[Note: This post was written by KFDC Contributor Emily Moise, a local writer and mom of three young children. She always has excellent recommendations for kids’ activities around the DC area. See some of them here, here, here, and here.]
In case you missed it, a Great Wolf Lodge opened this summer in Perryville, MD, less than two hours away from the DC metro area. The appeal of a sparkling new indoor water park and lodge – because we all know the wear and tear of kids – is a big draw. If Great Wolf has been on your radar, now’s a great time to check it off your kid bucket list.
Many bloggers can give you the ins and outs of Great Wolf, including this previous KidFriendly DC post, but there were a few main takeaways from my family’s visit this past month. Here are five things to know before you go…
1.Timing may be everything. We booked our August stay using an opening deal, however, summer was not ideal timing. Even on our weekday visit, the place was packed. If you’re crowd-phobic like me, try going on a random weekday during the school year. If the timing is right, take your child on their birthday (and add a birthday package).
2.Age matters. If your little ones need constant supervision in crowds or around water and they outnumber you, consider holding off. The water park is massive and not a place to “sittervise” (you’ll want to get in on the action anyways!). Expect to stay one-on-one with young children and to accompany confident, but young swimmers. Note that there are height restrictions for several water slides (42-48” requirements), as well as the indoor ropes course (48” requirement).
3.You’re not going for the food. We added the breakfast package, which ended up being unnecessary for my family. There is a Dunkin’ Donuts on-site which could have sufficed (bagels, breakfast sandwiches, COFFEE). We ate dinner at Barnwood, which offers reservations for up to 14 people. And we brought our own food for the rest. Rooms have mini-fridges, and coolers are allowed in the Lodge. No outside food or beverages are permitted in the water park.
4.After the water park, it’s the hotel lobby. The water park is the main attraction, MagiQuest is a must, and you’ll have to peel your kids out of the arcade… but there is something special about the free activities in the hotel lobby. The dance party was a highlight for us. Don’t miss the story time before bed and morning yoga if everyone can rally.
5.Less is more. If you’re local, a one night stay gives you two full days (read: plenty) of fun. Check-in is at 4pm, but guests can check in early to access the water park when it opens at 9am as well as other activities. Your room may or may not be ready early. Day passes are also available and more than feasible coming from the DC area.
Today’s 5 things are sponsored by Adventure Theatre
1. We’re spending the long weekend at Deep Creek Lake, a wonderful destination for a socially distanced getaway from DC. With outdoor recreation to enjoy every season, I highly recommend it anytime of the year. There are lake activities in the summer, hikes/bikes among foliage in the fall, skiing at Wisp in winter, and biking/hiking on the many trails during spring. Read more about it and get a glimpse in this post about a previous Deep Creek trip. And for more easy getaways from DC — even just a few days’ escape is a sanity saver during this crazy time — this post has some ideas for places to go. (PS: We booked our weekend rental, as well as one earlier this summer, through Taylor-Made — they have a great selection of places to stay. Just try to reserve early, as they all book up these days!)
3. Outdoor classic family movie night: Catch a showing of The Goonies at The Bullpen tomorrow evening. Reserve a socially distanced picnic table for 4-6 people, popcorn is complimentary, and more food and drinks are available for purchase. Tickets are $15-20, doors open at 7pm. And it’s encouraged to dress up in theme with the movie — you could win prizes!
4. A friend recently told me about Goldbelly, an online marketplace for food from well-known purveyors all around the country (think New York bagels, Maine lobster rolls, and Texas BBQ). It’s great for gift giving — or if you have a hankering for a fave from a faraway place.
Given the proximity, my penchant for adventures that recall the past, and the small fact that I publish a blog all about family activities, you’d think we would have visited Colonial Williamsburg ages ago. But, no. It wasn’t until the recent Spring Break that the kids and I finally took a little time trip south to explore 18th-century life at the living history museum (the largest in the world!). And I would say it was worth the wait, but we had such a great time, I’m actually a little mad at myself for not getting there sooner.
In front of the Governor’s Palace
Colonial Williamsburg isn’t just a museum, but a living history experience — essentially, a whole town that recreates life almost exactly the way it was 300 years ago. Structures from that time have been preserved and restored, people work in trades and engage in activities they did back then, products and food from the era are available to view and purchase, and visitors are welcome to enjoy, observe, and be a part of it all.
Horses and buggies are the main mode of transport
The kids and I spent two days there (Levi had to stay back for work), though our whole trip to Williamsburg was longer. I booked a package that included a stay at one of several official CW properties and seven-consecutive-day passes to both Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens (even though we only used them for three days, it was still a good deal). We stayed at the Woodlands Hotel & Suites, which offered the lowest rate, breakfast daily, and came recommended as a good resort for families.
