Editor’s note: Deals for the Great Wolf Lodge in Gurnee are currently available at Groupon. This is an affiliate link.
By Elizabeth Sotiropoulos
You might have heard of Great Wolf Lodge as a mainstay among other indoor waterparks at the Wisconsin Dells. Our family had planned on taking our maiden voyage to the Dells this December, but I found out that Great Wolf Lodge had purchased and renovated the old Key Lime Cove in Gurnee, Ill. And while I love a good road trip, I jumped at the chance to cut a 4 ½ hour drive nearly in half; after all, it was the end of December and my children’s ability to tolerate car rides is about as predictable as Illinois weather.
Who Would Enjoy a Vacation at Great Wolf Lodge?
You probably won’t have a fun time if you don’t love being by the pool. You’re going to get splashed and you’re going to share water space with people. Notably, Great Wolf Lodge is very loud. I regularly found myself on sensory overload from the noise and commotion. Some kids and adults wore noise-canceling headphones in the waterpark and the rest of the resort. If anyone in your family has sensory issues, plan ahead. But for as loud as the waterpark and activity areas can get, we found our suite to be a very quiet, comfortable place to relax and reset.
The waterpark and other resort activities are most appealing to kids in their toddler years to late elementary school. There are waterpark areas and resort activities designed specifically for little kids, and a few thrilling water slides suitable for older kids and adults. We didn’t see many teenagers, but the ones we did see appeared to be, well, bored.
You can really spend as much as you want to spend at GWL, from an economical one-night stay (which really means almost two full days of waterpark access) to a longer deluxe stay to take advantage of all the paid extras. I was encouraged by the diversity of the GWL guests.
Arriving at Great Wolf Lodge in Gurnee (Chicago)
Great Wolf Lodge is a resort; you could theoretically never walk out the lobby doors between the time you check in and check out. The property is massive — the four-story water park is situated between two “towers” that house the suites. Everyone who enters the water park must have a room at GWL. Visitors aren’t allowed to use the waterpark if they aren’t staying overnight (though I did hear a few exceptions are made for, say, grandparents who live nearby and want to spend the day with their grandkids at the pool).
What to do at GWL
When we were at GWL, the waterpark was open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. There’s no additional charge for any activities in the waterpark. What I loved about GWL was how well both the waterpark and dry-land activities were designed for families with younger children. There’s a splash pad and mini-water slides in a fenced-in pool for very little kids, a massive play structure with an enormous bucket that dumps water on the squealing kids and parents that anxiously wait underneath, seven huge waterslides of varying degrees of thrill, and a wave pool that sends beachy waves down the length of the pool at about 10-minute intervals. There’s also a small pool that’s about 3 ½ feet deep where kids and adults can enjoy a game of water basketball.
We never had trouble finding beach chairs to stash our towels and pool gear. Though it’s hard to top the award-winning lifeguard team at Sholem Pool each summer, the poolside staff at GWL was attentive and easy to locate. The water temperature varied from day to day, but was usually at the cooler end of warm. Sadly (or happily, depending on your perspective!) there aren’t any hot tubs to be found at GWL.
There are also many scheduled dry-land activities in the resort that are included in the price of your stay, and you’ll receive an activity schedule when you check in. From wake-up yoga for kids to giant games of Memory to cozy bedtime stories by the fireplace to dance parties (with lots of bubbles!) before saying goodnight, there are plenty of camp-themed activities for toddlers through late-elementary aged kids. There are daily fluffy character meet and greets, too, although we somehow never managed to meet a fluffy.
Premium activities include a rock wall, a challenging ropes course, a 9-hole mini golf course (which many guests over the age of 8 find disappointing), an arcade (which I surprisingly enjoyed, though it was pretty pricey), MagiQuest, a candy store, a rock mining game, and GWL’s version of Build-a-Bear.
Eating at GWL
GWL has several restaurants on the property but expect to pay a premium. The food was fine but unremarkable. We saw many, many guests at the waterpark with coolers stocked with lunch staples they brought from home.
Get Passes. Take a look at the premium activities on GWL’s website. If even one of the activities looks appealing (especially MagiQuest, if you’re a fan!) it is well-worth purchasing the Pup Pass, Paw Pass, or Wolf Pass. These passes are absolutely worth the cost. You can also buy the passes at the front desk, if you want to check out the activities in-person before investing.
Bring your own food and drinks. You can easily save hundreds of dollars by bringing your own breakfast and lunch items, and planning on eating at a nearby restaurant for dinner.
Bring your own towels. Yes, you can check out towels in the waterpark, but I think the system is seriously flawed. If someone accidentally picks up your towel or you otherwise lose it, you owe GWL $15 per towel. You must leave the towels in the waterpark, which means you’ll be in for a wet, chilly walk back up to your room. We brought our oldest, ugliest bath towels to discourage anyone from “borrowing” ours, and happily, they are all back at the bottom of our linen cabinets.
Bring extra blankets and pillows. Yes, your personal assistant Brinley is only a text away. However, you may have to wait hours before extra pillows and blankets are brought to your room, and we did use the extra blankets and pillows we brought.
Dress the part. The guests at GWL are ready to relax to the max, which means you’ll see lots of flip flops, sweatpants and pajama pants. During our chilly December stay, the resort was kept at a fairly comfortable temperature (though not warm enough for shorts, contrary to reviews I read). The waterpark is warmer and more humid, and anything you take in there will get wet. I wish I had taken a pair of flip flops dedicated to the waterpark and a pair of slip-on shoes for our dry adventures. We all brought a fancy outfit just in case, but even though we were there for New Years’ Eve, we never had a reason to wear anything fancier than our bumming-around-clothes.
Plan with your kids. Following the advice of other online reviews, I told my kids what they could expect. They knew there was going to be a flashy arcade right outside the waterpark and we would pass it every time we went in and out of the waterpark. I told my kids we would go on our last day, and they were not to ask before the last day if we could go. That really minimized the whining and begging, and it gave them something very exciting to look forward to. It’s impossible to avoid all the expensive built-in traps at GWL, but telling your kids what to expect should help curb disappointment!