Choosing a hotel when visiting Disneyland is a big decision. To make the most out of an expensive visit to the theme park, I like to stay as close to the park entrance as possible.
My ideal location is somewhere I can wake up as late as possible, get the kid out of bed at the last minute and walk 500 metres or less across the road to the entrance to Disneyland, arriving well before the gates actually open.
The best time to visit Disneyland is first thing in the morning, as soon as the gates open and before the crowds descend, so it makes sense that the best place to stay is as close to the parks as possible and minimise your time travelling to and from the parks.
We decided to stay at the The Howard Johnson Anaheim Hotel and Water Playground on this trip. The hotel is extremely close to Disneyland – it’s actually closer to the park than two of Disney’s own hotels. On the Howard Johnson website it states that the hotel is an eight-minute walk away – I’m a fast walker though and I’m pretty sure I did it in five minutes or under. Fantastic location at a fraction of the cost of staying at a Disney resort.
The Howard Johnson is renowned for their water playground. It’s a huge, pirate-themed water area that includes a 30-foot pirate ship with slides, water cannons, fountains and toddler wading pool, plus a 15-person hot tub and a garden pool.
Having such amazing pool facilities is great for visiting the parks for an extended period. It’s a good idea to leave the parks around midday when it gets busy and hot, return to the hotel for a rest and a swim, then return to the parks before the parades and fireworks – I find that this strategy really makes the stay that much more of a holiday than just a theme park visit.
The rooms at the Howard Johnson are another reason to stay at the hotel. They are huge! Bigger than any other hotel we have ever stayed at now I think about it. We had two bedrooms with a king bed in one and bunk beds plus a fold out sofa in the other, plus two bathrooms. Yes, you could actually fit a family of five grown people in this single hotel room.
There was room for our mountains of luggage we collected along the way, which we had tripped over in every other hotel room. The added space just made us feel that much more relaxed as we had some real space finally to spread out.
The Howard Johnson also features free WiFi, free parking and a free laptop-sized safe. We had a microwave, fridge and tea and coffee making facilities in the room, plus the Main Street Market downstairs next to the hotel lobby where we picked up a basic breakfast every morning as we walked to Disneyland.
One of the problems we always face with visiting Anaheim is finding decent places to eat dinner – there is a lot of fast food, but that’s about it. We were so happy to discover a really nice restaurant a few steps from the hotel, Mimi’s Café Anaheim Restaurant and Bar, that offered affordable breakfast, lunch and dinner, including a decent kids’ menu.
We highly enjoyed our stay at the Howard Johnson Hotel and Water Playground in Anaheim and will absolutely stay here again when we visit Disneyland.
One of the most unexpectedly fun activities we tried at Disneyland this year was the Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple show. It’s a really clever idea. Kids aged 4-12 can sign up for “jedi training”. They then take part in a little show that runs 6 times a day, dressed up as jedis with light sabres, getting to live out their Star Wars fantasy to battle the forces of evil.
The show runs six times during the day – when we visited the times were 10:30am, 11:35am, 12:40pm, 2:25pm, 3:30pm and 4:35pm. When registering for the show you can choose the time you want. The staff will ask your child a few questions to make sure they know what they’re in for, and won’t freeze up or freak out on stage.
After registering we went on our merry way and returned at the time specified – around 30 minutes before show time. The kids had their names marked off and were taken into a group and given their special jedi robes. There were a lot of spots available from kids who didn’t arrive in time for the show, so at least 10 kids off the wait list were accepted into the group.
Once the group was complete, the kids were whisked off for some jedi training while the adults were guided to the nearby Galactic Grill stage, where the show would shortly commence.
The stage is quite wide and there are a lot of kids in each group, so it’s hard to know where the best spot is to place yourself to see your own child. I chose the front middle and lucky for me, Cheese was placed directly in front of me for the show.
The show kicks off with the younglings entering in a group, and tells the story of a woman who wants to be a jedi – it’s really a story of her jedi journey with the kids as the supporting cast. She guides the kids through basic jedi training moves, just in time for the entrance of the villains – Darth Vader and a new enemy. The kids face off against the villains one-on-one on stage – surprisingly none of the kids freaked out either at the masked villains or the attention, so I’m guessing they were prepared for what was going to happen backstage.
The show is 26 minutes long, a perfect length both for the kids involved and the audience watching. It was a lot of fun for families to participate and also to watch. For those involved, it was the highlight of their day.
Need to know:
Participants must be between 4 and 12 years of age.
All participants must be present at the time of registration.
Register at the kiosk located outside the exit to Star Wars Launch Bay.
Registration begins when Disneyland Park opens for the day–including Extra Magic Hour or Magic Morning.