A stroll through the streets of the historic zone
We arrived late afternoon on Monday, just in time to pick up our passes at the Visitors Center, which took about 30 minutes even though I reserved in advance. Most of the buildings in the historic zone close at 5pm, but the area is open 24/7, so after a dip in the hotel pool, we took the free shuttle over to get the lay of the land and book a Haunted Williamsburg tour for the next evening. (We lucked out and got the last three spots, so I recommend doing this in advance of your trip!) There are other evening programs available, including the Official Ghost Walk Junior geared toward families with kids ages 4-7. From there we walked to Berret’s Seafood Restaurant & Taphouse Grill for dinner, which was quite good. We were able to get a table outside easily since it was a chilly night, but indoor seating there and most other places was a long wait, so I recommend making reservations.
Walk a path of historical facts
The next day (as well as the third; we went to Busch Gardens in between) was all about exploring Colonial Williamsburg. The weather was great, so we opted for the 10-minute walk there over the shuttle — a good choice, as some interesting sights along the way included in-ground plaques with dates and historical facts, an old windmill; and a reconstructed 18th-century farm.
In the lovely manicured gardens around the Palace
Catching some entertainment at the Playbooth Theatre
Once we arrived at the historic zone, it was almost hard to choose where to begin — looking at the map, there were interesting sights and activities everywhere. But that’s also what I loved about it. You can go at your pace, just wander around, and see what you happen upon. It’s free-flowing and relaxed, no fast passes or structured agendas (essentially, it’s totally up my alley). We explored the grounds of the Governor’s Palace, then stopped in shops to watch demonstrations by cabinetmakers, printers, tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, bookbinders, and so many more trades people.
Guess what this guy does?
An early Dior?
The best part of this is that the folks who do this work are as authentically colonial as you can get in this modern time. They are skilled in the labor and create products in the colonial environment, using the same tools and techniques as they did three centuries ago, even sourcing many materials the same ways. Even more, the people you meet in these roles aren’t just employees; they’re enthusiasts and historians who are very knowledgable and zealous about their work — and about colonial times in Williamsburg. And they are more than happy to talk about their trades and life during the 1700’s. We found that most didn’t act like they were from the past (think, Ren Fest), rather they described that time from a modern POV.
A “Wood” sweatshirt in the cabinet making demonstration – what are the chances?
Making lanterns in the Tin Shop
Other historic sights included the Capitol, Courthouse, Burton Parish Church, several taverns, and homes of notable people. Tours are offered at just about all of them and some also have special programs like talks, concerts, and tours for children — daily schedules are available with details. We really enjoyed tours of Wetherburn’s Tavern and Randolph House (especially the latter after spending part of our Haunted Williamsburg tour there). The enthusiasm of our guides was evident as we got more than a look at the places, but also a glimpse into society and domestic life of that time, too.
Guests at Wetherburn Tavern could rent space in a bed (with a stranger)
A colonial kitchen
Let there be light… candles were pretty important during pre-electricity times
The kids also had an opportunity to be part of the festivities as they joined the ranks of soldiers enlisting in the army and got into formation with other young visitors. We also spent time at the Market Square checking out colonial-style games and products for sale.
“Soldiers” getting into formation
Playing a ring toss game at Market Square
Baby in a bonnet 😂
Colonial inspired dining is available, too. We had one meal at Shields Tavern, though I think we all enjoyed the “reconstructed 18th-century tavern” part more than the fare. There are several other family-friendly eateries right next to the historic zone — we really enjoyed Berret’s (noted above), Mellow Mushroom, and The Hound’s Tale. I recommend making reservations, especially during busy travel seasons when there could be long waits for walk-ins.
Sharing stories over a meal at Shields Tavern
For a close-to-home getaway for DC families, Colonial Williamsburg is kind of perfect. Not only is it an easy 2.5-hour drive away, it’s fun, educational (in a fun way), and thoroughly enjoyable for all ages. Two full days wasn’t enough to experience it all, and we’ll definitely be going back. (Plus, Levi needs to check it out, too.)
