Beyond The Bridges


Families howl over epic waterslides and magic quests at Washington’s Great Wolf Lodge.

By Kathryn Robinson May 19, 2009 Published in the May 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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Upon entering the lobby of Washington’s Great Wolf Lodge, my sight fell upon a fleshy woman in a wet swimsuit, dripping lavishly on the carpet. She was barefoot. In one hand she held a plate of half-eaten nachos; in the other, she held a stick. With whole-body gyrations she thrust the stick repeatedly at a stuffed white wolf, as if expecting it to do something. My ten-year-old daughter, Samantha, and her friend Katie stared, transfixed.

“Mom, it’s a MagiQuest wand,” Sam whispered. The girls had been hearing about Great Wolf Lodge and its indoor water park and MagiQuest wands since the resort opened last year. That’s when Grand Mound, Washington—equidistant between Portland and Seattle—joined eleven other locations across North America as a destination for the Great Wolf Resorts chain. In no time, this newest outpost became the rage of the Jonas Brothers set, who would return from pilgrimages bearing mythic tales of dark, thrilling waterslides, bunk beds shaped like wolf caves, marshmallows dipped in chocolate and sprinkles; and of the MagiQuest game, which allows players to run unsupervised through hotel halls, enchanting inanimate objects into glowing and moving with the flick of a MagiQuest wand ($25 at the kiosk)—or usually with a flick, as She of the Dripping Swimsuit was finding out.

“I think she needs help, Mom,” Sam said. But the big dripper wasn’t the only one. Beyond the lobby, I saw a vast room handsomely clad in raw pine, like a lodge, and crawling with people in swimsuits—among them plenty of the beer-bellied and pear-shaped, parading their pale midwinter excess without an iota of shame. And everywhere, swarms of children. Off they streamed to the left, where a couple of restaurants led down a hall toward conference facilities. Off they streamed to the right, toward the elevators to eight floors of hotel rooms. They covered the staircase, which led to an open mezzanine level with the video arcade and the kid spa and the Cub Club and the teenage tech center and the Pizza Hut and the Bear Paw sweet shop. And straight ahead, beyond a vast picture window, splashed the happiest children of all—in a water park that spanned an area the size of several city blocks.

It took our girls about thirteen seconds to jump into their swimsuits.

A blast of clammy humidity hit us as we opened the door to the water park. (Summer is big here, but the moist heat is well suited to winter.) The place includes mellower attractions—a shallow play pool for toddlers, water basketball, a hot tub, a lily pad–to–lily pad jump area. But these languished like plain girls at a barn dance.

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By contrast, the wait for the Howlin’ Tornado tube slide was already twenty minutes long at 11 a.m.; shrieking passengers happily shot into the pool below. Fort Mackenzie, a multistory climbing structure, was in full soggy swing, lousy with demonic children aiming mounted water rifles at dry adults and delighting whenever the enormous water bucket up top unloaded on some hapless kid below.

Samantha and Katie headed straight for Slap Tail Pond, an indoor “beach” with a wave machine that was, at the moment, dormant. As the girls waded through the wall-to-wall kids, clutching the inflatable inner tubes that Great Wolf provides, the wave machine kicked on, and what had been a calm summer day became the tempest from hell. Kids tossed around like corks. They bobbed and sputtered, clinging desperately to their floaties, falling off their floaties, getting squished between floaties—and having the time of their lives. Although the scene kept calling to mind the North Atlantic after the Titanic went bow-up, Samantha and Katie were out of their minds with joy. Slap Tail Pond was the giddiest group near-drowning experience I’d ever witnessed.

At lunch, we bypassed the poolside snack bar in favor of the more ambitious sit-down Camp Critter Bar and Grille, where the girls gobbled sweet potato fries and I had a tasty Mexican salad. At the cafeteria-like Loose Moose Cottage, dinner and breakfast are an all-you-can-eat affair, with a spread that includes Belgian waffles, corned beef hash, eggs, sausage, and french fries shaped like smiley faces, all of which manage to taste like grease.

“My God, this is a casino for kids,” my husband marveled, and he was right. Nothing at Great Wolf happens in fresh air. Money is collected at every turn. (“Airbrushed tattoos $5.99! Color shimmer only $2 more!”) The place is even on tribal land, owned jointly with the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation. A freewheeling lack of regulation prevails. And there’s alcohol—everywhere. Huge, icy margaritas seem odd in a place where drowning appears imminent, but there they were, in the hands of about half the adults at the pool. Great Wolf is savvy enough to know that, without booze, everyone over twenty-one would go irreversibly insane. This became apparent after lunch, when Sam and Katie launched their first MagiQuest mission.

For some parents, no last shred of sanity is so vital that it can’t be sacrificed at the altar of their children’s amusement. For the rest of us, roughly the second afternoon at Great Wolf Lodge brings a nearly frantic desire for some adult pursuit, any adult pursuit. A Luis Buñuel retrospective. A midlife crisis.
Thankfully, the Great Wolf spa had an opening for something more acceptable: a Caribbean Therapy treatment, which turned out to include the single best massage I have ever had. I’d had a terrific night’s sleep, the kids tucked away in their wolf-den bunk beds (complete with cable TV)—but the massage restored a serenity I hadn’t experienced since before I walked into Great Wolf’s lobby.

I decided to cap it off with a dip in the hot tub. And that’s when I discovered that guests aren’t allowed to carry water-park towels beyond the pool deck. I found myself standing in the lobby of Great Wolf Lodge wearing nothing but my swimsuit—a barefoot, dripping-wet poster child for karma, yes, but something else besides.

Sometime over the course of the weekend, I had become the prototypical Great Wolf parent.

I was not, however, holding a plate of nachos. I was holding chocolate-covered cheesecake on a stick.

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