Category Archives: Vacation

Great Wolf Lodge Niagara Falls

For Christmas we decided that rather than add to the unending piles of toys we would take the girls on a mini-vacation.  After being enticed by some online deals for water parks in Niagara Falls, ON, we settled on Great Wolf Lodge.  We were not disappointed.  Since a few people asked me how Great Wolf Lodge was because they were considering taking their families, I figured I’d take the time to write up a comprehensive review.

The Hotel

First off, the hotel is themed, as you probably already guessed.  There are animatronic animals, plenty of woodsy, camping, lodge-type decor.  It’s a bit eclectic, not quite as cohesive as a Disney-themed resort.  Great Wolf Lodge makes Disney’s Wilderness Lodge look understated, if you can believe that.  The hotel, open now for five years, still seemed well kept-up, even with the daily abuse of hundreds of kids.  The lobby and accompanying animatronic display doubles as a morning and evening activity area where events range from sing-alongs, story time, scavenger hunts, and dance parties.

There are many room types, all “suites” of some sort, ranging from simple one or two bed arrangements, to rooms with fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs, and even themed bedrooms for the kids.  We opted for one of the cheaper two bed suites which had a semi-walled off sitting area with a couch and table, as well as a separate table and chairs.  All rooms have a refrigerator and microwave.

Great Wolf Lodge Niagara Falls Standard Family Suite
Great Wolf Lodge Niagara Falls Standard Family Suite

You’re given an RFID wristband at check in that serves as your room key, allows for charging back food and merchandise purchases to your room, and lets you scan to get photos taken on the so-equipped water slides which you can review later and opt to purchase.

The Water Park

The main attraction, of course, is the water park.  Admission is included with your room and is limited to resort guests only, and one visitor per registered guest at an additional cost.  Also important to note if you’re planning a trip – you are entitled to use the water park from 1:00pm on your day of arrival through closing on your check-out day, even though you need to be out of your room by 11:00am.

The water park is really well equipped for kids of all ages.  Considering we took a five and not-quite-three year old, we were really hoping that there would be enough for them to do.  They had no trouble staying occupied.  Kids will be given a colored wristband based on their height which determines what they are allowed to ride.  The large pools are zero-entry (gradually sloped rather than steps) so kids of all ages can play in a water depth comfortable to them.  They have water slides specifically for little kids that Cambree had no problem with.  The wave pool was pretty tame, and fun for the kids in the shallow end.  There is even a large raft waterslide that the whole family can ride (Cambree was terrified of this ride, Ariella love it) and Ariella was tall enough to ride all but two or three of the slides, albeit a few she had to ride with an adult.  Life jackets are available in several sizes and at no cost for the non-experienced swimmers.  Lounge chairs and tables were available throughout the park and we were able to get a table each day we were at the park.

Two minor “complaints” we had were that the “lazy” river wasn’t so lazy – it was quite crowded with plenty of kids not on rafts but rather shoving through everyone that was floating on one.  Disney was pretty smart in this regard and made their lazy rivers circle the entire water park so it really spread people out and had a high capacity.  The other issue was that without anyone else with us to watch the kids Amanda and I weren’t able to go on a couple of things, like their water coaster which required 2 or 3 adults to ride it.  Next time we might have to join forces with another family to give the adults a little more time to explore some of the big kid things.  Regardless, this trip was really for the kids so we pretty much let them lead us around what they wanted to do.

 

The Food

We weren’t really sure what to expect from the restaurants going in, but we figured since it was our first trip we would probably stay on-site mostly and try out a bunch of them.  In fact, while we did have plans to head over to Rainforst Cafe for dinner one night, that never happened largely because we didn’t feel like dealing with parking on Clifton Hill.  We were overall really impressed with the food variety and quality, especially the dinner buffet, which at least made you feel like you were getting your $21-23 per adult, $10 per child worth  (under 4 eat free, adults’ beverages not included, alcohol available).

There are a number of restaurants on site.  We ate dinner at the Antler Shanty buffet both nights and lunch on the day we left.  The buffet was impressively stocked with a saute special, an entree line which had ribs and mussels both nights, and chicken, fish, pizza, and pasta options, a carving station which served up pork loin one evening and roast beef the next, a salad bar, cold salads, soup and chili, a special bar for the kids who will only eat chicken fingers, mac & cheese, and french fries, and numerous desserts and ice cream.  We were really happy with the buffet, even though each night cost us close to $80 with drinks and tip.  The lunch buffet wasn’t quite as impressive as one whole serving line was shut down, but the price was also accordingly dropped to $13/$8, so not that bad.  The buffet also served breakfast, but we didn’t partake this trip.

