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The wave pool at Great Wolf Lodge near Centralia—dig those vaguely coniferous topiaries!

Great Wolf Lodge—with its chain US locations from Sandusky to the Poconos, even one on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls—is a Wisconsin-based indoor water park juggernaut seemingly designed to separate parents from both their sanity and life savings. Pacific Northwesterners have our very-own 56,000-square-foot chainlet; one that even feels a bit regionally inspired, with its woodland creatures and vague Native American sprinklings. Here, families drop shocking amounts of money on lodging, food, arcade games, child and adult spa services, and general crap. Why? Short answer: it's all about that wildly popular water park—for guests only and included with your stay—an eternally 84-degree compound complete with wave pool, basketball hoops, and wild waterslides.  

At some point, your child will learn that Great Wolf Lodge Grand Mound exists. I blame the library—which has offered a GWL getaway in a summer-reading prize drawing—though many children also learn of it when they drive past on I-5, ask their parents what the heck is that fun-seeming place, and their parents aren't ready with a lie. Once this happens, the clock has begun on your eventual visit. Here are a few tips on how to get in and out without losing your mind or all your money.

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Story time—sweet, sleepy story time.

1. Get a deal.

If you book at least two months in advance, you can save up to 50 percent on the room rates. The rooms are nice, but not $300–500 nice (and, of course, they’re right by the interstate in the nondestination of Grand Mound, Washington). Once you make your reservation you’ll learn that every stay comes with a mysterious “resort fee” (mine was $29.99) in addition to the 10 percent room tax. So you might as well minimize that room rate. With the slate of lobby activities (creepy animatronic musical performances, seasonal lures like Santa visits and cookie decorating, dance parties) and the water park itself, you won’t be in the room much anyway.

2. Avoid the afternoon check-in rush.

You can get into your room at 4, but after 1 p.m. that night’s guests can check in, get their water park wristbands, and leave their things in the car while they splash around. Right after 1 and right before 4, then, the front desk might have a TSA-style cattle-line wait. (Just before 1 p.m., though, before the next night’s guests are in the water park and swimmers take a break for lunch or naptime, there’s a blessed window of very short lines for the waterslides.)

3. Borrow wands.

Ask around, and you can probably land a free wand from a friend who’s been to Great Wolf Lodge. You’ll still have to pay if your kids want to keep track of their MagiQuest game, but it’s cheaper than buying the game and the wand. For little ones who might have trouble following along with the scavenger hunt aspect and just want to wave a wand at an object and have it light up and make noise, your only expense with a borrowed wand might be two new AA batteries. (Also, not buying a wand means you might not have to enter the MagiQuest store, which means your children might not see all the wizard hats and capes that are for sale....)

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Lunch at McMenamin's Olympic Club—consider saving room, and a few smackeroos, at the whimsical chain's Centralia location.

Image: McMenamins

4. Plan your meals, both on- and off-site.

If you think your brood will want to fill up on the breakfast buffet, it’s cheaper to book it when you make your reservation. Or just go to the nearby McDonald’s, which has much better coffee. On extended visits, you’re sure to tire of the snack-bar fare, so consider jaunts into Centralia proper for meals: choices include familiar family standbys like Burgerville and McMenamins, plus an Indian restaurant, a quality burger shack, an Irish pub, and a Hawaiian-themed beer and pizza parlor.

5. Do not play the claw.

The second-floor arcade includes several claw games, giving players one try to place the claw, lower it, and hope to grab a prize. The claw brings only disappointment. Even if the person in front of you manages to grab something with the claw, the claw still will not work out for you. I repeat: do not play the claw. Play the ball-toss games instead. Even if you don’t get a lot of tickets, at least you get the stress-relief of hurling balls at targets with all your strength. At Great Wolf Lodge, you’ll need it.

Great Wolf Lodge Grand Mound is located at 20500 Old Hwy 99 SW in Centralia, Washington.

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