2018 marked our third consecutive Thanksgiving in Hawaii. We went to see UNC play in the Maui Invitational in 2016, then we got a great deal on the Big Island last year. The kids had been to Kauai on another trip so this year they wanted to visit Oahu. I hadn’t been to Oahu since college so I was eager to go back and visit with the kids.

Usually, when we travel, I like to pack a lot of activities into our days. I don’t like to travel all the way to a destination and then only see the immediate area around our hotel. However, this year I received some pointed feedback from my kids: “We want more downtime and fewer activities”. Because this trip fell during an exceptionally busy time at home, I knew I needed to listen to them or it wouldn’t be a very enjoyable trip. They agreed to let me plan activities every other day. While we didn’t get to do everything on my list, we still covered quite a bit and everybody was (mostly) happy.

Where We Stayed

Disney Aulani – Ko Olina

I was pretty clueless when it came to booking a place to stay on Oahu. We had several friends who had recommended the Aulani and I thought the kids would love the water slides, lazy river, and calm swimmable beach. If we were planning to spend more time at the resort than usual this seemed like a good place to be.

When you can't take your eyes off your shave ice
When you can’t take your eyes off your shave ice

The fact that this was a Disney hotel was actually a downside for my kids who are not huge fans of all the characters. But Disney knows how to create an amazing & kid friendly experience while not going character overboard. The characters were around at certain points, but not overtly so.

Shave ice – this time with Mickey ears!

Water & Beach Activities

Getting ready to tackle the water park at Aulani
Getting ready to tackle the water park at Aulani

If you travel to Hawaii at Thanksgiving, it’s going to be busy, but I thought the crowds were better managed here than at the Grand Wailea on Maui where we stayed two years ago. Our kids really liked the lazy river and water slides, and I loved that they are old enough to run around by themselves (and there was a LOT of staff stationed strategically around every corner to keep an eye on kids). After a day, they realized that the best time to go was after dinner when there were a lot fewer people and they didn’t have to wait in line for the slides.

One of many laps around the lazy river. Disney Aulani. Ko Olina, Oahu, Hawaii
One of many laps around the lazy river
Stand Up Paddleboarding in Ko'Olina Oahu
Stand Up Paddleboarding in Ko’Olina Oahu

The Aulani had boogie boards, snorkel gear and stand up paddle boards for use. We spent most of our time at the pools, but rented lounges on the beach one day so the kids could try the beach activities.

Hanging Loose with shave ice
Hanging Loose with shave ice on the beach

The Four Seasons Ko Olina was next door, and the kids gazed longingly at that property. Our kids all agreed that they prefer less crowded hotels with bigger rooms/residences, even at the expense of a cool waterpark. The Four Seasons even shares the same beach as the Aulani. If I were to do it again, I’d choose to stay at the Four Seasons in Ko Olina. I would recommend the Aulani if you think your kids will take advantage of all the offered activities for kids & teens (game & movie nights, scavenger hunts, pool parties, etc). Our kids enjoyed our stay, but really just wanted the pool, beach, and fewer guests.

Pearl Harbor

Visiting Pearl Harbor was one of the things I was most excited for on this trip. Talk about a powerful and sobering history lesson. There were many details and personal stories we learned about that were new to us. The December 7th anniversary fell shortly after we returned home, and my 14-year-old was thrilled to share everything he had learned during his History class, including being able to identify the quote his teacher had written on the board, “A date which will live in infamy”. Yay for world schooling!

USS Arizona Memorial
USS Arizona Memorial

Don’t be dissuaded from going because the USS Arizona Memorial is currently “closed”. Pearl Harbor National Monument is open and we were still able to visit the exhibits and take a boat tour to the USS Arizona Memorial. The only thing we could not do was get off the boat and walk around the Memorial (above). Perhaps we would have had a better view looking down at the USS Arizona, but I didn’t feel like we missed out on anything because we could not disembark at the Memorial.

There are several ways to get tickets to the Memorial.

  • Walk Up Tickets. Over 1,300 free USS Arizona Memorial tickets are handed out daily on a first-come, first-served basis, starting when they open at 7:00 am. Your entire party must be present – you cannot have one person from your party go to pick them up.
  • Reserved Tickets
    • Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance. We got our tickets here. We wanted to visit on November 21st and I reserved our tickets on September 21st. I had a decent amount of times to choose from on my preferred date (first ticket time is at 11am and then every 15 minutes thereafter) and even some limited times on earlier dates. Our ticket time was just for the movie/boat ride to the USS Arizona, we had access to the park all day (8am – 5:30pm).
    • Next Day Tickets. If you can’t commit 60 days out, every day at 7am HST a certain number of “next day” tickets are released for entry on the following day.

