Thursday, February 9, 2012

Great Wolf Lodge - Traverse City, Michigan

We finally visited Great Wolf Lodge (Traverse City, Michigan location)!  It's great to have so much all in one building but it can be overwhelming!  So I did my research before our trip and now that I have personally been there I am ready to share some tips with you.  Note:  we were there in the winter so I have no experience or tips that pertain to the outside activities.

There are a ton of picture opportunities!

The clock tower where they do story time at night.
Room check-in officially starts at 4:00 pm but you can check-in as soon as your room is ready.  You can start using the waterpark at 1:00 pm.  If your room is not ready before 4:00 pm you can still use the waterpark.  I recommend packing your swimsuits in a bag so you can access it without needing to bring all of your luggage in.

There are many room options.  We booked the Kid Kamp room but when we got there around 1:00 pm they didn't have one ready so they offered us a Wolf Den room instead (or we could have waited to check-in later).  It had the same layout just a different theme to the kids area.  My little ones LOVED it!  The room was actually the highlight of the trip for them and they still talk about how much they miss it!

There are many activities to do within the building besides the waterpark.  One is the MagiQuest (wizard wand) game.  You can purchase wands and a game (wand can be used for other visits but you will have to buy a game each time to play) for about $30 - or more if you want to upgrade the kind of wand and accessories for it.  We bought just one wand and had our kids take turns playing the game.  At their age and interest level it would have been a waste to just have them follow each other around doing the same thing. Although they did fight over the wand....  Eventually we will buy another when they learn how to play the game on their own more.  There are many ways to play the game but to keep it short, you run all over the building waving the wand at objects that have the game symbol on it.  The wand activates the objects so they talk, move, ... and you earn points or gold for many of them.  MANY kids were into playing the game and just about every kid had a wand.  My kids were a little tired by this time so they had fun but really didn't get into it.

At the Cub Club you can do a variety of crafts, play, and purchase items to craft yourself.  We decided to paint banks for $5 each.  My daughter LOVES to paint so this was a good activity for her.  The staff was very friendly!  We painted the banks the first day and then left them there to dry over night.  The next morning we went back to apply a layer of sealant and sprinkle on some glitter.  Then it had to dry for a bit before we took it home.  So, if you want to participate in one of these types of crafts you should start the process early on in your stay.  All the supplies and paint shirts were provided.

Package Opportunities:  There are many packages you can purchase to bundle your additional activities at a lower price.  One that many seemed to buy included a wand with game, a shirt at the Cub Club, a stuffed animal (like build-a-bear), and a variety of other things (highly promoted at check-in).  We did not buy the package because we would have needed two and it was just more than we really wanted during this trip.  It is a great opportunity though!

At 8:00 pm we all gathered around the clock, in our pajamas, for story time.  It was very entertaining as the clock animals came to life and then a staff member read a story.

Photo opportunity with Wiley after the story!
At check-in (or by 7:30 pm) you can place an order (through the main desk) to have cookies and milk delivered to your room after story time.  It's $16 for 4 fresh baked cookies and 2 milks but they are delivered to your room by Wiley for yet another picture opportunity!  It's a great surprise for little ones!  The time it takes for them to deliver your cookies depends on how many rooms are signed up for the night. They said it usually takes any where from 5-45 minutes (after story time).  I still have not seen any promotion of this opportunity but I was told about it before going and it is something that you can do.

Hug goodnight from Wiley!

The waterpark is the biggest attraction!  At check-in you are given a wrist band for each person in your reservation.  This has to be worn at all times to gain access to the waterpark.  If for any reason you need a replacement you can get one through the main desk but you have to bring your original band with you.  The bands are a little long but you can ask to have them trimmed if you don't have the "tools" to do it yourself.  We booked a one night stay so we could use the waterpark starting at 1:00 pm the day of check-in and until close the day of check-out.  These were durable bands so they stayed on with no problems the entire stay.

