How to Get the Most from a Great Wolf Lodge Vacation
If you’ve never heard of Great Wolf Lodge, you probably don’t know many 9-year-olds. This pack of wilderness-themed water-park resorts has been steadily expanding since the 1997 opening of the company’s first property in the Wisconsin Dells, which is to indoor water parks what Holland is to tulips. There are now more than a dozen Great Wolf Lodges across the country—in northern Ohio, Southern California, the Dallas suburbs, the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, and lots of other places—with more on the way.
Though there are small variations across properties, each site features a hotel with family suites and kid-friendly amenities (interactive games, a junior spa), all attached to a covered aquatic playground roughly the size of an airplane hangar and stuffed to the rafters with water slides, tipping buckets, swimming pools, and other chlorinated delights. When invited to check out the Poconos resort for a media weekend, I invited along my amphibious niece and nephew, 10-year-old Sage and 9-year-old AJ (for their privacy, those are pseudonyms of their own choosing). None of us had been to a Great Wolf Lodge before, but when the kids talked about it ahead of our visit, they made the place sound like a semi-mythical paradise on the order of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu—but with inner tubes. Here’s what we learned.
The most popular length of stay, according to Great Wolf Lodge company representatives (or “pack members”), is one day and two nights. That seems the wisest choice for avoiding sensory and budgetary overload as well. The water park is for resort guests only, and—important note—admission is included in your room rate. You can show up as early as 1pm on the day of your reservation to commence splishing and splashing (there are lockers to store your stuff before your room is ready). Show up in the afternoon, tackle the water park, and have dinner on site on your first night. The next morning, return to the water park until lunch, hit the ropes course or other nearby attractions in the afternoon, and head back inside for dinner, games and activities, or one last wistful tour of the water slides. Then pack up and leave the next morning.
- Timing is everything: The indoor water park stays open daily from 9am to 9pm. The shortest lines can be found in the two hours after opening and before closing. Busiest times are Sundays, when there are typically more incoming and outgoing guests than on any other day.
Muggy, echoey, and emanating a chlorine scent that seems powerful enough to disinfect the tristate area, each of the huge indoor water parks at Great Wolf Lodge properties (the one in the Poconos is 79,000 square feet) has three basic types of aquatic features.
- Pools: These include a wave pool; an activity pool with basketball hoops and a hop-from-one-lily-pad-to-the-next course; a wading pool with slides for very young kids; a lazy river; and two hot tubs—one for families, one for adults only.
- Pours: That's my term for the areas where you get water dumped on you. The biggie in this category is Fort Mackenzie, a four-story climbable structure equipped with interactive spray cannons and tipping buckets. The centerpiece is a 1,000-gallon bucket that douses those under it every 5 minutes.
- Plunges: Those are the slides. There are 14 of them—I’ll describe the most noteworthy ones in more detail next.
Note that admission to the water park is entirely free for resort guests. You don't have to pay extra for any of the above attractions, either.
My niece and nephew spent about 90% of their time on the slides (or in line for them). They had little use for the tipping buckets, though they crossed the lily-pad thing several times; it reminded them of a challenge on the American Ninja Warrior game show. The three of us bobbed for a while in the wave pool, too. In a contest to see who could stay underwater the longest, my nephew was declared the winner, until a cheating scandal marred the victory.
Slide-wise, the principal claim to fame of the Poconos property is the Double Barrel Drop, which features back-to-back funnel-like descents in darkness punctuated by flashing lights. That ride supplies disorienting thrills, but I preferred the Hydro Plunge, a kind of roller coaster that uses a mechanized conveyor belt to carry rafts from one drop to the next. The experience lasts much longer than on the typical water slide, and because of the conveyor belt, you go up as well as down.
Sage and AJ had trouble choosing a favorite ride, but they went down Coyote Canyon the most. On that one, a 40-foot drop leads to a bowl with a drain at the bottom, so before you come out the other end, you spend a few seconds spinning around the bowl like a hairball in a sink. You can go down certain slides while sitting on a specially outfitted board with laser shooters you’re supposed to aim at colored lights along the way. But I couldn’t get the shooters to work and the board was too heavy for AJ to carry up the steps.