Availability is limited and offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
After spending a gorgeous time having a princess transformation at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (BBB) on board the Disney Fantasy, my daughter asked if she could also try the BBB when we visited Disneyland. I thought it would be a good chance to try and compare both experiences, so agreed and booked her in.
The BBB in Disneyland is located inside Cinderella’s castle in Fantasyland. It has a really cute shopfront that you can enter and just shop for princess dresses and accessories if you like. The boutique is at the back of the shop and is an absolute hive of activity. I had read that the boutique was popular, but was not prepared for how popular!
When we arrived for our appointment there was a mix up with our time slot – we had been booked in for a 1:30pm session, but when we arrived were told it was actually 1:50pm, which wasn’t a big deal, we were happy to look around the shop while we waited.
The fairy godmothers were obviously running behind when we visited as we didn’t get into the boutique to being the princess transformation until well after 2pm, closer to 2:30pm.
This time we chose the “Castle Package” that included the works – dress, accessories, make-up, hairstyle and also a photo package taken in a little room with Cinderella’s carriage and express entry into the Royal Hall to meet the princesses. The photos and express entry into the Royal Hall are only available with this package, which is why we chose it over using an old dress and just getting the make up. Full details on packages and prices at the end of the post.
Cheese chose Tiana this time, with the adorable wand and crown included in the package. She badly wanted the gloves too (“Because Tiana in the movie wears gloves!”) and I caved and gave into the gloves as well.
After choosing her dress, Cheese was led to a changing room that magically had her new outfit and accessories ready for her to change into.
Next it was into the chair and the transformation begun. We had two fairy godmothers working on Cheese at one stage, I assume because they were so far behind in their appointments.
While our fairy godmother was very sweet and did a great job, I did feel that the transformation was rushed in comparison to the one on the Disney Fantasy. Again I think this was due to the staff being really behind in their appointment schedule.
After the transformation was complete, we waited to have portraits taken in front of and inside the Cinderella carriage. This option is only available with the Castle Package. Photos in the package are prints only – the digital negatives need to be bought separately.
With the photo shoot finished, we waited outside to receive the prints, and for our fairy godmother to escort us into the Royal Hall.
The BBB was a lot busier and chaotic than I was expecting after the peaceful atmosphere on the cruise. I am assuming it’s because the BBB in Disneyland has to cater to a lot more “princesses” at a time. The staff were all extremely sweet and kind, but we did feel like we spent a lot of time waiting, and then had the transformation rushed through.
We had some issues with the hairstyle too, unfortunately. The first time Cheese had the princess bun hair style aboard the Disney Fantasy she kept it in for the next three days until it was starting to go a bit gross and we had to bribe her to take it out – this time, it was tied up too tightly and gave her a headache, so sadly we had to take it out a few hours later (I also thought it was a bit wonky, but I’m such a picky perfectionist!).
After the transformation, we were escorted into the Royal Hall to meet the princesses. I think this was my daughter’s favourite part of the experience. There is always a long wait for the hall, so it was really nice to be escorted to a special entrance and skip the queue. The Disney staff all gave her a special reception as she arrived, bowing to the “newly crowned princess” and really giving her the royal treatment.
Inside the Royal Hall, three princesses were waiting to meet us. It can be any three at the one time, and we met Snow White, Cinderella and Ariel.
The princesses were all sweet and friendly, especially Cinderella.
The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique is definitely a special experience for little girls. My daughter had a wonderful time and felt so special, that it was definitely worth the money for us. Would we get it again? Probably not the full package now we’ve done it once, but definitely the hair and make-up.
The Crown Package
Starting at $59.95 (plus tax), this package features hairstyling, makeup, princess accessories and nail polish.
Princess sash and cinch bag
Hair Style Choices
Girls have the choice of one of 3 hairstyles:
The Courtyard Package
Starting at $99.95 (plus tax), this package features hairstyling, makeup, princess accessories and more.
Princess sash and cinch bag
Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique t-shirt
Hair Style Choices
Girls have the choice of one of 3 hairstyles:
The Castle Package
For $199.95 (plus tax), this package features choice of hair style, makeup, princess gown, accessories and more.
Princess sash and cinch bag
Princess gown of choice
The Castle Package also comes complete with a portrait package, courtesy of Disney PhotoPass Service—which includes a photo taken near Cinderella’s carriage and assorted prints presented in a themed folder.
Hair Style Choices
Girls have the choice of one of 3 hairstyles:
The imperial experience continues as newly transformed Castle Package princesses star in a personally escorted mini processional from Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique to the ever-enchanting Fantasy Faire.
Upon arrival, newly crowned VIPs will receive priority entry to the Royal Hall, where some of the most beautiful and beloved Disney Princesses—from timeless tales like The Little Mermaid, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty—eagerly await! Have those autograph books and cameras ready!