When you enter the waterpark they will need to measure any little kids.  They are given another color band depending on their height.  This lets staff know what rides they can/can't participate in.  The bands are paper and will fall off after a while.  Ours lasted the first day but we had to get new ones the second day.  My little ones were able to participate in all the rides except the big slide where you have to ride by alone and the other two big slides (where you can go double or single on tubes) they had to be with a parent.  

I purchased a disposable waterproof camera to take pictures in the water park.  They actually turned out really dark - this is the best one I ended up with.  I will have to figure out something else next time.  You can take your regular camera in and walk around taking pictures (taking your chances of getting sprayed by water).  I just wanted to get some shots while I was also participating in the water fun.  

We had a room on the same floor as the entry to the waterpark (the 1st floor).  So we comfortably walked to the waterpark entrance (all inside the the same building) with our swim suits and flip-flops.  I had a sweatshirt on over my suit.  Next time I think I will bring some kids of cover-up.  I actually saw someone walking around with their robe on over their suit.  Next time I will bring towels from home too - or at least from my room!  They do provide towels in the waterpark but they are the size of a hand towel, feel like sand paper, and you have to leave them at the waterpark (can't take them to your room).  

We just found a table to place our shoes and shirts on while we played in the water.  The day of check-out we had more stuff (including our money and car keys) so we rented a locker.  The lockers are actually a pretty nice size!  They are located near the bathrooms and showers so there is easy access.  You pay $20 for unlimited access for one day but you get $10 back when you return the locker key.  

There are showers (open style - no curtains) with hand soap on the walls, restrooms, lockers, and changing area in the waterpark.  They also have a "water extractor" for swimsuits that is awesome!  Basically you put your suit in a little machine and within seconds it has spun most of the water out of it!  It's nice to have a dry suit to wear later or for packing.  

There are also cabanas that you can rent in the waterpark.  This is a great way to keep your things together and provide space to relax.  There are many tables and chairs through the park but we found it hard to find a free spot since people were using them to hold their shoes and stuff while they played.  I'm not sure of the cost.  We did not rent a cabana since our kids are little and needed us to be with them all the time.  But, it would be a great option if you do not have little ones to keep an eye on.  I will surely rent one if we go there with teens!


All the rooms are suites with a mini refrigerator and a microwave.  Many people I know bring their own food to eat.  There are also many places to eat close to the lodge.  We opted to stay in the building and order pizza from the lodge for dinner.  It was very good!

***As of our 2014 visit - this option is no longer available.
There's also a sit down restaurant:

We made breakfast simple and bought some stuff from the coffee/pastry shop near our room.

We ate lunch at the snack shop in the waterpark.  They actually had some good options for me and my picky kids!  The kids loved that their hotdog meals came in these cute boxes.  The kids meals were $7.49 each but they came with crinkle fries (perfectly cooked), apple wedges, a drink, and a large hot dog.  They also have kids meals with a hamburger, PB&J, and I think a chicken sandwich.  I ordered a small cheese pizza (menu only listed pepperoni but they were happy to accommodate).  They have a nice set-up for condiments too!  Oh - and you can purchase beer!  There's just a limited area (the eating area) where you can actually take the beer once you buy it.

***As of our 2014 visit - this is no longer available.

To give you an idea of some of the things they offered during our stay:

Yes - there's an arcade, spa, ice cream, and lots of little stores.

These letters came to us the morning of check-out:

If they have rooms available the night that you are checking out, they may offer you another nights stay at a discount.  We paid $169.99 ($199.20 with taxes and fees) for our first night.  Here they are offering us the room for another night at just $129 (before taxes and fees).  It's a great opportunity to keep in mind.  Unfortunately we had to get the kids back to school.

Other tips:

Read the signs in the waterpark!  The large rides require tubes so we took up tubes with us.  It turns out that the first ride we went on required a different tube that was already up there waiting for us...  We would have known this if we would have read the sign on the way up - it was big with arrows saying "no tubes this side"....  Oh well, I got a little heavy lifting in ;-)

There's two elevators next to each other in the the main area of the lodge.  They are small and always seem to be busy.  When you first enter the lodge you will notice a set of stairs but they only take you to one other floor....  We found a "hidden" set of stairs in the hall by our room.  They are huge but not placed well for new people to notice easily.  Then, the day of check-out, we noticed at the end of our hall (opposite the direction we traveled to get to the activities and waterpark) another elevator.  This would have been helpful when playing the MagiQuest game and when trying to fit ourselves and luggage in an elevator.  