There is a quick service restaurant on the pool level called Northwoods Pizza Company which serves pizza by the slice or whole pizzas, wings, a variety of hot and cold sandwiches, salads, and a variety of other options.  The attached Bear Claw Cafe has a selection of cupcakes, pastries, and an ice cream shop.  We had lunch at Northwoods on the day we arrived.  This is more standard quick-service faire, and the prices are a bit high for what you get.  They do offer a room service pizza/wings/drinks deal for about $40 that seemed reasonable when you compared it to the $80 we spent at the buffet.

There are two food places inside the water park itself.  One is a quick service that has some of the options that Northwoods Pizza offered, as well as hot dogs, burgers, chicken sandwiches, poutine (it is Canada, after all), nachos, etc.  Again, don’t expect too much and you’ll be happy with the convenience.  We found that if we got to the water park when it opened at 9am, we could have a decent lunch and stay right through to early afternoon and leave when the crowd was nearing it’s peak.  The other is a poolside bar that serves some bar-type appetizers and $5 16oz Molson Canadian drafts.

Finally, there’s a coffee shop in the lobby that also serves muffins, bagels, donuts, yogurt, etc.  We utilized this each morning, getting prepackaged cereal and milk for the kids and coffee and baked goods for us.  This kept the overall meal costs down and was a better fit for our family than the buffet, especially after stuffing ourselves the night before.

I will note that the website also lists the “Camp Critter Bar & Grille” which during our stay didn’t really seem open as a separate dining establishment.  Twice we were seated in that area when we went to the buffet, so it seems they may adjust by hotel occupancy, time of year, or something.

Next time I think we might bring cereal and breakfast items with us, and maybe some lunch things too.  The food bill adds up pretty quickly and I know we would want to go to the buffet again for dinner, at least once.

 

MagiQuest

And now for the optional extra that won’t be so optional once your kids see it.  MagiQuest is an interactive electronic game that is embedded throughout the hotel (read: unavoidable).  The deal is you buy a wand (one for each kid, right?) at $12-25, then activate it for $11 which lets you play for 4 consecutive days.  They enter some info about the player into their computer, give you a book of quests, and then send you off to the Quest Stones to begin your adventure.

Great Wolf Lodge MagiQuest Quest Stones
Great Wolf Lodge MagiQuest Quest Stones

The game has a bunch of touchscreens and objects that interact with the wand.  Each quest sends you off to find a series of objects, sometimes in a limited amount of time, sometimes in a particular order, and when you complete each quest you level-up.  Kids of all ages love this thing (and some parents too).  Other “Magi” running around are happy to give you tips if you’re stuck (and you will get stuck) as well as there is usually one staff member wandering the halls.  I will say it’s a pretty well done system.  Cambree loved just waving the wand at things and having them light up and talk to her.  Ariella really got into the game, although she needed some guidance that older kids didn’t.  We bought one wand for them to share which worked out fine because most of our questing was done while Cambree was napping. In the evenings, the halls are packed with kids running around playing this, sometimes requiring waiting your turn to interact with a particular object, and almost always you will be dodging other kids as you try to make your way from the elevator to your room.

Great Wolf Lodge MagiQuest
Great Wolf Lodge MagiQuest

 

Be forewarned that if your kids are young enough that they need a parent with them on their quests, you will walk your ass off.  The hotel is four stories and the game is embedded on all floors on the closest section of each wing either side of the centrally located elevators (before you get to the guest rooms) and in some of the stairwells.  I had my Fitbit on when I wasn’t in the waterpark and I logged 4 miles each day.  With a relatively slow moving 5 year old.  Combine that with running around the water park for many hours each day and it made for some pretty exhausted parents.

MagiQuest Interactive Screen
MagiQuest Interactive Screen

You also have the “opportunity” to buy optional wand toppers that serve different helpful functions in the games.  Thankfully these items aren’t necessary, although my observations is that didn’t stop a lot of parents from shelling out another $15-20 each for them.  The good part is that you do get to keep the wand, your information and progress is never erased from the system, so if you go back you can start up where you left off (for another $11).