The Disney Frozen Package
Starting at $164.95 (plus tax), this package features an Anna or Elsa hairstyle—complete with a braided hairpiece. You’ll even receive sparkling snowflake hair accessories!
Anna or Elsa hairstyle with braided hairpiece
Sparkling snowflake hair accessories
Anna or Elsa costume
Princess sash and cinch bag
12-inch Olaf plush
Please note that this package is only available with Anna or Elsa hairstyling.
The Disney Frozen Crown Package
Starting at $114.95 (plus tax), this package is perfect for Guests who already own an Anna or Elsa dress.
Anna or Elsa hairstyle with braided hairpiece
Sparkling snowflake hair accessories
Princess sash and cinch bag
12-inch Olaf plush
The Knight Package
Starting at $19.95 (plus tax), this package includes hairstyling, along with a sword and shield. Please note that all prices are subject to change without notice.
How to Book a Reservation
Reservations at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique can be made up to 60 days in advance and are highly recommended. To book your appointment with a Fairy Godmother-in-training, please call (714) 781-STYLE or (714) 781-7895.
Guests must be between 3 and 12 years of age in order to participate and must be accompanied by an adult (18 years of age or older).
Transformations take 30 minutes to an hour. Note: we were there for well over an hour with lots of waiting around in between everything.
A visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (BBB) is a must for little girls who are desperate to be a “princess” for a day. There are BBBs in Disneyland, Walt Disney World and also select Disney cruises. Our boat, the Fantasy, had the BBB located on deck five – a quiet space filled with tulle, glitter and tiny little girls with their faces alight with joy.
The BBB is a gorgeous experience for girls aged 3-12. Reservations are required to guarantee a spot at the boutique. When you book your spot, you can choose the type of package you would like for your daughter. Packages start from the “Crown Package” at $64.95 for hair, face decals, nail polish, shimmery make up, tiara, Mickey Mouse hair clip, BBB sash and a drawstring bag. See end of post for full details of pricing and packages.
Cheese already had a beautiful dress she loved so we took her dress and chose the Crown Package. Our fairy godmother in training let Cheese over to a chair and proceeded to do her hair in her select style of a princess bun (there are several other options available).
Once the hair was up in the perfect princess bun, light make up was applied, tiara and hair clip slipped in, kiddie nail polish liberally brushed on, and, after many layers of hair gel to keep the wispy bits looking sleek, a hearty coating of “pixie dust” (AKA glitter) was applied, followed by a proclamation of “Bibbity, Bobbity Boo!” and a dramatic reveal in the mirror.
Each guest takes home the drawstring bag plus the make up, nail polish and face decals. I really liked how clean and hygienic the boutique was, with each make up, nail polish and face decal set being brand new and sealed for each guest.
When I saw the prices for the experiences I wasn’t sure how a 45 minutes “make over” could be worth the money. It comes down to the beautiful fairy godmothers in training, who guide the girls through the experience, tell them stories, get to know them, and make them laugh and feel special. My daughter was in heaven, not just with the make over, which she adored, but also the attention she received from the wonderful staff in the boutique.
The bun stayed in for the next two days until we went swimming and it needed to come out. It was a devastating moment when we had to take the hair down, which surprised me as she isn’t usually attached to hair dos.
The BBB was a highlight of our cruise, and I will absolutely take her to enjoy the experience again at with Disneyland or WDW and hope that we enjoy the same wonderful time together.
FULL PACKAGE LIST
All prices in USD.
Crown Package Price $64.95 This regal package includes hairstyling, a face gem, shimmering makeup, nail polish, a princess sash and cinch sack. Hairstyle Choices: Disney Diva or Fairy-Tale Princess
Under the Sea Package Price: $99.95 Plucky young adventurers can become little mermaids with the Under the Sea Package, which includes a 2-piece swimsuit and “mermaid tail” wrap. A floral hair clip, necklace and nail polish complete the look.
Please note this swimsuit is currently only available in 2 sizes: large/10-12 and extra-large/14.
Castle Package Price: $199.95 Your little princess will be a vision to behold with hairstyling, shimmering makeup, nail polish, a face gem, princess sash and cinch sack. She’ll also receive a crown, a wand and her choice of costume! Hairstyle Choices: Disney Diva or Fairy-Tale Princess Costume Choices: Princess Minnie, Tinker Bell, Anna, Ariel, Aurora, Belle, Cinderella, Elsa, Jasmine, Rapunzel, Snow White and Tiana
Royal Knight Package Price: $19.95 Young Guests who select the Royal Knight Package will be bestowed with heroic hairstyling of gel and confetti as well as a mighty sword and shield!
