*This is a longer post than usual due to its unique category
Max’s birthday has always been a bit of a present morass for us. You see he was born on January 14th so the day of his birth falls just on the other side of the holidays. Because of that we have had a hard time figuring out what, and how much, to give. It is in a strange place because it is close enough to those seasonal days of giving that not everything is present neutral, but far enough away that it feels like it should be. So, this year we did two things. First, my amazing wife planned ahead and made sure we had set aside some very specific birthday gifts, not too many, that we could disperse as needed that week. Second, we decided not to give as much, and to take him somewhere. I mean this was a pretty big year, Max learned to swim and he is turning five. So we decided to take him to Great Wolf Lodge for a night. For those of you uninitiated with Great Wolf Lodge let me give you the basic breakdown. Imagine a giant hotel/lodge built just for kids that has a game you play with Harry Potter like magic wands, a giant water park, complete with wave pool, and Disney like characters wandering around.
I’ve been hemming and hawing, trying to decide whether or not this qualifies as Popkids related material. I didn’t want to veer off the course and start talking about kid friendly destinations or let people thing I was the Rick Steve’s of the child world. The goal here is to talk about books, TV, movies, toys, and games, so destinations are usually not our thing. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it does fit. It fits into the category of games rather snugly. For Great Wolf Lodge is one big game, and how you play it really depends on how much you spend and how long you are there.
The experience started five days before we left. We decided not to tell Max what we were doing, and found a way to tease out the coming surprise, which worked great…for a while. Everyday I placed a picture of a wolf somewhere in the house, wrote Max’s name on it, in craggy wolf handwriting, (that’s a thing) and signed it with a wolf foot print. He would discover them at breakfast in the morning, near the front door at night, or in his bed before sleep. All five days of this his mother and I feigned ignorance and told him there must be a wolf lurking around the house leaving him messages. What I realized is that when you say that out loud it seems like it might scare a small child, which it did. I think I crossed the line when I came inside one day and said I had seen something large lurking outside near the trashcans that ran away when I got closer. My wife, who was sitting with Max at the time, gave me a look that said, “Your good intentions are traumatizing our son.” I am aware that my excitement and imagination sometimes act together like gasoline and fire. One of them is fine but if you have too much of the other….
I decided at that point to lay off a little and make sure Max knew that this wolf was friendly. I used the silliest pictures of wolves in the wild I could find on the internet so that, if it seemed an animal was stalking him (It really does sound frightening), it would be a ridiculous one. On the last day I printed a map off Google that went from our house to the location of the lodge, but replaced that spot on the map with a tiny picture of a wolf. This is a great example of when it is ok to take advantage of the fact that your child can’t read and has no sense of relation to where anything in the world is. He is the easiest person to fool right now and I take full advantage of that when I can.
Then came the morning of the trip and the finding of the map. We live in Seattle so the lodge is only about 90 minutes from us. When Max woke up and found the map he was bouncing off the walls. He is really into maps right now and thinks they all lead to treasure, which was sort of the point of this particular map. He had a million questions, “What does this mean?” Why is the wolf here?” “Where does it go?” “Buddy.” I said. Let’s follow the map.” He looked at me for 30 seconds as if making his mind up about something important and sighed. “No, I just want to stay here.” As I looked at his mother I realized we had not planned for such a reaction and didn’t really know what to say without giving the surprise away. We stood there for a moment, his mother and I, our mouths open, trying to figure out how to say no to him while still making the idea palatable. I think in the end we both silently decided to do exactly what he would have done, pretend not to hear us. So we went about our morning and pretended he had said nothing. It was very mature.
Later that morning when he was watching an episode of Team Umi Zoomi I asked him again about going, and without looking at me, totally lost in his show, he said yes. I know that he wasn’t listening but if he said anything later to the contrary I knew I could throw this moment back at him. If you want your kids to say yes ask then anything while they are watching TV. They will almost always say yes just to get you to leave them alone.
When I was sure we were all set I packed the car, and not long after, got Max in it. Nicole was getting our 3 month old Huxley ready for the trip and I was to pull out of the garage ,with Max, and pick them up. I buckled Max into his seat and got us set to go. As the garage door opened I started the car…but nothing happened. Then my mind flashed back to the day before when I left Max in the car so I could run back inside to get him a hat. I came back out with his chapeau and saw that he had gotten out of his seat and was messing with all of the lights and dials in the car. For whatever reason, right after that, we ended up not leaving in the car, we got out, this after Max had turned on every light inside the car without my knowledge. Thus he drained battery. The next two minutes were spent with me trying to remember that this was Max’s birthday present not mine and that if we didn’t make it there he would be the one losing out. However, I was quite aware that I had spent a lot of time, energy, and a little money, on this surprise, so the idea of suddenly not going turned me into mega angry Dad. I tried to hold that in as best I could. I gave him a lecture and made sure he knew he was not supposed to be playing with the car but it was a long two minutes.
