Recently, my family and I had the opportunity to stay at Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, VA. Great Wolf had been on our radar for some time, but having two reluctant swimmers always made us wonder if the water park would be too much for our kids. Since the water park is such a huge part of Great Wolf (and the cost can be significant), we have always put it off for later consideration.
Then our older daughter decided she was not scared of getting her face wet anymore. We have tried three different sets of swim lessons with her over the years and she had never made any meaningful progress. But my husband decided to try with her one on one and she suddenly bloomed! She still doesn’t “swim” exactly -- like using strokes -- but she will doggy paddle and is no longer afraid of getting her face or hair wet which was a huge barrier to her success in the pool. We have a ways to go before she can be considered a swimmer, but the progress is evident. My other daughter -- well let’s just say she’s not there yet.
We got a very discounted rate for Great Wolf Lodge through our homeschool group (REACH, which serves the Fredericksburg, Stafford, and surrounding areas), which was the impetus for us to give it a try. GWL also offers discounts through sites like Groupon and Living Social from time to time as well. We decided to keep it a secret from our kids because my older daughter Josie can be a bit obsessive and we weren’t really up for fielding five weeks of incessant questions about our trip. Plus, surprises are just fun.
We arrived at the lodge on Mother’s Day and the Grand Lobby was decked out in flowers for the occasion. There was a pretty long line for check in but my husband took the kids to look around while I waited. Fifteen minutes later, we were checked in, handed two pairs of wolf ears for the kids and surprisingly, our room was ready to go, two hours early!
The room was great! We stayed in the Majestic Bear Suite, which comes with a kitchenette, two queen beds and a separate bedroom with a king bed and its own TV. We had a great double balcony outside and they put us on the top floor which thrilled my kids. The room was clean, comfortable, and there was plenty of room for everyone and all our stuff. The girls loved that they each got their own huge bed.
We got settled, then they changed and hit the waterpark first. The first thing I noticed about the water park was its sheer size. It is manageable, but definitely large. There are tons of chairs but tables are less plentiful and we never managed to get a table at any point in the weekend. I have the feeling people stake them out right when the park opens, throw their stuff on them, and that is their table for the entire day. Most tables were devoid of any human presence, with just belongings on them. It was no big deal, since we weren’t planning on staying the whole day or eating in the waterpark. (Yes, you can eat in the waterpark, but you cannot bring in your own food. You can use the restaurant there, and there is also a bar right there in the waterpark!)
Great Wolf does a good job of accommodating all ages in the waterpark and throughout the resort. They provide free lifejackets to use while you are in the park, which we took advantage of since my kids are weak/non-swimmers. They had a good sized toddler/preschool sized pool with small slides and equipment (my youngest used it even though she is almost seven, and I was worried the lifeguards would kick her out for being too big. Thankfully, they were cool about it since I think it was obvious she was timid in the water.) They have medium sized slides attached to a large fort, massive slides that operate independently from each other, a wave pool, a body surfing pool, a lazy river, an aquatic obstacle course, and aquatic basketball. They also have little geysers in a splashpad area, plus a giant bucket that pours a wall of water out once every couple of minutes. There is plenty to do to keep everyone busy, even if you just want to relax in one of the two hot tubs. The lifeguards were very attentive and plentiful... I always felt like they were in charge and thorough and it helped me not worry as much.
The waterpark is warm inside and humid, just as you would expect. Great if you are swimming so you don’t get cold, not so great if you are just hanging out in your regular old street clothes. Also, it is VERY loud. It was hard to hear each other talk unless we were right exactly in front of each other. After a couple hours, I started to not feel very good from all the noise and humidity and needed a break. The other thing worth mentioning is that I was very worried about slips and falls with all the little wet feet running around the park (and I threatened my kids’ lives if they ran), but I saw tons of dripping wet kids running and not one fell. I think the material the deck is made from and the way it is textured prevents slips and falls to at least some degree.