Disney Frozen Package Price: $194.95 Is your little one free-spirited and fun-loving like Anna or regal and reserved like Elsa? The Disney Frozen Package provides a fun, movie-inspired makeover where kids can become their favorite character from the wildly popular Disney animated hit. The Disney Frozen package includes your choice of the Anna hairstyling with Anna costume or Elsa hairstyling with Elsa costume, plus shimmering makeup, face gem, nail polish, a princess sash, a princess tote and a huggable Olaf plush.
Celebration Package Price: $124.95 Every day is worth celebrating on the Disney Magic and young guests can get in the fun with the Disney Cruise Line exclusive Celebration Package a perfect choice for a Sail-Away Celebration! The Celebration Package includes the choice of a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique hair style, plus shimmering makeup, face gem, nail polish, princess tote and princess sash. The party transformation is then completed with an exclusive Disney Cruise Line Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique tutu and t-shirt.
Captain’s Package Price: $119.95 The Disney Cruise Line exclusive package includes the Disney Cruise Line Sailor Mickey costume, Captain Mickey hat and Captain Mickey plush.
A visit to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSC) is an absolute must for anyone mad about space. Billed as “the world’s most authentic space attraction”, it is the number one place to go to see authentic space crafts that have flown in space, and learn about the history of mankind’s brave adventures into the unknown.
The KSC was a high priority for Alec, our resident space-lover, so after debarking from our Disney Cruise at Cape Canaveral, we picked up a hire care and drive the easy 30-60 mins to the nearby Kennedy Space Center. It’s closeness to the cruise terminals makes it the perfect way to spend a day before or after a cruise.
The center is well set up so adults and children of various ages can enjoy the exhibits. Some exhibits are geared more towards adults, but there are certainly many that are geared towards children, too, making it a day that the whole family can learn from and enjoy.
At first glance it didn’t seem like the center offered all that much to do and see, especially for families, but we were wrong. The day flew by and we didn’t manage to see everything on offer. If you’re planning to visit the KSC, check out these highlights for families:
Take a stroll among giants! These retired rockets each have a special place in history, such as the 77-foot Juno, which was used to launch NASA’s first satellites, and the 109-foot Titan II, which was used for 12 Gemini missions.
Climb aboard replicas of the one-, two-, and three-seat capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo eras and let your imagination soar. On super hot days, kids can run through the Splashpad to cool down.
Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit
The exhibit begins with a video telling the story of Atlantis, followed by entry into the massive exhibition hall.
Space Shuttle Atlantis dominates the space, cleverly set up to enable visitors to see her up-close.
Surrounding Atlantis in the hall are over 60 interactive exhibits and high-tech simulators that let visitors experience life in space as close to the real experience as possible.
The slide to the lower level is a particular hit with kids.
Shuttle Launch Experience
The Shuttle Launch was sadly closed during our visit but looks like a really fun simulation to try, promising to “immerses visitors in the sights, sounds and feelings of a Space Shuttle launch”.
Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour
We visited on a very hot day and were very happy to get on the bus tour for an easy way to see NASA landmarks such as shuttle launch pads, shuttle carriers and the vehicle assembly building. The bus also takes visitors directly to the Apollo/Saturn V Center. Buses depart every 15 minutes from the Visitor Complex. Allow around 1.5-2 hours for the tour plus Apollo/Saturn V Center. Travel time back to the Visitor Complex from the Apollo/Saturn V Center is 20 minutes
Apollo/Saturn V Center
The largest rocket ever made, the massive 363-foot-long Saturn V, is the star of this exhibition hall.
Kids can also touch a moon rock and learn about man’s greatest achievements in space.
Children’s Play Dome
Junior astronauts can burn off energy in this rocket-themed play space filled with slides, tunnels, nets, a climbing wall and more. Even better, it’s under a shade cloth so nice and cool.
This was a bit old for Cheese when we visited, so we gave it a miss, but for older children it looks fantastic. Choose from two five-story 3D presentations – “One explores breathtaking images of Earth in A Beautiful Planet, and the other details projects that NASA is currently working on, like sending astronauts to Mars”.
Journey To Mars: Explorers Wanted
We ran out of time to see this show unfortunately – there was too much to see and do in one day! From the website: “The future of space travel lies with you. Learn more about what it takes to explore Mars in this inspiring show. Exhibits provide a look at prototypes and designs that will launch the next generation to Mars and beyond, including rovers, simulators, and the Orion crew capsule.”
Beyond the Beach Boys’ song, Kokomo, I’m embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about the Florida Keys until Alec decided he wanted to add in Florida Keys road trip to our summer USA adventure.
