An indoor water park may not immediately call to you. Yes, it can be a tempting idea when you’re freezing to death in the bitter cold of a Chicago winter, but you might find yourself asking what there is for adults to do after a few dips in the pool and trips down the slides. We’d heard that the far north suburb of Gurnee was converting its previous indoor waterpark, Key Lime Cove, to a Great Wolf Lodge and, aside from thoughts of being the fun aunt/uncle and making our nephews and nieces really really happy for a day or two, hadn’t given it much thought besides. Until, at least for me, I started talking to my friends and family who had kids, and they kept mentioning the chain over and over. What exactly was it that made this more than a one-time joy ride for the kids? I decided to find out.
It turns out, the difference between Great Wolf and some of its competitors is huge, at least when it comes to focus. It seems, at least in having toured the very recently opened Gurnee Great Wolf, that the goal at Great Wolf is still to give kids a fantastic playland experience with everything they could ever imagine, but to also include ample opportunities for the adults to enjoy themselves, too. You can see this present in everything from room design to food, and it piqued our curiosity more than a little.
With a hefty $65-million budget, Great Wolf Lodge, whose headquarters are in Madison, Wis., where the chain began and right here in Chicago, gutted Key Lime Cove and expanded it, creating an huge resort (80,000 square feet of water park alone!) that, surprisingly, actually feels like a real, self-contained resort on some level. It features eight restaurants, a few bars scattered around, including inside the waterpark area, special services for exhausted parents/aunts/uncles/grandparents, and more than enough activities for anyone to be able to find something to do.
We attended two separate events for Great Wolf—one was an evening out at the Social Table where we hung out with the head chef for Great Wolf and were introduced to their most recent dining concept, featured in the Gurnee location and a few others. It’s called Barnwood, and its emphasis is sophisticated, local, farm-to-fork fare. Again, we were skeptical, since most places “for kids” tend to feed everyone like kids—burgers, pizza, chicken fingers—but found that this was a very different animal (sorry).
Our Barnwood introduction featured local walleye over a sweet potato/chorizo hash, a beautiful beet salad with microgreens and just enough seasoning, fresh crab cakes, some beautiful lamb chops and sides of vegetables that were perfectly cooked. Even simpler things like a wedge salad with housemade bleu cheese dressing were far better than expected. We had the same meal in the Gurnee location for the grand opening and found it just as delicious the second time around, so we have hope this will continue to be the trend.
Once we arrived to tour the resort, we took the full tour, beginning with the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which held its own surprises. In honor of the “Chicago” grand opening, Great Wolf had partnered with Chance the Rapper’s SocialWorks charity for a waterslide challenge. Each slide Chance and his friends from Kids of the Kingdom rode would net them $5,000. They were more than happy to accept, and managed all 15 slides, roping them a big $75,000 check, and Great Wolf the chance to have Chance be master of ceremonies for the ribbon cutting, pressing the giant, paw-shaped button that would start the waterworks inside.
Our tour took us first through the water park, of course, where we found out that all the slides were adult-friendly (Not always the case at every indoor water park or even every Great Wolf, in the past) and that if you’re staying in the hotel, you have access to the park—no extra fee there. You also have access to the “Adventure Park,” which even non-guests can use. This area features mini-golf, a little gold-panning adventure that keeps with their sort of North Woods flavor, a flip-flop crafting station, mini-bowling in “Ten Paw Alley,” a pretty decent arcade and a sort of live-action roleplaying game called MagiQuest that features actual talking dragons with glowing eyes kids can try to tame with a magic wand.
There are also seven other restaurants within the resort—a pizza place, an upscale but still woodsy breakfast place called Campfire Kitchen, a taco truck—and yes, they hauled in an actual bus for it—Ben and Jerry’s for evening cravings, Dunkin’ Donuts so you can see straight once you have your coffee, a full-on candy store for those with a sweet tooth or of course, the kids, and a more casual fare place fully enclosed within the water park itself. All the restaurants serve alcohol, and there’s lots of seating throughout the park and restaurant areas around for relaxing. There are also a few bars within the space, both in the restaurant areas and off to the sides, and a gym.
Rooms aren’t particularly posh, since this is, after all, still aimed at kids and their families, but they’re well appointed, with double sinks for all but the lowest tier rooms, and tons of options for more people. The most creative and ingenious thing that Great Wolf does here is to create a special area for kids—on the lower end, a nook with bunk beds, a desk and a TV of their own, and on the higher end, rooms of their own, creating a separate space for kids to play while adults do their own thing. If you are with kids and can’t get out to enjoy late nights at the bar, a creative PR person came up with the perfect solution, inventing their “Wined Down” service, in which exhausted parents/relatives/babysitters can call, order a wine based on their preference, and have it, along with charcuterie that pairs well, delivered to their door—or just outside it with a text to signal arrival if the little ones are sacked out.
As it’s in my nature, I was looking for a catch with Great Wolf, and other than the slightly over-the-top commitment to wishing everyone a Great Wolf Day all the time and offering their claws for paw-fives…I didn’t much find one. I could honestly see spending a weekend here being thoroughly enjoyable, with kids or without. I was more than pleasantly surprised at the Barnwood concept and thought the food there was honestly good enough to make the restaurant worth it as a standalone and found the policies pretty welcoming as well. Though you can’t use the water park without staying the night, you can do most anything else.
If you are staying, you’ll find there are plenty of included activities for kids. Wakeups and bedtime stories, arts and crafts, pajama parties and of course, the water park. Anything else that’s on offer can be rolled into packages to save you a little bit of money—anything from included game cards for the arcade and candy cups at the candy store to rounds of bowling, or MagiQuest capes and wands for the kids. It’s a bit like a beached cruise ship for all its activities and amenities, and though it still is more kid-focused than not, in this case, the details make all the difference, and they’ve done it right. Great Wolf Lodge opened to the public this past weekend and looks like it’s already filling its den with pack members. If you’d like more information on it, click here.