Several years ago, when Peanut was almost three, we dove headfirst into one of the Midwest’s most popular tourist traps: Wisconsin Dells.
If you’re not familiar with The Waterpark Capitol of the World, it’s located northwest of Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to housing the world’s largest outdoor waterpark (Noah’s Ark), the indoor waterpark was actually pioneered in Wisconsin Dells. A plethora of indoor waterparks dot the Dells, including the one we decided to try out three years ago: Great Wolf Lodge. We loved it so much we’ve been going back every year since.
The Dells can be overwhelming for first-timers, so I pulled together my thoughts about GWL, and indoor waterpark vacations in general, to help you if you’re planning a Dells vacation.
How we picked Great Wolf Lodge
It can be overwhelming if you’re choosing a place to stay in the Dells, but trust me when I say that you want to stay at one of the actual waterpark resorts. Why go to the Waterpark Capitol if you’re going to have to commute back and forth?
We started our search with the Big Five: Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park, Wilderness Territory, Kalahari Resort, Chula Vista Resort, and Great Wolf Lodge.
I scoured their websites thoroughly, looking for the attractions they had for toddlers. Peanut was still quite small, and Squeak was under a year old, just barely walking. So we were less interested in thrills and spills than straightforward information.
Great Wolf made our decision easy: they were the only resort with detailed information by age of the child. You could select “toddler” and it would show everything appropriate for that age group. In addition, there were details about each slide and pool. The Whooping Hollow area was a big draw. It’s just for kiddos under 48″, and the splashdown pools are 1.5 and 2.5 feet deep. The Fort Mackenzie “water fort tree house” was perfect for littles, as was the toddler-only splash-pad type area past the wave pool.
When our kids are older and looking for more thrills, we will explore some other parks, like Kalahari, which I hear has some awesomely scary slides. But for now, GWL does the trick.
It’s also one of the Dells waterparks closed to the public, meaning that folks off the street can’t buy a day pass to the park without also renting a room. That means fewer people, shorter lines, and fewer park-goers. Sa-weet.
Choosing a “suite” from many options
We were overwhelmed the first year by the different room types, and thoroughly confused by them calling every room a “suite.” The first year, we did the Deluxe Queen Suite, which is a fancy term for “basic room with two queen beds and a twin-size sofa sleeper.” It was fine; no real complaints, but it wasn’t luxurious by any stretch. Our second year, we upgraded to a Family Suite, which had two queen beds and a queen-size sofa sleeper separated by a partial wall. It was much better. We put Squeak on the sofa bed, Peanut shared one queen bed with my husband, and I got the other all to myself. Jackpot! The extra square footage in the room helped, too, but the partial wall didn’t do much to help the issue of us having to go to bed when the kids went to bed, which was a bit of a drag… 8:00pm is a bit lame for an adult bedtime, and trust me, the kids WILL go to bed on time after a few hours of waterpark.
This year, we opted for the Family Suite again, but a week or so before we arrived, I got an email from GWL saying I was eligible for an upgrade to the Wolf Den Suite. This suite has bunk beds for the kiddos, and I could upgrade for just $7 a night (the price difference between those two suites is typically $50 a night). Bargain! I wasn’t guaranteed the upgrade but I needed to say “Yes” and I’d find out at check in if we got it or not.
And we did. SCORE.
The kids loved our Wolf Den Suite; they were friggin’ psyched. They’d never slept in bunk beds before, and Peanut was so excited about it that she asked to leave dinner early at Buffalo Phil’s—more on that soon—just so she could go back and play in the wolf den.
Even better, the separation between the bunk beds and the rest of the room meant my husband could stay up and work on his laptop without disturbing anyone. I still went to bed at 9:00pm when the kids crashed, but that’s because I’m used to an early bedtime. I loved it. I hope the same upgrade is available next year.
Royal Bear Suite, please. Do it for the children.
If I had my druthers, I would go for the Royal Bear Suite. This one has a private master bedroom, completely separate from the other beds. This would be the ultimate freedom and heck, if you’re a carpe diem kinda gal, you could even squeeze in a vacation shag and the kids would never know.
(I’m sure lots of parents shag anyway, even if they’re sharing a hotel room with their kids, but I can’t really recommend it. Your kids may seem like they’re asleep, but you REALLY DON’T KNOW FOR SURE do you? Chances are, they’re just lying there silently, trying to fall asleep, and when the rustling starts, they’ll glance over and see you moving in the near-darkness, but they’ll still be able to figure out what’s going on, and they’ll get a really unfortunate sex ed lesson WAY TOO EARLY, and will be too embarrassed to sit up in bed and ask, “Hey what are you guys doing over there?!”, and instead will jam their fingers in their ears and try to block out the sound. But they’ll still be traumatized, even 25-odd years later. Not that I know from firsthand experience or anything. Ahem.)
