If you are a GWL first timer you should be actively quizzing family and friends for their advice; veteran visitors are a great resource, along with this list of handy tips from Tightwad - a true skeptic and low-expectations kind of kid tourism traveler.
If you are looking for a romantic trip with lots of walking, cultural must-sees, cool arty people, studio tours, and languishing lunches over vino and panino, you are not in the right place – or on the right continent. Want a meditative, zen like departure from the everyday? This is not it. If you are looking for an authentic outdoor adventure, this is also not the right place (being indoors and all). If you are looking for a fun, unforgettable time for your kids, GWL could be the right place.
GWL is a themed hotel and water park resort chain that specializes in family vacations geared towards kids aged 3 to 15. The backwoods-y theme abounds. Everything from your hotel room curtains to the hallway garbage cans and dinnerware at the Loose Moose is bedazzled with paw prints, raccoons, beavers or bear art. The “Grand Lobby” is floor to ceiling faux log cabin covered with snowshoes and animatronic beavers and bears. Breathe deeply and go with it.
Grand Mound GWL has six levels of rooms and a conference centre. Amenities include:
Food Loose Moose Cottage (daily buffet), Camp Critter Bar and Grille (appetizers, entrees and desserts), Starbucks, Bear Paw Sweets and Gifts, Pizza Hut Express and Grizzly Rob’s (tropical drinks and snacks)
Activities Scoops Kids Spa, Cub Club (fun activities, craft projects), Northern Lights Arcade, MagiQuest, Elements Spa and Salon, Clock Tower Show (three times a day in Grand Lobby), Story Time, Creation Station (create a stuffed animal) and GR8_Space (for teenage fun).
Shopping Crocs, The Buckhorn Exchange Gift Shop and Bear Essentials Swim Shop
Other locations Charlotte/Concord, NC, Grapevine, TX, Kansas City, KS, Mason, OH, Niagara Falls, ON, Pocono Mountains, PA, Sandusky, OH, Traverse City, MI, Williamsburg, VA, Wisconsin Dells, WI
***IMPORTANT MOM INFORMATION***
When you reserve And again at check in, request a room away from the stairwells (kids playing MagiQuest in the stairwells can be an earful) and on the opposite side of the highway. See if you can get the top floor to avoid stomping overhead. Make sure there is not a convention booked – conventions stretch the hotel’s capacity.
First aid related At GWL, safety is number one - lifeguards are everywhere making sure kids are safe. They are mostly in their late teens and early 20s, and take their job seriously. There is a first aid station inside the water park in case you need it. Use life jackets free of charge.
WiFi It’s free and available throughout the resort.
Chillaxing There are tables and lounge chairs to relax on when it's time to take a break from the water park. Grab your spot early with your towel and flip-flops to be your “home base” when you are there. Tightwad’s advice? If your kids are old enough to explore the park by themselves, go to your local library to pick up some great books and magazines to flip through before you leave home and stop by Grizzly Rob’s poolside for refreshments.
Humidity The water park is extremely humid (kept at around 84 degrees year round) and probably not the best place for expensive electronics; if you bring your camera or cellphone into the water park it is likely to get wet. Bring a waterproof Ziploc to store them in while in the park.
The bathroom situation If you are a stickler for a nice bathroom, you will be disappointed. It’s small and unventilated. There is no shortage of towels, but not the big sheet variety. The bathroom product offerings are disappointing; bring your own moisturizer, shampoo and conditioner. Upside? Comfortable beds.
Sunscreen You don’t need it! It’s kind of nice not having to lather the kids up in sunscreen once in a while.
Avoid meltdowns Build some structure into the day. Limit pool play to three hours at a time and return to the room for food and downtime. Try something like this: Go on the morning “Howl Walk” and craft at 9:00am then pool time from 10:00 to 1:00pm; back to the room for lunch and relaxing; walk around the resort and figure out dinner. Then back into the pool from 5:30-7:15pm with enough time for a shower before evening stories. It’s better the start your day early anyway and avoid long line ups at the water park.
Important finished with waterpark for the day tip Make sure that you and the kids rinse off in the shower before bed. The water is heavily chlorinated and they may get rashes otherwise. Lather on some decent moisturizer after the shower; Tightwad’s kids complained of “itchy backs.”
Be prepared that despite a long travel day and many many many times up and down the slides your kid won’t fall asleep. This just in. It’s two hours past kids’ bedtime and Tightwad’s usually scheduled children will not fall asleep. Hmmm. Nothing to offer on this one.
Save time Use the express check-out via your room phone to avoid line ups.
The ride home feels very long Your kids are tired and they don’t want to leave. You’re tired, as per usual. Bring something special for the ride home. Tightwad calls this parenting tip “behaviour modification.” If there was any time to bribe your kids, now is that time.
It’s for the kids Remember this vacay is not about you. It’s for the kids and the minute you step into the lobby you will be reminded of this.
