When the waterparks are closed for the season and winter vacations get too expensive, Toronto families have but one option: Hit the QEW en route to Great Wolf Lodge, which does such a great job of making kids happy, they’ll hardly care that they’re nowhere near Florida.
My son has been howling for two days straight. It’s a tiny, high-pitched howl, as he is barely three-years-old, but Emile believes it to be rather ferocious. So ferocious, in fact, that he repeatedly reassures my wife and I that he is a nice wolf. You’d think this would get tiresome, yet it hasn’t because we are at Great Wolf Lodge and, since we arrived, the boy’s been exuding the purest joy that humans can produce.
It’s a strain of elation exclusive to this pre-school age where kids are old enough to know what they like, but not enough to care what others like. This trip, however, is our first opportunity to witness it within a space built specifically for the purpose of making kids like him happy.
E hit peak happiness during the one-two combo of story time and a kiddie rave, in which a hundred or so small children gathered around a talking tree, talking moose, talking bear, and an adorable staffer who traded jokes and read a Robert Munsch story before the DJ dropped “Party Rock Anthem” and “Gangnam Style,” causing the collected little kids to wild-out on the lobby-slash-dancefloor. It was somewhat more epic than we expected.
Like many parents, we spend our summer days migrating between splash pads, wading pools, and waterparks. Even a trip to the zoo is spent largely at the wild sprinkler exhibit. But, once fall rolls around, you’re basically in dry-dock except for brief, free-swim sessions at your local city-run indoor pool.
Unless, that is, you trek out to Great Wolf Lodge.
The Niagara Falls location is one of nearly a dozen in the lupine-themed resort chain, which essentially mashes up a rustic Chuck E. Cheese with an indoor waterpark and a woodsy hotel. An animatronic oak cracks terrible jokes (“What tree makes the best winter coat? A fir tree!”), forest critters pop out of stumps, carnival-type arcade games spit out tickets for toys, and the whole place is crawling with kids.
Being a parent doesn’t make other kids’ meltdowns any less painful to endure and so, because ours is pretty well-behaved in public, we tend to avoid family restaurants in favour of adult-oriented ones like Fishbar, where E can chow down on smelts while we enjoy happy-hour oysters.
Needless to say, there are no oysters at Great Wolf Lodge, though you can order great big cocktails to make the noise of a bazillion boys and girls more bearable. But there is just something cool about a place that caters exclusively to kids—there’s even a second, lower-down handrail on the stairs, an arts-and-crafts room, en suites that look like wolf dens or log cabins, and staff/guest banter that begins with “Does anyone have a loose tooth?”
There is a spa with masseuses, plus the possibility of offloading your kids at an evening pajama party for $30, but mostly parents are adjuncts here—we exist to pay the bills, put the kids to bed, and make sure they don’t drown. (OK, so it’s not that different from any other day.)
The 100,000-sq. ft. waterpark is the main attraction. Though there’s an outdoor section for summer visitors, it makes most sense to visit Great Wolf Lodge after the weather’s turned, as it’s the indoor area that will wow kids from swim-diaper age onward. There are four slides aimed at little ones—Emile only had the nerve to do two of them, but he really liked those two—and another eight for older ones, though the lineups were insanely long. There’s also a wave pool, deep pool, lazy river, and a massive climbing structure with water spouting from every crook and cranny. The water’s warm, though the air temperature was cold enough that Emile would start shivering pretty bad and have to be brought to the hot tub or toweled off.
But the woodsy indoor areas were what really won him over and, considering his post-Halloween fascination with witches and wizards, if he was older I’m sure he would’ve dug the Harry Potter-esque MagiQuest, which sent bigger kids with magic wands on a high-tech scavenger hunt.
With nightly weekend rates in the $300 range, staying at the Lodge is quite costly (though midweek is considerably cheaper and less crowded). There is, however, a fridge and microwave if you want to avoid the average buffet and bring your own food, or you can order to pizza to your room. Plus, one night’s stay includes two days in the waterpark, so you can still use it the entire day post-check-out.
Once your kids reach a certain age, their happiness takes priority when planning vacations, if you can afford one at all. The nice thing about Great Wolf Lodge is that it’s a quick drive away, but provides as much amusement to your kid as any holiday destination could.
And, as far as it being worthwhile, when we told Emile it was time to leave, he said, quite seriously, “I don’t wanna go home. I wanna stay here. Forever.”
Have you taken your family to Great Wolf Lodge? Share your experience in the comments section below.