I jumped on the phone to our neighbor Tom, who is also out mechanic, and who is affectionately actually called “neighbor Tom” by Max. Neighbor Tom picked up on the first ring and arrived at our house holding a charged battery and jumper cables in minutes. He charged the battery and after some groveling and very sincere thank yous the four of us were off on Max’s birthday adventure. I will spare you the car trip banter but say that you should stop and eat something before you arrive. Even at Starbucks. I’ll get into this in more detail when I talk cost and quality of food.
Once we got close we started to tease Max a little. We would see a sign for Great Wolf with its big paw print and yell, “Wolf print.” Then he would shout “Where where?” and look around like we had just told him a clown had just ridden by in the pouch of a kangaroo. Finally, we pulled into the parking lot with its capacity for hundreds of cars and immediately realized that it was much more crowded than we expected. Later we realized this was the weekend crowd checking out. We drove around for only a couple of minutes before we ended up with maybe the most amazing parking space in the entire lot. It was right next to the lodges front door. As a person who has lived in cities like New York and Seattle I take great pride in the parking spaces I get. The closer they are to the destination the better. On top of that it was raining very hard, because Pacific Northwest, we have a baby, and a good number of things to haul inside. So the closer you can get to the entrance of this place the better. They did have a nice big covered area you could drive up to and drop stuff off at but in order to make the surprise effective it was all about getting him inside as quickly as possible.
Max still didn’t know where we were. I pointed out the giant wolf statues in the parking lot and he said “This place looks spooky.” Nicole said we should go in first so she could take care of the baby in the car. We would get checked in and then come back for her. So I got Max out of the car and we zipped through the raindrops and inside the lodge. Once we were inside it took him a couple of minutes to realize that something special was happening. The lobby was huge and bustling with activity. Think about one of the big rooms from The Shining but with animatronic creatures and games spread out about the vastness. That sounds horrifying but filled with people it was like some strange version of a boardwalk. The sounds of video games, smells of food, and people walking around in their bathing suits gave it a lively atmosphere while the lodge design made it cozy and warm. I watched Max’s face as he looked from thing to thing. The log balcony, the swinging raccoon, the kids with wands pointing them like Harry Potter and finally, the huge window at the other side of the lobby. The water park itself. The Holy Grail or The Lost Ark in the middle of Winter to a child. Max turned and looked up at me squealing, “I love this place. What is it?” I said, “Your birthday present.”
We got in a speedy line at check in where they gave Max a pair of wolf ears and when they found out it was his birthday they gave him another, this time with a tiny birthday hat in between the ears. Then everyone at the front desk howled for him and said happy birthday. It was the first time I remember seeing him embarrassed. They told us our room was not ready but we were welcome to use the water park. This had been expected and they even sent out a nice note the day before suggesting we pack our suits separately to change into in case this happened. We met Nicole at the door and made our way to the park.
That being said we could see the water park through the giant window but we could not seem to get to it. All that fun just beyond the window and Max caught like a rat in a maze where he could smell the cheese but never actually find it. We walked for about ten minutes until finally I found someone who told his where to go. The entrance, on the second floor was not unmarked but did not say waterpark, it had a name of some kind, something landing I think. One of those fake names that makes you believe it is a place you should visit but nothing to indicate the thing you are actually trying to find. Once inside we had to find a place to change. As far as I could tell the only place to change was the bathrooms, which, as you can imagine, was kinda gross. I mean we are talking about hundreds of people coming in and out of the bathroom all day long and then, us, having to take off our clothes and change, barefoot, into our swimsuits. I know there were things I could have done. In retrospect I could have put a towel on the floor, stood on my shoes or any number of other things, but I had only been there for a brief time and was really trying to get Max out and into the water.
Once that was done and we were suited up, we climbed the steps to this.
A giant play structure with two waterslides and a gigantic bucket on top that fills up, and tips over. We were on the structure when I first experienced the effect of the giant bucket. Max loved it and laughed his butt off while I was totally unprepared for it and it scared the heck out of me. However, I recovered quickly as the line for the waterslide moved forward. You see I had not been on a waterslide for years and years, and I, was looking forward to this as much as Max was. I was not disappointed. Technology for waterslides has come a long way since I was a kid. It used to be you had to use these awful mats to slide down. Now you’re just on your butt and the surface is slick as can be, no bumps or lumps. The same however cannot be said for the wave pool.