It’s not that big GWL feels manageable and easy to navigate with your kiddos. Older kids may feel restricted. Set up a check-in system that gives them the freedom to explore the water park area of the resort safely. There is only one access to the water park area to keep escapees at a minimum.
Summer camp vibe Don’t be surprised to see people walking around the lodge in casual garb or grabbing a morning latte at Starbucks in their PJs. GWL requests that you wear cover-ups or shirts over your suits.
It’s clean There are people openly vacuuming. That’s a good thing.
Staff The staff are nice. With all the family friendliness don’t forget this is a for profit hotel chain. We called down to see if there was a complimentary sewing kit available (ripped board shorts) and were told that they are available in the gift shop.
Come prepared GWL rooms include a small refrigerator, coffee maker and microwave. Tightwad recommends keeping space available in the cooler for a couple of bottles of vino for mom and dad. Note: bring bottle opener! And cutting board, paring knife, set of cutlery for all concerned, plates, reusable cups, dish detergent … There are a number of places to eat on site but if you can snack your way through the day and then go out for a meal at dinner at the Lodge or a surrounding restaurant that would be a great way to save. Tightwad stopped at Trader Joe’s on the journey to GWL and armed herself with white bean pesto hummus, coffee, blue corn tortillas, organic peanut butter, fig bars, mozzarella, a bag of apples, oranges, orange juice, nuts, a bag of avocados, lemons, whole wheat bread, piles of cheese and some two buck chuck. She figures this will keep the fam (and her!) going for a couple of days of breakfasts, lunches and snacks, along with a bag of her homemade and not-yet-famous trail mix cookies (with sunflower seeds, craisins, coconut, oatmeal and chocolate chips).
Bring coffee to make in the room. There is a Starbucks, but it comes with Starbucks prices.
Pack in water Kids are swimming in it; not drinking it, and getting progressively dehydrated by the bikram yoga-like temperatures and constant activity. Bring a multi pack of bottled water. The 250ml bottles of water in the room are $2.50 a piece – so don’t go there.
The food is decent, but expensive There’s a food stand in the water park that has kid-approved meals that will keep the crankies at bay. While coolers are frowned upon in the water park, packing a few munchies to get you by between meals is acceptable.
The breakfast voucher at $10 per person at the Loose Moose that you get with reservation scheduling is a great value for one morning you stay. Kids under two eat for free, but really how much do kids under two actually eat?
Get a pizza A large pizza (one topping) is affordable. Bring your own bottle of wine and enjoy pizza in the lobby by the fire and you have a great meal for under $20!
The sweet shop is expensive; your waistline and pocket book will suffer.
Off site options The guest services directory has a good list of local restaurants. We went to a nearby Mexican restaurant (“the best in town!”) for dinner that we had passed on the way to the resort. The food seemed totally manageable; it would be about $25 for four of us. When in a Mexican restaurant it seems just seems right to order margaritas and when asked about drinks we ordered two “large” lime margs. They were huge, and, it turned out, so was the price: $12.50 EACH! (that piece of info required the use of bolding, underlining and italics). It was everything Tightwad could do not to have a minor stroke. Note: drink prices were not on the menu, and we should have asked.
Bear Track Landing Indoor Water Park (free with accommodation) This is the reason people visit GWL. When you arrive a lifeguard will measure your kids to see what rides they are eligible for. There is a pool (“whooping hollow”) dedicated to babies and toddlers under 48” tall. Kids can climb, pull ropes to dump water, slide and play in fountains. Other amenities include the howling tornado, the river canyon run and an activity and wave pool. You can get towels at the park (one per person), but they can’t leave with you. There is a locker room and a bathing suit dryer.
MagiQuest Fun. Do it. The objective behind the journey is to save the princess and slay the dragon. Discover treasure boxes, talking picture frames and more all that come to life with the swish of the magic wand. Described by brochure as, “explore an enchanted kingdom and participate in the ultimate adventure… enchant objects, befriend pixies, learn from an ancient wizard...” We borrowed a wand from a friend that we just had to pay to activate. Key: work as “teams”. Share the wand; each kid doesn’t need their own. This activity is geared for younger and older kids; with different levels of understanding. It’s a great after dinner activity. With many of the targets located in stairwell landings (levels 2 through 5 at Grand Mound), this seems a smart way GWL has figured out how to manage elevator traffic.
Cub Club A great place to hang out with toddler and preschool age kids to do arts and crafts. If you decide to participate, make a reservation upon arrival to ensure your child’s spot. Adults must accompany children under 12. It’s expensive though; consider bringing your own hands-on activates for downtime.
GR8_Space Sticking to the arcade will really start to add up. For $10 your teen can use the Internet, listen to music, enjoy evening karaoke or play the Nintendo Wii and Xbox360 (no games with M rating) for the duration of your stay. Most tweens and teens are happy with the water park but it may be worth the investment if you are going to be at GWL for a couple of days. GR8 turns into a club for teens at night.
Scoops Kids Spa Avoid. Expensive. Walk across the hall to the store next to the bakery and get a glitter tattoo.
