When Toddler Meets Dolphin in Oahu

There comes a time in every adventure traveler-turned-parent’s life when you make the all-too-conscious decision to forgo setting up a tent at the base of a glacier or rowing a sea kayak to a blissfully empty white sand beach for dinner, and instead take every ounce of your hair-in-the-wind freedom and sublimate it into your child’s happiness.

This leads you directly to the moment when you find yourself sitting, bleary-eyed from jet lag and managing two toddlers on a five-hour flight, at an early morning breakfast at the Aulani resort’s Makahiki buffet and staring into the black cavernous eyes of Mickey Mouse.

mickey big eyes

Let me backtrack about six months. When my son Alexander was turning two, I took him to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. He touched kelp, stared mesmerized at the neon orange jellyfish in the water and chased the endless school of silver herring behind glass. It was the beginning of an obsession with sea life. So one evening after watching Finding Nemo for the 18th time, I started thinking about a vacation, specifically one appropriate for a young child. I decided that picking a theme — in my son’s case, it would be fish — would add a little extra adventure.

On the website for the Aulani, a Disney family resort, on Oahu, Hawaii, I landed on a photograph of the “Rainbow Reef,” an enormous manmade lagoon filled with tropical fish. Away from the resort, on the other side of the island, I also found Sea Life Park, an interactive park unaffiliated with Disney where kids can swim with stingrays and experience a “Dolphin Encounter,” which involves holding your toddler on a platform so he can touch a dolphin while it swims by performing tricks. My fish plan seemed solid.

One evening at bedtime I asked Alexander if he would like to go to Hawaii to touch a dolphin. His face lit up. A few months later, we were boarding a plane with my friend Emma, a sassy British nurse, and her daughter Ella, now Alexander’s best friend.

If you’re like me, you typically cringe at those high-rise resorts on the beach. But then parenthood takes over, and the luxury of being able to drop the tykes off at the “kid’s club” while you and your travel buddy get a massage at the spa suddenly gains huge appeal.

The kids loved the Aulani’s Rainbow Reef, filled with plenty of little Nemo fish, and spent hours looking at them through the glass windows. We also floated on a lazy Disney river in inflatable rafts and relaxed together in a hot tub built into a manmade cave decorated with shells and anemones, which overlooks an infinity pool that pours out over the ocean.

Disney Aulani Rainbow Reef just kids

No one cares if your kid is screaming, because everyone’s kid is screaming.

If you’re gonna go the Aulani route, you’ll most likely begin to get the same feeling you get after spending too many days in Las Vegas. So for the second half of the trip, we rented a modest house on a beach on Oahu’s North Shore, what the locals call “the country,” in a lazy beach town called La’ie.

house clouds

But before we kicked off our shoes in the country, we had an appointment at Sea Life Park for the experience that Alexander had been anticipating: touching a dolphin.

We drove along scenic Highway 72, verdant green volcanic mountains to our right, the ocean to our left. Sea Life Park is a folksy early 1960s version of SeaWorld situated right on the ocean. I’d seen the CNN special about SeaWorld’s questionable treatment of their killer whales, and I’d also wondered about this place. A quick Google search brought up one local TV news story from 2014 about ocean activists staging a campaign called “Empty the Tanks Worldwide.” It featured one activist saying that the treatment of the animals at the park had gone downhill in recent years, but I decided to put my politics aside in the name of touching a dolphin.

Inside the park, the kids gazed into shark tanks and pools filled with stingrays and sea turtles. We visited “the Bird Man,” a clown-like, slightly fugitive-looking guy who charged 20 bucks for a photo with you and one of his 15 exotic birds, which included a macaw named Obama. Alexander sat on the bench while Mr. Birdman wrapped him in a lei and placed a bird in his lap, which he happily cradled like a baby. Ella, for her part, ran away screaming. The photo never happened.


We then made our way past sea lions lounging in the sun and a giant birdcage filled with tweeting love birds to the dolphin staging area.

dolphin park

“OK, baby boy, it’s time to touch a dolphin,” I said, as I struggled to get him in a life vest.

He looked over at the 300-pound beasts loudly beeping and jumping across the pool and burst into tears. “I want to go home,” he said, reaching for me to pick him up.

“It’s gonna be fun — you’re gonna get to touch the dolphin!” I said, trying to calm him. His tears devolved into a violent tantrum. He sat down on the ground and refused to move.

