For a quick summer vacation this year, we decided to take a road trip down to Colorado Springs, Colorado to visit the Great Wolf Lodge resort that opened there in 2016. For those who aren’t familiar with Great Wolf Lodge, these are resorts throughout the United States that offer an all-in-one experience centering around a “lodge-style” resort and water park. Think of it as you would going on a child-friendly cruise ship, but without the boat.
To illustrate how immersive and full of activities and fun the Great Wolf Lodge experience can be: our family arrived and, upon our packing up to leave two days later, we realized we hadn’t gone outside of the resort in almost three full days. And it felt like it had flown by. That’s how amazing it can be.
The down side? It’s not cheap. Great Wolf Lodge is cheaper than most Disney-branded vacations and definitely lower cost than a full cruise ship experience, but it’s not as inexpensive as would be a national park or less immersive theme park visit. Most of those lower-cost items, while fun, aren’t as all-inclusive as is Great Wolf Lodge. Nor are those other lower-cost options as immersive.
Most Great Wolf Lodge resorts are basically the same with only layout or size differences between them. They all offer an indoor water park and adventure park experience along with a few other commonalities. Restaurants, for example, might change with each region. Those who live in areas like Colorado where very cold winters are the norm can expect to stay entirely indoors during a Great Wolf Lodge stay and be happy about doing so.
Living in Cheyenne, Wyoming, getting to the Great Wolf Lodge in Colorado Springs is about a four hour drive almost directly south. The drive leaves Wyoming for Colorado and proceeds directly through Denver and down to Colorado Springs via Interstate 25. With six of us in the vehicle, we needed something big and comfortable to make the drive better. Fuel efficiency would be a nice bonus too.
Chrysler came through by loaning us a Pacifica Hybrid minivan. This plug-in hybrid van has seating for seven and enough space to pack in a year’s supply of provisions for the long trail ahead. The early pioneers and settlers of the west didn’t have access to a Pacifica and for that we pity them. There would have been a lot less dying of dysentery had the travelers on the Oregon Trail had a Pacifica van.
We drove down through Colorado, around Denver proper on the expressway, and kept going south to Colorado Springs. The kids were happily occupied with the Pacifica’s built-in games, plentiful USB plugs for tablets, and huge windows for highway gazing. I was happy with the comfortable driver’s chair and huge amount of storage and space for all of my “keep me happy on the road” gear.
The road trip convinced my fiance’ that the Chrysler Pacifica is her next vehicle of choice when she purchases something new next year. The four hours passed by quickly and we entered Colorado Springs ready for adventure.
Great Wolf Lodge
Arriving at Great Wolf Lodge, we trolled the parking lot to find a spot. Unbeknownst to us, a convention was being held there that day and the lot was pretty packed. We finally found a space and tucked in before heading into the resort. Our first pro-tip was learned when we realized that the official check-in time is only the point at which your room will be ready. Guests are free to check-in at any time of the day. Once checked in, the full amenities of the Lodge are open to guests, including the water park and adventure areas.
Great Wolf Lodge has an indoor water park, an adventure park with tons of activities, a kid spa, and lots of happenings throughout the day for kids to enjoy. Most of the daily activities are aimed towards children under age 12 and include things like a Forest Friends Show of animated woodland characters, morning kids yoga, and hands-on projects. The day can end with story time and a PJ party too.
For parents, there is shopping, dining, and drinks throughout the Lodge. This includes, at Colorado Springs, a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shop, the Watering Hole bar inside the water park, and the Outpost bar in the Lodge proper. Dining includes a sit-down restaurant, a hamburger-style eatery accessible from inside or outside the water park, a pizza joint, and a buffet-style restaurant.
Everyone will enjoy the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop and the Buckets candy store. We were impressed by how allergy-aware the individual restaurants and eateries were inside Great Wolf Lodge too. For those who are gluten-free, the pizza shop has awesome GF pizzas and the hamburger joint has GF buns. The entire Lodge is peanut-free too.
Also in the Great Wolf Lodge is a decent gym for working out, a huge gift shop with lots of cool stuff inside, and a swim shop where you can get all of the stuff you (inevitably) forgot to bring.
We had picked a standard guest room with accommodations for five of us (three kids, two adults). Grandma, who’d come down with us, went to her brother’s house for the duration of our stay. Rooms range from standard King and Queen suites with space for up to five, a Family Suite with space for six, and themed rooms that sleep anywhere from four to nine guests. The themed rooms are fun, but we’d recommend spending less on room costs and more on fun stuff at the Lodge as the time spent inside guest rooms is minimal given all of the great things there are to do at the park.
During our stay, though, we did learn a few things about timing and getting around the Great Wolf Lodge. These likely apply broadly to all Lodge resorts, but definitely to the Colorado Springs resort in particular.
