It’s got a giant funnel called Howlin’ Tornado, a four-story Alberta Falls ride that plunges into a pool, and a multistory interactive treehouse outfitted with dozens of “water effects.”
But to experience those and other attractions at the 45-acre Great Wolf Lodge indoor water park, you’ll have to spend the night in Fitchburg.
Great Wolf Resorts, a Madison, Wis.-based chain with 11 locations in North America, is scheduled to open its first water park in New England May 30. But day-trippers be warned: You can’t just make a big splash at Great Wolf Lodge and go home. Visitors will be required to book a room at the 406-room hotel on the property to access the water park. Hotel prices start at $249 a night for a family suite and include tickets to the park.
“We’ve always been a destination experience,” said Kim Schaefer, chief executive of Great Wolf Resorts, which owns the park and 11 others in North America. “The water park is reserved exclusively for resort guests and that gives them a better family vacation experience.”
Great Wolf feels like a smaller, forest-themed version of a Disney resort, with costumed wolf characters named Wiley and Violet and other woodland creatures greeting guests, who are encouraged to wear wolf ear headbands. The hotel complex includes a bar and grill that serves “Wiley waffles” and a children’s day spa that offers a $40 chocolate organic facial designed specifically for “young tween skin.”
Other attractions include a ropes course, mini golf, bowling, and an arcade — all under one roof.
Schaefer markets the resort as a convenient alternative to vacations involving airline or long-distance travel. Great Wolf lodges are typically located far enough from major cities to feel like a getaway but are still reachable by car within a few hours.
“We’ve had Boston on our radar for seven years,” Schaefer said. “We wanted to have this landscape and setting so people can feel like it’s a destination.”
For example, the Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mound, Wash., is an hour and a half from both Seattle and Portland. Other resorts include Grapevine, Texas, outside Dallas, and Sandusky, Ohio, on Lake Erie between Cleveland and Toledo.
The new park is about an hour outside Boston in a depressed former mill city that is hardly a tourist destination. Indeed, on its website Great Wolf Resorts identifies the new lodge as in “New England/Boston,” with Fitchburg only mentioned in the address. The company said its resorts draw more than 4.5 million guests a year, and it reported $407.7 million in revenue in 2013.
The Fitchburg property previously hosted another water park, the CoCo Key Water Resort and a Holiday Inn, and several other hotels before that. All folded due to a lack of travelers, said Fitchburg Mayor Lisa A. Wong. “I imagine that people will travel from Maine and New York to go to Fitchburg now,” Wong said. “Once they’ve driven all this way, they’re going to be looking for more than a resort. Even if it’s just gas and a meal at a restaurant, they are going to support our small businesses.”
The new resort is expected to generate $1.3 million in hotel tax revenue for the struggling city and another $2.1 million in tax revenue to the state. Great Wolf Resorts said it will also bring more than 500 jobs to Fitchburg.
Great Wolf said families spent an average of $430 a night at its resorts, and stay between two and three nights. Lissa Poirot, editor in chief of travel website familyvacationcritic.com, predicted Great Wolf will appeal to families looking for a vacation option between a “staycation” and a full-blown trip.
“For families, value doesn’t necessarily mean cheap,” Poirot said. “You’re also getting the convenience and ease, and for families that’s important.”
There are few water parks in the United States that require an overnight stay. The CoCo Key in Danvers and the Pump House at the Jay Peak ski resort in Vermont each sell day tickets.
While not selling day tickets reduces traffic and revenue for Great Wolf, the company said it results in lower maintenance costs. Overnight guests also spend more money the longer they stay at the lodge.
Great Wolf began renovating the former Coco Key Water Resort and Holiday Inn last September and added more than 160 guest rooms and doubled the size of the former water park. The lodge also has a 10,000-square-foot convention center, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and other takeout-style eateries.
The resort received a combination of $17.2 million in tax breaks from the city of Fitchburg and the state. The New England Regional Council of Carpenters has protested the subsidy, pointing out that Great Wolf had previously been issued stop-work orders on the Fitchburg construction site for not having workers compensation insurance for Massachusetts. Great Wolf said it did not realize it needed additional workers comp coverage for the state beyond what the company already carries and has since resolved the issue.