The island of Oahu draws in more visitors than the other Hawaiian islands, yet it seems to be the least attractive island to many travel bloggers. Sure, when you land in Honolulu it feels eerily similar to a big city like Los Angeles. However, after visiting Oahu twice with my family, I’ve found there are still many great family activities on Oahu both in the city and in the island’s more remote parts.
Since Oahu isn’t a huge island, driving to attractions on any side of the island isn’t too burdensome. So even if you stay in the thick of things in Waikiki, check out these family-friendly activities on Oahu.
Located on the windward (rainy) side of Oahu, Kualoa Ranch is a 4000-acre nature reserve paradise of mountains and valleys near the sea. Over 70 movies have been filmed at this location, including Jurassic World, Jumanji and 50 First Dates. You may also recognize parts of the ranch as the filming location for the TV series Lost.
When we visited Kualoa Ranch, my husband did a 2-hour ATV ride to see the movie sites.
My kids and I went on the Jungle Expedition. We climbed up a steep mountain road in a military truck and stopped at several points along the way. Our guides were excellent with our kids and made the tour very interactive and fun.
My family loved Kualoa Ranch so much that if we ever visited it again we would stay for the day to partake in some other activities there like horseback riding and the secret beach.
After our morning at Kualoa Ranch, we stopped by the nearby Kualoa Regional Park for a picnic lunch at the beach with a view of Chinaman’s Hat.
Diamond Head Crater Hike
While hiking up a volcano crater doesn’t sound like a family-friendly activity at first, Diamond Head Crater hike is an experience not to be missed. My 4-year-old daughter did the hike with relative ease, although we did make sure she had a few practice hikes at home first. We saw several people wearing babies for the hike. If you have kids in the 2-3 age range, they might be too heavy to carry yet too young to make the climb.
The view at the top of the crater is spectacular! You can see all of Honolulu to the right and the windward side to the left.
See my blog post about hiking Diamond Head Crater with my family.
Whale/Dolphin Catamaran Tour
Getting out on the water is a great way to experience Oahu as a family. On our first trip to Oahu, we booked a dolphin and whale watching tour with Hawaii Nautical. I picked this company because it had a tour on a catamaran that held fewer passengers than some of the bigger whale watching boats.
My kids enjoyed laying on the cargo net as we sped over the ocean waves.
We saw a few whales and many dolphins on our tour. We all had the opportunity to snorkel, although my husband and daughter opted to stay on board the boat and check out this octopus our captain caught.
My kids enjoyed this boat ride so much that they asked to repeat it the next day!
Possibly the most “touristy” thing on Oahu is the Dole Plantation. It has a huge gift shop, which my kids were thrilled to discover. Loads of tourist buses stop here. And of course, this place serves up the famous Dole Whips.
But putting its tourist popularity aside, we learned a lot about pineapples here. We took the Pineapple Express train tour through the various crops to learn about the history of pineapples in Hawaii. Although we skipped the garden and the giant pineapple maze, we could have easily spent more time at the Dole Plantation.
The North Shore
We headed to the North Shore after the Dole Plantation since it was just a few more miles up the road. The North Shore felt like a different Hawaiian island. The small towns, food trucks and quaint shops were fun to explore as a family. I can still taste the fresh shrimp we ate and picture my kids drinking straight from a coconut. And of course, we had to try the famous Matsumoto’s Hawaiian shave ice!
We didn’t swim in any of the North Shore beaches since the surf is really rough during the winter, but we did watch some brave surfers catching some waves. Families can also observe sea turtles at Laniakea Beach.
My boys took surf lessons on both of our trips to Oahu. There are many surf schools on Oahu, and you can take lessons in Waikiki, the North Shore or on the leeward side of the island.
My boys took lessons at Kalaeloa Beach Park near Aulani. The waves were perfect for beginners.
My younger son was 7 years old for his first surf lesson, but kids can start tandem surfing lessons at young as age 2!
Oahu offers several luau shows that are family-friendly. Many luaus have a special kid-food buffet in addition to a traditional luau feast. Most productions encourage audience participation during the pre-show to keep everyone in the family engaged.
My family attended the KA WA’A luau at Disney’s Aulani Resort, and we loved it!
Disney Character Meal
If you haven’t been to a Disney park or on a Disney Cruise or if you just really love the Disney characters, you can schedule a character meal on Oahu. Disney’s Aulani Resort and Spa offers both a character breakfast and dinner.
Food is served buffet style, and the characters come to your table for photos. So easy!
Day visitors to Aulani get up to 4 hours of complimentary parking when you spend over $35 at a restaurant. Be aware that as a day guest to the resort, you will not have access to other character meet and greets throughout the property or the water park.
Ko Olina Lagoon Swimming
If you have small kids and are looking for a calm beach, head to the Ko Olina resort area on the leeward side of the island. Ko Olina has four large man-made lagoons, and you can see two of those in the photo I took from our flight from Kauai to Oahu:
Although Ko Olina is a gated resort community, visitors are permitted free access to the beach lagoons. Limited free parking is available.
In some smaller coves just north of the man-made lagoons, you can see sea turtles and monk seals sunning in the sand.
The water is calm and crystal clear, just like a swimming pool.
A paved pathway connects the lagoons. On our last visit to Aulani, I walked the path one morning. The third and fourth lagoons were deserted. In a few years when the new Atlantis resort opens there, I’m sure the lagoons will be much more crowded. But for now, the lagoons provide tranquil beach access with public restrooms.
Although the Waikiki Beach area is over-crowded and in the middle of a city, you don’t need to totally avoid it to have fun with your family. There’s a lot of action in Waikiki!
Along Waikiki Beach, many hotel restaurants have live entertainment you can hear while you’re on the beach. And every Friday night, the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel shoots off fireworks over the water.
There is also a free torch lighting ceremony and hula dance three nights a week near a big banyan tree.
And lastly, don’t forget about Duke’s famous hula pie!
Every Hawaiian island is different and has unique things to offer families who visit. Oahu offers a variety of activities in a wide range of settings for every family. Don’t let the popularity and population of Oahu scare you from visiting this Pacific paradise.
Have you visited Oahu? What are your favorite family activities on Oahu?
Nancy lives near Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three kids. Her favorite vacations include the beach, cruising and everything Disney.