FITCHBURG — It’s only a few flights of stairs up to what feels like a death-defying experience. Wait. That sounds terrifying, especially for a story ostensibly about family travel.
Perhaps I should say that when you get to one of the highest peaks at Great Wolf Lodge for a waterslide called the Wolf Tail, you’re in for an adventure. You stand inside a blue, enclosed tube with your arms and legs crossed. The attendant shuts the door, presses a button, flashes a smile and a 1-2-3 hand countdown, and then . . . SHOOOOP!
Your stomach drops in synch with the floor bottoming out as you plunge straight down a slide that twists and turns before suddenly depositing you in a pool of placid water. Your heart races, you wonder what just happened, and you are likely to ask what I did: When can I do it again?
That question pops up a lot on a recent overnight trip to Great Wolf Lodge, a new indoor waterpark resort just off the highway in this suburban town. Part of a chain that originated in Wisconsin in 1997, this is Great Wolf’s 12th location and first foray into New England. Open since June, it’s already packing in families from across the region.
Having no kids of my own, I recently visited with a colleague and her live wire of a son, Khalil, 6, who’s just over 4 feet tall and skinny as a string bean. Neither of them had ever been on a waterslide (such sheltered lives), so half the thrill of this resort was watching the newcomers find their way in its splish-splash surroundings.
You could spend all weekend here, and indeed most families do. You have to stay at the resort in order to have access to its various attractions. (In other words, you can’t show up and buy tickets to the waterpark; it’s exclusive to guests.)
Think of Great Wolf as the Mohegan Sun of family entertainment, from the clean decor and corporate vibe right down to the constant casino-like din. The rooms, more than 400 of them, are arranged in different styles, from a standard double-queen option to more elaborate suites with bunk beds and what they call kid cabins (a.k.a. another reason to keep Mom and Dad awake into the wee hours).
The fun starts to unfurl just beyond the reception area, where story hour intermittently brings animatronic animals to life. At the Scooops Kid Spa, sitting on banana-split benches, little girls keep their eyes fixed on their hands and feet as an attendant gives them ice-cream-themed manicures and pedicures. The arcade area buzzes at a low hum, a swirl of neon, sirens, and prepubescent energy levels spiked from the nearby ice cream shop. There are skee ball lanes, giant claw machines, and booming video games that simulate wild motorcycle sprees. (That was Khalil’s favorite: “Just one more?” he asked, oh, about 10 times.)
The real reason to come here is the waterpark, which extends to two sides of the building, sprawling over 68,000 square feet and using 300,000 gallons of water. This ain’t no rubber-ducky kind of place. Kept at 84 degrees, one side is particularly balmy, as if someone put a roof over a Miami beach. The wave pool, which is 5 feet at its deepest, is a sea of bodies bobbing like corks as the water rises and subsides. The lifeguards, by the way, are eagle-eyed and a curt blow of the whistle means business.
Of course, that hair-raising Wolf Tail might not be for everyone — I couldn’t coax either my 6-year-old companion or his mother to try it — but there are plenty of more low-key options. You can go down slides pretty much every way imaginable: on rafts, in inner tubes, or just solo. The Howlin’ Tornado is the signature ride, a six-story funnel slide ideal for the whole family. The Crooked Creek scoots along with a gentle current that whisks you around a loop. A communal warming pool is a close approximation to a hot tub. And Fort Mackenzie looms large as a multi-tiered tree house with cargo nets, bridges, and a massive tipping bucket that sporadically erupts in a torrential downpour.
Just beyond the water attractions is another wing called the Howlin’ Timbers Play Park. It’s your one-stop destination for dry-land diversions: a nine-hole miniature golf course, a small carousel, life-size checkers, a digital version of the Connect Four board game, and a four-lane candlepin bowling alley called Ten Paw Alley (but will anyone get that pun on Tin Pan Alley?). The ropes course is popular, a suspended contraption that lets you traverse rope pathways while wearing a harness.
The food? Well, take it with a grain of salt. No, literally. Perhaps keeping its small-fry audience in mind, the resort’s dining options are a bit bland, from your basic pizza-pasta counter to a more formal restaurant called Lodge Wood Fired Grill. The pizza joint does the trick, though, especially for families on a budget: At $14.99, the spaghetti-and-meatball feast feeds at least four (and the accompanying cheese breadsticks, soft and savory, are something I would order for home delivery).
The restaurant is geared for those who want something more substantial, such as steaks, sandwiches, salads, and sides including a surprisingly tasty mac ’n’ cheese with bits of bacon and sausage. Khalil ordered a cheeseburger from the kids’ menu and a chocolate milkshake served in a sippy cup that didn’t hinder him from slurping it down in minutes. The adults went with a crispy chicken sandwich and a sandwich that seemed foreign to someone at the table: “Mama, is it an Argentina or an Argentuna burger?” Khalil asked about the ahi tuna burger.
If a full day requires some liquid relaxation, Buckets Snack Shop inside the waterpark serves booze and slushy treats for adults. And, this being New England, there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts near the resort’s cluster of conference rooms it rents.
As we toweled off and considered another go-round at the arcade, we marveled at something unexpected: A waterpark is a great equalizer. Across ages, incomes, and skin colors, you see families of all stripes interacting, such as the burly tattooed dude with pierced nipples chatting in the pool with a guy who could have been his accountant. We were all in it together, one SHOOO . . . OOOP at a time.