MagiQuest Hallway
MagiQuest Hallway

 

Summary

We did have a really great time.  Great Wolf Lodge is not going to be a cheap vacation, but it’s cheaper than flying down to Orlando.  They do offer some add on packages – one which gets you a bunch of random stuff that I didn’t think was particularly useful, like late check out, a water park photo, a stuffed animal, and a MagiQuest wand that is limited to one particular one that your girls certainly won’t want once they see the pink ones.  Another is a meal package that entitled you to breakfast and dinner at the buffet and lunch at a quick service restaurant, which just seemed like too much food (at not that great a discount).  Having gone once, I don’t think I’d opt for any of the optional packages.  There are also a number of other activities that we didn’t partake in, like the kids or adults spas ($$$$), the parent-free kids programs (Cambree was too young), or the outdoor pool or mini-golf (closed for winter).  We did waste $20 in the arcade playing a bunch of games that spit out tickets.

Amanda and I both agreed that we would go back.  They are always offering some sort of package deal on their site or via Groupon or to their email list, as well as AAA members can get a discount, so don’t ever go and pay full price.  As a nearby getaway, though, it was a fantastic way to spend three days and forget that it’s still winter outside for awhile.  Well, almost.

Snow Falling Outside Great Wolf Lodge
Snow Falling Outside Great Wolf Lodge

Europe 2010 – Milan

So I had finally met up with Derek in Milan, Italy. My first time in this country and I was so excited! We waited for Derek’s co-worker and his wife in the lobby and then we were off. The true center of Milan was only a short walk from where our hotel was located and the weather was perfect for walking. To get to Piazza del Duomo, we walked past a small outdoor market where they were selling nothing but cheese, meats, olive oil and of course olives! Everything smelled amazing!

We stopped in a little Trattoria for lunch and got sandwiches. When I got mine and looked at it I was fearing the worst. No dressing on it, only a piece of prosciutto, cheese and a sad looking piece of lettuce. This was going to be awful. But when I took the first bite, I was in heaven!! It was honestly the best sandwich I had ever tasted! The flavor was just amazing, without mustard or anything we drown our sandwiches in here. I can still taste it!

We continued walking through the high class shopping district, with its many, many stores, turned a corner and there it was. The Duomo. I have been to many cathedrals and churches in both Spain and England but this was amazing. Sagrada Familia is unbelievable too, but we couldn’t go inside that when we went with the Chamber Choir from Buffalo State. This cathedral was just beautiful! The detailing on the stone was incredible, especially when viewed from up close on the roof!

That is exactly where we headed – to the roof, which was impressive to be on. You would swear you were walking through streets way up there! There were doorways and steps taking you to different levels and to different sections. Every inch of the stone walls were covered with gargoyle heads, leaves, shells, snakes, lizards, and strange creatures thought up by the imaginative carvers. You think you are seeing a lot from down below, but up there on the roof it is a completely different world!

The inside of the church is very impressive too. There you can see how tall it really is, and the carvings and decorations were amazing as well! It is so massive, that there was a mist hanging over the alter! The quiet and peace a church brings you always stuns me. A very beautiful place to worship. Which we were able to do two days later.

That night we had an amazing dinner at another Trattoria. Yeah, pasta in Italy is just mouth watering. Yes, I had meat sauce on a Friday in Lent. Sue me.

The next day Derek and I walked to the Casetllo Sforzesco and went through all the museums housed there. Derek only wanted to see the Musical Instrument museum, which we couldn’t find, but we DID get to see up close and personal some actual mummies from Egypt, some impressive crypts, AND the last work of Michelangelo – the Rondanini Pieta. This was the piece he was working on when he died, and is unfinished. Walking through these museums pretty much took us through late afternoon after which we headed to St. Ambrosio church and saw his bones lying in the crypt there. Pretty creepy, but nice in a morbid Catholic way, I guess. 🙂

The next day was Sunday and we went to Mass with Mark and Ann at the Duomo, then packed up our things, and met Sandro to drive us back to the airport and got onto a flight to Germany!

To be continued…..