The rest of the resort is also great. You can check out the entire list of activities here, but I will talk about a few we took advantage of. There was not time in the two and a half days we were there to do everything, but we had the girls choose their priorities and we got to do almost everything that was in their top three.
Magiquest - this was something I was hesitant to invest any money into at first. It is rather expensive and I wasn’t sure the kids would really get my money’s worth. The gist is that the kids buy a magic wand to unlock gold, treasures, and runes that they use to conquer bad guys and save the village. The game has stations all over the resort. My younger daughter was far more interested in Magiquest than my older one, and it was her #1 choice of activity. It did seem cool, so we decided to tread lightly and bought the basic wand ($16) and one game of play ($16) with a caveat that she had to share some with her sister if she ended up being interested in it (I made it sound more fun than “sharing” by telling her they were a team of two and her big sister was her assistant who she had to train). She ended up being a fabulous sharer and her sister got into it almost as much as she did!
We played quite a bit and she still is less than halfway done with the entire game. If you bring the wand back to the resort, they can reactivate it and you can pick up where you left off, which will be great. The game can cost as much as $58 (per kid) for the fancy wand with special topper and cost of the game itself, but we got out of there for $33. Our trick was to get the basic wand, skip the topper (they don’t advertise this, but they actually give you a more simple -- but still cool -- topper for free if you skip a fancy one), and had both girls share the experience rather than just both of them running up to a station and doing the exact same thing as each other anyway. This made them feel more like a team, and my older daughter, who gets a little scared at intense scenes, could opt out of the big duels with dragons and trolls. Verdict: Do it!
Howler’s Peak Ropes Course - Ok, an animated dragon might have scared my older daughter, but she doesn’t shy away from heights! She didn’t waste a single minute getting strapped into her safety harness at this ropes course and started right up the stairs before I had even finished paying! This ropes course is great for older kids and adults alike. My husband wanted to try it but he forgot his closed toe and heel shoes, so it will have to wait until next time for him. This course has multiple levels, several options of ways to get from one platform to another, and even a zip line! My 8 year old was more nervous once she actually got up there, but with a little coaching from below, she did the bottom level of the course unassisted (she did skip the zip line though). There was a staffer near her the whole time in case she needed help, yet far enough away that kids feel like they are independent. This course is great for building confidence and practicing problem solving skills. It costs $13 but it was worth it, even for those who stay on the first level, which is still pretty high. Verdict: Do it!
Northern Lights Arcade - both my kids wanted to check this out. It is your typical arcade - bright, noisy and full of junk you would never buy with actual dollars but somehow it is ok if you pay with tickets. As with most arcades, the best game is air hockey, and this table was grade A! We all played that. The kids tried skee-ball and some other video games. My 8 year old, Josie, played a fishing game and captured some treasure bearing lobster or something and she won over 1000 tickets. Add that to the thousand they had been given by the staff when a game glitched and spit out an endless stream of tickets (my kids reported it to the staff), and they had enough to buy a couple of good-sized stuffed animals, a souvenir or two and some candy. My head was beginning to pound by the end and my husband had long finished his beer before the kids were ready to leave (many parents were coping by drinking enjoying a cocktail in the arcade), but it was a pretty good way to spend a couple after dinner hours. Verdict: Do it, but keep prize expectations low and bring aspirin.
The Great Clock Tower Show - this is a little song and story put on by the animatronic creatures in the Grand Lobby a few times a day. I cannot tell you what the story is about because it was so mind-numbing that I tuned out approximately 90 seconds in. The girls watched the show while Mom and Dad sat on the oversized hearth in front of the fireplace and planned our next move. After the show was over (it only lasts like 8 minutes), the girls came over and expressed how that was basically 8 minutes of their life they would never get back. Definitely designed for very little kids. Verdict: Skip it, unless you have toddlers or have a love for self-torture.
