SEATTLE — Basking in the 84-degree atmosphere, watching the waves at your feet, it's easy to forget it's not quite barefoot weather yet in Washington. Until you glance out the window at the steel-gray sky and spitting rain outside the Great Wolf Lodge.
I took the plunge recently with my family, staying and playing at the lodge and waterpark in Grand Mound, Wash. Great Wolf is a 298-room hotel and conference center, part of a chain of 11 resorts nationwide. It includes arcades, restaurants, a gift shop and the chief attraction: a 56,000-square-foot indoor waterpark with a series of slides that range from nearly horizontal to hair-raisingly vertical.
If you've been planning a trek to Great Wolf with your "pack" (how the lodge perkily refers to guest families), you may have read some of the howling on TripAdvisor and other consumer websites. Commenters have complained about room prices, meals and the "extras" that require you to have either Joan of Arc-like resolve or deep pockets.
I arrived with my husband and 7-year-old son shortly after 1 p.m. on a Saturday in late January and saw 10 desk clerks, all breaking a sweat to check in a long line of guests. The check-in ate up a lot of time that we had not anticipated (see the "If you go" with this story), and that is hard to explain to an excited child who can see the waterpark but can't get in.
But on to the fun. The lodge touts its waterpark (open to hotel guests only) as having something for all ages, and it does.
Parents, toddlers and even teens gathered in the generous-sized wave pool, with a water mushroom on the "shore" and prancing water jets that the 1-to-5-year-old set seems to find irresistible.
Speaking of the wee-swimmer set, parents coming with children under 5 — which seems to be the chief demographic at Great Wolf — will be happy to see that the lodge provides plenty of life vests, as well as a young, cheerful staff of lifeguards.
Older kids and adults tended to cluster in the pool that has basketball hoops and the lily-pad challenge, where you try to jump from pad to pad while hanging from an overhead series of ropes.
The activity centerpiece is Fort McKenzie, an interactive "treehouse" of ladders, platforms and waterfalls. At the top is the shriek-inducing "bucket dump" — a barrel that slowly fills with 1,000 gallons of water and then drenches the crowd below. Little kids will like the wading pool stuffed with water cannons, toddler slides and sprinklers.
The big attractions (they have their own YouTube videos) are the Howlin' Tornado and the Canyon River Run slides. The tubes are pretty big, so for each of these slides, visitors ride on a raft. Rafts meet the head of the line of people waiting on the stairs thanks to a vertical conveyor belt — a mesmerizing gadget.
The Howlin' Tornado is definitely more the thrill ride. It's the six-story-tall, funnel-shaped apparatus visible to drivers on nearby Interstate 5. Ever watched water circle the drain, then slip down really fast? Yeah, that's the idea.
All rooms at Great Lodge are suites, and they are pricey. We stayed in the basic "family suite" that has two queen beds, a sitting area with a foldout couch and table/chairs, and paid $296 total for one night, which includes the waterpark.
The beds are among the most comfortable hotel beds/ pillows I have ever slept on, ranking right up there with the Fairmont Chateau Whistler in British Columbia. However, the Great Wolf bathroom is tiny and the water pressure is alarmingly low in the sink and shower. My husband and I speculated jokingly that all the power went to feed the waterslides, leaving guests with a gentle sprinkle to wet their toothbrushes.
The lodge definitely caters to extended family and big groups. The Grizzly Bear Suite, which costs upward of $500, depending on time of year, sleeps six to eight. For adventurous types, you could book the Wolf Den Suite, with a "cave" right in the room, or the KidKamp Suite, which has a "tent-themed" area corralling bunk beds and a small TV away from the other bed and couch.
Room prices fluctuate depending on day of week and time of year. If you go, plan to be flexible with your dates; you might save $50 or so on a room.
Oh, if only we could all stay in the pool. Outside the balmy paradise of the waterpark is where cold reality hits. A local mom who visited the lodge a day before we did referred to a "giant sucking sound" — all your money swallowed up at other diversions on the property.
The lodge offers two arcades (one for all ages, one that's more for adults and older kids), the MagiQuest game and an ice-cream shop. We saw a sign for something called Scoops, where girls can get their nails done in ice-cream colors, and then eat ice cream afterward. My son shuddered when I explained the premise.
The arcade is like any other in that you get four tokens for $1, and you're not getting out for just a buck. Playing a glowing game of air hockey under the black lights was great fun, and my husband and son enjoyed the drag-racing driving simulator game. But who leaves home to stand around in a dark arcade full of screeching kids? Not I, said the little red hen. We flew the coop after about half an hour.
MagiQuest is a live role-playing game that requires purchasing a wand ($30, embellishments and other magical doodads extra) and using it to agree to a magi's quest in an interactive video. Players use the wand to complete any or all of the quests (doing them all could take hours) by pointing it at various "clues."
For instance, if you point the wand at a closed treasure chest, it opens and tells you the next step on your quest, or if you point the wand at a picture on the wall, it will start to move and "talk." If the clue isn't on your particular quest, an electronic voice tells you so. This questing takes place all over the hotel, on all floors and public areas, meaning corridors and stairways become mobbed.
Sound irritating? It is. Also an irritant: Our wand didn't work properly, which meant fighting the crowds to get back to the MagiQuest shop to have the wand re-magicked or whatever needed to be done. Despite that, the wand still did not "remember" all the tasks on a quest. Maybe good magic costs more than $30.
Our son gave the pools and slides two thumbs up, and said the wave pool was "the best swimming pool ever." And thanks to the comfy queen bed he had to himself, he's angling for a bigger bed in his room at home. The lesson from a night at Great Wolf? If you can keep your "pack" in the waterpark, you'll find plenty of fun without getting soaked.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE: Washington's Great Wolf Lodge is at 20500 Old Highway 99 S.W., Grand Mound, Thurston County. 800-640-9653 or http://www.greatwolf.com
CHECK-IN: The waterpark opens at 1 p.m. to guests checking in (10 a.m. for current guests). However, the official hotel check-in isn't until 4 p.m., which can be a problem if the lodge is full, your room isn't ready and you have a lot of luggage. The lodge's lockers cost $10 to rent and are just big enough for a backpack. At peak times, i.e. vacations and weekends, you might want to forgo the extra time in the waterpark and plan to arrive later, when you can have access to a room right away. You'll skip the really long check-in line, too, and some impatience on your kids' part.
DINING: The lodge has two restaurants; a Pizza Hut Express; an ice-cream shop; and a Starbucks. The waterpark area has a snack shop and a small bar area. The restaurant food is of the bland sandwich-and-fries variety. Breakfast is not included in your room price unless you book ahead with a special package.
MONEY-SAVING TIPS: We saw families toting big coolers into the lodge, and there are some dining options near the lodge and in the nearby town of Centralia.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun