Many Northwest families no doubt are feeling the pinch of the economy and that trip to Disneyland might just be on the chopping block. The good news, though, is that a Disney-like experience is right here in the Northwest – and it's year-round.
Okay, the Great Wolf Lodge is not going to have any Space Mountains or Buzz Lightyear rides – or any “rides” at all, for that matter. But it will have thrills and spills for kids of all ages and fun Disney-like characters and animatronics that make you feel like you're in the Happiest Place on Earth – or at least the Happiest Place in Olympia, Washington.
And, if you're in Seattle or Portland, it's just a 90-minute drive, meaning you have just eliminated one of the biggest expenses of a Disneyland vacation: getting there. No air fare, no baggage charges or, alternatively, no mini-vacations at the gas pump where your SUV seems to take on more fuel than a 747.
The Great Wolf Lodge actually is just a few miles south of Olympia in a place called Grand Mound where it's far enough out of the urban area to build something really big at a more reasonable cost. Our guess is the developers – unlike most resort developers -- were more concerned about being close to Interstate 5 than having any views of the mountains, lakes or sea. That's because no one is going to the Great Wolf Lodge for the view – you're going there to spend a lot of time with your kids in the resort's giant indoor water park, and to play arcade games, watch the Disney-like animals put on shows and dine on family-friendly food.
Now if all this is starting to sound like spending a vacation inside a Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlor – which is what we thought we might be getting into – don't worry. The resort is so big and spread out that it's easy to get away from the noise any time you need to. Of course, if you're taking four kids along as we did, the noise just kind of goes along with you. But that should come as little surprise to most parents and grandparents, or at least the ones who thoroughly read their parenting manuals where it says right there in Subsection Y, Appendix A: “Kids, on occasion, will be noisy.”
So let's be frank here – this vacation is not the one where you lay on the beach, read your Kindle and gradually anesthetize yourself with mojitos. This is the one where you either A/ place your delicate pre-schoolers on the baby slide and woosh them down the chute for their first experience in water outside of the womb or bath tub, or B/ put on your own swimsuit leaving as little middle-age flab visible as possible and join your teen-agers going down BIG, fast waterslides with enough G-force to leave you with the inescapable feeling you're now trained to be an astronaut.
If you're not into either of those activities, there is a giant wave pool where you can just stand in the water and let the waves wash over you while you hold on tight to the little ones to make sure there is no collateral damage. There are plenty of play areas for the kids to explore – think McDonald's play area times 10. with water -- and there are lots of other fun things to do in the 84-degree water. In fact there are 56,000 square feet of water activities, all indoors and shielded nicely from the potentially cold weather outside.
The water activities are just the beginning and there are various shows going on at seemingly all hours with a lot of attention paid to staff interaction with the kids. There is nightly Story Time where the kids can come down in their pajamas and have staff read to them. There are various activities – we went to one workshop where a staff member taught the kids how to make a paper wolf. Our visit was around Halloween time, so they had the various stores on property offering kids goodies as they went trick-or-treating from location to location.
Several times a day, the Great Lobby comes alive with mechanical animals that put on a show that is very Disney-esque with bears, wolves, birds and everything else you can imagine doing song and dance with the music piped in through a state-of-the-art theater-quality audio system.
It costs a little extra, but your kids have lots of other options for activities. There is a huge arcade chock-full of games of every type and there is something called Magi-Quest where your kids can take a magic wand in hand and explore an enchanted kingdom, learn from an ancient wizard, battle a goblin and outwit a dragon.
The accommodations are not especially luxurious, but then that's not the type of vacation we're talking about here. Our family suite was comfortable and adequate for the six of us. The food at the Great Wolf comes in great variety and we found there was always something that everyone would like – which is what you really need when you're traveling as a family.
If you're looking for a way to treat the entire family, the Great Wolf Lodge seems to have been conceived with that in mind. No matter what the age, your kids will all find something fun and exciting to do. In fact, we're betting that your kids will want to make a trip to the Great Wolf Lodge an annual occurrence – until, that is, they're ready for the beach and mojitos.
WHERE: The Great Wolf Lodge has locations in many parts of the country but the only one in the Pacific Northwest is in Grand Mound just south of Olympic. This location is equi-distant from Seattle and Portland and the resort is less than a mile off Interstate 5. The location is quite rural so don't expect a lot of city amenities nearby, although you can find some local restaurants if you don't want to have all your meals at the lodge.
WHAT: The Great Wolf Lodge is for families, pure and simple. While the main centerpiece is the indoor water park, the lodge is much more than that and its structure and design are reminiscent of a wilderness lodge. The lodge is a destination, not a place to stay on the way from Point A to Point B. You'll want to take full advantage of the many activities offered at the lodge.
WHEN: Since all the activities are indoors, the Great Wolf Lodge is an ideal destination year-round.
WHY: This place is for families who really want to take a family vacation. It's not about the parents – although the lodge does offer activities, food and beverages that also appeal to adults – but rather it's about the kids and giving them an experience that they won't soon forget.
HOW: When you book your room at the lodge, you'll get some of your water park passes included with the room, depending on how large your room is. While the lodge has normal mid-day check-out and check-in times, your water park ticket is good for all day so you can plan to arrive early and play in the water park until your room is ready, or stay after checkout to play, using changing rooms the lodge provides. For more information, phone 800-640-9653 or visit www.greatwolf.com.
Photos, from top: Animals come to life in Great Lobby; teenagers love the thrill rides; even smallfry can have water frun; 56,000 square feet of water attractions including this pool
Photos by Cary Ordway, Tara Wilkins
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles on Northwest zoos, Northwest water vacations, Port Townsend and Seattle attractions.