The Florida Keys are a string of islands stretching around 120 miles (193 km) off the south tip of Florida. It only takes around 2 hours to drive straight from Key West (the southernmost island) to Key Largo, the last island before the mainland. Most people stay a few days in the Keys swimming, snorkelling or fishing, but we had a tight schedule and allocated four days to drive from Key West through Key Largo, up to Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral where we were due to catch a cruise boat.
We flew into Key West, the southernmost island, known mostly for partying and fishing. Key West is also the southernmost point of the continental USA. A large buoy marks the southernmost point, with the next port of land Cuba – 90 miles away. People love to queue for a picture next to the buoy, but it was so incredibly hot on the day we visited that we decided to take a sneaky photo behind the buoy instead, which I thought made it even more southernly than the buoy itself.
High season for the Florida Keys is during the southern hemisphere’s winter, when people from cold states like to escape the snow and defrost on the islands. We visited during the low season, June, which is also summer and so humid it was pretty unbearable. On the plus side, there weren’t as many people, but it was also face-meltingly hot, making it hard to do much.
Key West is home to a lot of historic buildings, making it a pretty interesting place to visit in general. We stuck to family-friendly activities that our four-year-old could also enjoy.
Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
This butterfly park is home to 50-60 different species of live butterflies from around the world, plus turtles, flamingoes and small birds. We spend a wonderful hour inside the conservatory surrounded by the dancing of butterfly wings.
Butterflies flutter high over head and around guests, occasionally pausing on flowers, fruit or even shoulders and hats for a rest. While we all wore bright colours in hopes of attracting butterflies, Alec was the only one who was lucky enough to have a butterfly land on his shoulder.
The Ernest Hemingway House & Museum
This gorgeous house was home to the writer Hemingway for 9 years, from 1931-1939. We enjoyed a thoroughly entertaining and free 30 minute tour of the house, the highlight for our daughter being meeting some of the 53 cats who call the house their home.
Hemingway was given a white six-toed cat called Snow White by a ship’s captain. The cat was never neutered and bred with local cats, the result being a colony of 50-70 cats living at the house at any one time – the majority having six toes.
We stumbled upon this cute little cafe and fell in love with its French cuisine. Delicious omlettes, quiches, salads, smoothies and extremely friendly staff make this a must for lunch in Key West. Banana Cafe, 1215 Duval St, Key West, FL
An hour drive from Key West is a large key called Marathon. Driving there you’ll cross the incredibly scenic Seven Mile Bridge. If you pull over at the end of the bridge you can walk back along the old bridge and take in the view.
Dolphin Research Center
This 90,000-square-foot series of saltwater lagoons is home to a family of dolphins and California sea lions. The Dolphin Research Center (DRC) “rescues and rehabilitates whales and dolphins, providing expert medical attention to help ease the way for our marine friends from the wild”. I’m generally very wary of any animal interactions, but was reassured that this facility is all about dolphin care and research rather than entertainment for tourists.
Dolphins are not required to participate in any interactions that they do not want to – the two dolphins who we met, Tanner and Jaxon, were extremely friendly and excited to play. One of the dolphins, Jaxon, was an obvious example of a dolphin who had been rescued and was unable to be returned to the wild. He had a large bite out of his dorsal fin and tail, most likely caused by a bull shark. Our Dolphin Dip ($159pp, kids under 5 can be held by a paying adult for free) ran for around 20-25 minutes in the water with the dolphins swimming around us as we stood on a waist-deep water on a submerged platform.
The dolphin trainer taught us about our new friends and encouraged them closer so we could give them back rubs (which they seemed to enjoy) and flipper shakes. We also learned some hand signals and asked the dolphins to perform natural behaviours like jumping and swimming fast, or “dancing” (spinning in the water).
DRC is completely wheelchair/stroller accessible. The dolphin encounters are also wheelchair-accessible. Dolphin Research Center 58901 Overseas Hwy, Grassy Key, FL Prices: Adults: $28 kids 4-12: $23, under 3 free
The Turtle Hospital
A must-see on a road trip through the Keys, the Turtle Hospital is a small, non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered sea turtles. The Turtle Hospital is home to over 50 sick and injured turtles who are undergoing various stages of treatment, rehabilitation, or have been deemed unsuitable to be released into the wild and so have become permanent residents.
In order to visit the turtles you must book in for a tour. The tour lasts around 90 minutes and includes a presentation on the various turtle breeds and the threats they face in the wild, a tour of the hospital facilities, and, what everyone had been waiting for, meeting the turtle patients. The majority of the turtles end up in the hospital after bodily trauma (such as being hit by a propeller blade) or sickness suck as infections or tumours.
Several of the turtles have what’s called “bubble butt” where an accident, such as a boating incident, has damaged their shell, letting air in underneath it, giving them the appearance of a “bubble butt”, which causes the turtle to float.
