Ever since the first Great Wolf Lodge opened in Wisconsin in the late 1990s, it has offered a foolproof (and weather-proof) family vacation: an indoor water park connected to a hotel, plus an ever-expanding array of attractions that can be enjoyed on dry land.
The thirteenth Great Wolf Lodge—featuring the brand’s classic timber-and-forest theme, along with friendly wolf, raccoon and squirrel characters—seems, in a way, like an odd fit in sunny Southern California.
But the appeal of the GWL in Garden Grove (just outside Anaheim) is nevertheless impervious to the weather, offering either an appealing one-stop short getaway or a nice complement to a trip to Disneyland, which is just two miles away.
The resort’s main draw, of course, is its 105,000-square foot indoor water park, for use only by hotel guests, which offers a wave pool, a lazy river, a surf simulator, a climbing structure and splash area with five small slides. There are also separate activity pools with basketball hoops and obstacles courses, and, for the bigger kids and grownups, six big slides (ranging from a single-rider vertical drop to tube rides for one or two riders and big-raft slides that seat up to five). There's even a shallow, closed-off water playground, the Cub Paw Pool, for little swimmers under 48 inches, with a maximum depth of two feet and bookable cabanas.
As a nod to the temperate climate of Southern California, there is an outdoor pool (maximum depth is three feet) with playground features and more basketball hoops, bookable cabanas and a walk-up bar and grill.
On our visit, it was warmer inside than outside, but plenty of guests were gamely outdoors anyway.
Every water park feature is well marked with color-coded requirements (red for kids under 42 inches tall, yellow for 42-48 inches, and green for 48 inches or taller). When you first arrive in the water park, a staffer measures each child and attaches a color-coded wristband that makes it easy for staffers to see who is allowed on each attraction.
Red- and yellow-wristbanded kids get complimentary lifejackets and floaties. While there are plenty of things for a red-wristbanded guest to do, kids who are at least yellow or green will find the most to do (and thus their parents get better bang for their buck).
There’s also a lot of fun to be had in dry clothes. Both the lobby and "Main Street” area, just outside the waterpark entrance, feature a variety of kid-centric activities: a mini bowling alley (indeed, with downsized balls that a kindergartner could easily manage); a nine-hole glow-in-the dark mini golf course; an interactive 4-D movie game experience with “laser guns” that you fire at the screen; Scooops Kid Spa with ice-cream-themed manis and pedis; a big arcade; a make-your-own Clubhouse Crew stuffed critter activity; and the MagiQuest interactive fantasy game, where you buy a wand and visit kiosks, scavenger hunt-style, all over the resort to earn points. (One killjoy: all of these features come with a-la-carte charges, while your unlimited waterpark admission is included in your room charge.)
One health-minded enticement for parents: Dining with kids here does not mean surrendering yourself to a fried-food-fest. Granted, there are plenty of fries, chicken fingers and mac ’n’ cheese at the lobby’s Loose Moose Buffet and Lodge Wood Fired Grill, and one frequently sees guests toting full-sized pizza boxes from the GWL-exclusive Hungry As a Wolf.
But the brand has taken pains to make the food, as the executive chef puts it, as "clean” as possible, using organic and locally sourced ingredients whenever feasible, cutting out artificial colorings when possible and also keeping the menus entirely tree-nut-free and, by their estimates, roughly 50 percent gluten-free.
Kids won’t feel shortchanged, either: the breakfast buffet typically includes eggs, bacon, French toast sticks and colorful fresh fruit, while the water park’s Buckets snack bar offers short-rib-and-chuck burgers, hot dogs and surprisingly colorful garden salads, sweet potato fries and veggie-and-hummus snacks. One of the resort’s longest lines was for the onsite Dunkin’ Donuts (to be fair, Dunkin’ is a relative rarity in Southern California).
Best rooms: There are three levels of rooms within the 602-room, nine-floor hotel: standard (with one queen, one king or two queens); themed rooms (with one queen and separate bunk beds for the kids); and premium suites such as the Grizzly Bear suites, which sleep up to 8 people and feature two separate bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and a living room with a sleeper sofa.
They all offer a bit of timberland-lodge ambience: rough-hewn style bedposts and coffee tables, hammered-iron accents and framed prints of woodland creatures.
For a family of four or five, the sweet spot in terms of wow factor and value is the Wolf Den or Kid Cabin rooms: these junior-style suites have one queen bed, couch, table and chairs and flatscreen TV in the main area, and an alcove with bunk beds and another flatscreen TV. The woodsy Kid Cabin sleeps three kids, thanks to a day bed, while The Wolf Den alcove has a faux-stone exterior and sleeps two kids; both have character wall paper and some interactive zones (like a faux mounted fish on the wall) that can be activated by MagiQuest wands or Clubhouse Crew stuffed animals.
Beat season: Given the hermetically-sealed nature of the resort, any season works well, and Orange County’s moderate climate doesn't make one season any more ideal than another. But if one takes a cue from nearby Disneyland, the times of year that will draw the lightest crowds are early fall (right after school starts) and between New Year’s and spring break.
Prices fluctuate seasonally based on a surge pricing model, with starting rates around $250 in low season and $320 in peak season. Keep in mind, also, that there is a daily resort fee. It always pays to look at the resort's special offers page for good deals.
Visited: March 2016
Disclaimer: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.
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