Baby, It's Warm Inside
At Williamsburg's Great Wolf Lodge, Every Day Is a Pool Day

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Clark Woods and Tashaunea Riley are confident that his 8-year-old and her daughter of the same age are having a good time at Great Wolf Lodge. They're not so sure about Riley's 11-year-old, Kristin.

She likes big thrill rides. The grown-ups are worried that a new indoor water park in Williamsburg might be a little tame for her.

But here's Kristin herself, dripping her way to the lounge chairs for a little break.

"It's so fun! Better than an amusement park and it stays open real late," she starts saying. The words tumble out.

"It has more games in the arcade, and the water slides are bigger and faster, and we get our own house in our room. It's called a kids cabin and it's, like, right next to the main room and it has bunk beds and the room has a flat-screen TV and a GameCube and a fireplace and of course the kids' cabin which is like a log cabin but with no doors or windows but we made doors and windows. We put a sheet over the door and put pillows in the windows. And there's an 8,000-gallon bucket that tips water and there's a buzzer so you can get ready and stand under it and you can get a lot of people on a raft for one of the slides and you don't have to wait long in line and there's a wave pool and it's like you're at the beach and it's so much fun you're never bored. Plus breakfast is really good."

Take a breath, Kristin.

Apparently the newest major attraction in Williamsburg has won fans in more than one age bracket since opening at the end of March. The 301 suites in the lodge were filled soon after, and the summer proved a busy one for the Wisconsin company's first opening outside the Midwest.

"We didn't know how quickly the East Coast would respond," chief executive John Emery said in a phone interview. But almost immediately after opening, the company began planning an expansion -- 100 more suites and a $5 million addition to the water park.

Only resort guests can use the water park, and admission is included in the price of a room. The target group: families with children up to age 14.

And by the way, don't worry about your kids being flattened by 8,000 gallons of water tipping from a bucket on top of a 48-foot-high fort. Kristin's report on bucket capacity somehow got exaggerated by a factor of eight.

Still, there's plenty of water -- more than a million gallons is recirculated every hour. There are six swimming pools and two whirlpools -- one for families and one for adults -- and a lazy river. All but one of the pools is indoors, so Great Wolf is just now flexing the expertise it has learned during many Midwestern winters: providing big-scale water fun in the cold months. In fact, when it's freezing outside, you can best appreciate an indoor space kept at a comfy 86 degrees -- 84 in the water.

During a weekend visit, my 12-year-old and her 13-year-old friend Becky were immediately impressed with the lodge itself, with its soaring lobby ceilings and glass elevator. Ironically, the owners had to cut down a small forest to make room on the 83.3-acre property for a Northwest wilderness-style lodge -- but not one built of timber. The lodge's exterior is made of what look like huge logs but in fact are a kind of plastic foam covered with laminated wood. While some forest remains at the back of the property, the front of the lodge overlooks a highway and is just minutes from a Wal-Mart.

The wilderness motif is ubiquitous inside: Lifelike wolves stand howling atop a two-story fireplace in the lobby. Hallway carpets are patterned with renderings of wolves, bears and moose, as is the wallpaper in the bathrooms.

The two girls took one look at the indoor water park and concluded it was smaller than they expected. Who knew that 55,000 square feet of water cascading around a room the size of a football field could look smaller than expected?

But that turned out to be just the faux sophistication of junior high students who, when they realize no one is watching, can afford to reveal their playful sides.

They spent nearly an hour in the 111,000-gallon indoor wave pool. They also lined up repeatedly for a turn at trying to keep their balance walking across floating faux logs at another pool.

Three of eight water slides are designed for small children. Another two body slides are three stories tall, but still too tame for the sophisticated grown-up set. Maddie and Becky each found her inner child on two other big slides: a 461-foot contraption negotiated in a four-person raft, and Alberta Falls, which twists around the building, goes outside and comes back in before throwing passengers, after a 687-foot ride, into a deep pool.

Smaller children amuse themselves on a four-story fort with suspension bridges, cargo nets and spraying machines. After climbing the steps to Alberta Falls a couple of times, I let the girls go off on their own as I lay back in an inner tube and rode the lazy river that meanders around the indoor complex.

Parents with younger children told me their kids begged to stay in the water park from the 8:30 opening until the 10 p.m. close. The place entertained Becky and Maddie for about four hours. That, of course, is one of the great ironies of being a parent: Just when your kids are old enough to do something on their own, they start to outgrow it.

I accepted, of course, that they are too old for story hour. But the small kids in the lobby seemed mesmerized by talking trees and life-size animated characters singing about the wonders of nature and how kids shouldn't be afraid of thunderstorms.

After a quick change of clothes, we headed to the video arcade, which is open until 11 p.m. Becky quickly hit a jackpot by flipping tokens into a cup, winning 500 tickets -- enough to get an actual cup at the ticket redemption counter. I spent $8 worth of tokens shooting baskets, winning enough tickets for a whoopee cushion.

We settled into our suite with two queen beds and a pullout coach in a small side room separated from the beds by a partial wall. It's the cheapest accommodations in the place, and even with a $50-off coupon, cost $249 a night. Then again, every one-night stay entitled us to spend two days at the water park.

And gave me access to the decidedly grown-up pleasures of the lodge's Aveda Concept Spa, which is where I headed after turning the kids over to my husband for a few hours. A pleasant aroma of scented candles pervaded the hushed rooms just a few feet from the doors to the water park. I was given a thick terry cloth robe and sat in a serene "quiet" room awaiting a Swedish massage. For half an hour, the masseur kneaded and rubbed and did some brisk tapping.

Of course I came to Great Wolf Lodge for the sake of the children. But really, from my prone position on the massage table it occurred to me: Parenting rarely gets better than this.

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