Photo: my niece and nephew getting spit out of Coyote Canyon
My sister, who was with us too, kept calling the place a “water-infused Chuck E. Cheese's.” As at that rodent-themed kids’ entertainment emporium, Great Wolf Lodge has a roving cast of costumed critters, brief shows, and games galore. In the arcade, you can play skee-ball and such for tickets that can be redeemed for candy and novelties. AJ acquired a sign reading “Caution: Fart Zone.” His mother was thrilled.
There’s also mini bowling (pictured above), mini golf, an outdoor ropes course with zip lines, a pink-saturated kids’ spa, and an interactive wizardy scavenger hunt called MagiQuest. To play, you have to buy a wand that can unlock badges, light up crystals, and open treasure chests in the halls of the hotel.
- Watch your budget: While admission is free at the indoor water park for resort guests, much of the fun on dry land will cost you. To save some money, buy a bundle of the above activities via a Pup, Paw, or Wolf Pass when you book your stay, rather than going a la carte after you arrive. There are also several free events held daily, including family yoga, dance parties, and an evening story time.
There are 12 different types of suites, with varying configurations to accommodate from 4 to 8 people; some units have fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. By far the most coveted options are themed suites with separate, enclosed areas—a log cabin (pictured above), a tent, a cave—for kids. Some of these hideaways have bunk beds and their own TVs. And to think, when I was a kid all I had to hole away in on trips was the occasional poorly constructed pillow fort.
During this particular stay, my family was very disappointed in my inability to secure one of the cabin suites. Instead, we stayed in a large room with two queen beds and a foldout sofa, which Sage said was about as comfortable as “sleeping on plates.”
Your onsite dining options are a pizza place, a snack stand at the water park (during the summer, there’s another stand by the outside pool), and a buffet restaurant. These casual eateries get the job done without being especially memorable, though the baked goods, fudge, and ice cream at Bear Paw Sweets & Eats are above average. According to my sister, many parents no longer enforce the age-old law of requiring a half hour between eating and swimming, having dismissed as a myth the threat of a dangerous digestive cramp mid-doggie paddle. Our own mother would be scandalized to see a kid fill up on fudge shortly before cannonballing into the pool, but I guess times change.
Though the lodge’s focus remains squarely on the grade school set, there are several parental consolations. These include bars serving wine, beer, and fruity cocktails, as well as an adults-only hot tub (some Great Wolf properties have a grotto pool set aside for grownups, too, but the one in the Poconos doesn’t), a very busy Starbucks, and a spa that I didn’t see a soul enter except during my official tour of the resort. Additionally, a company representative says the lodge is looking into adding a drop-off program for kids so that parents can grab a little alone time.
If your party grows overstimulated and you sense a meltdown coming on, consider slipping away for a few hours to take in other more low-key attractions nearby. Traipsing through a little nature—such as at Big Pocono State Park, a short drive from the Pennsylvania Great Wolf Lodge—might help ease the feeling that you’ve spent too much time inhaling chlorine indoors. (Of course, outside options will be more limited in the winter.) If you want the opposite of a low-key alternative, some Great Wolf Lodge outposts are situated in tourism hotspots; one of the company's biggest properties is just down the road from Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
On our second night in the Poconos, we drove into the charming town of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, where Main Street is lined with 19th-century buildings occupied by restaurants, pubs, wine bars, and antique shops. The visit did wonders for restoring our equilibrium.
Photo: Lake Naomi in the Pocono Mountains, about a 20-minute drive west of Great Wolf Lodge
Me: So what’s your final verdict on Great Wolf Lodge?
Sage: Thumbs up.
AJ: Double thumbs up!
Me: What was your favorite part?
AJ: The rope course and water slides. I liked the yellow and bluish one and the roller coaster and the Double Barrel Drop.
Sage: I liked the Hydro Plunge.
Me: I thought y'all liked Coyote Canyon. You rode it 10,000 times.
AJ: Okay, that one.
Me: Was there anything that disappointed you?
AJ: That we didn’t get to stay longer.
Me: How long would you have liked to stay?
Sage: A week. Or like 4 or 5 days.
AJ: Ten months.
Me: What should visitors know before they go?
AJ: Bring a hundred swimsuits.
Sage: There’s not many restaurants, so eat pizza the whole time.
Me: AJ, what are you going to do with the Fart Zone sign you won?
AJ: Tape it to someone’s back.
Photo: your travel correspondents in front of the fireplace at Great Wolf Lodge Pocono Mountains