Hearing stories about hauntings at Randolph House
Of course we had to go see it during the day
Ready for a time trip to Colonial Williamsburg? Here are some KFDC tips: * Look for special packages and promos * Book special tours, such as Haunted Williamsburg, in advance as they fill up * Pick up a schedule of daily programs to help plan your days * Consider pairing it with a Great Wolf Lodge getaway (a couple of days at each) * Throw in a day at Busch Gardens like we did (another post on that soon) * Extend your historic explorations with a visit to Jamestown
One of the best parts of the getaway: sibling bonding 😊
Going away with a bunch of families can either be a brilliant idea or a big disaster. The more people, the greater the chance of personality clashes and chaos. But there’s also potential for way more fun if you’re with the right crowd. Luckily, our four-family getaway to Deep Creek Lake over Memorial Day Weekend easily went that route, and I’m sure I speak for all 16 of us when I say it was an absolute blast.
It wasn’t just the company that made the trip such a success. Located in Garret County, MD, about a three-hour drive from DC, the Deep Creek Lake area abounds with excellent options for recreation. With several state parks and forests around, there are numerous trails for hiking and biking. And, of course, the lake itself is a boon for water-inspired fun — swimming, boating, tubing, paddling, and more. (It’s also a popular winter destination with Wisp Resort offering all the snow sports, and some people rank the snow quality among the best in the area.)
My friend, Torey, came up with the idea to go there. All of the families who would be joining enjoy outdoor activities, and she easily found a fantastic, reasonably priced house that accommodated our whole crew very comfortably. On top of that, the space around the house was sublime, wide and open with lots of room for the kids to run around and roam. We actually booked it only about three weeks ahead, so either there are plenty of good lodging options for large groups, or there weren’t many others looking for a house that size.
We spent our first full day at Deep Creek on land, first visiting Swallow Falls State Park where Muddy Creek Falls, Maryland’s highest free falling waterfall, is a scenic highlight. We also hiked around, clamored over rocks, watched kayakers, and enjoyed the beautiful dose of nature. Later we went to Deep Creek Lake State Park, where there is a beach and swimming area, plus nice stretches of grass by the lake for lawn sports and relaxing. The park is also known for its great mountain biking — some of the dads took advantage and gave it a big thumbs up (well, except for one who broke his hand during a fall).
Speaking of bikes, just about everyone brought them, and even though we all didn’t hit the trails in the woods, they were great for riding around the area near our house. The roads weren’t heavily trafficked, and the vast stretches of fields alongside provided pretty backdrops, especially in the morning light. Wooded lanes made for nice cycling (and walking and running) routes, too.
Our second day was all about the water. We rented a 19-person pontoon boat and enjoyed a good eight hours on Deep Creek Lake, cruising all 5.6 miles, tubing, and swimming. An inner tube connected by rope was included with the rental, and the kids (and a few of us parents) clung on for thrilling spins along the water. We packed a couple of huge coolers with food and drinks for an onboard picnic plus plenty of snacks. There are also public docking areas near snack stands and shops, and we stopped at one for treats later in the day. If you can swing it, I highly recommend splurging a bit on a boat rental — it really lets you take advantage of the area’s main attraction.
Our final day there before heading back home, we stopped at Funland for go-karting, bumper boats, and more games. It may not have been the highlight of the trip, but it was some of the best scenery for those activities we’ve seen.
This is a trip we’ll definitely be taking again. And if we can get our friends who are moving across the country to come back for a long weekend, we’ll get the whole gang back together for it.
Find more information about Deep Creek Lake here and here.
Some other good things to know:
* We found our house on VRBO, but there are places available on Airbnb and through rental companies — just do a quick Google search to find them.
* While we cooked most of our meals at home, there are restaurants around for eating out. There is a Shop ‘n Save grocery store in McHenry, about 15 minutes away from where we stayed, and a couple of smaller stores. However, we had some good cooks in the mix and planned meals in advance, so we brought groceries to ensure we had everything we needed.
* There’s even more great recreation than what we did in Deep Creek Lake, and you can read about it all here.
When it comes to family getaways, I’m not usually one to opt for the all-inclusive resort or “themey” vacation. Our trips tend to be more DIY; I like to piece it together, and where we stay is more of a home base for adventures beyond our lodging, not where we plan to spend the bulk of our time.
This is much of the reason why, until very recently, we had never been to Great Wolf Lodge. I’d been hearing about it for years from friends who had been to the indoor water park resort in Williamsburg, VA. I’d also heard about it from my kids, who’d heard about it from their friends, and asked many times if we could go. So when I received an invitation for my family to experience a stay at the lodge, it seemed like a good time to compromise on my own getaway preferences and take the Great Wolf plunge — literally (it’s a water park, after all).
