a family occupied for a number of days. However, there are plenty of places to explore within a short drive of the resort too. For these, a rental car is recommended, as taxis and ride-share services like Uber can be pricey. For a bit of a cosmopolitan adventure, head into Waikiki, Honolulu’s beachfront neighborhood, synonymous with surfing and home to many of the island’s luxury shops, nightclubs, and restaurants.
Alternatively, spend a morning strolling through the beautiful grounds of Waimea Valley that lead up to its grand waterfall. For centuries, Oahu’s high priests lived in and protected this sacred place, now a sanctuary for the hundreds of indigenous and endangered species of plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world.
For more information on Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, visit Resorts.Disney.Go.com/Aulani-Hawaii-Resort.
This article originally appeared in the February issue of Advocate.