Sunday, November 8, 2009

Family Vacation - Chapter One

We are on our first real family vacation. We have been on weekend excursions before, but nothing that lasted more than three days that wasn't a visit to relatives or something for continuing education for Michael or me. This week we are at Great Wolf Lodge, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

I have been looking forward to this trip for a year and a half. We have been saving for this trip for a year and a half. We sold our van so we could finish paying for this particular part of the trip - which is the most expensive thing we are doing.

Normally we are a very thrifty family, but I wanted our first vacation as a family of four - our first vacation since our honeymoon, to be epic, and I saw Great Wolf on TV and couldn't get it out of my head.

We're staying at a Kids Kamp room, so it's upgraded one step from the very basic room package. The Kids Kamp room basically means that there is a tent facade and a little cubby with bunk beds for the kids - there are also murals on the walls in the kids' area with bear cubs and maps and things like that and a window in the "tent" for the kids to crawl through and peak through and dive in and out of. The kids' area has a little TV with video game components.

If you have never seen or been to a Great Wolf lodge I would HIGHLY recommend it for families with kids between the ages of 5 and 14. Please note that it is EXPENSIVE and I would not recommend spending an entire week here unless your income FAR exceeds ours. Each night ranges in the mid $300's and there are no complimentary meals - though if your kids has the best wolf howl before entering the waterpark at opening, you can get a free personal panned pizza from Pizza Hut (my Jonah won this coveted prize this morning).

The rooms are spacious and clean - very comfortable. The atmosphere is TOTALLY casual and super family-friendly. EVERYTHING caters to parents and children. Maeryn is a little young at 18 months to ride any of the slides (height restrictions apply), but she is having a good time wading, floating, and catching the fountains that squirt from the floor in the water park and making friends with the animatronic characters in the grand lobby. We were permitted to take her with us on the Woolly Mammoth, which is a huge tube slide with a circular raft for the whole family (as long as your smallest can sit up and grasp the handles alone) - be warned, however, it is a FAST slide - much faster than I anticipated.

Jonah is too short for the medium and large slides, but he is just right for the kiddie slides that drop into a 2 foot deep end with 0' entry on the opposite side, fountains, dumping buckets, and basketball nets. There are four kids' slides for the kindergarten set, a wave pool, a cargo splash, kiddie hot tub, and tons more. The Lodge also offers babysitting and kids' club events for a small fee so mom and dad can hang at the park or eat in peace for awhile. Life jackets and towels are available at the water park for free. Michael and I are debating taking advantage of this tonight or tomorrow night, but we're trying to save our bucks - the food is very expensive and we've decided to eat here all day today and not go out - as we're spending all day at the Falls and Clifton Hill tomorrow.

Once we leave Great Wolf, we're heading to Philly for the day and then to NYC.

How we saved our pennies:

All of our lodging (including hotels in NYC and Philly as well as the deposit for Great Wolf) was paid for with our tax return. Since tax time, we've been saving to pay the remainder of the deposit everywhere we can - this has meant not eating out hardly at all, it has meant spending little money at the grocery store and Michael and me not having new clothes for the last two years. We also recently sold our van, which you can read about in previous entries, and a portion of that money went toward our spending money for this vacation. In total, this trip is costing us approximately $2,200. We know this is an expensive trip, but considering this is the only vacation we've been on in the last 6.5 years, we think it's worth it.

In other news:

Michael received a ticket for "failing to stop" at a stop sign on the way from my parents' (our hotel for the night as a halfway point from our home to Great Wolf) to the interstate.

We left Maeryn's "pink medicine" at my parents' after traveling for an hour and had to return to their house to get it.

Last night, we arrived at Great Wolf around dinner time and ate at the Lodge buffet. If you come, I recommend you do NOT eat dinner at the buffet. It cost us $65 (Canadian - The exchange is about 7 cents on the dollar at present). The food was good - but not THAT good. We will be doing the Pizza Hut thing this evening for dinner - the prices are reasonable and they deliver to your room. All of our snacks have been from home (pretzels, cereal, etc.) After we arrived and had dinner, Maeryn went to bed and Jonah and I explored the lodge together, including the water park.

I would highly recommend sending one or two of your party out to scout before including the rest of your brood. The park looks small, but there is a TON packed in to that tiny space - levels upon levels of stuff - so check it all out and plan things before heading off as a whole group.

If you go:

Everyone gets an ingenious waterproof bracelet that also acts as a room key. Parents can load cash onto the "key" and kids can go in and out of rooms on their own (doors automatically lock behind them) and pay for their snacks and lunch on their own using their key (kids under 12 must be with an adult at all times) and parents can easily place limitations on spending money. The TV stations and movies are kid friendly and there are free options to enable parental controls.

Note that storytime is listed as beginning at 8 PM. Storytime actually begins at 7:30 if you want a seat. A staff member comes to "warm up" the crowd with jokes and fun activities, then the animatronic animals have a BRIEF show (about 10 minutes) and the staffer reads two stories to the kids. Storytime is free and well worth it if you have an attentive youngster who can sit for an hour at a time.

The babysitting and kids' club services are NOT free.

If you have a smallish family, the Wolf Paw package is NOT worth it. The package costs $50, and while you get some cool stuff and 10% off everything in the lodge, you'd have to spend $500 to make it worth it, and if you are only staying for a few days and have less than three kids, you probably won't spend that much, and therefore you'll be losing money. If you've got five kids, however, DO IT! It's an amazing deal for a larger family.

The lunch buffet doesn't open until noon.

If you aren't Canadian, use your credit/debit card for everything - they'll get you the current exchange rate and everything will be fair. If you pay in cash, they'll give you Canadian change and charge you the Canadian price in U.S. Dollars. There's also the option to charge it to your room. They put your credit card on file when you check in and it's all connected to your wrist band "key".

For the rest of my day, I'll be vegging in the room until Maeryn gets up from her nap (probably around 3:30 PM), then we'll snarf some snacks, head back to the waterpark, order in pizza, head BACK to the water park, put Maeryn to bed, chill with Jonah at storytime, and then Michael promised I could go to the waterpark and soak in the jacuzzi until it closes (we probably won't want to spring for the babysitting).

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