In the water park there is a big barrel that fills with water and then pours down onto the the ground.  There is a bell that warns you when it is preparing to pour so you can move out of the way or get in the way if you want to get hit by the water.  We saw many people participate in this downpour of water!  So we decided to try it ourselves before we left.  My daughter and I went first.  As soon as the water hit me I realized it was more than I wanted my tiny 6 year old to experience so I covered her.  Some kids were knocked right on their butts.  So, my tip is to try it yourself before you let your little ones attempt it.  I actually saw one guy holding a toddler right in mid stream!!  Okay - I may sound a little overboard but as an adult it was okay - it was just not the kind of force I want my little ones to experience until they are older.

Be prepared to get wet when you are in the waterpark!  There is no avoiding it.  There are so many spray guns, buckets of water, ropes to pull so water dumps down on people in another area....  I don't know how many times my kids unknowingly dumped water on another person!  

So much has changed so here is my update from 2014!!!

Tips I Have Learned: Slicing Bread

I love my apple bread recipe!!  But, whenever I slice a fresh loaf it crumbles and looks messy.  One day I figured out a trick that works great.  I freeze the bread (almost all the way) and then I slice it.  The cuts end up perfect!

Popcorn Lesson

Late last fall my kids and I stopped by a farmers stand to see what kind of goodies they had.  When we were ready to leave the owner gave us this:

He said to put the corn in the paper bag and microwave it for 2 minutes for fresh popcorn!  So we were more than happy to check it out.

I wasn't sure how to tie off the bag (so the popped corn wouldn't fly all over) so we used a rubber band.

After 2 minutes we ended up with this.  It didn't come off the husk very well and the popped kernels were flavorless.  It was a fun "science experiment" though!

Tips I Have Learned: "Clean" Sugar Cookies

When you are creating decorative sugar cookies it is very important that your cookie is "clean".  Which means it needs to be free of flour so it doesn't interfere with baking or the frosting.  Here are some tips that I have learned.

After rolling and cutting my cookie dough I generally end up with this:

So I take a small food brush (like a large paint brush) and use it to dust off the flour.

After the cookies are baked I brush off any remaining flour on the back sides.  Now you have a clean fresh cookie that is ready to be decorated.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Las Vegas Vacation: Fremont Street

The old downtown area of Las Vegas has really transformed over the years!  To compete with the ever growing and changing "strip" on Las Vegas Blvd the casinos downtown have had to raise the bar to attract guests.  They really have accomplished this with the "Fremont Street Experience".  The old downtown is on Fremont Street and is worth checking out.  

To get the full effect you really have to be there at night.  The main section of the Fremont Street is blocked off for pedestrians and is covered to provide an awesome light show.  There are set times where the light show really shows it's magic but there's generally some form of show on the overhead "screen" at all times of the night.

As you stroll down the walk you will pass a variety of casinos, street performers, artists, live bands, carts selling a variety of trinkets, and some of the best deals on hot dogs, daiquiris and shrimp cocktail!  One year we watched a big production of someone trying to beat a world record.  

Yes - you can even take a zip line down the street!

The night time environment is great for those looking to dance in the street while drinking and having a great time.  It really has a great party vibe.  Before having kids, we would plan one night of our stay at the Fitzgerald on Fremont Street.  That way we could enjoy the party environment and drink as many super strong daiquiris for $.99 as we wanted without having to drive back to the strip.  

Las Vegas Vacation: Our Favorite Places To Eat

Every time I think of eating in Las Vegas it reminds me of a story that my dad told me about his first visit to Las Vegas.  To keep it short, my dad was ALWAYS looking for a deal and for food!!  Not knowing how cheap the food would be there, he and my step-mom ate at Denny's before exploring the town.  It didn't take long before they realized that Denny's was one of the most expensive places to eat in town and by far the least elaborate.  The moral of the story??  You can get a great meal for "pennies" in Las Vegas!!  