We bought tickets to the USS Memorial + Narrated Headset. This allowed us access to most of the National Monument, plus we could hear about what we were seeing with our headset. This was especially helpful for our younger kids who don’t always want to take the time to read plaques in museums. We paid $7.50/ticket.

Inside the USS Bowfin submarine
Inside the USS Bowfin submarine

Only the “Passport” ticket package gives access to everything at the Park so we had to buy tickets to the USS Bowfin submarine separately. I didn’t know how much time the kids would want to spend at Pearl Harbor so it was worth it to add this on. In fact, our boys opted to skip the submarine altogether and waited while Mike, our daughter & I went on board. Our 8-year-old does not like confined spaces and even I got a little claustrophobic as we walked through the submarine.

Looking out to the USS Arizona from the top of the USS Bowfin submarine
Looking out to the USS Arizona from the top of the USS Bowfin submarine

Our daughter enjoyed all the lookouts from the top of the submarine. I enjoyed the openness!

On the USS Bowfin
On the USS Bowfin


Parasailing in Oahu
Parasailing in Oahu

Parasailing is something that our 11-year-old daughter had been asking to do for over a year. In an effort to incorporate more of their requests into our trips, parasailing was a top priority for this trip. We went with Hawaiian Parasail in Waikiki and chose an 8-minute parasail with an 800′ rope. Despite some high winds, choppy water, and a little trepidation, all three kids LOVED it – even getting dipped in the ocean!

All smiles 800 feet in the air!
All smiles 800 feet in the air!

I rode with my 11 and 8-year-old who both screamed with delight the entire time. Their only complaint – the ride was too short! Parasailing is now back on all three of their lists for future trips!

View of Honolulu from a few hundred feet up
View of Honolulu from a few hundred feet up – taken with very shaky hands!
A rainbow at the end of our parasailing adventure!
A rainbow at the end of our parasailing adventure!

Waimanalo Beach

Before we left on our trip, my uncle wrote me an email recounting the time he spent stationed on Oahu nearly 50 years ago. He said his favorite spot on the island was Hanauma Bay and encouraged us to check it out if we had time. We planned to make a stop there on our way to Kualoa Ranch on the eastern side of the island. However, by the time we arrived at Hanauma Bay (around 10am) the parking lot was full and it was so overcrowded that we decided to skip it. I was really disappointed, but we kept driving around the southern tip of the island and came across Waimanolo Beach which was an amazing find!

Waimanolo Beach on Oahu's southeast side
Waimanolo Beach on Oahu’s southeast side

The beach seemed to stretch on for miles and we had it almost to ourselves! Our 14-year-old was making a film for a school project and wanted to get some shots on the beach – so while he & Mike worked on that, the rest of us played in the sand.

Walking along the almost deserted beach
Walking along the almost deserted beach
Waimanalo Beach. Oahu Hawaii
View of Waimanalo Beach from above
View of Waimanalo Beach taken with our drone

Kualoa Ranch

Chinaman’s Hat - Also known as Mokoli’i Island!
Chinaman’s Hat – Also known as Mokoli’i Island!

There are many excursions & activities offered here, like jeep expeditions to visit old movie sets that have been filmed here, zip lining, ATV tours, and visiting their Secret Beach. My original plan was to spend the whole day at Kualoa Ranch – first at the beach and then on the Jungle Expedition Tour.

At Secret Beach, there are kayaks, SUP, beach volleyball, and hammocks for reading. They limit the number of visitors at the beach and the day we wanted to go there was already a group of 40 booked. They had room for us, but I didn’t want to be there with an organized group of 40 other people. So we skipped it and decided to visit some spots along our drive to the ranch.

We were not disappointed with the views at Kualoa Ranch!
We were not disappointed with the views at Kualoa Ranch!

Instead, we chose just to do the Jungle Expedition Tour which tours parts of the property – through the rainforest, over streams, and up lots of steep bumpy hills. Along the way, our guide shared stories about ancient sites where royalty once lived, pointed out highlights along the coastline and showed us filming sites for some movies (like Jurassic World, Kong Skull Island, Jumanji, and a new Ben Affleck movie that will air on Netflix.

View from the hills of Kualoa Ranch
View from the hills of Kualoa Ranch
The Indominous Rex enclosure from Jurassic World!
The Indominous Rex enclosure from Jurassic World!

We all watched Jurassic World the night before our tour so the kids were so excited when we came across the Indominous Rex enclosure and got to drive through it! There were even claw marks on the wall!