The Loose Moose Bar & Grill - full disclosure: We did not eat here, but I am including it because I am giving you some advice. This in-resort restaurant is $21.00 for ages 12+ and $9.00 for kids 4-11. It is all buffet style. They do have a full bar, which is cool, but unless that buffet is stocked with all sushi, lobster, filet mignon, caviar and champagne, I can’t see paying $21.00 for any buffet. Verdict: Skip it, and head out into Williamsburg for a more sensible choice.
Hungry as a Wolf - this loosely Italian, counter service restaurant was a good choice for our one meal in the resort. The last night, my husband was beat and suggested we stay in rather than leave the resort (that water park will do that to ya), so we opted for this easygoing spot. He and I shared a pizza (with some left over) and my girls shared a half-size fettuccine alfredo -- the half size was very large! We grabbed drinks from our room and ate at the little bistro tables outside the restaurant. The prices were reasonable seeing as the portions were large (our bill was $30) and everything could be shared. And it tasted pretty good! Verdict: Do it if you would like to try a restaurant in the resort.
Bear Paw Sweets & Eats - this is the dessert spot in Great Wolf Lodge. They offered all kinds of fudge, ice cream, Dippin’ Dots, and bakery treats. We stopped in here and each of the girls grabbed a treat to bring back up to the room. It was a great way to end the day, and the bill here was reasonable - I think it was $8 and change. Verdict: Do it!
Dunkin’ Donuts - I felt like I was saved when I saw a Dunkin’s in the lodge, and after braving the waterpark for two whole hours, I needed an immediate iced coffee. I was disappointed to find out that an iced coffee would take 10 minutes to make since an employee said “someone” forgot to make the iced coffee. Really? I got a hot coffee the next morning but thought it was not as good as regular Dunkin’s coffees (to be fair, my husband said his was fine). My girls liked their donuts but I am pretty sure they would eat one off the ground, so there’s that. Verdict: If you are desperate for coffee, sure, go for it.
Buckhorn Exchange Gift Shop - Moms, this one’s for you! This gift shop had all the usual suspects you’d find at a boardwalk shop at the beach: t-shirts, keychains, hemp bracelets with shells braided into them, etc. But they also had some very good quality clothing, bags and gifts. I am not much of a shopper, but I wanted a couple t-shirts for the girls, and they had a few to choose from, all pretty cute... but at $21.95 each, they were too rich for my blood. So I grabbed a couple color changing cups with the Great Wolf logo and a couple keychains for the kids and called it a day, but I could see dropping some cash in there if you are into that sort of thing. Verdict: Do it!
The Great Wolf Kids’ Store - this spot had stuffed animals, t-shirts and pajamas, color-your-own shirts, bags and pillowcases (adorned with the GWL characters), toys, and more... mostly junky stuff. My kids browsed around but weren’t into any of it really... until they saw the Jelly Belly fill-a-cup machine. At $11.99 for about a 9 or 10-oz. Cup, I told them no, but then surprised them with a cup to share on our way out. It thrilled the girls and even my hubby was happy about it. Who can resist Jelly Bellies? Verdict: Hit up the shop for the novelty of the candy cup, save your money on the junky stuff.
There are lots of other attractions, shops and activities to see and do at Great Wolf Lodge, but the ones I mentioned were all we had time for. The prices range from pretty affordable to really high, so go through the website and choose which ones are in your budget and which ones really spark your kids’ interests. You can use the resort on your check in day, even if your room is not ready, and you can also use it on the day you check out until I think 4 pm. The rooms are big and comfortable, and the staff is all very friendly. It is not a quiet resort, I will tell you that. There are kids running everywhere, and the water park is intense. But if you want an easy getaway with built in stuff for the kids, I would definitely recommend it. My daughter actually won another 2-night stay through our REACH homeschool group, so we will be going back soon... but I think we would be doing that anyway! It’s a great spot for kids, and they really try to accommodate the adults (i.e. booze) as much as possible. Ok, not just booze, but hey, it helps! Check it out!