Go to the good night show There is a nightly story time that is preceded by animatronic animals singing. Encourage your kids to gear up in their PJs and get there a bit early to snag a good spot.
GWL seems expensive but seems more reasonable if you think of it as a hotel plus two days of water park passes for the family. Here are some tips to help save:
Watch for promotions Watch the website and sign up for the GWL e-letter to see what promotions are available. Some may require a two night minimum stay or may be a mid week special. It’s a good time to got because obviously there will be less people and more discounts. Book well in advance. Try Groupon for deals.
When to go The ‘shoulder months’ of September, October, beginning of November, and in January, February, and early March (before Spring Break) are the best months for lower prices.
Bring supplies from home Plates, cups, cutlery, bottled water, and basic food and snacks (PB and J, humus, cheese and chips) to avoid the deadly impulse meal buying.
Go for basic accommodation The bunk style themed wolf den, kidkamp and kidcabin rooms are fun, but you won’t be in your room long enough to make them worth the expense. Really, your kids are staying in a themed waterpark; why gild the lily? If you search carefully when booking you may be able to upgrade for little or no cost to a room with a fireplace, whirlpool and bunk beds, but consider passing on these.
Strategize your stay If you book for one night you will still have access to the water park for two days. Two days allows families enough time to become accustomed to the resort, participate in all the activities and enjoy all the amenities without growing restless. Arrive early, check in and pick up your water park wristbands, and start having fun. You will be able to access your hotel room after 4:00pm. On day two, check out is at 11:00 and you can stay until closing, which is 9:00pm. There are changing rooms and lockers for use before check-in and after checkout. Put suitcases in the car and keep a small daypack with what you will need and a bag of fresh clothes to wear on the ride home — there’s a locker room in the water park and a bathing suit dryer. By the end of day two you will be ready to go. If you don’t want to check out for 11:00am, pay for a late check out. It’s nice to be able to go back to chillax and refuel in your room.
Get a Paw Pass If you are staying a few days the Paw Pass “ticket” to experience the fun extras GWL offers saves you money (about 35%) over paying outright for those activities and is a good way to see what’s available onsite to do. Get the refillable cup with the Paw Pass and reuse on your next visit. Savings savings savings! Note: if you are staying just one night the Paw Pass and other discount passes aren’t really worth it, or necessary.
Breakfast buffet If booked at the time of reservation total for four people is $40 and includes drinks at the Loose Moose. If not, the buffet will cost $13.95 per adult and $8.95 per child and does not include drinks. But really, who wants to spend $40 on breakfast? Pack orange juice, yogurt and a toaster.
Pay attention to deals Upon check in you will receive an information package with a cell phone number to register on your phone to receive money saving coupons for restaurants and amenities during your stay.
Avoid buying spendy stuff Don’t forget these items: swim goggles, earplugs, flip-flops, aqua shoes and a swimsuit cover-up. You can buy them at GWL, but… don’t.
Crocs for sale Very comfortable but you will spend more on site than you need to.
Batch save Many of the GWLs are in areas where there are other great family activities. See if there possible discounts at off site attractions available to those staying at GWL.
Stop the gimmes in their tracks It’s no surprise that there are lots of temptations for kids in the gift shop and other amenities. If you give your older kids an allowance of say, $15, they can choose something they really want and not keep bugging you for it. As is the case with a regular allowance, it provides an excellent opportunity to teach your kids about money. They can buy a cheap souvenir or get smart and pool their funds for a MagiQuest wand.
MagiQuest It’s worth the $35 – but get your kids to share a wand and work on their “team building” skills. It’s not worth it for children that are too young to understand the game. Pick up a $10 flashing wand at the gift shop and your little one will think they are playing right along with the big kids.
Avoid the make your own stuffie If your child wants a special keepsake find something at the gift store or MagiQuest store for half the price.
Twirly cups If your kids drink soda, buy them a twirly cup on the first day so you are just paying for refills.
If you dine off site Show your park pass; you may receive a discount. Ask at the GWL front desk to see what restaurants in the area will give discounts.
Story time, a lobby “nature walk”, face painting, trivia/bingo, large board games in the lobby and visits with the mascots are all complimentary. These are great downtime activities for young kids. Friday and Saturday night dance parties are lots of fun. There are some offers for kids such as promotions to fill out a card by doing certain activities in order to receive (for example) a free certificate, game room tokens and a small toy.
WHAT IS WITH THE PARK PASS
The park pass is your digital key to your room, lockers and paying bills at the resort – if you register it to do so. With your credit card information attached to the pass, even vending machines can be operated by it. It’s convenient and means that you can leave your purse in your room - but treat it carefully.
Visit when your kids are old and tall enough to brave the big kid slides. Preschoolers will love it, but you could go to good (and local!) public pool with a kid’s area virtually for free. GWL is a special place that kids love. It may lose some of its magic with too frequent visits or more than one night stay.
How did you save on your trip to Great Wolf Lodge?
How did you save on your trip to Great Wolf Lodge?