Turtles with bubble butt have weights affixed to them to help them balance out and give them the ability to swim underneath the water once more. At the end of each program guests are invited to feed the permanent residents – not touch them, mind you, but throw their favourite pellets to them as they swim happily in the pool underneath.
Because they are a working hospital, you must be part of one of the guided educational programs in order to visit the turtles. Reservations are highly recommended.
The Turtle Hospital 2396 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL Prices: Adults: $22, kids 4-12 years old: $11, under 4 free
A popular family beach with a playground, bathroom and BBQ facilities. If you’re lucky you’ll see the Loggerhead turtles who nest at the beach from April-October. Sombrero Beach, Sombrero Beach Rd, Marathon, FL
7 Mile Grill
A little cafe we stumbled upon relatively close to the Turtle Hospital and Dolphin Research Center, 7 Mile Grill is an incredibly family-friendly place to grab a quick, delicious meal from their extensive menu featuring plenty of seafood, Mediterranean food, burgers, sandwiches, breakfast dishes and even several vegetarian options. 7 Mile Grill, 1240 Overseas Highway, MM 47.5, Marathon, Florida
Back in 2012 my family and I met for Christmas in Hawaii, specifically the Ko Olina resort area. We rented an apartment on the beach, in a complex right along the waterfront from a brand new resort that was just opening to the public. The resort was Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, and it was still under construction. Nevertheless, we were extremely impressed with the facilities of the hotel, even half finished – so impressed that we planned to fly back for a holiday when our daughter was old enough to make use of the pools and activities, at age 4.
We returned recently to Hawaii and made good on our promise to stay at Aulani. The hotel sits on 21 oceanfront acres, between gorgeous mountains and the quiet Kohola Lagoon. It’s about a 30-45 minute drive out of Waikiki – close enough to drive back in if you want to go shopping or exploring, and far enough away to be removed from the crowds in that main tourist area.
Aulani is a big resort, with 351 hotel rooms, including 16 suites, 481 Disney Vacation Club units, 2 restaurants, 3 lounges and several quick-service dining venues. It also features a spa, fitness centre, Aunty’s Beach House kids club, Painted Sky teen spa, pools, waterslides, water play areas and more. It’s the kind of place you can stay at for a week and never need to leave the resort. I never used to be a “resort” person, but now I have a small child, a place where the whole family can enjoy themselves effortlessly is the perfect place for us to take a holiday.
“Aulani” means “messenger of a chief” in Hawaiian – and really sets the tone for the resort. While it is, indeed, a “Disney” resort, the emphasis is firstly on being Hawaiian, with a touch of Disney. Around the resort you will see about 90% Hawaiian decorations and design vs 10% Disney – mostly small motifs and the occasional nod to Mickey Mouse.
The resort was intentionally designed to reflect Hawaiian traditions, and also offers guests many Hawaiian-inspired experiences, such as fireside storytelling, the Starlit Hui—an evening celebration of Hawaiian traditions and Disney storytelling, Hawaiian activities and crafts, including hula and lei-making classes.
Select Disney characters show up all over the resort – mostly Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Goofy, with the occasional appearance by Stitch, Chip & Dale and Duffy (Mickey’s bear). Mickey-themed ice creams, pretzels, and other snacks are available in all the snack bars, and Disney-themed activities are run alongside the traditional Hawaiian ones.
Upon entering the resort, we were presented with traditional Hawaiian leis and necklaces, which really set the tone for our trip. Hawaiian – with a touch of Disney.
We stayed in an ocean view suite, which had a queen bed and fold out couch, plus a microwave, bar fridge and sink. It was a small room, but since we didn’t plan on spending much time in it, it was fine for our purposes. The view from our balcony was spectacular.
The hotel as free wifi throughout it, which I really appreciated.
Aulani is absolutely the most family-friendly hotel I have ever stayed at. A combination of their facilities plus activities and friendly staff make it the perfect place for an extended (or brief!) family holiday.
The resort features several pools varying in depth. Several of them are very shallow, plus an infinity pool and adult-only pools. Little kids can also enjoy two water play areas with fountains – one for young toddlers/babies, and one for kids under 42 inches tall (122cm).
Kids who are confident swimmers (or confident with floaties) can snorkel in the man-made tub/mini reef. And then there is also the beach! A shallow, gentle lagoon that is perfect for kids.
My daughter’s favourite water play was the tube slide and the Waikolohe Stream, or lazy river, which wasn’t so lazy as she jumped in and out of the tubes and swam the majority of the river with the current.
When the sun wore us out, there were plenty of indoor activities to keep us occupied, with the favourite being the Disney Animation drawing and painting class.