Once in the wave pool it lived up to both the wave and pool in its name. We were in for no more than five minutes when Max, knocked down by a wave started to cry. I asked what was wrong and then I say the blood rolling down his knee. The floor in the pool was made of very rough concrete and he had skinned his knee when the wave knocked him over. I took him out and tried to calm him down but he was in consolable in that way that kids get when they hurt themselves and think it is much worse than it is. It also stung badly as there was more chlorine in the water than in the entire state of Washington, that’s not a criticism, just a fact. Walking up to a young staffer (They were all young staffers, kids from the area working their part time job, which made me wonder if this was a main source of employment in Grand Mount) I asked if he had a bandaid. He was not only very helpful with said band aid but logged Max’s scrape, for what I do not know, but I always feel like that means at least someone will take a look and do the math. I can only imagine that happens a lot.
Not long after that our room was ready and so we went up to find it. Now imagine if you will a hotel that could hold thousands of people, but is designed for kids. Kids who like to ride in elevators and press the buttons. Then imagine there are only three elevators working at any given time and that one of those elevators broke down. That’s what we experienced from the moment we wanted to get upstairs. It took us about 15 minutes to get from the elevator to the room on the 7th floor. Every time the door opened people would get on and it would suddenly be full. Since this was the first floor there were a lot of people with luggage carts that fill the hobbled elevators quickly.
When we finally got upstairs and into our room we were not disappointed. Max was immediately in heaven. I had been offered an upgrade when I got the nice welcome email from the manager, thank you sir, and took it. We had a room with its very own log cabin for Max. Inside the cabin were three beds; a set of bunk beds and a small single bed on the floor. For the next hour all Max wanted to do was limp (He was making a big deal about his skinned knee) around the room and explore. In addition to the beds he had his very own TV which he was pretty excited to try out. We had to get things ready in the room so we turned it on and let him watch for a while. As it happens the lodge has its own set of channels that show things like story time, which was basically just a story with pictures and someone reading, not an actual show. The rest of the room was fine and came with a refrigerator, microwave, and a gas fireplace for the grownups.
Now, as for food. If you go to Great Wolfe Lodge bring as much of your own food as you can. All it took was a little research ahead of time to see what we were in for. It is mostly common sense, like being on a cruise ship or an airport. The food there is expensive and not very good. That being said, we didn’t go for the cuisine and never thought it would be four star, so, we got exactly what we expected. An overpriced buffet with mediocre food and expensive drinks. We had only planned to have one meal there and that was special, for the birthday boy. In addition to snacks and one meal we brought our own wine. We knew that after the day ended, whenever that was, we would want something just for Mom and Dad and a bottle there runs into twenty dollars or more. So our room was our main source of food and drink and we avoided buying too much at the hotel. Besides the meal I think we only bought a beer and a cup of coffee.
So why is this on Popkids? What makes this a game? The main reason is the very thing we didn’t do. There is a game called Magiquest is all over the lodge and that you must buy a magic wand, that activates parts of the game all over the building, to play. We watched kids playing in every part of the hotel we entered. It seemed like sort of a low rent Harry Potter, but admittedly, seemed like it had focus and some genuine challenge. According to the website it can take between thirty minutes and three hours. Since we were only there for a night we decided we had enough to do without adding a game which surely our attention span deprived child, would simply want to activate with the wand, and not actually play. Maybe if we go back for two days, then we can play that game.
To take its place Max and I hit the arcade. We spent a total of thirty dollars in the arcade and I have to say I think it was worth every penny. I’ve never said that about an arcade but we played all kinds of games for a long time, much longer than I expected. One of the things I found fascinating was that some of the games I have on my phone were also in the arcade. They had full stand up versions of things like Temple Run and Crossy Road. I wouldn’t let Max play those out of principal. I told him if he wanted to play those he could do so on my phone. He didn’t care. There were so many to choose from and so many blinking lights and shiny objects that the moment he was done thinking about one thing he was onto another with little thought of what he had missed. Then there were the tickets. Like on a boardwalk when you play the games you earn tickets toward a prize that is so cheap that the idea of it might even be worth more than the actual prize. That being said, every time we got tickets both Max and I cheered and in the end we acquired over 300 tickets which allowed Max a sparky Great Wolf Lodge toy and a bouncy ball. A kid next to us informed me that if you get over 200 you are doing pretty good but at that moment on the other side a woman won the 3000 ticket jackpot, at which point the kid looked back at me, and shrugged as if to say, never mind.
Outside of the arcade was a game that seemed to almost always be empty, but it was the thing Max wanted to do the most. Psychedelic mini golf. I’ve included some picture below. The rooms were shrouded in black light, the balls fluorescent, and each hole painted to look like an animal’s habitat if the animal had been originally created for an Alice in Wonderland set in the 70’s. In other words, it was pretty cool. Max abandoned any rules of the game almost immediately in favor of soaking up the weird and creepy atmosphere and hitting his ball as hard as he could, creating a pinball effect that I quickly put a stop to. The cost for this? 6 dollars apiece, for what I think amounted to 6 holes. When later I asked Max what his favorite part of the trip was I would be surprised to find out it was the mini golf.
