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Family Forum: Making a Splash at Great Wolf Lodge

If you can’t get to Hawaii or California this soggy spring, consider a visit to Great Wolf Lodge, where waves, warm water and lots of family fun is just a short drive away.

Are you as sick of our gray, cold and wet spring as I am? I was delighted to get away recently to warm water, 84 degree weather, waves, slippery water slides and lots of family fun when my family participated in a Girl Scout gathering at Great Wolf Lodge. After a super fun weekend, we are definitely coming back.

Gray Wolf is about 20 minutes south of Olympia via I-5. Ideally it should take less than two hours to get there, but that all depends on how much traffic you hit. We left Friday afternoon but hit major traffic all the way and ended up stopping at the Brewery City Pizza Company in Tumwater where we enjoyed great soup, salad and pizza for dinner before the last bit of our drive to Grand Mound.

When you arrive at Grand Mound take note of the several family style restaurants within close driving distance of Great Wolf to try during your visit. When you check in, your family will receive plastic wrist bands. Put these on immediately and don’t lose them as the adults' wrist bands are also your room key and, if you choose, can be used for meals at the resort and to purchase items from the gift shops.  Grab one or two of the carts in the lobby so you can unload your stuff in one trip.

If you are able to leave the Eastside a bit early and get down to Great Wolf by mid-afternoon, your family may be ready to have fun in the waterpark, but your room may not be ready, so pack a separate bag for each family member with a bathing suit and flip flops.

The resort’s staff will be happy to check you in and issue your wrist bands so you can enter the waterpark and play until your room is ready. You are also welcome to use the waterpark all day after you check out of your room at 11 a.m. Just pack a small bag with some dry clothes for each family member to change into when you are ready to head out.

Settling in

We had a super clean and comfortable Queen Sofa Suite at Great Wolf, which included a refrigerator and microwave. If you have more than two kids traveling with you, check out the adorable Wolf Den and KidKamp suites, which offer mom and dad a bit more privacy. KidKamp suites feature bunk beds, and the kids get their own TV. You can view all the resort’s room options online here.

The star attraction of the resort is its waterpark, open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., where it is always 84 degrees and the water is heated to a comfortable temperature. It includes six huge slides, three pools, a giant water fort, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, a water basketball court and obstacle course, a wave pool and a great play area just for little kids.

Even when packed with Girl Scouts this last weekend, there was always something to do without waiting. The lines move surprisingly fast, even for the super popular Howling Tornado water slide. 

I was impressed with the number of lifeguards stationed at every pool and slide and how well-trained they appeared to be. When the wave pool started filling up with more people, I watched even more lifeguards move to the sides of the pool. I also observed a lifeguard during our visit quickly, kindly and carefully treating a girl with a bloody nose. You must supervise your own children at all times, but you can rest assured that Great Wolf lodge’s lifeguards clearly take great pride in keeping guests safe while they have fun.

Take note of the complimentary life vests near the wave pool and insist that any child who isn’t a strong swimmer put one on before entering the wave pool. I saw a few moms battle with a child over this, allow the child to go into the wave pool, watch the child get pushed down by a wave, who then came back crying to mom. 

The waves are super fun, but they can also get fast and big, so watch a session first (the wolf howl signals a session of waves is about to begin) before ruling if you child can go in without the lifejacket.

Packing for the waterpark

A few things to keep in mind while you pack for your trip. Bring goggles if you have a child with sensitive eyes to wear while playing in the wave pool and kiddie pools.  The waterpark's pools are all chlorinated, and by the end of the day my son and his friend had super red eyes, and I regretted not having them wear goggles.

Bring a bathing suit for yourself. You’ll want to play with your kids in the water and make memories enjoying the rides with them. But be sure to consider how “supportive” your suit is before going down the fast-moving slides and getting tossed around by the waves.

A robe for each family member is also nice to have at the pool and for the trip back through the resort lobby to your room. Towels are provided, but you can’t take them up to the rooms so consider bringing your own pool towels as well.

While you are at the resort, you’ll see lots of kids running around waving wands at objects which will then light up or open. They are playing MagiQuest, an interactive game that requires purchase of the wands.

The upside is that to complete the game my son had to run all over the resort, up and down stairs, which made getting him to fall asleep Saturday night easy. The downside is that the wand and the game will set you back $30, but my son loved doing it and says he’ll enjoy using the want at home for imaginary play. 

There is also an arcade at the resort that my tween gave a big thumbs up to, a spa just for girls and tweens called Scoops, story time several times a day in the lobby, a karoke lodge for teens and a kids' club that offers crafts and activities. 

Food and beverage options

Based on the reviews from my friends who had visited Great Wolf in the past and found the food to be overpriced and mediocre, we choose not to eat anything on site besides ice cream from the Bear Paw Sweet and Eats ice cream shop – which was delicious.

We brought a cooler and food we could prepare in our room using the microwave. The resort is very gracious about allowing families to bring their own food – as long as they prepare and eat it in the room. You may bring drinks and snacks purchased at the resort into the waterslide park but NOT your own snacks and drinks. 

In addition to the resort's several restaurants and snack shops, there is a Starbucks on site that I visited several times during our visit for iced tea and coffee.  The prices are on par with what you would pay at your neighborhood Starbucks.

I did take note of what was being served at the Spirit Island poolside café. The “chips on a stick” looked delicious, but the café also offers healthier options such as fruit and grilled chicken sandwiches. You can also purchase an adult beverage at Spirit Island or the upstairs bar.

Other on-site dining options include Camp Critter, a full service bar and grill, Pizza Hut Express and a breakfast buffet option at the Loose Moose Cottage restaurant.

Staying on budget

You can easily spend more than the room rate every day at Great Wolf on food, activities and souvenirs. Set an expectation with your kids before going to Great Wolf and stick to it regarding how much money you’ll spend on the “extras."

My son found the wand and MagicQuest game to be a great choice for his allocated spending money, but my daughter preferred to spend her money at the arcade. You may have a young lady who would like to try a manicure or pedicure at the adorable Scoops Spa, and mom may want a massage and facial at Elements Spa, the place where adult guests unwind and get pampered.

Great Wolf also offers a special $60 package for $88 worth of activities and souvenirs, including a wand and game, animal stuffing session (think Build a Bear – with Wolves), a souvenir pillow case or T-shirt, snack and drink, arcade tokens and glitter tattoo.

Great Wolf is not cheap. A KidsKamp Suite can cost more than $450 a night on a weekend, but the rate includes passes to the water park for two days. Considering that a trip to Wild Waves in Federal Way for the day for a family of four could cost close to $200 with admissions, parking, renting a locker and meals, the room rates at Great Wolf start to not look like such a bad deal.

Great Wolf’s rates do drop during the week and the resort often runs specials, which you’ll find on its website. Great Wolf also offers great deals throughout the year to groups including the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and homeschool groups.  

We will definitely be saving up and coming back when the weather starts to get to me again next year.  My 9-year-old put it best this weekend when I asked him to rate his first visit to Great Wolf.

“This is just as good as Disneyland," he said, "and much closer!”

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