Nine things to love about Great Wolf Lodge
Great Wolf Lodge probably isn’t unique in some of these features, so keep that in mind when I talk about what makes GWL super awesome. I can’t speak for the others because I’ve not visited there, but I can tell you why GWL is especially fantastic.
1. The room keys (or lack thereof)
I don’t know about you, but my swimsuit doesn’t lend itself well to storage of a room keycard. Luckily, I don’t have to worry. When you check in, you get wristbands for every member of the family. For adults in the group, the wristbands have little sensors in them that act as your room key. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?! You just wave it in front of your doorknob and click, in you go. No room key to remember from check-in to check-out. BOOM.
Hotel policy says kiddos under 14 aren’t allowed to have room key wristbands, so keep that in mind if you have a teen who might be wandering about on their own.
2. The superhuman lifeguards
Imagine someone gave you a 25-foot path to walk, back and forth, for 45 minutes. While walking this path, you had to bob your head up and down, scanning the bottom of a section of swimming pool or lazy river or hot tub. Over and over and over, until you switch stations and do it all over again at another 25-foot stretch of water.
It’s enough to drive me insane, but somehow, the Great Wolf Lodge waterpark lifeguards—most of which are in their late teens to early 20s—have the focus of a neurosurgeon. They do not get distracted from their task, and more impressive, they do not watch the kids playing. If you do, you’ll miss the dark shadow at the bottom of the pool, right? They look right past the splashing and at the place where trouble is likely to happen because it slips past unnoticed.
When a lifeguard is working a splashdown pool at the bottom of the slide, they do watch the kids. I saw several jump-in rescues happen, and every time the lifeguard was there in an instant. It was also clear that they never stopped training these lifeguards. Resusci-Annie dolls were a regular sight. My husband watched as a trainer handed the Baby Resusci-Annie to a random kid about to enter the wave pool. The kid waded out into the water, pulling the mannequin behind him face down. The lifeguard scanned the pool, found the baby and dove in to rescue it. I’ve seen lifeguards being spot-tested on their CPR right next to the pool, too.
They’re friendly and kind, and don’t glare into the distance like they hate their life. Smiles abound, and they seem to genuinely enjoy what they do. What’s more, there are TONS of them. I’ve never seen a pool/waterpark area with so many lifeguards per square feet of water. It’s impressive.
In past years I’d noticed the lifeguards all had Eastern-European-sounding names, from places like Russia or Ukraine. This year, the mix was different. The greeter was from South Africa, and there were several American lifeguards. A large majority were from Asia this year. Most had adopted American names for their nametags. My favorite was “Torsion.”
3. The gated toddler area
Back in the “Bucket Room” (our name for the large area that contains Fort Mackenzie, the water tower fort with the tipping bucket on top), there’s an enclosed toddler area with a single, gated entrance and exit. The gate has a lock that only parents can open (you have to pull up on a lever to activate the magnet that allows the gate to open) and it’s the BEST THING EVER.
When you’ve got a toddler who’s constantly moving, it’s nice to be able to go somewhere and relax without worrying that they’ve dashed out of your sight. There’s plenty of chairs immediately outside the area, or you can park your booty inside to rest while the kiddos play.
A second toddler play area is located next to the wave pool, but it’s not gated like this one.
4. It’s closed to the public
We drove past Mt. Olympus at one point on our trip and our minds were blown by the long lines for the slides. The place was jam-packed, because Mt. Olympus is open to the public, as is Kalahari.
One of the appealing parts of Great Wolf Lodge was the fact that the waterpark is only accessible to people staying in the hotel. We’ve visited three straight years now and never spent time waiting for a slide. In fact, it’s more common than not to have ZERO wait. That said, we usually stay on Sunday through Wednesday, and avoid the Thursday/Friday/Saturday timeframe, both because the rooms are more expensive and because we don’t like dealing with crowds. So if you go on a weekend, there could be lines. But I can say with certainty that in July, on a Sunday-Wednesday, it’s quiet and calm. We loooooove that about GWL!
5. You can completely avoid the sun if you want to
I joke that my husband is a reincarnated old Chinese lady, because when he lived in Los Angeles he used to carry an umbrella with him for shade when he walked anywhere. He haaaaates the sun. He checks the UV index every day before letting the kids go outside and play, and often when it’s at its highest, just keeps them indoors. I remind him often that there’s this cool new thing called SUNSCREEN and he should slop them up and let the kids be kids, but I can’t change this Anti-Sun Crusade he’s on.