And I am so glad I did because we had one really fun weekend! As you might imagine from a resort with a water park among its amenities, Great Wolf Lodge caters to families. From the moment we checked in on Friday evening when they gave us all head bands with wolf ears as a kiddie dance party was going on in the lobby with a Great Clock Tower as its centerpiece, there were treats and activities to be enjoyed by all ages.
So many great bonuses come with the Paw Pass
The kids each received a Paw Pass, which granted them all kinds of fun and games: A magic wand for MagiQuest (more on that in a sec!), yummy snacks, arcade tokens, a round of mini golf, photos, swim goggles, temporary tattoos, stuffed animals, a leather bracelet, and more. There was so much it took them all weekend to redeem everything.
The Majestic Bear Suite also has kitchen area and separate bedroom
The suites are all designed with families in mind. There are many room options at varying rates, and they all have a cozy, lodgey feel. Some even have a separate Kids Camp or Treehouse area with bunk beds for kids. Rooms also come with a mini fridge, microwave, and coffee maker for added convenience, plus you can bring in your own food, so you don’t have to buy everything from the resort snack stands and restaurants. (KFDC tip: There’s a Wal-Mart less than a mile down the road, where you can pick up snacks and beverages to keep in the room.) We stayed in the Majestic Bear Suite, which was very spacious, and I have to note the beds were especially comfortable!
Dining in the Loose Moose
We arrived pretty late on Friday, so most of our fun started on Saturday. We began with breakfast in the Loose Moose Bar and Grill, a huge buffet with myriad options, including healthy ones (same with dinner, which we also ate there). There is also a Dunkin Donuts in the resort if you want something quick and less expensive, plus a couple of other snack bars.
Selecting a wand in the MagiQuest Marketplace – it’s like the GWL version of Ollivanders
After eating, the kids picked out their wands for MagiQuest: Guardians of the Realm Portals. So, Great Wolf Lodge is WAY more than a resort with an indoor water park. Among the many fun activities for kids and families is this live-action game that takes kids on an adventure around the lodge with a magic wand and interactive displays. It’s like a virtual Harry Potter experience and kind of enchanting with hallways covered in forest designs and “magical” portals lining the walls. The kids loved this game, and we felt comfortable letting them roam the floors themselves to play (and saw many others doing the same).
On a quest for fun and adventure
Of course, we spent much of the day at the water park — and it was a total blast. There are several big slides, some the whole family can ride down on a raft, so you enjoy the thrill together. The Howling Tornado, a fast ride that drops into a funnel and spins you through to the end, was our favorite, but we enjoyed them all many times over — the waits in line were never too long, so the fun was ongoing. There is also a water fort to climb up and slide down, a wave pool, lazy river, a mellow pool area especially for toddlers, an obstacle course, plus two hot tubs — one for all ages and one for adults. There is also a food stand right in the water park area for poolside dining (and they sell beer!). And you just can’t beat the convenience of throwing on swim suits and walking down the hall to access it all!
We finally left the water park to enjoy some of the other activities around the lodge. We caught a “movie” at the Howly Wood XD Theater, an immersive 4-D adventure that really makes you feel like you’re part of a thrill ride. We did the Oliver’s Time Challenge, the kids used their Paw Passes, and of course, there was a lot of MagiQuest. And as the kids wandered, Levi and I grabbed some comfortable chairs and a bottle of wine for some relaxation. (And here I should note that our kids’ ages allowed for this… parents with younger children shouldn’t let them roam alone.)
Storytime in the lobby
There are also lots of free activities and programs to join throughout the day, many that younger children can enjoy, like storytimes, craft sessions, character appearances, family yoga, dance parties, and more. You can usually find one of them happening in the lobby at any given time. And for additional fun, you can conquer a ropes course, play mini golf, or go bowling.
On the mini links with the Howling Tornado looming in the backgroun
More of the same fun ensued on Sunday. And though we left by early afternoon, guests are welcome to spend the entire day at the resort, even after the 11am check-out time (and starting at 1pm on check-in day.) They really do want you to pack in the fun.
So, as skeptical as I was about the whole water park resort experience, I have to give Great Wolf Lodge huge props. It really was a fantastic and convenient weekend escape for our family. And we’re aiming for a winter weekend next time, when we can don swim suits and enjoy some water park fun indoors while it’s parka weather outside.
Great Wolf Lodge has many locations around the country, the closest to DC in Williamsburg, VA, about a three-hour drive away. Rates vary depending on when you go and which room you select, but all stays include water park access and daily programs. Special offers are always running, so be sure to see what’s available before you book.
Disclosure: I received most of our getaway complimentary of Great Wolf Lodge, however, all opinions expressed here are entirely my own.