Once you have kids, travel takes on a whole new dimension. While I always look for trips that balance things that Mickie and I enjoy along with kid’s activities, there are a handful of trips we’ve taken where it’s all about the kids. We’ve been to Great Wolf Lodge a half a dozen times or so, and it totally fits the bill of “all kid’s stuff, all the time”. And yet, it isn’t one of those trips that we as parents dread. For those that don’t know, Great Wolf Lodge is an indoor waterpark/resort. Great Wolf operates 11 resorts in North America, most of them in the Midwest and on the East coast. It’s an interesting combination of technology and fun. The only way to get access to the waterpark is by staying at the resort. While the room quality isn’t what I would consider 4-star, it’s more comfortable than one would expect. There are a bunch of different room types divided up into 3 main categories:
- Vanilla: Rooms with a couple of beds and a couch. Essentially your standard hotel room.
- Themed Rooms: These rooms have two distinct sleeping areas. There’s a normal hotel room and a separate kids play/sleep area. Some of the rooms have bunk beds, some a play area with two twin beds. All are decorated in a theme (such as Kid Cabin, Wolf’s Den). This is normally the room we book as a family.
- Suites: These rooms usually consist of 2 bedrooms and a living room with a pull-out sofa. This would absolutely be the room type I would book every time but for some odd reason none of the suites have any themed rooms for the kids. I definitely think they could charge a premium if they had suites that also had a kid-themed bedroom.
As a side note, to my knowledge the hotel has no connecting guest rooms. So, if you’re traveling as a large group you’ll have to book a suite if you want to have all the kids under one roof, so to speak. All the rooms have a refrigerator as well, which is always helpful when traveling with kids. For this most recent stay, we had a Kid Cabin room, which has a larger area set aside for the kids with 2 bunk beds and a play area. All the kids areas come with their own TV and a video game system we’ve never tried using (iPads are our game of choice). This room was a bit bigger than the normal themed rooms, with a fireplace and slightly bigger bathroom along with a counter area to organize all the kid stuff. The water park is why people flock to Great Wolf Lodge; it’s only been a little slow one time we went, completely packed every other time. And, it doesn’t disappoint. Our kids are 6 and 2 years old and both have plenty of activities in the water park. It’s all indoors and temperature controlled which makes it much more enjoyable for parents. You don’t have to worry about sunscreen, either. For the youngest, there’s a toddler pool that has 2 small slides and plenty of water activities. Our 6-year old found enough fun stuff to play here with our youngest for quite a while. There’s also an open area with lots of small fountains and geysers for the kids to occupy themselves. There’s a deeper pool that has some activities for kids who can swim on their own as well as two different wave pools, one for surfing and one for hanging out, lazy river style along with some body surfing that’s fine for kids of all ages. Oh, and there are slides. Small slides, big slides, a bit scary slides (enter the Howlin’ Tornado). There are 6 slides total, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But, I’ve found there’s rarely a terribly long line. And, on all but the tallest slides there are activities for the kids to partake in while they wait, like the giant bucket of water that dumps every few minutes all over everyone. I’ve always thought our kids would be tired after a full day of swimming. And, while they sleep well, they’re always looking for something to do in the evening. Great Wolf Lodge delivers here as well. There’s a full-service spa that caters to both adults and children. During our last trip, my wife and daughter went for the “Mommy And Me Scoops Pedicure”. It involved ice cream and having their toes painted, something I’ve come to find are essential in increasing the happy meter on my girls. There’s also an arcade with video games and carnival games so the kids can win tickets for prizes (a la Chuck E Cheese). There’s miniature golf, a bowling alley, and a fairly engaging quest game that involves magic wands and has different tracks for different ages. This one never seems to be worth the price to me, but Catherine has always had a ton of fun exploring. It’s probably my aversion to exercise, since playing with the magic wand invariably leads to running up and down lots of stairs. You’ll also find plenty of things to interact with in the various lobbies, along with story time, scavenger hunts, and a night-time show. Plenty to keep the kids entertained for a few days. When we go to Great Wolf Lodge, we don’t generally leave the property for meals since the options on-site are reasonable. I’m not contending you’re going to find any gourmet meals here. But, there’s something to be said for not having to load the kids in the car and wait for a table at a restaurant. We’ve never run into a time when we had to wait for a table at the main restaurant/bar, which is mostly buffet food. There’s also a snack/sandwich shop and a pizza place that will also deliver pizzas to your room. As you can imagine, most of the food options are geared towards kids. But, the buffet has plenty of options and there’s usually a pasta station or other action item at dinner. Our gameplan has always been to show up and avoid having to hop in the car until it’s time to go home, focusing our energy on enjoying a day or two away with the kids. The food is very reasonably priced, if not gourmet. When I first had kids, Great Wolf Lodge was the type of place I dreaded going to. I got over that pretty quickly when I saw how much there was to do and how well they cater to kids. The room prices are sure to scare away budget-minded travelers. For the location nearest to us in Williamsburg, VA I don’t think I’ve ever seen the price under $200 a night and rarely less than about $300. Specialty suites will cost a bit more, getting up to as much as $400-$450 a night. But, those prices include water park tickets for the family. When you consider that most theme parks charge at least $50 a head for a daily ticket, the prices don’t seem so bad, especially when you consider you essentially get two days of waterpark with a one-night hotel stay. Great Wolf Lodge will let you into the waterpark in the early afternoon of your arrival date (1pm, iirc). Check-out time is 11am, but you can continue to use the waterpark all day (there are locker rooms to shower and change when you’re done). So, value seekers can target an affordable one-night stay and get two days of fun for the kids before hopping on the road to head home. Another way to reduce your costs if you want two full days but don’t feel like driving home after your one-night stay is to use hotel points at one of the nearby properties in Williamsburg. They generally don’t cost that much in the way of points or daily rate. Fold in the fact that food is affordable and the long list of free or affordable activities and Great Wolf Lodge isn’t such a bank breaker after all. Other than wanting a firmer mattress, I’m pretty happy with what they offer for the price of admission. We’ve been there roughly half a dozen times over the past 3 years or so, and I’m sure we’ll go back again. The locations are strategically placed in areas where large parts of the population can drive to them. We’re about 2.5 hours away from the one in our backyard, which is about the max I like to hop behind the wheel of a car for. For those more patient with long drives, you can find a full list of locations here. They’re mostly located from the Midwest to the East coast. Signing up for their mailing list is well worth it as they generally send out notifications of decent sales once or twice a quarter. Sadly, there’s no loyalty points to earn here. But, your kids will appreciate the memories.