THE VISION THAT MET MY GAZE upon entering the grand lobby of the Great Wolf Lodge was a fleshy woman in a wet swimsuit, dripping lavishly on the carpet. She was barefoot. In one hand she held a half-eaten paper plate of nachos; in the other, a stick. With whole-body gyrations she was thrusting the stick repeatedly in the direction of a stuffed white wolf, as if expecting it to do something. My 10-year-old daughter Samantha and her friend Katie stared, transfixed.
“Mom, it’s a MagiQuest wand!” Sam whispered with excitement. The girls had been hearing about Great Wolf Lodge and its indoor water park and its MagiQuest wands since the resort opened last March, when Grand Mound, Washington, joined Niagara Falls and Wisconsin Dells and nine other locations as a destination for the Great Wolf Resorts chain. In no time, this newest outpost 76 miles south of Seattle (just north of Centralia) became the rage of the Jonas Brothers set, who would return from pilgrimages bearing mythic tales of thrilling dark waterslides and bunk beds shaped like wolf caves and marshmallows dipped in chocolate and sprinkles. And the MagiQuest game, which allowed kids to run unsupervised through hotel halls enchanting inanimate objects into glowing and moving at their command. Said glowing and moving is achieved with a flick of the MagiQuest wand, just $25 at the kiosk. Or, rather, it’s usually achieved, as She of the Dripping Swimsuit was finding out.
“I think she needs help, Mom,” offered Samantha. Yes, she does, I winced. But she wasn’t the only one. As I looked beyond her the lobby opened up into a vast great room, handsomely clad in raw pine like a North Woods lodge, and crawling with people in swimsuits—among them plenty of the beer bellied and pear shaped, parading their pale midwinter excess without an iota of shame. And everywhere, swarms of children. Off they streamed to the left, where a couple of restaurants led down a hall toward conference facilities. Off they streamed to the right, toward the elevators to eight floors of hotel rooms. They covered the staircase, which led to an open mezzanine with the video arcade and the kid spa and the Cub Club and the teenage tech center and the Pizza Hut and the Bear Paw sweet shop. And straight ahead through a vast picture window splashed the happiest children of all, in a water park that sprawled an area the size of several city blocks.
It took our girls about 13 seconds to jump into their swimsuits.
A blast of clammy humidity hit us as we opened the door to the water park. (Summer is a big season for GW, but the moist heat is much better suited to winter.) The place includes its mellow attractions—a shallow toddler play pool, a water basketball zone, an indoor-outdoor hot tub, a lily pad–to–lily pad jump area. These languished in relative obscurity; the plain girls at the barn dance. By contrast, the line for the Howlin’ Tornado tube slide was at 11am already 20 minutes long, its shrieking clients happily shooting into the pool below. The multistory climbing structure, Fort Mackenzie, was in full soggy swing, lousy with demonic children aiming mounted water rifles at dry adults and delighting whenever the enormous water bucket up top unloaded on some hapless kid below.
Sam and Katie headed straight for Slap Tail Pond, an indoor “beach” with a wave machine, which was, at the moment, dormant. Tame enough, I judged, as the girls waded in through the wall-to-wall kids clutching the big inflatable inner tubes Great Wolf provides. Suddenly the wave machine kicked on, and what had been a calm summer day became the tempest from hell, tossing kids around like corks. They bobbed and sputtered, clinging desperately to their floaties, falling off their floaties, getting squished between floaties—and having the time of their lives. Although the whole scene kept calling to mind the North Atlantic after the Titanic went bow-up, Sam and Katie were out of their minds with joy. Slap Tail Pond was the giddiest group near-drowning experience I’d ever witnessed.
For lunch we walked past the poolside snack bar, origin of the nachos, in favor of the more ambitious sit-down Camp Critter Bar and Grille. Though it features a kitchen that will overcook a piece of Kobe beef, then melt American cheese on it, the girls gobbled sweet potato fries and I had a tasty Mexican salad. Dinners and breakfasts are all-you-can-eat affairs in the cafeteria-like Loose Moose Cottage, where kids can chow down on a breakfast of Belgian waffles and corned beef hash and eggs and fruit and sausages and French fries shaped like smiley faces, all of which manages to taste like grease. Just like in a Reno gambling den.
“My God, this is a casino for kids,” my husband marveled, and he was right. Nothing at Great Wolf Lodge happens in fresh air. Money is collected at every turn. (“Airbrushed tattoos $5.99! Color shimmer only $2 more! Paint a ceramic bank $10!”) It’s even on tribal land, owned jointly with the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, so a freewheeling lack of regulation prevails. And there’s alcohol…everywhere.
Huge icy margaritas, 32-ouncers, seem odd in a place where drowning appears persistently imminent, but there they were in the hands of about half the adults on the pool deck. Great Wolf is savvy enough to know that, without booze, everyone over the age of 21 would go irreversibly insane. This became apparent after lunch, when Sam and Katie—at advanced enough ages, mercifully, to manage the game themselves—launched their first MagiQuest mission.
For some parents, no last shred of sanity is so vital that it can’t be sacrificed at the altar of their children’s amusement. For the rest of us, roughly the second afternoon at Great Wolf Lodge brings a nearly frantic desire for some adult pursuit, any adult pursuit. A Luis Buñuel retrospective. A midlife crisis. Hard-core porn. Thankfully, the Great Wolf spa had an opening for something more acceptable, a Caribbean Therapy treatment, which turned out to include the single best massage I have ever had. I’d had a terrific sleep the night before, the kids happily tucked away in their wolf den bunk beds (complete with cable TV)—but the massage restored a calm serenity I hadn’t experienced since I first walked into Great Wolf’s lobby. I decided to cap it off with a dip in the hot tub.
And that’s when I discovered that the lodge does not allow its water park towels to leave the pool deck. And so I found myself standing in the lobby of the Great Wolf Lodge wearing nothing but my swimsuit—a barefoot, dripping-wet poster child for karma, yes, but something else besides. Sometime over the course of the weekend I had become the prototypical Great Wolf parent.
I was not, however, holding a plate of nachos. It was a slice of chocolate-covered cheesecake on a stick.