For those concerned that Aulani isn't Disney enough, let me go on record in saying that for parents and kids alike, it was the perfect amount. Like other Disney destinations, the Hawaii resort still offers character breakfasts at the Makahiki buffet restaurant along with designated photo opps featuring the usual suspects. The only difference is that Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Goofy, and the gang are "on vacation," too! You'll occasionally see one roaming the resort in a floral t-shirt, but a quick wave is all that's expected.
The resort's overarching intent — Hawaiian culture with a hint of Disney pixie dust — is expertly orchestrated. Traditional foods, like shave ice and a rice-and-Spam delicacy called musubi, are topped with Mickey ears. The elevators play popular Disney songs, but exclusively with a Hawaiian instrumental treatment. Along the stone walking paths, certain rocks light up to reveal, say, the imprint of Maui's famous hook. And although your kids can scout the property for "hidden Mickeys," the real fun is in searching for one of 300 hidden Menehune, little monkey-like mischief makers, or spotting the real-life Moana as she visits with guests and looks for Hei Hei.
This way of experiencing classic Disney moments through a more culturally rooted lens meant that our kids were relentlessly squealing with delight while my husband and I still had some stake in the vacation being about us, too – we weren't plastering on fake smiles at our 14th character sighting of the morning or lugging a stroller-full of snacks and gear for 10 hours straight.
Another surprising benefit of a more muted Disney experience is that although the resort certainly isn't cheap, you don't feel as though you are being challenged to spend money around every corner. There were designated gift shops, sure, but no splashy merchandise kiosks to distract your kids when you are just trying to get some dry beach towels.