Reporting from Ko Olina, Oahu - Water plays a central role in Disney's new Aulani hotel in Hawaii – from the water-park-like pool and the sunset-facing hot tubs to the salt water snorkeling pool and the adult and youth spas.
The $800 million Aulani in Ko Olina on the leeward side of Oahu opened in late August with an official grand opening scheduled for Sept. 22.
> Aulani: Photos of Disney’s new Hawaiian resort
I've been staying at the Aulani for the last few days with my wife, Nancy, and our 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, where we spent a great deal of our time in our bathing suits.
The centerpiece of the Aulani's pool is Pu'u Kilo, a man-made volcanic outcropping with hidden stingrays, squid and crabs carved into the lava rock. Two water slides – one a zippy body slide through the dark and the other an inner tube slide with plenty of airtime - start at the top of the peak.
Hannah loved riding down the slide on the two-person inner tube with me.
"The extra weight makes it go faster," Hannah said, clearly unaware I’d lost 10 pounds in preparation for the trip.
At the bottom of the slide, Hannah rocketed forward like a human cannonball as we hit the pool, the inner tube bonking her on the head and dunking her underwater.
"Let's do it again," Hannah said as she surfaced, unscathed and undeterred.
Hannah's favorite part of the Aulani pool complex was the 900-foot-long lazy river that wound through misty caverns, under footbridges and around the resort’s lush, tropical grounds.
We did share one common complaint: "This lazy river is too lazy," Hannah said rather succinctly.
Indeed, it was faster to get out and walk the serpentine course, as we saw many people doing. But Hannah persuaded me to relax, sitting back to back in the double inner tube as she directed us under arcing water jets and cascading waterfalls. Ah, the wisdom of youth.
Equally soaking was the Menehune Bridge, a water play structure dedicated to Hawaii’s mythical and mischievous dwarf-like creatures who continually spouted, sprayed and dumped water on the unsuspecting.
My favorite spot was the dual sunset-facing hot tubs, one cascading into the other. It was a great place to decompress while sipping a tropical cocktail. I was at my most relaxed just leaning on the edge of the pool, peering off at the horizon, my kukui nut necklace floating around my neck.
We returned to the hot tubs often during our visit. On one occasion, we found ourselves surrounded by three preschoolers playing tag while their parents chatted nearby. The youngest of the trio, a little girl wearing a life vest, whined "I don’t want to play" every time she was tagged – which was about every 10 seconds.
When the parents failed to intervene in the water play meltdown, we left the hot tub along with a few other adults. Fortunately, anticipating just such situations, Disney included a quieter adult pool tucked away in a secluded corner of the resort.
The most unique aspect of the Aulani's pool area was the salt water Rainbow Reef snorkeling lagoon, an 8-foot-deep pool filled with 1,000 Angel Fish, Tangs and Butterfly Fish. Hannah held tightly to my arm the entire time we explored the man-made volcanic caverns and coral reefs as fish swam up to and around us.
It was the perfect introduction for a first-time snorkeler like Hannah and a second-time amateur like myself. An all-day fee ($20 for adults, $10 for kids) included use of the snorkel equipment in the protective cove just beyond the Aulani’s beach.
Adjacent to Rainbow Reef snorkeling lagoon, a conservation pool allowed visitors to touch stingrays and starfish for a fee ($50 for adults, $45 for kids, by reservation only). The price seemed awfully steep to me, considering I could do the same thing at San Diego's SeaWorld marine park or Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific. I never saw anybody visit the stingray pool during our entire stay.
Nancy had been looking forward to the resort's Laniwai Spa, which offered massage therapies ranging from therapeutic, herbal and hot stone to shiatsu, Thai and traditional Hawaiian. She opted for the $45 access pass that allowed her access to the vitality pools, "rain" showers and outdoor hydrotherapy garden.
Upon arrival, Nancy was given a tour of the facilities that included a back-story designed to add spiritual meaning to her visit. At one point, she was asked to pick a rock to toss into a tide pool as a way of giving thanks to the gods.
"I thought it was a little hokey, but it helped set the tone for the place," Nancy said. "And I didn’t want to do anything to anger the gods."
Her first stop was a fragrant steam room that proved a bit too steamy. She jumped out within moments, grabbing a chilled towel from a refrigerator to cool down.
Out in the garden, she tried the seaweed and eucalyptus vitality pools, where an attendant quietly brought her a selection of three hot teas.
Next she sampled the six "rain" showers – each with varying flow levels. Her favorite: the mist shower with upward-spraying water jets.
The spa would have been a "freshwater heaven," as Laniwai translates in Hawaiian, if not for the guy conducting business on his cellphone while lounging near the vitality pool and the trash truck loudly loading a dumpster just beyond the wall of the outdoor garden.
Next door to Laniwai, Hannah got her first massage at the Painted Sky teen spa, which also offered facemasks, body polishes and a mix-your-own perfume bar. In the family section of the spa, girls as young as 5 can get their hair decorated with flowers and sprinkled with "pixie dust."
Hannah opted for the 25-minute chair massage ($50), which included her choice of lotions (she went with mango) as well as hot towels for the face and neck.
"She massaged my face, my arms, my legs, my feet and even my toes," Hannah said. "It was awesome."