FITCHBURG — The first thing I noticed as we pulled into the parking lot of Great Wolf Lodge was a spectacularly large, gramophone-shaped water slide jutting out of a building. The next thing I noticed was three dads, standing behind a minivan with Bud Lights in their hand, tailgating. It was freezing cold, and the looks on their faces did not exactly say “Party!”
No, I know that dad face. It is hard to miss. It says, “I am not going back in there.”
In the world of Massachusetts parenting, there are few things as divisive as Great Wolf Lodge, the indoor water park chain that opened its first local branch in Fitchburg in 2014. The opposing camps are well established, and bringing it up in a group is like bringing up politics. There’s going to be an argument.
“Imagine you’re at an amusement park, but you can’t leave,” the reporter who sits next to me at the Globe had warned. “At the end of the day, you get into an elevator with the people who have been aggravating you all day. Then you go up to your room and come down and go to the buffet with these same people. Then you sleep there. Then you do it all again the next day.”
And then he threw in the kicker. “And remember: It’s a water park.”
The topic of water parks is a bit like the topic of mayonnaise. People either don’t give it much thought, or they are militantly, violently opposed to it. And they’re going to talk about how you’re just swimming in pee.
So I was approaching Great Wolf Lodge with ambivalence. I’m agnostic on water parks, but I am pro get-me-out-of-here at the end of the day at all amusement parks. My kids were pumped because this was the closest we were coming to a swimmable locale during the winter, and we were meeting two other families we love and don’t see often enough.
But from the get-go, there was something about the place, some strange feeling of being somewhere else. I did not feel like I was just off Route 2 in Fitchburg. No, as we walked through the two giant rocks at the entrance, I half expected someone to pull open the big wooden doors and say: “Welcome to Jurassic Park.”
We got there just before 1 p.m., which is when you can check-in and start using the two giant water parks that are the main attraction. (They won’t guarantee your room will be ready until 4; ours were right away.)
We met up with the other families — seven total kids under the age of 8 — threw on our bathing suits, and we were off. Everything else — cellphones, wallets, etc. — were in the rooms, because they give each adult a wristband with a sensor inside that you can use to open your room, or pay for anything inside the hotel. Yes, you can buy a beer or Dunkin’ Donuts with a flick of your wrist.
This wristband was the first of many things that were very well thought out. I never once found myself saying, “You know what they should do,” because Great Wolf Lodge had already done it well. They also do a lot of other things well, like make you walk through an up-sell bonanza on the walk from the main lodge to the water parks, including snaking through a large arcade with an army full of kids who want a quarter.
But the water parks themselves? Well, they are awesome. There’s no other way to put it. I’m no water park connoisseur, but this place was spectacular. Before I get into details about those, though, let’s talk about the lifeguards.
I’m the parent who has nightmares about his children drowning. For whatever reason, that’s my thing, and I know I’m not alone. So before I could semi-relax with my 4- and 7-year-olds, I had to put eyes on them, to make sure they had their eyes where they were supposed to be. And my goodness. These people were like robots. Constantly looking at everything, watching everyone like they were being watched, pacing up and down the edges of the water, eyes up and down and around, like they were being run on an algorithm. A+.
And now to the parks. There are two of them: one has a big wave pool, a toddler splash area, and three absolutely fantastic waterslides, including the Howlin’ Tornado, which is the gramophone-shaped monster you see from the outside. It is a singular experience. It is impossible to describe, but it is a thrill ride that drops you and three others on a raft into a giant room that is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, shooting up the sides at speeds and angles that feel physically impossible. It is the star.
The other water park is across a short corridor — you’ll pass a staff member handing out endless clean towels — and here you’ll find another toddler-ish area, a lazy river, a shallow pool with basketball hoops, a rope obstacle course across some floating pads, and a hot tub that has an indoor and outdoor section, but is woefully undersize. It was my only complaint. There are also three additional water slides, these on the medium-scary side. Our first- and second-graders handled them no problem.
It is a resort, so there are plenty of other things to do when you’re not in the water, like a ropes course for an additional $10, some Harry Potter-ish interactive wand game that we didn’t try, a bowling alley, and the arcade. There’s a couple of restaurants, a long line at Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning, and plenty of places to get a beer or a cocktail, all with the flick of your wristband.
It’s not Disney expensive, or skiing expensive, or actual warm weather expensive. But it’s not cheap, either. We bought a Groupon and went on a non-weekend night, and it was $237 with taxes. That was for the basic room. There are others that have trees and themes; and weekends, as well as school vacation weeks, can see prices jump a few hundred dollars. When all was said and done with food and drinks, it was about $400 for our family of four for one night.
On the day you check out, you’re allowed to stay until closing at the water parks, but all of our kids were gassed by lunchtime. Twenty-four hours seemed like plenty. Yes, there were things we did not do, but the kids got their fill.
So now, I guess, I’m on Team Great Wolf Lodge. Wasn’t really expecting it, and probably won’t mention it at dinner parties. That’s not the time to talk about pee.