“When do we get leis?” my mom asked as we disembarked our flight to Honolulu. “Usually, at the hotel,” I informed her. She was disappointed—she had expected a flowery greeting right at the gate, with beauties in grass skirts draping her, my dad, and me with fresh orchids. Instead, we were met with a regular old airport terminal. The gate agent offered a subdued “aloha.”
It was my parents’ first-ever time to Hawaii, and my first-ever time taking them on vacation. It was strange to have my mother and father, both in their mid-50s, excitedly dawdling behind me as I had behind them many times as a kid at one of our two vacation destinations, Martha’s Vineyard, right off of Massachusetts’s Cape Cod, or Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
At least the Disney part was familiar: We were headed to Aulani, a high-end Disney resort located on the southwestern corner of Oahu. I had been invited to the unveiling of the live character, Moana—Aulani’s “princess,” so to speak—as well as to experience their brand-new luau, Ka Wa’a, along with two guests. The invitation had specified family members, which I’m pretty sure meant to bring your kids. But, having no children of my own, I chose to bring my parents.
After a quick 20-minute drive in the dark from the airport, we arrived at Aulani, welcomed with blazing tiki torches. I could sense my parents shifting in their seats with anticipation. As soon as we stepped out of our limo’s aggressive air-conditioning, we were met with the unctuous scent of tropical plants and breathed in the deliciously humid air. A man and a woman rushed over to bestow fuchsia leis on my mother and me and a strand of smooth, espresso-colored kukui nut shells for my father. My mom was thrilled.
Aulani (which means “messenger of a chief”) is a family resort. There is simply no avoiding children during a stay, and you’ll most certainly run into a character or two on any given day—Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto, all decked out in Hawaiian shirts. The elevator music features beloved Disney movie songs covered by Hawaiian artists. There is a character breakfast with Mickey waffles.
But other than those kid-friendly Disney encounters—and, of course, the time-honored tradition of Mickey silhouettes hidden throughout the property in things like wallpaper—Aulani does a phenomenal job of putting Hawaii first. Before Disney broke ground on the resort in 2010, the company hired a gaggle of cultural advisors to make sure every element was just right, from the gallery of both commissioned and collected Hawaiian art in the lobby to the stories told at Auntie’s Beach House, the kids’ club that would have been heaven to a seven-year-old me.
The next day, we awoke at 6 a.m. and flung open the doors of our balcony—a feature that all Aulani rooms generously have. I perched on a chair overlooking the resort’s web of pools and waterslides, all connected by a winding lazy river and lined with native tropical greenery. Beyond the glowing man-made volcano, the Pacific was still, mauve in the early morning light. I pondered if, really, it was a good idea to bring my parents to a resort that catered to kids. At about 7 a.m., a traditional chant sounded out from the resort’s speakers, thanking the gods for another day.
We began the day with the character breakfast. Everyone in my family has always been a big Disney fan, and neither age nor pride has snuffed out that love. I piled Mickey waffles on my plate, but saved room for the tender Kahlua-style pork, rice, miso soup, and loco moco, a traditional Hawaiian breakfast item that’s similar to a small hamburger, topped with an egg sunny-side up and doused in rich gravy. My parents delighted in taking my picture with Pluto, the character making the rounds that day. We clapped along when Auntie appeared with her ukulele, serenading us with a song about the joys of counting fish. My dad recounted the many times we attended these breakfasts at The Magic Kingdom, noting that he did not remember the food being this delicious.
Aulani is part of Ko Olina, a newly developed resort area made up of a series of man-made coves, which render the waters gentle and ideal for a leisurely float. My parents and I stood with our ankles in the serene, clear water—my mom and dad’s first intimate encounter with the Pacific. My mom didn’t want to just stand around, though; She wanted to go down the waterslide and float on the lazy river. Shocked, I obliged. My mom was never a water person when I was growing up; the farthest she’d get to the water was positioning her beach chair at the edge of the ocean to keep her eyes on us and to keep cool while tanning. We grabbed our yellow inner tubes—a single for me, a double for mom and dad—and slowly climbed up the stairs to the top of the glowing volcano. While we were waiting, my parents struck up a conversation with two young kids and their young father.
“Where are your children?” the little girl asked my dad, sweetly. He motioned to me. “This is my little girl,” he said. She laughed, clearly tickled by the fact that I was, in fact, a big girl. The young father asked about grandchildren. None, we told him. Perplexed, he asked us why, then, did we choose this kid-swarmed place for our adult Hawaiian vacation? My dad proudly told him that his daughter had taken them there on assignment, and that she worked for the travel magazine, AFAR, and that we were having a great time at Aulani together. He flashed me a squinty-eyed smile and I melted, realizing that my parents were in their happy place. Disney, a pristine beach, and their little girl—if my two younger siblings had been with us, they might have died right then and there of happiness.
I took the plunge down the winding slide first so I could see my parents barrel out into the pool below. They splashed down, and my mother shot off the front into the water. She popped up, hair soaked and makeup running, laughing hysterically. Ten years ago, she’d have been pissed. I wondered if the change in dynamic—that she didn’t have to be the “adult in charge”—brought out this playful side in her. We floated leisurely and marveled that we still had four days left of hanging out in this Disney-infused paradise.
Over those remaining days, my parents enjoyed everything from the delicious Japanese breakfast at the resort’s high-end restaurant, ‘Ama ‘Ama, to the deservedly famous Hawaiian sunsets. We ended up meeting Moana, a whimsical character who asked us if she could take a canoe to Boston, where we’re from. Later, I took them to Pearl Harbor—a spot I’d visited earlier in the year that had moved me so much that I vowed to take my military-nerd dad one day. He and my mom were floored by the emotional experience of seeing the USS Arizona beneath the waves, still bubbling up droplets of oil.
On the last day, we relaxed on the beach and found a spot in the adults-only infinity hot tub to watch our final Hawaiian sunset. My dad, who’d bought a waterproof case for his iPhone, insisted on snapping pictures of my mom and me enjoying the scenery to post on Facebook. We toasted to our amazing and rare getaway with our very adult beverages, each adorned with a fuchsia orchid. If it weren’t for the luau later that evening, we’d have stayed late into the night.
We indulged in more cocktails and delicious Hawaiian cuisine at Ka Wa’a while we watched masterful Polynesian dancers tell the story of how their ancestors navigated to these volcanic islands—the most remote in the world. At one point, a host called the kids in the audience up to the stage to hula. My mom playfully pushed my shoulder. “Come on! Do it!” she urged. I sheepishly walked up to the stage in my bright red floral-print dress. I saw my parents in the audience, their faces alight with smiles. I moved my hands and my hips as if they were floating on water, not caring that I was a foot taller than my hula companions. They both snapped away on their phone cameras, ensuring they had videos and pictures of their little girl to show the family when they got home.