Riding in the open air truck at Kualoa Ranch
Riding in the open air jeep at Kualoa Ranch

While we all enjoyed the tour, there was another family on our jeep that really dampened our experience. They had 2 young kids (6 or 7 years old) who were loud and obnoxious, wrestling in their seat, and kicking the others around them the entire time. Unfortunately, they seemed to be egged on by their parents who thought they were hilarious. Our kids (who are by no means perfect) looked at us wide-eyed because they couldn’t believe their behavior. I don’t blame the ranch for this family’s behavior, but it’s a reminder that all parts of a vacation don’t always go perfectly and some things are out of our control. It was a good lesson for our kids to see why we ask them to behave respectfully all the time, including when we travel and they are on “vacation”. It’s certainly not a vacation from manners and being respectful.

Where We Ate

Food truck lunch in Waikiki
Food truck lunch in Waikiki
  • Gilligan’s Beach Shack (pictured above) – this was by the beach right by Hawaiian Parasail – we ate here before our reservation. The Fish & Chips were great!
  • KOA Pancake House – hidden in a strip mall in Kapolei. It’s not huge and has limited tables inside and a picnic table outside, but the service is lightening fast and the pancakes were amazing! Our kids made us go back here a second time. And when I later asked about their trip highlights, this place made the list!
  • MonkeyPod – We first ate at Monkeypod in Maui and loved it! This one was located in a shopping center across the street from the Aulani. It was always really busy so definitely book a reservation. We still had to wait a bit when we arrived so we walked two doors down and did some shopping at the Honaloa Surf Shop. Monkeypod had lots of drinks, plus salads, burgers, fish, tacos, and a kid’s menu…I got a noodle bowl with pork and vegetables which was delicious!
  • 1849 Eating House – We ate at the location in Kapolei which I’ve learned is now permanently closed – I’m not sure why because it was delicious and had amazing service. The one in Waikiki is still open and I would highly recommend going there. The menu pays homage to Hawaii’s vibrant culinary heritage and they use ingredients from local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. I got a tasting menu where each course was paired with wine, Mike & our 14-year-old both got the ribs, and the younger kids both ordered something from the kids’ menu.
  • Island Vintage Coffee – We stopped here for breakfast twice and I would have come here every day if the kids let me! Located next to Monkeypod, it had the best vanilla lattes and açai bowls. The kids got bagel breakfast sandwiches or a Kid’s breakfast plate with eggs & bacon. The service wasn’t quick and seating was limited, but it was worth it!
Amazing açai bowl from Island Vintage Coffee
Amazing açai bowl from Island Vintage Coffee

Luau at Aulani

We heard that the luau at the Aulani was top notch. Since we arrived late at our last luau on the Big Island, we decided to try again. Plus our room overlooked the lawn area where the luau took place so it would have been hard not to go!

Learning to play the ukulele at the Aulani Luau
Learning to play the ukulele at the Aulani Luau

We got there when the doors opened so the kids were able to participate in the pre-luau activities, like playing the ukulele, making flower lei wristlets, getting tatoos, and learning how to make poi.

Making a flower lei
Making a flower lei

The dinner was quite good with a special table set up for kids with dishes like mac n cheese for less adventurous eaters. The entertainment was captivating – Disney can definitely put on a good show that keeps all ages engaged. There had been an intermittent light rain throughout the evening which began coming down in earnest during the last half of the show (which is rain or shine). We stuck it out until nearly the end when we were too wet and cold to enjoy the show anymore. We made it back to our room in time to watch the fire show from our balcony – so we didn’t feel like we really missed out!

Thanksgiving Dinner at Aulani

Thanksgiving dinner - Disney Aulani Oahu Hawaii
By far the most embarrassing picture I’ve ever made them take

Thanksgiving dinner at the Aulani was by far the best Thanksgiving restaurant dinner we’ve ever had! Everything was delicious, there were so many choices and it was all beautifully displayed.

There were 3 seating times available (1pm, 3:30pm, and 6pm). I made our reservation 1 month before Thanksgiving – the latest seating was already full and I think I got the last 5 seats at the second seating at 3:30pm. My advice is to book early. Aulani opens up reservations to hotel guests first and then to the general public – so my advice is to book early.

There were activities/crafts set up which my kids did not take advantage of – they seemed geared to younger kids. It was all I could do to get them to take a picture with Mickey Mouse – I do recall having to bribe at least one of them and lay on a little bit of “mom guilt”. I figured we had to get at least one picture with him while we were there!

The dinner was definitely a splurge. Adults (10 years +) were $89.50 and kids $45.75. The price was inclusive of everything except alcohol – I think for that price alcohol should have been included, but that didn’t stop me from ordering a glass of wine.

What We Didn’t Have Time For

  • Diamond Head
  • Hanauma Bay
  • Banzai Pipeline

Have you been to Oahu? What else should be on our list?

Heading to another Hawaiian island? Check out these posts on Kauai and the Big Island.

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