The first is that choke points happen regularly at Great Wolf. In the morning from about 8 am to 9 am, for example, the water park opens (on most days) and that is also when lines for elevators, the buffet breakfast, and coffee at Dunkin Donuts are the worst. Lunch time has a similar issue at the burger and pizza places. Early evening, just before dinner, seems to be when the arcade and adventure park attractions are busiest and mobs of kids show up whenever there’s a scheduled event in the main rooms. So timing things in order to avoid those bottlenecks is a good idea.
One thing to note about Great Wolf Lodge, though, is that staff is super friendly and restrooms are nearly spotless throughout the resort. That’s crazy given the huge numbers of children in the place. Everything is controlled using waterproof wristbands that every guest wears. These have an embedded RFID that unlocks your room’s door, is used to check out towels in the water park, and allows those authorized to purchase things (charged to the room). Really smart thinking on the Lodge’s part.
When you check into the hotel, you’ll want to consider activity passes for the kids. There are three to choose from at Great Wolf Lodge, each with a differing amount of stuff included. These are basically pre-paid “do stuff” passes that give the kids access to things not included with the room stay. That includes things like the Build-a-Bear-style stuffed animals at the Creation Station and access to the MagiQuest game.
With the passes, the real question becomes how long your stay is going to be. If your stay is short (say overnight, or two days), then the passes can probably be skipped and you’ll be better off paying a la carte. If your stay is longer, then the most expensive Wolf Pass is probably going to fit best. Obviously, families that are likely to spend all of their time in the water park and/or playing MagiQuest can stick with those things and skip the passes as well. MagiQuest is about $15 a day plus the cost of the wand.
Kids aged five and under will probably do well with the Pup Pass (about $50), which includes a lot of good stuff for little ones. Things like the gem mining experience, candy, a few credits to play with in the arcade, and a Creation Station animal are included. It’s a pretty good deal with plenty of stuff for little kids to enjoy. Get the glitter tattoo after you’re done with the water park. It washes off quickly.
The Paw Pass adds a few more attractions for larger kids, access to MagiQuest, etc. for about $80 while the Wolf Pass basically gives access to everything the Great Wolf Lodge has to offer the kids. Get the $100 Wolf Pass if your child is at least 48 inches tall as the added things it gives are meant for kids tall enough to go on them, like the ropes course and rock climbing wall.
The water park inside the Great Wolf Lodge is immense. It’s about the size of a large aircraft hangar and houses a huge wave pool, kid’s pool with toys for the little ones, a huge platform and jungle gym-style setup with a 55-gallon bucket that dumps water all over everything every few minutes, a few small water slides for smaller kids, and several huge water slides. The bigger slides almost all require that riders be at least 48 inches tall, but everything else is accessible by all.
The wave pool was an instant hit with our kids. They spent hours riding the waves and trying to swim against them. The waves start when the wolves howl behind the wave wall. Next to and just above the wave pool is the Watering Hole bar. To the other side of the wave pool is a sort of fenced off area where the kiddie pool and its fun little toys is located.
Between the wave pool and big slides is the play area where some smaller slides, squirting cannons and tubes, small buckets that fill and can be dumped on passersby below, and some fun pools with more toys in them. Atop all of this is a huge bucket, made to look like it’s from a wishing well, that holds 55 gallons of water. Every few minutes, a bell begins to ring and the bucket dumps over and pours water all around this area of the park.
The water slides themselves are a blast, no matter your age. There are two- and four-person slides with double and quad tubes that people ride down. One of these is the big hurricane slide with a large funnel-shaped bowl that the tube enters and swirls around before exiting towards the bottom. Four race slides where riders lie face-first on mats and race down the tubes are a lot of fun for families. A long “dump and drop” slide in which a person gets into a capsule and is literally dropped into a water slide that goes almost straight down is great for those who need a colon cleanse.
In all, the water park is a huge attraction and is the reason why so many people love Great Wolf Lodge. It’s a constant 80-something degrees in the park, so anyone wearing a swimsuit is comfortable all of the time.
It should be noted that for those who are not likely to spend much time in the water, but want to be around their family, there are cabanas for rent that offer secluded seating, televisions, drink deliveries from the bar, and towel concierge. There is also ample beach-style seating throughout the water park’s center portion.
With the Wolf Passes we had for our kids, they had access to everything in Great Wolf Lodge. This included some really fun things like the Creation Station for making a special friend to remember the trip by. Clothes for the little stuffed animals cost more, but are reasonably priced at around $10-$20 per outfit.
Also in the lodge is a fun little mini golf course that the kids enjoyed. The booth for getting clubs and balls is also where the kids got their glitter “tattoos” painted on and their bags of dirt to sift for rocks at the Oliver’s Mining Co sluice.