Later that evening we went to get dinner at the Loose Moose Café. This was the meal I spoke of earlier so I won’t go into the cost aspect but talk more about content. This was a big room with a cafeteria style counter where there were chefs cooking and cutting all kids of meats on one end, adding vegetables and pasta in the middle, and then frying and baking up food just for kids on the end. I say for kids because this was food of the beige and yellow variety. Chicken nuggets, Mac n’ cheese etc, etc… In In the middle of the room, the grand finale; an island of desert: cake, pie, a soft serve ice cream machine and what looked to be three day old fruit. Now usually getting Max to eat dinner is like getting a cat to take a pill, and though we have never had to do that thing where you massage their throat to swallow, it sometimes feels like has come close to that. However, his dinner at the lodge was the first time I had ever seen him eat so much he was full. He’s never full. It was his birthday and we let him go to town on whatever he wanted to eat which was in this case, 10 chicken nuggets, spaghetti with butter, mac n cheese, and watermelon (of which he took one bite). For dessert he decided on a piece of cake and ice cream (of which he took one bite).
After dinner Max and I took a walk to the lobby where at least 200 kids were curled up in their pajamas watching some sort of animatronic bedtime story. I have to say it was one of the creepiest things I have ever seen. It was about a boy lost in the woods who the animals, and a young Native American girl, must convince to not be afraid. That the woods are a place of beauty and safety that must be preserved and cherished. As Max and I sat and watched, he loved it by the way, I had a hard time paying attention to what the story was actually about for two reasons. First, the animatronic people were truly freighting. The lost boy kept popping out of a stump (I never figured out why he was in there) and the singing voice that came out of the little girl was of a Disney quality, but the robot that it emanated from was like something from Disney’s The Hall of Presidents, the form is right, but they are obviously robots from a different time. Even though the idea of these things is not to represent super amazing technology I still feel like if you have robots, they should represent the future, not the past. Still Max had a good time and on the way upstairs we ran into the guy in the wolf suit, the mascot of the place, and he got a real kick out of that.
So once we were back in the room, and Max had settled into his cabin After a dinner of that magnitude it only makes sense that Max would get sick. He didn’t go throw up but he did complain all night of a stomach ache. Since Nicole was tied up all night with our youngest, I stayed with Max in the cabin. All night. I ended up sleeping on the bottom bunk of the bunk beds while he finally fell asleep across from me in the single one. As I laid there I couldn’t help but think back to the same kind of experiences I’d had as a kid and how much they meant to me. All the boardwalks, amusement parks, waterslides, bad food, and crowds of people, not many of which I care for now, had been wonderful parts of being a kid, and I new that Max was having the time of his life. I knew this because outside of the knew scraping incident he said “Best birthday ever.” Probably 5 times that night. I also thought that these beds were definitely made for children and that as an adult I never should have tried to sleep in one.
The next morning we got up and ate breakfast, food we had packed, and slowly made our way down to the water park to do some damage before we took off. Before we left the room I realized I had lost my swimsuit. Sometime the day before I remembered wrapping it in a towel, which, I had then put down someplace, never to be seen again. That meant that I was in charge of Huxley, our 3 month old, and would be watching Nicole as she played in the water with Max.
As I stood there fully dressed in the steamy park, with the masses of swimmers, all having a good time in the water, in the middle of winter, I found myself getting a little sad for two reasons. First, I couldn’t help but be aware that there was enough water in this room to keep some towns, in various parts of the world, from disappearing and yet here we were enjoying it as some sort of pastime with slides and waves made to seem like they were in the ocean. Though I understand that Great Wolf Lodge has a plan that recycles water and keeps things pretty green it still seemed like a loss. Then I chastised myself for letting those things creep into my head and thought that I should just enjoy it, just enjoy Max enjoying it. So I did, and though I let it go, I hope one day Max gets to stand like I did and question things, even the fun things, and ask if they are right and good. The second thing was just being aware that he was getting older and that these says were limited. I don’t think about those things when it comes to my kids much, most of the time I’m too busy raising them, but I became acutely aware of a little pain of melancholy when I thought about it. Then I turned and looked out the window just as the rain outside turned to snow and knew that soon enough we would jump in the car and head home.
On the way home, with both Max and Huxley asleep we reveled in what was a great birthday present for Max. Our boy was 5 and in that past year had learned to swim, so his gift, reflected his life, and my hope is that every year we can give him some kind of great experience like this. I know for a fact he wants toys, things, that sort of present, but after the toys are long gone, he will still have any experience worth its salt. I think for Max, this was a great one. For us, well, it’s never as good as an adult as it was when you are a child but if you look really close, you can see those times from your youth happening to your kids.