We spent last weekend at Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls with our friends the Scanlons and the Wadsworths. It’s only been open a year or two, and none of us had ever been there before, so we weren’t completely sure what to expect. Bottom line: it’s not the cheapest place around, but we had a lot of fun. It’s expensive for a reason though — there’s a ton to do, and they’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the convenience of their guests, which it seems not a lot of places have done. I don’t think there was a single time over the weekend when I wondered “why did they do it this way?” Of course, part of that is the fact that it’s brand new — they haven’t had “backwards compatibility” issues yet. By this I mean that they haven’t yet had to upgrade things or add new things overtop of existing things. I’m sure the people at Canada’s Wonderland or other parks would love to rearrange ride locations and stuff, but you can’t shut down four or five rides for several months to move them around just to make things more convenient.
OK, there’s one thing I did wonder about — the Lodge is built in a fairly run-down area of Niagara Falls. To get there, you take the 420 from the QEW but instead of turning right to go towards the falls and the touristy section of town, you turn left and drive for a few kilometers. A minute or two after you think “this can’t be right, I must have missed it”, there it is. Literally across the street from the lodge, there are some pretty old beat-up houses. I remember thinking that some of the people who got the expensive rooms with balconies paid upwards of $400 a night, and their view from the balcony includes houses that cost less than that per month in rent. However, given the size of the lodge and the amount of land they needed to build it, it makes sense. The cost of that much land closer to the middle of town would be unreal, so it was probably much cheaper to build out where they did. It’s only about a ten minute drive to Clifton Hill anyway, so it’s not like you’re all that far away, really.
Great Wolf Lodge, in case you’ve never heard of it, is an indoor waterpark and hotel. It does look inside and out like a lodge rather than a standard hotel, as if it were entirely made of logs. The rooms were pretty nice — we had the “Kid Cabin” style of room, which was basically a suite. The kids had their own little room with single bunk beds and a third single bed, a TV, and a wall mural covering the entire room that made it look like a little log cabin, complete with windows and friendly-looking animals peeking in. The rest of the room was a fairly standard hotel room with a fridge, microwave, coffee maker, fireplace, hair dryer, and safe. The waterpark area is huge, with a number of water slides (some using inner tubes, some not), a family slide (where up to four people could fit into one raft), a “roller coaster slide”, the “vortex” (which is like a water slide into a big toilet bowl), wave pool, hot tubs, and a big play structure with lots of water-spraying devices. The “roller coaster slide” was cool — three people sit one behind the other in a raft, and after each drop there is a conveyer belt that brings you back up again (fast!) to drop again. I only rode that one twice because (a) there was always a long line-up for it, and (b) Nicky was too small to go on it, so I had to find someone to look after him while Ryan and I went on it. This was because Gail was away for almost all of Saturday, but more on that later.
The thing that impressed me the most were the wristbands. Maybe they have these at other hotels or parks or whatever, but I’ve never seen them, and I thought they were the coolest thing ever. Each guest gets a wristband which you wear from the moment you check in. The wristband contains a little RFID (I’m guessing) tag that acts as a room key (hold your wrist up to the lock and it opens), locker key, and even credit card — you can use it at the snack bar or restaurants to charge stuff to your room (though you still have to give your name and sign a receipt). You can also get tokens at the arcade with your wristband, and if you forget which locker you locked, you can scan it at a little booth and it will tell you. We could also set up the kids’ wristbands so that they could unlock the doors and be used with lockers but they couldn’t be used to charge stuff to the room (I’m sure they call this feature “teenager protection”). The wristbands are (obviously) waterproof, so when you go to the waterpark area, you don’t need to bring anything. You automatically have your room key with you, and if you want lunch or snacks or drinks or anything, you don’t need to run back to the room to get cash, or worry about hiding your wallet under your towels while you swim. If they could only build a 10 MP digital camera in the wristband, we’d be all set.
The rest of the weekend in a nutshell:
- “Cub Club” was a club for kids where they could make crafts, play, and watch TV, and they also had “story time” every evening, where a story teller came out and read a couple of books (the night we went, it was “Green Eggs and Ham” and Robert Munsch’s “Mortimer”). The kids really enjoyed that.
- The food was good and not overpriced for the most part. The food at the snack bar was pretty good, and the dinner buffet was excellent. The breakfast buffet was also very good but expensive, so I wouldn’t do that again, especially considering that there were more reasonably priced alternatives. There were a couple of little cafés in the hotel that had muffins and doughnuts and even bowls of cereal.
- There was an arcade as well, with both standard video games as well as games where you win tickets which can be cashed in for prizes. The tokens were not as expensive as at other arcades I’ve been to. Of course, we paid $60 in tokens all told, and ended up with maybe $15 worth of prizes, but that’s to be expected.
- One night, Ryan wandered into the arcade accidentally (we asked him to go find one of our friends in front of the arcade, but he misunderstood). He saw a light flashing on a game, hit a button, and won 150 tickets. Another time, he put a token in a “Wheel of Fortune” type game, hit the button at exactly the right time, and won 250 tickets. Those two wins constituted about one third of the whole family’s total winnings all weekend.
- We had dinner at the Rainforest Cafe right at the base of Clifton Hill on Saturday night. Afterwards, we went for a ride on the Niagara Skywheel further up the hill, where we had a great view of the falls and the rest of the city, though I spent half the time fumbling with the new camera, trying to take a picture that actually looked good. Because it was at night, the camera wanted to use the flash and it ended up bouncing off the glass. Turning the flash off didn’t help either, because it then kept the shutter open longer, and so everything was blurry. I’m quite sure the real problem was user error, but I’ll figure it out, eventually.
- After the giant wheel, we drove out to see the Winter Festival of Lights, which was very cool, as always. We try to get out there every year.
- In the waterpark, chlorine smell was surprisingly minimal, considering the amount of water and the fact that it was indoors. By Sunday afternoon, however, it was starting to get to me. By the time we left, I was coughing almost uncontrollably, but the coughing stopped minutes after we left the water park area.
Gail had to miss Saturday entirely because of a funeral. Her great uncle James passed away on New Years Day, and the funeral was on Saturday in Ingersoll, so she had to drive two hours each way. This was the second vacation in the last year that was interrupted by a death in the family — our trip north last July was cut short after Gail’s aunt passed away unexpectedly. You hate to say this about any death, but Uncle James’s passing wasn’t quite as tragic as Aunt Barbie’s — she was only 57 and her death was unexpected, while Uncle James was 85 and hadn’t been in great health for a while. Over Christmas, we had discussed the idea of having a little “reunion” some time soon, as James and his sister Helen (Gail’s grandfather’s brother and sister) and their spouses (Gail’s dad jokingly refers to the four of them as the Matthews “elders”) were getting up there in age. Unfortunately the idea came too late.
I’ve put some pictures from the weekend up at my family web site.