Great Wolf Lodge in the Wisconsin Dells

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A Review in Prose

There are few family vacations that will enthrall both parents and children. For folks who grew up in the southern US there has always been the summer thrill of the waterpark: burning in the too hot sun waiting in line for the brief refreshment of pretending to be a luge racer on a partially deflated tube. I’m aware that there are also waterparks in the northern US; this isn’t the innovation I want to highlight today. In the north there are indoor waterparks: air-conditioned, no sunburn required, drinks-served waterparks. 

For those of us with younger children I cannot recommend the Great Wolf Lodge franchise enough. I’ve been to three of them now; they each have slightly different configurations of amusements, but I’ve generally had the same positive experience at each of them. 

They each have a hotel-like structure attached to the waterpark with a literal log cabin facade on the interior of the rooms. The nicer rooms are labeled as suites with superlatives such as ‘royal’ or ‘majestic’ so your kids will intuitively understand you’ve already paid too much to be here. We opted for the loft space in our most recent trip. With its tall, angled roof line it was quite easy to determine if the kids had drifted off to sleep. I whispered to my wife as we lay down ourselves ‘do you think they’re asleep yet?’ to which I received the all too common refrain ‘No, daddy, I’m not even tired!’ There are also suites with separate master bedrooms with a door, a lock, and walls.

One of the best features of Great Wolf Lodge is their wristband system for gaining entry to your suite. It is also how one pays for everything. Each transaction can be scanned on an adult badge allowing for the purchase of park necessities such as wolf branded pizza, chicken strips, frozen tiki drinks, and ice cold beer. Most importantly the children have wristbands as well, but are barred from buying mixed drinks or scanning entry into the rooms. 

Brilliantly the waterpark does not typically open until 10 AM; however, other amenities such as the toy store or Magiquest are open at this time. Luckily my children have had a lifetime of training to sleep at least until 8 AM unless they absolutely must awaken earlier. You can eat breakfast in the room, get everyone dressed, and walk straight to the waterpark. Like any good theme park there are height restrictions: a four foot tall child can do everything at the park by themselves. A three and one half foot child can do everything with a parent accompanying. If your child is measured in meters I am uncertain of the implications; however, I’m sure there is some accommodation that can be made. 

There are, throughout the waiting areas hosting the lines to rides, signs that restrict those queued to standing at least six feet apart. These signs are often difficult to see through the thick crowds of queuers until you are right upon them. My observation is that there tends to be, at any given time, a “hot ride.” If you see a line that seems abnormally long that is an indicator that the tide has turned; another ride has no line and can be ridden repeatedly. You can typically get three to four rides in a row with no line passing the same sad faces on the opposing stairs before folks wise up and transition to your current ride thus freeing up line in the original long running line. 

It was in one such line that I overheard a brief conversation that occupied my mind throughout the remainder of the trip. An adult couple entered the queue directly ahead of me, and now stood in front of me, each holding their single-rider ride riding apparatus. The woman gestured towards the end of the ride with a bit of surprise in her voice. ‘Oh, there is mine.’ 

‘Oh, that’s your daughter?’ the man exclaimed with a bit of surprise of his own. I’m now intrigued. By their body language and proximity I had assumed this man should not be surprised by the existence of a daughter in his current relationship. I had misjudged. He tilted his head back a bit afraid of his next question. ‘Are you here with someone?’ She sheepishly nodded yes. He nodded affirmation of his understanding and a few moments later pivoted his body away to appear less familiar with her. Apparently, he had also misjudged. 

At first this seemed absurd. This man, on New Year’s Eve, was attempting a ‘pick-up’ at a children’s theme park. But the more I think on the topic I’ve become convinced that this man has shown me some wisdom that I can now share with you. The reality is that most men and women at such an event will be coupled with someone at the park. Most folks with a partner will either be with their partner or with their young children at the park. Single mothers and fathers with younger children will likely be watching over their children as well. Single parents to older children would be having a drink or taking in the activities solo. Likely, single adults at a children’s theme park at the very least don’t hate children. Having a child of your own is likely not a deal breaker. Obviously the single individuals here will share common interests beyond children such as swimming, the luge, and log cabin facades. It can be as simple as waiting in line with single adults and striking up a conversation to make friends. If someone seems uncomfortable talking to you in line, of course, you should go back to being complete strangers.  If, after a ride, they encourage you to tag along to the next activity you have, at the least, made a new friend for the trip. I later saw the man in line behind me with a group of children without the woman he was accompanying previously. One of the children addressed him as ‘uncle’. I hope he found his special friend for the trip.

When you are done with the waterpark at Great Wolf Lodge there is also Magiquest. Imagine a set of scavenger hunts where completing one scavenger hunt allows you to unlock another scavenger hunt. You are handed a bar code scanner shaped like a magic wand and a book of clues as to where each item is located. Each item to be scanned needs a grocer’s grace to scan with just the right angle and vigor. Each item for each quest is hidden on a different floor leading to the kids and any accompanying adults needing to traverse countless sets of stairs to complete the quests. By observation, many adult’s bodies break before their children’s spirit of adventure. The evidence of this: children leaving their parents where they drop, propped up in corners until they return needing help to read a word or two from the book. 

At this particular Great Wolf Lodge, the Magiquest center had a slide that kids could take as a shortcut from the fourth floor to the bottom floor. I could not find any indicator of the load bearing capacity of the slides, and am a bit of a coward when it comes to confined, dark spaces. I did enter the slide with the intent to go down, but was unable to gain momentum forward as I inched inwards. Ultimately, I crawled back out to the amazed faces of the children waiting in line and descended the four flights of stairs instead. At the bottom of the slides I found my six year old son discussing something deeply with a group of three older boys. My initial impression was that I was about five years too early to find these kids vaping behind the highschool discussing their orange dreamsicle cloud as “the good stuff.” As I call out to my son one of the boys gestures towards him. “He was being bad,” one of the boys said to me. Having lived with my son his whole life the veracity of this statement would not have surprised me.

“What did he do?’” I asked.  I could see the mouse turn the wheel in this child’s skull. 

“He said a bad word,” the same child exclaimed.

“Well, what did he say?” I only ask this to gauge how likely his accusation is to being true. For all my son’s vices, cursing at strangers is not one of them. I quickly realize that I have actually trapped this child in a Hatfield and McCoy feud situation where if he were to repeat a word to me I would be in a position of needing to find the child’s parents to tell them the word that he said, leading to again a repetition of the word, until eventually no one may remember who spoke the unfortunate utterance that has led to so much pain and anguish. To relieve him of the pressure building inside his brain I simply called my son away.  My wife often tells me I am too gruff. Quickly, the other children jumped in to say that the original accuser was just joking, my own son hadn’t done anything wrong. I thanked them and we were on our way. I do believe there was kindness in these other children not wanting my own son, a stranger to them, to face any punishment because of their own oaf of a brother or cousin. Once we had walked away my little son looked up to me and said that the original boy was his friend. I am still not sure the right way to handle this; I tend to think like molasses in these situations where a response in the moment may be the most effective. I chose honesty when saying nothing may have been just as wise. I bent to one knee to look my son in the eye and told him. ‘You know, that boy was trying to get you in trouble with me.’ I watched as my son replayed the event that had just happened. Later in the trip my oldest son recounted a story of his own. ‘This kid pointed at James and said that he was his best friend. James dragged me away and told me that the kid wasn’t his friend. It was really weird. I just thought you should know.’ 

I truly enjoyed my recent family adventure to Great Wolf Lodge, and I recommend you plan your next family vacation at one of their many locations near you.