Parents wanting time to themselves can drop kids aged 3-12 off at the free kids club. We decided not to use the kids club on this occasion, but I did take a look and it was incredibly clean and full of great activities for kids. Tweens and teens are catered for too, with a special club for them, too.
Every morning the daily ‘IWA is released – a sheet filled with activities for families to do together, kids to do on their own in the kids club, or for adults, like “sunrise yoga”. The activities were incredibly popular, so in order to secure a spot at the events with limited numbers, it’s suggested that you line up either at 7:45am for the family activities or 7:30am for the kids club ones, particularly on weekends when they are the most popular. We missed out on the activities we wanted at first as I didn’t realise the registration system, and had to wake my jet lagged self up early the next morning to get in the queue to lock in our spots for the animation drawing class and ukulele class.
The animation drawing class was my favourite activity during our stay. the first part of the class was spent learning to draw a Disney character on paper, and the second involved painting an animation cell. It was really fun and inclusive of all abilities.
Cheese really enjoyed the “Menehune Adventure Trail” which was a particularly clever scavenger hunt around the resort using an interactive tablet. I wasn’t prepared for the resort to interact back with us on the hunt – we woke the volcano, caused streams to erupt, set fire to lamps and spooked the tiny kids in the toddler water play area when we set off loud noises and a water jet pattern. Cheese was delighted with the magic we found on the resort.
If you need some down time in your room, guests are invited to pick up a few free DVD rentals – all Disney of course – or a board game.
The last highlight for our family on the trip was the character breakfast with Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Goofy. At $32 per adult and $18 per child over age 3, it’s a pricey breakfast. The food was pretty good – the fresh omelette station produced delicious food, and the fruit was incredible, but it still came to over $100 for breakfast for the three of us, with only Minnie and Goofy in the dining room (Mickey stayed outside for photos).
Minnie was a sweetheart, coming to see us several times and really making an effort to interact with our enthralled daughter, but Goofy was a tough one to catch. It took us a while to flag him down as he bolted past our table, and even then we had a few seconds to try and get a photo before he bolted off again. It would have been nice for the cost to have additional characters like Stitch, Donald Duck and Chip and Dale since we knew they were on the resort.
The only down side to our stay was the food. We found the resort food limited and expensive. The two main restaurants were either an expensive buffet at Makahiki ($49.99 per adult) or the “fine dining” option, Ama Ama, which was way out of our budget for daily dining.
Being a vegetarian made it even worse – there was pretty much only pizza or a single veggie burger that I was able to eat. Even the salads mostly had meat in them!
We ate several of our meals off the resort at the little shopping complex across the road where we found a cafe and restaurant with additional choices (particularly for this vegetarian!), as well as an ABC Market where we bought basic groceries like yoghurts, fruit, cereal and so on so we didn’t need to eat every meal in a restaurant. (See the pic above for an example of a meal we found at the cafe across the road).
Our stay at Aulani just what we needed it to be – a relaxing time for us to bond as a family. Hawaii has always been a special place for us, with my husband and I travelling the islands during our honeymoon, and also bringing Cheese here when she was a toddler. It’s still a very special, wonderful island that we love deeply. Aulani lived up to our very high expectations as the perfect family getaway. We can’t wait to return. Aloha!
Some places stay with you your entire life, even if your time there was fleeting. My visit to the Antelope Slot Canyon was one of these times. I actually saw the canyons way back in 2007 when I did a road trip around this part of the USA – well before I started blogging! High on my list to see were these canyons, with their etherial colours and shapes. I thought at the time – and still feel today – like they were something out of a dream. Too incredibly beautiful to be real.
The Antelope Canyon is a “slot canyon” located on Navajo land east of Page, Arizona. The Antelope Canyon includes two slot canyon sections, referred to as Upper Antelope Canyon or The Crack; and Antelope Canyon or The Corkscrew.
We visited the Upper Antelope Canyon, the Navajo name for which is Tsé bighánílíní, meaning “the place where water runs through rocks.”
The name is very literal, as the Antelope Canyon was formed by erosion of Navajo Sandstone, mostly through flash flooding.
The canyons have been accessible only by tour since 1997, which is when the Navajo Tribe made it a Navajo Tribal Park.
The upper canyon is the most popular to visit because it’s so incredibly photogenic (it’s also the easiest to access, with the entire length of the canyon at ground level and no climbing required). Beams of light radiate down through the slots in the canyon roof, bouncing off the walls and creating the most spectacular rays of light and coloured rocks. Depending which time of year and day you visit, the canyons will look different. The best time to see the canyons if you’re after this kind of light is summer, during the middle of the day – the beams are most often when the sun is in the middle of the sky, During winter, the colours are more muted.
