Last week we took a little trip to Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls. For me, it was a test run for a potential bigger trip next year – this was the first time ever we have stayed somewhere where we didn’t have a kitchen. Due to the food allergy thing, a holiday for us never means a vacation-from-cooking for me, but Great Wolf came really highly recommended to us for food stuff, so we crossed our fingers and booked it back in the winter.
A quick overview: Great Wolf Lodge is a hotel in Niagara Falls that has an indoor water park. There are at least a half-dozen pools of various types, a dozen or so huge water slides, and tons of other water fun, all right inside the hotel. There’s also an arcade, mini golf, bowling, and other entertainments – and oh yeah, there’s this thing nearby called The Falls, if you can pull yourself away for an afternoon.
So! How was it?
Let me first say this: I never knew so many people had tattoos.
Second, there’s this: Great Wolf Lodge is a totally awesome time.
[Disclosure! Totally not a sponsored post, nor did we get any freebies or anything, because I’m too lazy to seek out such things.]
Thinking about going there? Here’s some tips I’ve got for you.
The Rooms: We had a Kids’ Cabin, which is a big room featuring a smaller “cabin” inside it, to give the kids and parents a little separation. Our cabin area had bunk beds and a day bed, to accommodate our three kids. We really liked the room and it was nice to stay somewhere that didn’t have a four-person limit, but know that the “cabin” beds were pretty small. They are smaller than a full twin for sure, just about five feet long and thinner too. So I’d say, if you have kids that are 12 or older, you’d be pushing the limit of the kid camp/cabin suites – time to look at a Family Suite or Loft Suite. (You can see pictures and details of all the suites here.)
The Water Park: The water park is SO MUCH FUN. We go to Mont Cascades every year and this was even more, packed into a smaller area. For babies and toddlers, there’s a gradual entry pool with a couple very small simple slides; plus there’s a lovely Crystal River where you can load yourself and your kid into a tube and just float around in a loop. For older kids (5 to 8 range), there’s a whole treehouse play structure where you can attack each other with water in a hundred different ways, and then slide down two rocket-fast slides to get to the bottom; you can also go on a few of the bigger slides in a tube with an adult. Older kids than that can ride the really big slides and they are zippy and fun and fast; my older two loved the slides but actually had just as much fun in the wave pool, on the Crystal River, and doing the “ninja warrior” course where you try to walk across floating lily pads.
How were the wait times? The park is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and waits were definitely the smallest in the first two hours and last two hours, so we tried our best to be there for those times, and spend the afternoons doing something else. But even if afternoons work best for you, you can always get into the pool for some splashing fun, and the lines for the rides do move fairly quickly. We found the longest lines – for the Vortex, Niagara Rapids Run, and Wooly Mammoth – featured about five minutes of waiting in off-peak times, and no more than 15 minutes of waiting in peak times. So that’s not too bad, and probably what you’d see in any other water park. Note that we were there on a Monday through Thursday, so it may be busier on weekends and almost certainly is busier at Christmas and March Break.
Worried about safety? Don’t be. This is one thing I can say I was super impressed about – the lifeguarding staff was plentiful and always, always on high alert. They were constantly walking up and down the edges of pools, blowing the whistle at anyone doing anything remotely dangerous; at the top of each slide, even the little baby/kiddy slides, lines are tightly monitored and it’s strictly one person at a time. Once I got caught up talking to Gal Smiley at the edge of the wave pool, and the Little Miss got more than a 20 feet from me, and the lifeguard was on her in about two seconds asking where her parents were (kids smaller than 48 inches tall must be supervised in the wave pool). I saw them testing the water for quality often, and once I saw them run a lifeguard test where they secretly dropped a dummy into the deep end of the wave pool and timed how long it took the lifeguards to notice and rescue (um, about five seconds). It was all extremely reassuring.
The Food: I have to say a lot about the food, because it was hugely important to us, and a major feature of our visit. They have a meal plan at Great Wolf – $22 for kids per day, and $44 for parents per day. That covers your three main meals but no off-hours snacks. We bought the meal plan because we did not intend to leave the water park like, EVER, and also because our major food issues mean that we can’t just go off and eat wherever, so we knew we wanted to stay where we could work with the kitchen staff.
The hotel serves a massive breakfast buffet in the morning and a massive dinner buffet in the evening (both part of your meal plan, or you can just go there for individual meals as desired). For lunches, there’s a bunch of “fast food” type places in and around the water park, serving things like sandwiches, salad, chicken fingers and fries, pizza, and ice cream. If you’re on the meal plan you can get one “meal” (like a sandwich and drink, or a pizza slice, chips and drink) from these places; if not, you can pick and choose what you want from wherever.
Our overall impression of the food was that the two buffets were great, but the lunch time options were sort of typical theme-park stuff, which is not bad for a single outing but after three days it’s a little too much. But the advantage is that all that food is right there – if you are in the water park, you don’t need to get dressed and go out somewhere, you just hand your dripping-wet kid a five dollar bill and send them over to grab some nachos. So although it’s maybe not gourmet fare, it’s super convenient and good enough. The breakfast buffet is absolutely worth it, I don’t know why anyone would eat anywhere else, and the dinners were good too with plenty of options for everyone.
So in the end I definitely felt like the meal plan was worth it, especially if you have no intention of leaving the hotel (which we did not, as we have been with the kids to Niagara three times before so the Falls and Marineland and the Butterfly Conservatory and the main strip had all been done before).
