The first weekend of March I and a few dozen other Southern California bloggers were invited to the opening of the Great Wolf Lodge in Garden Grove (spitting distance from Disneyland). It didn’t look interesting at all to my kids (teenagers) but I thought it would be a perfect excuse to spend time with my friend Laurie and her two kids ages five and three. From looking at the Great Wolf website I thought that the kids might be the right demographic and I knew the accommodations would be spartan but that we’d enjoy ourselves nonetheless.
After the fact I wasn’t really sure how to talk about The Great Wolf Lodge, it wasn’t a great stay but it was a great effort. The employees we encountered there were nothing short of enthusiastic. They were well trained, polite and generally helpful but there simply weren’t enough of them. After waiting 45 minutes for a bellman we found out from engineering that over 100 positions still need to be filled. (Pro tip: If you’re looking for work in Garden Grove there are jobs to be had!)
Today as I accompanied my friend Heather to Au Fudge (apparently I’m on the toddler tour of Southern California) it all started to make sense. Au Fudge and The Great Wolf Lodge just need a mom or a dad who is hands on to help them fix the sticky widgets. Both are great ideas for a small subset of people.
Water parks are fantastic but I’m not sure Southern California, where it’s always 72° and sunny, is the place for an indoor playground much like I’m not convinced the 1% need Chuck E Cheese and fake Au Pairs, they already have nannies and chefs.
Both The Great Wolf Lodge and Au Fudge are new so I will forgive them for slow service and little mistakes. I’m assuming that next week when someone shows up at 12.30 for chicken tenders or a grilled cheese sandwich at Au Fudge they won’t be all out of them and have an insipid response like, “They’re really popular we run out quickly.” Remarkably they were able to sell us a $15 truffled grilled cheese sandwich and it was equally remarkable that they were unable to properly prepare it. I’ve been a mother for 17 years, that makes me an expert grilled cheese maker, if you like I can come teach your kitchen to make one where the cheese doesn’t curdle and lump up. I can also teach you how to buy things like bread, cheese and butter so that you don’t run out of ingredients 90 minutes into service.
Nevermind. No I can’t. I don’t actually care.
And that’s the problem with Au Fudge. No one actually cares because it’s clearly a hobby or an ego thing otherwise during the middle of lunch when they’d invited the media one of the owners would have been there to answer questions. I wasn’t part of the invited media, I just sort of hitched a ride on my friend’s invite, but I did spend $44 plus tip for my half of lunch.
If you must go to Au Fudge go ahead and try the BLT and egg. It really was delicious. I called later in the evening to ask if my $5 Diet Coke was 6 or 8 ounces but their voicemail says something about “opening soon” so maybe what we experienced was a pre-opening and sometime between now and then they’ll learn to make pasta and grilled cheese. Did I mention that the penne was inedible? I might have mentioned it to a server had anyone asked us. Perhaps they knew since almost everything was packed up to go, uneaten.
Still, you’ll go to Au Fudge when you visit LA for the freak show.
You’ll marvel that parents thought it was a good idea to put a gumball machine by the door of the creative space (that’s hipster for play area) stocked with giant gumballs that make little boys cry because they aren’t bouncy balls and then when they try to take a bite they’re too big and too hard for little mouths with baby teeth.
You’ll go to Au Fudge to look at 30 year old women with little boys in starched Peter Pan collars and linen outfits and you’ll wonder why they’re carrying $4,500 handbags to lunch with a toddler and their daughters don’t seem to mind the bows in their hair and you’ll stare at them and pretend like you’re Margaret Meade discovering the Hollywood Wife in the wild. You’ll notice that these are the mothers that expect there to be scented candles in the bathroom and don’t see any danger at all. And then you’ll see them jam the baby seat into the back of their 911 and you’ll try to not die of envy but you might die just a little.
Mostly though you’ll get to stop wondering who buys those weird kid clothes you see in the windows of overpriced baby boutiques. They eat at Au Fudge but I don’t think it will last. The novelty will wear off and they’ll go get a salad around the corner at The Ivy like a normal person. Unfortunately they’ll still dress their kids like it’s the 18th century.
The folks who go to Au Fudge are the only ones I know who can afford to take a family to The Great Wolf Lodge but you won’t find them there because it’s just not upscale enough to delight. The rooms at the Great Wolf Lodge have some fairly serious engineering issues. Wind howls through doorjams on the third floor pipes rattle when the water is hot. I had to change rooms four times to find one where sleep would be possible without earplugs. The bathrooms are on par with a roadside motel and everything’s just a little too tall for little kids to reach, like the sink, but there are no foot stools in sight even though it’s a hotel that caters to kids.
