In our continuing series of quick and easy getaways, we have a look at Great Wolf Lodge, Grand Mound Washington. Located an hour and forty-five minutes north of Portland, just outside Centralia, Washington, Great Wolf Lodge is one of the few water parks in the Northwest. Unlike many water parks, Great Wolf Lodge is not open for day use. In order to use its massive indoor water structures, you must be a guest of their hotel.
Great Wolf Lodge claims that this keeps the number of people in the water park down, but with so many rooms we found that even on off days the crowds can be significant.
We booked a Family Suite, which during peek times costs a whopping $319.00 a night (but drops closer to $200 during the off season and we were fortunate to be offered a media rate for the room). There are a few theme rooms, including bunk beds or camping themes, which are more expensive. The Family Suite is pretty sparse with two queen beds and a fold-out couch. The room can hold up to 6 people. Rooms either look out on the front or back parking lot (not much view to be had here). The room is the kind of room you'd find at an Econo Lodge or maybe Courtyard by Marriott.
We found a few nice touches in the room – a mini microwave and a small fridge. Both are handy if you don't plan on eating everything at the lodge's restaurants or snackbars. Unfortunately, other details are missed. A coffee pot has supplies for coffee, but not tea or hot chocolate. There's no turndown service or really anyone around to provide much service – no porters or even doormen at the lodge entrance. We had to lug the fold-out couch open ourselves. On the upside, everything was fairly clean and well maintained.
An innovative feature of the room is the water park wristband which also acts as your room key. This is extremely convenient. Wristbands can also be used to charge things to the room, eliminating the need to carry a wallet at the lodge. You get your wristband at check-in, which can be done as early as 1pm on the day of your arrival (and you can stay and use the water park as late as 9pm on the day of your departure). Checking in RIGHT at 1pm is not advisable, as it's when there are the most crowds and wait times for checking in can be 20 minutes or more. It's much better to come in at 3 or 4 and skip the crowds.
The real star attraction is, of course, the Great Wolf Lodge Water Park. Almost entirely contained in a huge indoor facility, the Great Wolf Lodge Water Park provides a wide array of water activities and slides that covers a wide spectrum of ages. At the center of the park is Fort Mackenzie, a water playground with streams of water and jets squirting and splashing water everywhere. Going in, we thought that the water slides would be the main attraction and we were surprised at just how much fun we had playing at Fort Mackenzie.
The fort features almost every kind of water sprayer, jet, dump bucket and fountain you can imagine. People freely squirt or dump water on each other as there's the assumption that if you are playing around Fort Mackenzie, you are going to get drenched. In addition to the water features, the fort also has two small water slides for smaller kids. Both of these slides are easy rides and neither had much of a line. Atop the fort is a huge bucket of water that dumps every few minutes, drenching everyone standing below. It's a huge splash of water and I don't think I've ever been more drenched.
As fun as Fort Mackenzie is, the stars of Great Wolf Lodge are the four main water slides – two major thrill rides and two identical medium thrill rides. All four of these rides are completely enclosed. You enter the slides after climbing a huge set of stairs and then splashdown below into one of two pools. The lodge has a good number of lifeguards throughout the park and there's always someone to help you either get in or get out of the rides.
The two main thrill water slides use large rafts and tubes, which support up to four people per ride, and the lodge has an inventive way of getting these up to the top (so you don't have to lug them yourself). The park insists riders be at least 48" high and under 250 pounds (you're asked every single trip if you meet the height and weight requirements, and I saw at least one 'big guy' walking back down the stairs from the top of the slides).
Of the two major slides,the absolute standout is the Howlin' Tornado, one of the most enjoyable water slides I've ever been on. The Howlin' Tornado whips and winds you around a dark cavern and then drops you into a huge brightly lit five story high cylinder. The four person tube sails up each wall of the cylinder like a skateboarder on a ramp, and then it comes splashing down at the mouth of the cylinder. Because it's a water ride, it's never quite the same ride each time. Some of the times we road the Howlin' Tornado we got more air, and sometimes we got more splash.
The River Canyon Run is closer to a traditional slide but on a much bigger scale. You ride in a large circular raft. It's also fun, but it doesn't really hold a candle to the Howlin' Tornado. The other two slides (which are almost identical), both called Alberta Falls, is a fairly traditional water slide which can be ridden with either a one person or two person tube. They're both fun and not as intense as the two major slides. Wait time for the slides really varies depending on the time of day, with 1pm-3pm being the absolute peak. From 9am – 10am and 7pm-9pm had the shortest wait times.
While we loved the slides at Great Wolf Lodge, there just weren't enough of them. Two major slides and a third lesser slide (duplicated into two) just aren't enough for a place that doesn't offer day access. Wild Waves in Seattle has 7 slides, a much more reasonable number considering how much time you ultimately spend at Great Wolf Lodge. Also missing from Great Wolf Lodge is a lazy river. It's a no-brainer and was notably absent from this water park.
Great Wolf Lodge does have a wave pool which features two different levels of waves, a rolling easy wave and a much rougher and choppy set of waves. The wave pool is smaller than the one at the North Clackamas Aquatic Park and there aren't any tubes allowed in the wave pool. Wave sessions felt painfully short and it seemed like there were more times when the waves weren't flowing than when they were.
In addition to the wave pool there's a nice play area with water basketball, a lily pad challenge and some floating animals to play on. There's also a really nice area for younger children which featured pint-sized slides and water features. The water in the kids area is notably warmer and it's well protected from the rest of the park.
The water park is kept pretty warm (maybe too warm), and the air often felt stuffy and muggy. The chlorine levels are also pretty high throughout and it gets very fumy up on the main slide stairs. One big issue with the water park is there aren't many places to put things like shoes or coverups. Lockers can be rented for a whopping $10 a day (plus a $10 refundable deposit) which felt like we were being fleeced considering there is no day use of the facilities.
The rest of Great Wolf Lodge is pretty underwhelming. Other activities include an video game arcade, a youth center (which is $10 additional a day) that features video games and some activities, a kids center and a gym. It's just not enough to support more than an overnight visit to the Lodge.
In terms of food options, the lodge is pretty low rent. The most prevalent food option is Pizza Hut Express. We had brunch at the Cottage Cafe and it was both overpriced and mediocre. The flow of the lodge is such that everyone seems to be heading in one direction all at the same time so we encountered very long lines at brunch.
The best food experience we had at Great Wolf Lodge was the evening we decided to venture out to Centralia (which is only 4 miles and about 8 minutes away). We ate at Bill & Bea's Drive In (1215 Harrison Avenue) , a classic burger bar with superb old fashioned burgers and fries. It was a refreshing change of scenery and absolutely delicious. The milkshakes at Bill & Bea's are phenomenal and the small size is actually small, perfect for when you want just a little shake with your burger and fries.
There's also a Safeway right down the street from Bill & Bea's which is perfect for picking up a few drinks and maybe microwave popcorn for the room.
Overall, we had a great time at Great Wolf Lodge, but would have preferred to experience it as a day park. The lodge part just doesn't add enough value to the equation and we found that one full day of the park was more than enough. It would be nice to see Great Wolf Lodge expand their water park offerings and perhaps offer more options inside the lodge for when guests get waterlogged and want to do something else. A movie theater, small bowling alley, virtual golf range or rock wall would all be easy additions and greatly expand the lodge's offering.
Great Wolf Lodge is located at 20500 Old Highway 99 SW, Centralia, WA 98531. Reservations: 800.640.9653 Hotel Direct: 360.273.7718.