A note on allergies: how it worked was that every time we went to eat something anywhere (either in the buffet restaurant or at the “fast food” type places), we just told them we had allergies and had to see a chef. Then a chef would come out and either walk us through our available options, or just make us something to-order based on what we can and can’t eat. Everyone was SUPER nice and helpful and our kids ate hearty. Still, it’s a lot of work at every mealtime to manage so I’m not sure I’m sold on the “stay someplace without a kitchen” idea – really a lot of the time it just would have been easier for me to make something. But that’s just me, I hate the feeling of bothering people or putting people out – rest assured that if you do have allergies, you WILL find food, help, and total understanding at Great Wolf Lodge.
What to Bring: Here’s a list of things we wished we had brought:
- Band Aids – We had a few, but the bottoms of the pools are rough (so no one slips) and scrapes can and will happen. I happened to have some Elastoplast Fabric bandages with us and they did remarkably well at staying on even through multiple days at the water park.
- Waterproof Watch – I had one, but Sir Monkeypants didn’t, making it hard to say “meet us at this slide at this time” when we split up.
- Moisturizer – Bring a lot. Bring all the good stuff. Between being wet all day and showering afterwards, skin gets very, very dry.
- Hair Dryer – There’s one in the room, but it’s tiny and the overheating shut-off mark is almost comically low (count on a minute or so of drying time, tops). A good dryer is handy for drying suits and kids’ hair before bed (but forget about maintaining your own ‘do in the humidity of the park – just bring a lot of hairbands and clips and elastics).
- Warm Clothes – The park is kept very warm and you’ll never feel chilly. But once you leave the park area – it’s cold, especially if you’re wet, and and especially if you’re tired and hungry and wet. I only brought one pair of pants and one sweatshirt per kid, and they basically lived in that one outfit for the three days we were there. Definitely pack warmer PJs than you think you will need – long sleeves and pants recommended – and some cozy track pants.
- Refillable Water Bottles – hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! It is really easy, once you are in the water park, not to notice how much work it is. We forced the kids to break for mealtimes, even though most of us weren’t really that hungry. But what we often didn’t realize until we were out of the park was how incredibly THIRSTY we were, and it was hard to rehydrate once we were at that point. So on the second day we started bringing two refillable water bottles into the park with us and making the kids have a few gulps every time we went past our table, and it was much better.
- More Bathing Suits – We brought two each and that was not bad, but if you have little kids who may be in and out of the pool area several times a day, working around meals and nap times, three or four suits wouldn’t be a bad idea.
- Towels – This one is controversial. They provide towels in the park area and they’re good towels, all you will need there. In your room, there’s plenty of towels and fresh ones every day. But the problem is that you can’t take the park towels back to your room, or the room towels to the park. This means you will likely end up walking wet from the park back to your room, and it’s chilly in the hallways. So, should you bring your own towels, just for the hallway walk? We just sucked it up and braved it, but for little kids I would recommend bringing something thick and cozy (maybe a bathrobe?) to wrap them up in for the walk back to the room. You can also bring your clothes with you to the water park and dry off and change there before walking back to your room, but we decided to go for more privacy and walked back wet.
- Floaties – Life jackets are provided (on a first-come, first-served basis, but there were always dozens available when we went), but if you have special floaties your kid likes (like water wings) they are absolutely allowed. The only place you can’t wear a life jacket or floatie is on the non-tube slides (Beaver and Squirrel Falls, which are at the top of the big treehouse thing). Your kid might want goggles, too, although my kids rarely wore them and were just fine.
Money stuff: Use of the water park is totally included in your stay. If you get the meal plan, note that tips for the waitstaff at the buffets is INCLUDED (we did not know this the first two days, and were leaving cash tips for the waitstaff that brought our drinks and cleared away our buffet plates). Extra cash is required for add-on activities like bowling, the arcade, the spa, and mini golf, as well as kids’ craft activities (which are supervised, so parents can have a little adult time if you want to go on the big rides without your wee ones). You’ll also need a little extra for snacking or treats (although, we didn’t buy any additional food, just used some granola bar/cookie/bagel type snacks I had brought with us in our room – note that no outside food is allowed inside the water park). Just about everything there can be charged to your room, though, so no need to actually walk around with cash or a wallet – in fact, we went to the water park with nothing except our suits on and flip flops, because even your room key is just a plastic bracelet you all wear.
How Long Should You Go For? You can start using the water park as early as 1 p.m. on the day you arrive (official check-in is at 4 p.m.) and you can stay until closing on the day you leave (but you have to be out of your room by 11 a.m., or 1 p.m. if you pay a little extra for a late checkout). Driving from Ottawa, we left around 9 in the morning and, thanks to construction on the 401, didn’t arrive at Great Wolf until 4, but we still managed get in a couple of hours in the water park after an early dinner. We then had two full days of water park fun, and by the fourth day, our kids were pooped. Everything was still great, but when we hit our check-out time of 1 p.m., we were ready to get going – and looking forward to a few days of lazing about to recover. So I’d say the three-night stay was perfect for us, but a two-night stay would be great, too, if you are able to just do water park and ignore the rest of Niagara. If you’re going for longer than that, plan for some other activities – like visiting the Falls or going to Marineland – to break things up.
Overall I’d say we had a really, really great time. The kids said many, many, many times that this was the best trip ever. We had to drag them away and I actually thought Gal Smiley was going to make a break for it and hide in the change room so she could live there. The food was good and everyone ate and they did a great job of managing our zillion allergies. The staff was SO friendly and helpful.
Worth it? 100%.