This past weekend, we made the 90 minute trek to Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg, MA. If you aren’t familiar with Great Wolf Lodge, it’s a nation chain of 13 hotel/in-door water parks geared to children.
We had been interested in going for some time, but we always put it off for “maybe next month.” We had plenty of local activities that were cheaper and still a lot of fun. However, my wife had a business meeting on Saturday morning in a neighboring town. So rather than have her drive 90 minutes we gave into fate and booked Friday night at Great Wolf Lodge. It was a last minute plan where all the pieces just fit into place.
I thought I’d share some tips and tricks that we learned. It’s probably nothing that you couldn’t get from TripAdvisor, but I’ll go into the financials more than most reviews would. We knew that we weren’t going to have a perfect plan on how to save money. As my wife put it, “You have to go once for recon.” This was our recon trip.
A special thanks goes to Jim at Wallet Hacks. His Great Wolf Lodge review helped us know what to expect.
A Rocky Start
Our 4-year old gets out of pre-school at 3PM, so we were aiming to pick up the 3-year old and get on the road soon after that. Both my wife and I got caught trying to fit in “one more email” before the weekend. We rushed to pack and still barely made it out the door by 4:30. We picked up our 3-year old and headed north around 5PM. By this time we had some traffic. It looked like we might get there by around 7PM. However, we had to stop for dinner.
I thought there was a McDonalds right there, but I was thinking of a different hotel in the area. We found a Subway and a Park Hill Pizza about 5 minutes away. The kids wanted pizza, so we waited while they baked a fresh pie. My wife and I split a meatball sub knowing that the kids wouldn’t finish a large pizza.
By the time we finished dinner, got to Great Wolf Lodge, and worked through the long check-in line, it was around 8:15. The water park closes at 9PM. We missed our opportunity, so we dropped off our stuff in our room and went to tour the hotel.
The Wolf’s Den
Great Wolf Lodge has standard hotel rooms, but for extra money you can get a specialty room. We had signed up for a regular room, but they dangled a carrot of an upgrade to the Wolf’s Den room for $70. The Wolf’s Den is a 3-sided enclosed area with bunk beds and its own television. The murals on the wall are of wolves doing fun playful things (because wolves are playful creatures naturally).
We thought the kids might be scared to stay in the Wolf’s Den, but they loved it. It was actually the highlight of the whole stay for our 4-year old. He shouldn’t have been sleeping on the top bunk (it’s for 6+), but he’d always been a very safe sleeper and never came close to falling out of bed. Plus there are sides are fairly high. He said he always wanted a ladder bed. We’ll have to file that away for the future.
We paid $253.64 for the room, but it came with a $50 hotel credit. A Friday night stay is more expensive, but it was unavoidable given the circumstances. We could have paid a little less for the room with our military discount. However, some preliminary research showed that we’d be spending money when we were there.
Great Wolf Lodge is a little unusual in that they charge you a line item of taxes and fees. My understanding is that resort fees are a large part of that. For example our room was $202.99 and the taxes and fees were $50.65. I think that if we stayed on a Tuesday in the offseason for around $99 (I think that was a promo), we’d still end up paying around $50 in taxes and fees. In the Fitchburg area, you can stay at a hotel very, very cheap. It felt to me like they were adding a resort fee onto a resort pricing.
After settling into our room, we ventured out for a tour of the hotel. That way we’d know what to expect on Saturday.
I was prepared for an upsell, but I thought there would be more free things to do. Here are some examples of things that cost additional money:
- The Arcade – I would say about 50% of the Massachusetts Great Wolf Lodge is an arcade. You load up a card with Paw Points and swipe it like a credit card. It was approximately 25 cents per Paw Point. We used our $50 credit toward a Paw Point card which got us a few bonus points. In the big arcade, most of the games cost 8 Paw Points. In the small arcade, things generally were 4 Paw Points. We found a Batman wack-a-mole game that was only 2 Paw Points. We got a lot of use out of that one.
Between the credit card and the point system, it didn’t feel like spending real money. I didn’t think about it until now, but we were spending around a buck or two on each swipe (except for Batman). The arcade near our house with many of the same games doesn’t have any kind of admission fee and I think the games are cheaper to play.
- Howlin’ Timbers Play Park – This room has a ropes course ($10), climbing wall ($5), mining experience ($10), mini golf ($7), and a bowling alley ($6). You can buy a pass for all of them for $35. A family of four can easily blow $100 fairly quickly here.
This room was also the one with the small arcade with the cheaper games.
- MagiQuest – This is a role-playing game. I didn’t look into the costs because our kids were to young to understand it. It seemed like a scavenger hunt.
- Clubhouse Crew – This is another interactive game. It seems you could play it for $10, but it is free if you spend $30 to create your own stuffed animal. After the kids disagreed for 15 minutes on which animal they should share, we decided to skip it entirely.
- Locker Rental – We paid $10 for a locker rental. We had to check out by noon, but Great Wolf Lodge allows you to stay for the rest of the day. This is what we were counting on because we didn’t get to do much on Friday. With no room, it was either rent a locker or go out to the car in a wet bathing suit for stuff.