My prime purpose for visiting the canyons was to get photos like these. And I’ll tell you, they weren’t easy to get. I was on a tour group with many other tourists, so in order to get these photos with no one in them, I had to lag behind the group, or walk slightly ahead. Lighting in the canyons is really tricky too. I brought my tripod and I’m pretty sure it’s the only reason these photos are in focus.
To visit the Antelope Canyons, purchase tickets for a tour in nearby Page. They range from $35 to $82 per person, depending on the time of the day and length of the tour.
The California Academy of Sciences is a natural history museum in San Francisco, and is one the the largest museums of natural history in the world. The museum is home to over 26 million specimens, .
Just one ticket allows you to explore an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, rainforest, 40,000 live animals, and more—all under one living roof.
The Academy is a family-friendly museum with lots of exhibits, programs, and activities designed with kids in mind. Strollers are allowed everywhere in the museum – the only exception being the Shake House section of the Earthquake exhibit (you can park your stroller outside the exhibit).
Eating at the Academy
We found decent kid-friendly food options at the Academy Cafe. You’re also welcome to bring your own food and drinks and use the indoor and outdoor seating available.
Top Picks for Kids:
Osher Rainforest Over 1,600 live animals live in the four-story rainforest. Housed inside a 90-food-diameter glass dome, this is the largest rainforest exhibit of its kind in the world. From 250 free-flying birds to exotic reptiles, amphibians, golden silk orb-weaver spiders,jewel-like poison-dart frogs and stunning blue morpho butterflies that glide overhead, this is an exhibit that will create awe in kids and adults alike.
Note from the Cal Academy website: The rainforest is suitable for all ages, but because it is a hot, humid, and one-way exhibit, we recommend dressing in layers. Please note that there are no restrooms inside the rainforest dome, but you’ll find one immediately after exiting through the Amazon Flooded Forest tunnel.
Early Explorers Cove
Especially designed for kids aged 0-5, the Early Explorers Cave is a space where families can take a bit of a timeout in a smaller space with plenty of interactive activities. A miniature garden, books, toys, puzzles, live animals and dress up costumes await.
Kids of all ages are invited to gently touch a variety of tide pool creatures.
Earthquake Shake House
Visitors over the age of three can see, hear, and feel two earthquakes in the “Shake House”. This immersive experience can be a bit scary for littlies. Cheese was a bit scared while the house was shaking, but she also found it exciting and wanted to do it again.
The world’s largest all-digital planetarium with shows every 45 to 60 minutes. Planetarium shows are recommended for kids aged 7 and older, with kids under 4 not permitted.
Check the daily schedule for story times, crafts, penguin feedings and other programs designed with young visitors in mind.
One of our favourite sections of the academy. The aquarium is home to nearly 40,000 live animals including Claude the albino alligator, tortoises, lizards, and African penguins.
Changing tables are available in all restrooms on the museum floor, and a family-specific restroom is located next to the Swamp.
Children’s Creativity Museum is a hands-on, multimedia arts and technology museum for kids of all ages. It’s the kind of place that kids never want to leave as it’s full of open ended play opportunities that will literally keep them occupied for the entire day. The biggest challenge you’ll have is removing the kids to grab lunch when you’re desperate for a snack yourself.
The museum is broken up into several different levels and labs. Some of the areas, such as the Animation Studio, were best suited to older kids than our preschoolers, but we were still able to find more than enough to entertain two three year olds for an entire day.
Animation Studio Geared towards older kids, children will learn the basics of stop motion animation by creating their own clay characters and bringing them to life on screen.
Community Lab Until Jan 3 the Community Lab will feature Brain Teasers 2, an interactive exhibit featuring 21 hands-on puzzles.
Imagination Lab The area where we spent the majority of our time at the museum, the Imagination Lab is a hands-on environment encouraging building and creating with materials like blocks, Magna Tiles and craft. The dress up and puppet theatre was particularly popular with the preschoolers.
Innovation Lab Kids are given the Mystery Box Challenge – a box filled with materials and a brief to create an object using only those materials. It was a lot of fun for the kids to think about basic design concepts as well as letting their creativity reign.
Music Studio The girls’ favourite part of museum, no surprise. Pick a song from a selection of over 2,000 to sing in front of a green screen. The girls chose “Let It Go” (no surprises there) and sang it against an icy background reminiscent of Arendelle. They were in heaven.
Tech Lab A fun way to introduce kids to coding. A bit too old for our kids, I’d love to return another time to try this lab.
Before leaving the museum, take a spin on the hand-carved wooden carousel out the front. It’s the oldest operating carousel in San Francisco with a whimsical menagerie of animals to ride on. Be warned, it’s extremely fast!