Luckily, at GWL the indoor park completely eclipses the outdoor portion. Yes, there’s a large pool outside with a small play area, plus two slides you ride down on tubes, but otherwise, there isn’t a single meaningful outdoor draw that can’t be equaled or topped by what’s inside. We did sneak outdoors a couple times, for about ten minutes at a stretch, since we weren’t wearing sunscreen. It was just enough to zip down a slide or two and skitter back to sun safety.
For this reason, I’d be totally comfortable going to GWL in the dead of winter. You’re not missing anything by staying indoors.
6. Wonderfully warm water
The first time we visited GWL, I was amazed at how warm the water was. At our local indoor pool, I’m freezing cold after about an hour to 90 minutes. This was the case at two Iowa waterparks I’ve been to.
Not at Great Wolf. I found that I could easily stay in the water for hours without getting cold. They advertise the water temp at 84º. The wave pool is even warmer, and the air temps are super comfortable. We visited in early July with outdoor temperatures in the 80s. When we stepped from outdoors to inside the waterpark, it was actually hotter inside (and much more humid). Yet another reason I’d happily go back in winter!
I do recall that the tower to the Howlin’ Tornado was drafty. In the winter that might suck, but otherwise, the rest of the park is super comfortable and the water was perfect. And this coming from someone who is freezing 95% of the time.
7. The deal-snagging customer service reps
Our second year visiting GWL, we booked our stay in advance, but something came up and we needed to move our trip back by a full week. I called GWL’s customer service line, expecting some major headaches. Instead, they easily rebooked me for the new dates without it costing me a dime. I also went out on a limb and said, “Are there any promotions I can take advantage of for our visit?”, fully expecting to be shot down, but instead the helpful rep said, “Let me check!” and ended up shaving $70 off our room cost. BOO-FRIGGIN-YAH.
This year we had another great experience with customer service. We traveled to GWL with another couple, but we booked our room several weeks before they did. My friend sent me what she paid and I knew it was less than what we’d paid, so I called customer service to see if they’d match it for our reservation.
They happily did (turns out the difference was only $16, oops), and as an added bonus “for our trouble,” they threw in a $50 resort credit. How awesome is that?
If you’re booking at GWL, don’t bother with the website. Call customer service and ask about promotions available. You’re almost guaranteed to get a better deal.
8. Waterpark access hours
The day you check in, you can get in to the waterpark starting at 1pm (check-in is at 4pm). For that reason, you should pack your suits and life jackets in a separate bag so you can grab them and head in to the waterpark in case your room isn’t ready at 1pm (it probably won’t be).
The day you leave, check out is at 11am, but you can stay in the waterpark ALL DAY, until it closes. Just be prepared to change in the bathrooms and use a locker. How awesome is that?
A pro tip: If you get an email to check in online the day before you are set to arrive, DO IT. You’ll get an email when your room is ready—and usually before 4:00pm. We were killing time at my inlaws’ house in Madison, waiting for 12:15pm so we could start the 45-minute drive to the Dells and get there at 1pm when our waterpark access started. But at 11:45am we got an email that our room was ready, so we piled into the car and took off. YAY technology!
9. It’s walking distance to the Ultimate Kid Restaurant: Buffalo Phil’s
If you skip Buffalo Phil’s when you hit the Dells, you’re missing out. Granted, it’s not the place to go for amazing food, so you’ll need to sacrifice a bit if you’re looking for fine cuisine. But for kids, it’s the cat’s meow.
Ask for a train table when you arrive and you’ll be seated at a table with a track running next to it (about a foot above table height). A waiter will come to take your order, but the drinks and food will arrive by train. When the train isn’t bringing food or beverages to your table or one of the others it’s serving (there are many train lines running around the restaurant, which is two levels and yuuuuuuge), it zips past with random items on its flatbed cars, like Pokemon dolls, toy dinosaurs, or the perennial favorite, a bubble-blowing machine.
The kids go BALLISTIC when the train buzzes past blowing bubbles everywhere. It’s like a squeal fest. It’s really fun to watch (so long as you can keep them from spilling their drinks).
With our check, we got a card for a free “train ride” at Knuckleheads, the indoor theme park/arcade attached to Buffalo Phil’s. We’d ignored this card in years past, because the kids were always exhausted and ready for bed, but this year we wandered over to check it out. The “train” is actually a small indoor roller coaster, and if your kiddos are up for some slightly whiplash-y fun, you should totally try it.