- Kids Spa – I’m pretty happy we didn’t have girls right about now. I didn’t look into this, but I’m guessing that it isn’t cheap. I don’t think the boys will be into it.
And here’s a list of free things:
- The Water Park – We went through everything a 3 and 4 year old could do in about an hour and a half. If they were older, they could have gone on some cool-looking water slides.
- The Lower Ropes Course – There’s a free ropes course that was perfect for a 4 to 6 year old. My 3 year old had some problems, but with a little help he got the hang of it.
- Story Time – They had a show at night where some mechanical bears sang a few songs and told some stories. My kids really enjoyed that.
- Air – As best I can tell, they didn’t charge for breathing air, but one could argue that tied into the resort fee.
There was something else called a wolf walk that I think might have been free, but we didn’t get a chance to explore it. There might have also been other free things that we missed. I think my wife overheard someone talking about the lower ropes course being free, which is how we found out about it. It wasn’t like there was a sign that said, “Free!”
We got an offer for a free pizza and free locker if we checked out by 9:30AM. Next time we will probably take advantage of that.
Food and Drink
That’s a good transition to talk about food and drink.
I’m on the fence of whether the food was expensive or not. The reviews I had read said that it was expensive and that it wasn’t good. We avoided buying food as we brought a cooler and everything we need to make sandwiches.
I saw that the pizzas were about $15. A beer was $7. I thought that was a little expensive for beer when people could easily bring as much as they want to the room or a locker. I’m sure enough people are willing to pay for convenience.
I saw that wine was $20. It was ambiguous as to whether that was for a glass or a bottle. They had the bottles on display. I didn’t know if that was so that I could figure out what the choices were or if it was showing that you get the bottle. I asked my wife what she thought and she couldn’t figure it out either. If it was $20 for a plastic cup that’s really, really expensive. If it was for the bottle, that’s a great bargain compared to the beer. What would make the most sense price-wise, is if it was for 375ml, but that didn’t seem to be an option.
I cut deeply into Great Wolf Lodge for the upsell and pricing. In fairness, the kids had a ton of fun. They LOVED it and want to go back for their birthday. When the kids are having fun, my wife and I are having fun. It’s contagious.
I think that in the future, we could use Great Wolf Lodge to teach our kids about budgeting money. In my opinion, it screams for the envelope budgeting system. That will make them have to make hard choices about what their money will buy.
I might even try to teach them to save by matching some contributions (almost like paying interest).
Have you been to Great Wolf Lodge? What tips or tricks do you have to save money?
Thanks for mentioning my review! We had a great time and while there were yodels, we didn’t feel it was egregious.
That said, I can see how do different resorts might be set up differently. I don’t remember a ropes course at the VA location.
In the end, I felt like the pricing was fair (we got it cheaper since we were sun-tues) and didn’t get upsold. The pizza was good though! :)
Every year I go on a gambling trip with my fantasy football crew (none of us live in the same state, so we meet up once a year in a random city that has a casino and do our draft live). That same weekend, the wife takes the kids (8 and 5) with my inlaws to GWL in Massachusetts. It’s definitely not cheap, and I wouldn’t say we are as budget conscious as your are, but they have an absolute blast and look forward to it every year. I know you talked about the contagious feel you get when the kids are having a good time. I feel that way when I hear how much they love GWL. Sometimes it’s worth the splurge for them to have those kinds of memories.
Lazy Man says
I don’t know if it was so much of a budget conscious thing (though it might be). I think it was more a feeling of being nickeled and dimed. It felt like paying a premium price to be admitted to an amusement park where you still have to pay for all the rides.
I don’t know about MA but I am 99.999% sure that it’s just like the one here in WA that has prices that vary based on the specific day. Weekdays are cheaper than weekends, except when the weekday is a holiday, except sometimes if that day is a holiday that people usually have other obligations. We went on Thanksgiving Day last year and even though the “room” and included water park tickets were cheaper, we ended up spending over $100 on their thanksgiving day buffet, so it was kind of a wash I guess.
You can sign up for their email list for promo codes and sales, but it always seems to be “on sale” so I’m not sure how much you really gain there.
I hear that the magic wands for wandering around the property are reusable, so if you go regularly e.g. every year, it’s not as bad of a deal as if you are the kind of family or parent that will probably go only rarely.
There are definitely LOTS of opportunities to spend extra money.
One thing to note, you can basically get two days at the park. You can enter as soon as 1 PM on your check-in date, and then stay as late as closing on your check-out date. But who wants to spend 20 hours at a water park, even spread over two days?
Lazy Man says
Thanks Steve. That sounds 100% consistent with MA.
We used the “stay late on the check-out date”, but it didn’t last very long for the water park itself. I think they know that the longer that families stay the more money they spend. It’s a very different model than Disney (for example) where the majority of the time spent inside is done with activities included in admission.
I live in the OC…this lodge opened about 2yrs ago. It’s about 5 or 6 miles southeast of Disney( in city of garden Grove). I am considering taking the girls for a weekend staycation. Thanks for the review?.