The Great Wolf Lodge does a few things very right and will probably grow into it’s Southern California location and blossom. They treat allergies seriously. Unlike Au Fudge, whose menu is peppered with foods that will send mothers of children with allergies racing for epi pens, The Great Wolf Lodge doesn’t use tree nuts in anything and they have many gluten free options for folks with celiac. Their head chef met with the press and explained that if you have a severe allergy and worry about cross contamination at the buffet to ask them to bring fresh food out for you, they’re very allergy conscious.
Alternatively if you want to eat good food while at the Great Wolf Lodge they don’t have minibars but rather oversized bar refrigerators, coffee makers and microwaves in each room. Bring everything yourself and eat your food on your timeline and you’ll probably be happier. The food I tried there was serviceable at best. It’s a midwestern chain plopping itself down in Southern California and though they’ve done a spectacular job of using local meat and produce the food simply isn’t good. They’re especially proud of their pizza. It looks like this.
The water park is fantastic. It’s overly warm and overly chlorinated. Both seem like bad things until you consider the options. Kids can spend an entire day here because they won’t be too hot or too cold and your foot won’t fall off from some random fungal infection because there’s plenty of chlorine.
Because a wristband is required for the water park you’ll always be able to get a lounge chair and they’ll have the names or credit cards of just about everyone there. It’s as much of a bubble as you can get around your kids in a waterpark so you should be able to enjoy a drink. Except that there’s only one bartender and it’ll take you about 25 minutes to get a margarita.
Just get two margaritas and enjoy the day.
There were some truly amazing staff members at The Great Wolf Lodge and this leads me to believe that in a few months it will be a really fun place to stay. Angel read a bedtime story at 8pm each night along with some characters. When I tell you that he’s like the best camp counselor you ever had combined with the story time librarian I’m understating things. Apparently he came from another location to help with the launch. If they can find another employee like him that will be wonderful.
There’s a quest game with wands and things. Skip the upgrades, super spendy, the wands won’t work 100% of the time but the employees who help you will be lovely 100% of the time. They seem to have fun playing with accents – again, like camp counselors, perfect for kids.
Tip: Do not yell Bababooey at mini golf. No one will laugh.
The mini golf is weird and poorly designed so that balls are routinely stuck underneath tunnels but everyone is terrible at it anyhow so it was still fun. When you’re at Great Wolf you need to commit to having fun. It’s a good decision and if you don’t take yourself too seriously it can be a fun weekend.
Back to the staffing. The lifeguards at The Great Wolf Lodge were not good, they were terrific. I watched them. I went around the lazy river a few times with the five year old and had half an eye on her and half an eye on the lifeguards. They were attentive and changed positions often enough to leave me very comfortable with the safety level. I’m the mom who used to make my kids sing in the bathtub. Why? You can’t sing and drown at the same time.
Rooms at The Great Wolf Lodge are priced like a luxury resort and every time you turn your head you’ll be spending more. Here are my tips if you decide to stay at the Great Wolf Lodge.
- One or two nights is more than enough
- Bring your own food if not complete meals then drinks and snacks (and a corkscrew)
- Prepare to spend a lot, don’t look for value and you won’t be disappointed
- Have the kids get into pajamas before story time in the lobby, it’s really very sweet
- Do not book a bunk bed unless you know your child can sleep in one. Kids get scared in unfamiliar places and the bunk bed became a bother
- Check your door for wind noises, they seem okay during the day but when it’s quiet at night that’s loud
- Bring your own pillow, those are some scratchy sheets.
- Do not let them handle your luggage until they are fully staffed. It was very laissez-faire in the luggage storage room and we were asked which bags were ours.
- Pretend you’re 12. Water slides are fun. Smile, skip the makeup and enjoy yourself
- The spa isn’t really a spa and it’s where the worst of gender stereotypes are reinforced. If this makes you bristle, stay away, if it doesn’t bother you then have your daughter get some lip gloss. It won’t kill anyone (except maybe my daughter – she’d have died twice)
A photo posted by Jessica Gottlieb (@jessicagottlieb) on
Much like Au Fudge, The Great Wolf Lodge is something no one really needs in this region. Au Fudge will be around a while, long enough for the owners’ kids to get older and for them to realize how absurd the concept is or long enough for them to write a children’s book or a lifestyle book and hit the speaking circuit where they can teach us plebes how to pick out designer lollipops or something equally vapid. The Great Wolf Lodge will figure things out. Hopefully get the kind of food people eat in Southern California when they’re in a swimsuit and continue trying really hard to make kids happy. When 100% of your staff members are enthusiastically kind to children of all ages in all stages from joy to meltdown I think there’s hope. Until then, pack a cooler.