What I’d change if I could…
No waterpark is perfect, and there are a few things I would change about GWL if I could. For instance…
The rule about lap riding
I really wanted to be able to go down some slides with Squeak on my lap. Yes, I know it’s a safety issue, but it’s a big step to go from a 12-foot toddler slide to a winding, swirly “big kid” slide… and Squeak wasn’t having it. We had visited a small waterpark in Dubuque in June, and they allowed lap riding on the slides that ended in a flume (meaning the water depth at the end is about 8 inches, so when you reach the bottom, all you need to do is stand up). The two flume slides at GWL don’t allow lap riding. Booooo.
(Side note: There is one bigger slide, Lookout Mountain, that you can ride down with kids under 42″. You have to ride in a double tube with kiddo in front. Everyone has to be able to reach their own set of handles, so I sat in the back with my legs across the front opening; Squeak sat on my legs. I grabbed his Puddle Jumper so I could have an extra hand on him. The other tube slides require riders to be 42″ tall. Squeak LOOOOOOOVED Lookout Mountain… right up until he bounced off the tube once while not wearing his Puddle Jumper. More on this epic Lydia parenting fail in a later post.)
The restaurant prices
Hitting up the hotel restaurant is nice when you’re exhausted after a day of waterpark play, but we avoided it. Two scrambled eggs were $8, and a couple of small paw-print waffles were $10. Way too pricey. Just down the road at Mr. Pancake, the same two eggs were $3 and waffles bigger than your head were three-for-$8.
Some of the equipment could use a face lift
The lily pad feature, called the Frog Bog Log Walk, had seen better days. The lily pads themselves were worn and the paint had long ago been worn off.
That said, it’s obvious that GWL doesn’t ignore maintenance. The small, gated-in toddler area I mentioned earlier had been completely redone since our last visit. Everything was brand new. So I’m guessing the Bog Frog Logs are next up for a facelift.
The price of guest passes
GWL isn’t open to the public, which is AMAZEBALLS (see above), but there are instances where you might want to have a guest join you. My husband’s family is based 45 minutes away from the Dells in Madison, and my kids have a five-year-old cousin, “Moose,” that they completely adore. We invited him and his parents up to the waterpark, but were disappointed to learn that guest passes for them would be $50 PER PERSON. Same goes for Grandma or Grandpa, even if they don’t plan to get in the water. Entering the waterpark = $50. Super uncool.
We got around this by gaming the system. Because Squeak isn’t yet three years old, he’s not required to wear a wristband in the waterpark. When I checked us in, they told me this, but asked if I wanted a wristband for him anyway so he didn’t feel left out. I said yes and took the wristband, but never put it on Squeak—we saved it for Moose. His dad bought a guest pass for $50 and Moose’s mom stayed home. We were able to make it work, but $50 is steeeeeeep.
Things to bring into the waterpark
- Life jackets. We didn’t make the kids wear them the whole time, but in the cases where they could get away from us, we did. Safety FTW.
- A large bag for carrying stuff. I have one of those giant Thirty One totes with the wire frame; it was perfect for the necessities: a couple extra swim diapers and wipes for Squeak, life jackets, sunscreen, and a couple snacks. I didn’t need money because if we got hungry for something from the snack bar, we charged it to our room.
- Sunscreen. Duh. But like I said above, if you want to skip the sun, you sure can.
- Snacks. We brought a ton of granola bars, snack-sized bags of raisins, applesauce pouches, and more grab-n-go snacks.
You don’t need towels; they provide them. If you plan to bake in the sun outside, you’ll want to bring a proper beach towel (but come on, who actually sunbathes these days? Hello, melanoma!).
I can’t think of anything else you’d need to bring in the waterpark with you. Most rooms aren’t far from the waterpark, so in a pinch you can easily scoot back to your room to grab it.
One last thing you must do before you leave…
GWL has a slide called the Howlin’ Tornado, which you can see as you drive past (it’s like a giant multi-colored funnel; hard to miss). While you’re there, even if you have to glom on to another group of people, you must go down the slide at least twice—once forward, and once backward. The initial drop feels like you’re flying, and it’s a fast but thrilling ride. The tubes are for two to four people, hence why you can’t go alone, but I bet folks would be nice and let you jump in, or someone would ride with you if you hung out near the splashdown pool and asked.
It’s easy to miss the HT. The entrance is tucked behind Fort Mackenzie.
Way too much information about the Dells for just one blog post
There’s so much to do in the Dells, this post is just skimming the surface. It’s a deep dive into GWL, but not much else. So read a lot of Trip Advisor reviews before you go, especially if you want to look at activities other than the waterpark.
The first two years we visited, we stayed only one night. This year, we stayed two nights, and it not only provided plenty of waterpark time, but also some extra time to do another activity. We didn’t feel so rushed, either, and both kids had time to buck up and try slides they were originally scared of.
Have fun, friends!