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Have Big Fun at Great Wolf Lodge Without Breaking the Bank

If you have friends with kids, you probably have heard them talk about Great Wolf Lodge hotel and family resort near Charlotte. You likely have seen pictures of the indoor water park in your Facebook feed, and clicked over to their website and wondered … is it worth it?

My answer: Yes, it’s absolutely worth it. I have three kids, currently ages 5, 3, and almost 2, and we are getting ready to embark on our FOURTH trip to the Great Wolf Lodge. Yes, FOURTH. So clearly, we’re fans.

We first went to Great Wolf Lodge in August of 2013, when the kids were 3, almost 2, and 5 months. We were blown away by everything — the fantastic water park, family-friendly services, great location, and yes, even the price. We returned for the baby’s first birthday in March of 2014, made our 3rd trip in October of the same year, and will be there later this month to celebrate the baby turning two. In all these trips, we’ve grown to love Great Wolf Lodge even more, and we’ve learned a few things along the way that will make your stay easier and more affordable.

Why Great Wolf Lodge?

The first time we went to Great Wolf, we had not been on a family vacation. Ever. We couldn’t afford to, and we couldn’t wrap our heads or finances around the logistics of getting such small children to and from hotels, restaurants and attractions without a meltdown. We happened upon a great deal for Great Wolf, and figured if we could get a grandparent to tag along, we could probably manage with a one-adult-per-kid ratio. So off we went — not expecting much for our kids to do, honestly, since they were so young. Much to our surprise, we found plenty to do right at Great Wolf — for the older two, anyway. The baby did not have much fun. He got his first two teeth instead. We did not sleep much that trip, but it obviously did not stop us from planning a return trip.

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The water park has features appropriate for big and little kids alike.

The main part of the water park — what you see as you walk through the doors — is geared towards the whole family. There is an enclosure designed just for small kids, a gentle wave pool that is great for everyone, a water slide exciting enough for young children but not too scary for toddlers, and of course, The Big Bucket of Water. Everything your kids will see is appropriate for them, which is fantastic. The last thing you want to tell young children on vacation is “No, you can’t do that.”  or “You’re not big enough, yet.” Trust me, they hear that enough at home. All the big slides are tucked away in the back of the water park, unobtrusive enough that you can even forget they exist. Out of sight, out of mind! No need to explain to your not-quite-tall-enough 4-year-old that no, he can not do that super-fun dangerous looking thing. So you can focus on just having fun, and saying, YES! you can down that slide.

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Cub Club activities are free or very inexpensive, and there are often seasonal projects.

The water park is the main attraction, but we also like Cub Club (a craft room and indoor play area) and MagiQuest (your kids get to play wizard with their own wands, making birds sing and treasure chests open). Cub Club changes throughout the year, with seasonal crafts; and

One of the real benefits for us, with having such small children, is having everything in one location. Everything is there. Toddler melting down in the water park? One parent can head back to the room for nap time while the other parent and children can continue to enjoy the water park or MagiQuest. Especially as our children have gotten older, this divide-and-conquer approach has become especially useful.

Other things to do at the Lodge include putt-putt golf, a large arcade and a spa for both kids and adults. To be quite honest, we haven’t done anything other than the waterpark, MagiQuest and the Cub Club since our first visit. The other activities cost extra, and our kids are young enough they don’t miss them.

So you have big kids (ages 10 and up) — still worth it? I’m not there yet, but there are several water slides you must be “this tall” to ride on, and they are really fun. Bigger kids also enjoy the more intricate quests available in MagiQuest (which is like a scavenger hunt through the whole lodge). I think if your kids are all ages 10 and up, Great Wolf might lose its shine, but if you have a wide range of kids in age, then there is definitely something for everyone.

I’d keep going on telling you why you should go, but you get the idea. And likely your family already wants to go, you just want to know “Can we afford it?”

Saving Money When Planning Your Stay

Go during off season. If you’ve noticed, all our trips have been during non-peak times. March, October, late August. The water park is indoor and heated. The only thing not accessible during cooler weather is the outdoor pool, and frankly, you won’t miss it.

Go during the week, if you can. We almost always go Monday through Wednesday. Room rates tend to be discounted for multiple night stays, and you can enjoy the water park prior to the official check-in time (if you need to wait on a room, which we never have), and continue to enjoy it the remainder of the day after you check out.

Check out deals on Living Social and Groupon. Great Wolf Lodge is practically a staple on these sites. Deals are further discounted if you combine these three things — a Groupon, during off season, and on weeknights.

You don’t need the Theme Rooms. You won’t be spending lots of time in your room anyway. But do pick a room that has ample sleeping space and works for how your and your family sleeps. We co-sleep, so the double queen room was perfect our first 3 stays, one adult per bed with whatever child. This visit, we may do a room with bunk beds, since our kids are older. The price difference between the family suite with 2 queen beds and the KidKamp suite with a bunk bed is minimal. Ask at check-in and it may be even less to switch.

Saving Money While You are There

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It seems expensive at first, but a MagiQuest wand is a good investment; pay $20 or so at first and you can re-use the wand for a nominal fee on future trips.

Brown-bag a few meals. All rooms come with a mini fridge, perfect for storing drinks, leftovers from restaurant meals, and basic needs. We usually bring breakfast foods and snacks. This way, our food budget can be saved for the food we really want to spend money on — usually a special meal at P.F. Chang’s or The Cheesecake Factory.

The Paw Pass? Yes, you save money buy buying this … if you really plan on doing ALL the things. We did this our first visit, but quite frankly, we didn’t need to. This is one of those times where it’s cheaper to pick a couple things off the entire list of things that are included and do those.  Some of the included items include a 12 oz. cup of candy, a scoop of ice cream and a glitter tattoo, none of which our kids really need.

Your wristband. Use it wisely. It is access to your room, the water park, and … your credit card. The adult wristbands link to your room, which means you can charge food items from the various restaurants, vending machine items, gift shop items, all to your room. Convenient, right? It is — but make sure you keep a mental tally of those charges to avoid an unexpected total at check out. We use our wrist bands only for room and water park access. We don’t use them as a payment method, ever. It is too easy to go down the rabbit hole of convenience and end up in a big pile of debt.

Why Go Back?

Like most hotels and attractions, return customers get discounts on repeat visits. So there is the money-saving aspect, which has great appeal.

For my kids, they really love going back to a place they know. Its familiarity makes the transition from “home” to “away” much easier. They are familiar with the Great Wolf Lodge routine — the bedtime story and song in the lobby, the Wolf Walk nature hike — and this really helps shape their day. Partly it’s because they have gotten older — they understand more about what going on vacation means, and what our expectations are — but also it’s the familiarity which makes the vacation feel more like, well, a vacation.

We are looking forward to our next visit, and I can assure you, we’re already planning the visit after that, probably sometime in 2016. You should join us!

Has your family visited Great Wolf Lodge? Share your experience in the comments.

Top three photos provided by Katrina Siron; bottom three photos provided by Great Wolf Lodge

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One Response to Have Big Fun at Great Wolf Lodge Without Breaking the Bank

  1. Paul Gowder March 15, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    I have to disagree with you on this! Unless you have a coupon, GWL is way too expensive!

    You can go to Disney World cheaper than a weekend at Great Wolf Lodge!

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