Europe 2010 – Getting There

As some of you may know Derek and I embarked on a whirlwind tour of Europe, thanks to him having to go with work, back in March. Everyone has been asking how it went, what our favorite places were, etc. so over the next few days (baby allowing) I am going to write about the highlights of the trip.

I’ll start with the day Derek was supposed to leave. His flight from Buffalo to Newark was canceled due to weather and we got an extra night with him. He ended up getting to Madrid a day late and had to go right into work after his 7 hour car trip to Newark (didn’t want to chance another cancellation) and then 8 hour plane ride to Madrid. I don’t know how he did it, but my man is awesome!

This of course made me even more nervous about getting to Europe on my own, but fortunately for me all my flights were right on time! I have a difficult time sleeping on planes, so even though I did close my eyes a bit on the way there, it was a very loooong flight. Especially for someone who has not flown anywhere in at least three years. Thankfully, Derek had pre-paid for a ride for me to our hotel from Milpensa airport near Milan. They would be waiting for me with my name on a sign right outside the baggage claim.

Unfortunately for jet-lagged, no sleep me, that person never showed up. Also unfortunately for me, I only know a few “key” phrases in Italian, AND had no clue how to use my international cell phone yet. So when the taxi driver came up to me and asked if I needed a ride, I went into a whirlwind of English explaining my predicament. He did not speak English. BUT very close by there WAS someone who spoke English and he not only helped me try and find the person I was looking for, for 25 minutes, but ended up driving me to our hotel.

Sandro was a wonderful guide and kept me awake by asking me all sorts of questions about the US and where we live. It did take us about two hours to get to the hotel because traffic was extremely heavy at that time of day, but it was an enjoyable ride!

By the time I got into the hotel room I was simply exhausted. I worshiped the shower for ten whole minutes and then fell into bed for a four hour nap. Next thing I knew, Derek was back from work and we were off for some sightseeing!

To be continued……..

Vacations

While thinking back on some of the different trips Derek and I have taken over our soon to be 5 years of Marriage and 7 years of being a couple, it really struck me how we enjoy taking some very different vacations. And when I say different I mean on totally different ends of the spectrum. For example:

In 2005, we went on an unbelievable vacation with our family and friends. There were 15 of us staying in a million dollar house with three floors, six bedrooms, wrap-around porch, pool and hot tub in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That was luxury! The ocean was only a five minute walk from our door, the pool was obviously open 24/7 and even though we did cook for ourselves, it didn’t feel like a chore cleaning up. Everyone is so excited to do it again!

And then there are our camping trips. We have done the camping with the potty and shower nearby, which is definitely roughing it for most people. (The showers and potties are usually nothing to speak of.) But then there is the “free” camping we do down in PA. This would be in the Allegheny National Forest. What this basically means is that you bring everything with you that you will need for the entire time you are going down and there are NO potties or showers anywhere nearby.

Here is the short compact list of things we take with us…

Tent, wood, clothes, shoes, coolers (at least 3) full of food, bags full of canned food, water for washing dishes, water for drinking, chairs, tarps, utensils, plates, canopy, air matress, pillow, sleeping bags, propane grill, new propane burner, pots and pans, lantern, snacks, books, games, cards, and an MP3 player (which was really not even used).

Actually, now that I think about it, I think we took most of that stuff to the Outer Banks as well. But at least there were showers and potties at the OBX. Either way, these vacations are fun due to the fact that we get out of our daily hum drum routine and experience something different. No matter where we end up going, in a tent, house, bed and breakfast, it is always special because we are together experiencing something new. I can not wait to begin taking our new child with us when we take these trips, sharing the times we have and showing the world to them. And as always, home feels so wonderful after being away…… ahhhhhh. 🙂

Winter Blahs

It comes around this time of the year when the weather is too cold, or not snowy enough to go skiing that I start to think about summer. Last year we took an outstanding vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and have gone camping in the past as well. And there is always of course GeoCaching too. We could of course do this now, but it’s just too damn cold. We did play best of three games of Pirates of the Caribbean Life last night (only available at WDW for a reasonable price). Derek won two of three and then was all upset cause I beat him the third time. He won’t even play Skip-Bo with me anymore cause I win every time! His game to win is Mille Bourne.

But I digress. Winter is enjoyable when there is snow on the ground and you can go sledding or tubing, or skiing. But this is just cold and more cold. Now I see why many mammals hibernate during the winter…..