A road trip to the indoor water-park resort Great Wolf Lodge is a time-honored cold-weather tradition for many families in the Seattle area. But like anything else involving large groups of children, loud noise in an enclosed space, and lots of splashing, yelling and buying, parents will have to brace themselves. (Look out for those roving characters with frighteningly oversize heads.)
The sliding starts at 9 a.m. each day and ends at closing time, 8 p.m.
What is it? An 84-degree indoor water-park theme resort with multiple waterslides, many thrilling and many suitable for younger kids, as well as hands-on exploration and creative activities.
Who should go: Families with kids of all ages, including babies and teens.
When to go: year-round.
Watery highlights: There’s a lifeguarded slide or pool to cover every age group, even babies, and comfort level, from the seriously steep drop of Howlin’ Tornado for the big kids and daring parents, to Slap Tail Pond, an intense wave pool where you can decide how far in you want to go. (I’d recommend keeping a close eye on kids and adults in the wave pool, which gets pretty rough in the deeper spots.) Water play and pool basketball are available at the water park, and we were amazed how long it all kept us thoroughly entertained.
I’m a veteran of many Disneyland visits, which I thoroughly enjoy and immerse myself in. I had a great time for more than a day, but by hour 45 at this resort, I required an umbrella cocktail at approximately 10:52 a.m. Within two hours of my expiration, even the kids (then 10 and 7) needed a break and were fine with going home. Waterslides are amazing, but you’ll know when you’re done.
Highlights on land: There’s a nightly pajama story time, as well as daytime story times; morning yoga with resort characters; the Great Clock Tower Show, which is a big hit with younger kids; an arcade with video games, skill cranes and Skee-Ball; a glowing golf course; two spas, including one for kids and one for adults; a mirror maze and Oliver’s Mining Co. (both for an additional fee); and Shadowquest and MagiQuest, interactive magic wand games that keep kids running all over the resort — when they buy a wand or a game. The Howlers Peak Ropes Course, just outside the water park, provides a climbing challenge for children who are 4 feet tall or more. (Tickets are extra.)
What to pack: Bathing suits! A cover-up would make sense too, as would goggles and flipflops or water socks. Bring food for in-room meals and snacks. (Just don’t bring coolers or food into the water park.) There is a mini-fridge and coffeemaker in each room. And those who caffeinate just might need to double-caffeinate to rev up for Great Wolf Lodge. (There’s a Starbucks at the resort, too.)
You can reserve a Pack ‘n Play when you make a room reservation. Consider taking along earplugs for any light sleepers. The noise levels in the rooms can vary a lot, and with all those families packed into one place, it can be loud at times, even at night. The lodge’s wristbands have RFID, so you can use them for payment and as your room key instead of bringing wallets and keys to the pool area.
Life jackets are provided on a first-come, first-served basis, and they are strongly recommended for kids under 4 feet tall and for non-swimmers and weaker swimmers.
Keep inflatable pool toys at home, since they are not allowed at the resort.
What it costs to stay: Rooms start at about $229, and hotel guests’ access to the water park is covered by the room rate.
How to go for a day: A limited number of day passes are now available, and the prices start at $50 per person. Children under 2 do not need a pass.
What to eat: Pizza, subs and salads are sold at the takeout restaurant Hungry As A Wolf. There’s also a buffet restaurant, a fast-food stand in the water park, and a fancier sit-down grill place. There’s an ice cream and sweets stand — and also a wine service.
By the second night there, we decided to venture out and try Mariachi Mexican Restaurant in Rochester for dinner, which seems like an open secret among adult foodie patrons of the resort. It’s good Mexican food served by a cheerful staff — and there is not a single arcade noise or pool echo in the whole joint.
How to save: You can bring a cooler to your room and save money on meals and beverages with a little advance planning — and flexible kids. Parents can get the biggest financial bang for their buck by arriving at 1 p.m. the day of check-in and staying until 8 p.m. the day of checkout. However, there are often very good deals on multiple-night stays, especially if you travel and stay with another family.
What’s nearby if you need a break: Hands on Children’s Museum, Airport Golf & Batting Cages, Centralia Factory Outlets, Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum, and Wolf Haven International (visits by reservation). There’s also free wifi throughout Great Wolf Lodge. The resort has a fitness center for the grownups.
How loud and crowded is it? The consensus seems to be that the resort gets really loud, both in the pool areas and in the lobby and activity areas, too. For kids bothered by loud noise or prone to overstimulation, one sugggestion is to bring along noise-canceling headphones for when you’re not in the pool area. Taking refuge in your room is another option for when it all gets to be too much. If you have kids who can’t handle long waits, note that the big slides are less crowded in the hours just after opening. Tackle those first to beat the long lines later on. (The lines are mainly for those bigger slides, and there’s plenty of other stuff to do in the water the rest of the day.)
How do you get there? It’s in Grand Mound, about an hour and 40 minutes from Seattle by car. Other options include taking Amtrak or a Greyhound bus to Centralia, then taking a taxi or ride-share service to the resort.
Review: One Seattle mom advises that parents take friends along, “and bring groceries!” And she loves making it a moms-and-kiddos trip: “Go with a girlfriend — and it is fun!”