When it was our group’s turn to step onto the shallow platform, I scooped Alexander up, hoping his mood would change, and descended into the water.

“You don’t want to touch the dolphin?” I said.

“Noooooo!” he screamed.

dolphin closeup

At that moment, a friendly dolphin swam past us and slapped its tail onto the water, making a huge splash that landed all over us. This was it. Alexander’s face was dripping with fishy saltwater and he was done. He wanted to be as far away from this dolphin as possible. There was no choice but to forgo the “encounter,” and the photo for the grandparents. I finally took him out of the water to a grassy area where he could run free.

“You don’t like the dolphin?” I asked, feeling terrible about the experience and worried that I’d ruined his love of fish.

“I don’t,” he said. “I want to go to the gift shop.”

So we spent the rest of the afternoon playing in the giant birdcage and at a playground on the property, and I bought him a book of recorded sea animal sounds, including that of a dolphin, which kept him amused during the whole car ride to the beach house. From that moment forward, Emma referred to the Dolphin Encounter as the “terrorist dolphin encounter.”

When we arrived at our modest beach house, which we found on VRBO, Alexander settled in by spending an hour playing in a tiny protected yard filled with chickens and cats that opened up to its own private beach.

We spent the last three days exploring the local beaches. Seeing Alexander so happy in these small worlds of tide pools and backyard beaches made me realize that even though I still craved thrilling adventures, I now needed to remember to see the world through his eyes. I think about how big that dolphin must have seemed to his 2-foot-tall body, and realize I was projecting on to him what I thought he wanted, but really what I wanted. He, being 2-and-a-half, thought it would be fun because he actually had no idea what the experience of touching a real dolphin would be like. In the end, trying to catch a tiny minnow in a shallow tide pool was just the right size for him.

alex beach trees

The ROAM Report : Oahu

Date : February 2015

Itinerary : 3 nights at Disney’s Aulani Resort, 3 nights in a house in La’ie on the North Shore

Budget : $3000

Travelers :  Rachel and Alexander (2) Lehmann-Haupt, Emma and Ella Doyle

The Good Stuff 

  • Disney Gets It – The Aulani is a great escape for families with young kids. The property has all amenities a parent and child could wish for, which is why we found ourselves sitting around the breakfast table surrounded by manicured golf courses and the perfect curve of a manmade beach, snapping photographs with Mickey, Minnie and Goofy, and watching a conga line of kids brandishing toy fish swim by.
  • Disney Aulani breakfastGo North – If the big hotels of Waikiki aren’t your thing, head to the North Shore, where beaches are still empty and untouched. The North Shore is still all about food trucks, local restaurants and surf competitions.
  • Toddlerific Tide Pooling – A few miles north of La’ie is Shark’s Cove, which has small tide pools that are perfect for young kids to splash in. The pools host everything from coral to rare tropical fish to the occasional green turtle. There are showers across the street and the Pupukea Grill sells local island favorites from a food truck. pupukea grill
  • Culture Too – We also paid a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center in La’ie, which brings you an entire South Pacific tour in one neatly arranged park. Each area of the center, which you can also take a boat tour through, is devoted to a different island from Fiji to Tonga, and the center features music, dance performances and food bars that offer tastes of each culture.  


The Not So Good 

  • Development Coming – This North Shore scene is worth catching now. The owners of the Turtle Bay Resort (the only resort currently in the area) have plans to build five new hotels and another development company has plans for 550 housing units in La’ie in the next five years. The front yards of local homes are littered with signs that say “No City.”
  • Older is Better – Even though the website says the Dolphin Encounter ($50 for an infant) is appropriate for a 2-year-old, unless you have a very amenable toddler, I suggest saving your money and waiting until your kid is 4 or 5.

Good Family Trip? 

If you’re looking for a family resort on Oahu, the Aulani delivers everything a kid – and parent – could ask for. The activities, food and service are all designed to enable vacation-needing parents to simply show up and be entertained or pampered – no need to plan in advance.  However if you’re spending time at the Aulani or another big resort, I highly recommend balancing out your time with a little local Hawaiian flavor and escaping to another spot on Oahu for some space and relaxation. For us, the North Shore fit the bill.

beach trees


 Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, September 2015

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Keywords: family vacation, family travel, family holiday, travel with kids, family vacation in Oahu, Disney with the kids, Hawaii Family Travel, Oahu Disney vacation


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