Above most of that is the elevated ropes course, Howler’s Peak, which requires close-toed shoes. Since we had not been informed of this before arriving, we had to buy water shoes in the swim park’s gift shop so the kids could use the ropes course. The same is true of the rock climbing wall behind the ropes course as well. Now you’ve got the FYI.
The Creation Station right next to the rock climbing wall is fun for the kids as well. They get to “pump” fuzzy filling into their chosen animal (all characters from the Great Wolf Lodge mascot team), name them, and (at extra cost) outfit them as well.
Besides these and other attractions, another big hit at the Great Wolf Lodge was the MagiQuest game, which happens throughout the resort.
MagiQuest is a fairly straightforward game aimed directly at the well-versed video game generation. For nerds like us, it was the greatest thing ever. MagiQuest combines standard game tropes like “talking” to various characters in-game to follow a preset story line while collecting needed items. Where it differs is in execution, which requires a lot of walking to find the locations indicated. A lot of walking. Enough walking that you’ll need a full charge on your Fitbit and some exceedingly comfortable shoes. I personally think that Great Wolf Lodge should issue parents Segway rentals as part of the MagiQuest deal. Or at least a pedicure and pedi-massage afterwards.
Quest locations are found throughout the Lodge and it will take a little time to become familiar with the in-game names for places in the real world. Use the provided maps. Objects and interactions are performed by waving the MagiQuest wand (issued at the start of the game) in front of or around booths. Most of these booths have screens or light up to indicate that the interaction has been completed. Some require battling bad guys by waving the wand and selecting certain items in the player’s arsenal to attack or defend.
The game is cheesy for adults, but somehow still immersive and fun. Our kids loved it. The best part is that the wand works forever, so return trips to any Great Wolf Lodge will mean picking up where your game left off to continue play. Pretty cool. After completing the first level of the game (which all of our kids did in about a day), there is a “Master Magi” induction ceremony wherein the kids who’ve finished the first level all receive certificates and pins to indicate their new status.
The MagiQuest game is fairly involved and requires keeping track of several things at once. Parents of children who are old enough to largely go it on their own can turn them loose to play. Helping will mean a lot of walking and remembering some details in order to find certain things or recreate others. Bring paper and a pen and be prepared to take pictures of the game’s screens in order to remember details like the order items are to be located and where they are.
Packing Back Into the Pacifica
Once our stay was over, we checked out of the Great Wolf Lodge and packed our things into the Chrysler Pacifica minivan. It was then that we realized that we hadn’t been outside of the Lodge building since our check-in arrival two days before. That’s how much fun we had. And it wasn’t over yet.
Checkout time isn’t necessarily time to leave the resort. Checkout day is still a full day and access to everything in the park, for as long as it’s open that day, is still allowed. So after packing up the Pacifica and getting everything cleared at the desk, we continued playing MagiQuest and the kids did one more round of the elevated ropes course. We were in the Lodge for several more hours before actually leaving after checkout.
Loading into the Pacifica, we drove over to our relatives’ house to spend some time with family and to pick up grandma. We then headed back to Wyoming, retracing our wheel marks as the minivan carried us home. The Pacifica Hybrid required only a full charge and most of a tank of fuel to get us from Cheyenne to Colorado Springs and back. Another pretty good deal.
For those planning to make a trip to a Great Wolf Lodge near them, here are some tips and suggestions to help make the vacation go more smoothly and to get the most out of it.
Bring the following for everyone who will be staying at and participating in the Great Wolf Lodge experience:
- Water shoes or flip-flops
- Lotion for after swimming, as the water dries skin.
- Close-toed shoes for the ropes course and rock climbing
- Comfortable shoes for lots of walking while doing MagiQuest
- A pen and notepad for keeping notes during MagiQuest
- Check in as early as possible. Adventures start as soon as you arrive, not when your room is ready. The check-in process (and wait) can be long.
- Only get themed rooms if you’re convinced it’ll be important to your stay. You’ll likely find that your family spends very little time in the room itself and the lower cost rooms are a better option so that more adventure can be had instead.
- In the summer, the balcony rooms can be worth the extra cost and offer a perfect place to dry out swimsuits in between visits to the water park.
- The food package can be a solid deal, so consider getting that.
- Have plans for smaller versus larger kids as many things require a 48-inch flat-foot (no shoes) height to do them.
- The elevators are busy in the morning during the rush to get down to the resort’s attractions and in the evening when those attractions are closing. Use the stairs.
- Lines for food and drink are heaviest during the obvious meal times. Eat early or late to avoid that.
- Seating for eating can be very limited during rush times. Again, avoid them.
- Many of the planned activities and scheduled kids items will be packed with guests. Show up early.
- Food (especially snacks) can be spendy and most rooms have a small fridge. Plan accordingly.
- Plan on a long checkout process/line. Remember that your checkout does not mean leaving. Just that your room is clear. You can stay the rest of that day.