Before I became a vegetarian we always took advantage of these deals.  I almost always ate a super delicious prime rib dinner on Fremont Street and searched for the best deal on steak and lobster.  And lets not forget the endless offerings of buffets!!!  I sadly gain a ton of weight every time I visit Las Vegas but it is sooooo yummy!!!!

Not only is it Las Vegas but it's also another area of the country that offers many of our favorite restaurants that we just don't have in Michigan.  Raising Cane's is one of them.  We were extremely surprised to find this advertised when we were traveling down the highway.  We didn't realize that they were in Nevada.  We discovered it just a day before we left for home.  Of course, we had to adjust our "meal plan" to fit a visit in!

My husbands meal

My chicken-free meal - I LOVE the dip for my fries!
We were happy to discover that they also have a Fatburger right on the strip!  Check out my Las Angeles blog if you haven't heard of this delicious place!

We can never get enough of In-N-Out Burger!  I think we ate there at least 3 times during the week (4 times for my husband).

We were excited to find out that the Tropicana location (near Las Vegas Blvd) has a retail location next to the restaurant.  It's one of few where you can purchase In-N-Out Burger merchandise on the spot.  Of course we had to shop ;-)

We LOVE California Pizza Kitchen!!  The one we usually checkout is in the mall on the strip.

Panda Express is another favorite!  These were in our area a few years ago but for some reason they all left.   Now we have to stop at least once when we are near one.  

Rainforest Cafe is a lot of fun!  It's a little pricy but they have a great menu and they keep our little ones very entertained!  This is located in MGM Grand.

There are soooo many buffets and they all have a theme to meet the demands of the many guests.  My favorite by far is the one at The Orleans.  This is off the strip but a very nice place.  I like to go for dinner.  I made the mistake once of going during seafood night.  It might sound good but not when EVERYTHING has some kind of seafood mixed into it.  And I was pregnant so I wasn't supposed to be eating much seafood.  I think they have since opened a seafood specific buffet so the one I like is always the way I like it.  Why do I like this one?  They offer food from a variety of areas:  Italian, Mexican, American, Mongolian, barbecue, Chinese, and seafood.  Of course they also have a salad bar and a large dessert bar.  And it's at the best price I have found.  If I remember correctly the price is reduced during the early hours of the buffet time but thats not a problem for me since there's a 3 hour time difference from where I live.

Other places:

I haven't had a chance to check it out but I have heard that Hash House A Go-Go is a great place.  The menu looks delicious - especially if you like breakfast foods.

There's a Hard Rock Cafe in the Hard Rock Casino.

There's also a "Pink's" in the Hard Rock Cafe which I talked about in one of my Las Angeles blog posts.

Las Vegas Vacation: The Strip

Las Vegas is a place that I have visited many times.  There is one thing that is certain to me - it is ever changing!!!  There's always construction!  I have seen the "strip" through many stages and it always amazes me how different it is from year to year.  This rapid change makes it hard to blog on Las Vegas and keep it accurate but I will try my best.  Just keep in mind that what I tell you about now may not be the same when you visit.  It's always a good thing to do your research to see what is still around and whats new.

You can't do a tourist visit to Las Vegas and not get a picture in front of the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign!!  This is at the beginning of the strip.  It is in the median of a busy street with a very small parking lot (free parking).  You may have to stop by a couple of times before you find an opportunity to park.  I took my try-pod to get a family picture but thankfully there was another tourist that offered to take a few for us (setting up my camera was taking a long time).  

The back side of the sign.
My son wasn't happy by this point but I really wanted it for a photo book.

The red line is the "strip"

Excalibur is the first attraction that we usually spot while starting our drive down the strip.  I have never stayed there but it's an amazing place that you have to see inside.  

We usually park at Excalibur (picture shown later in this post) because they have free outdoor parking that is close to all the most desired sites.  You can take a free tram from Excalibur, past Luxor, to Mandalay Bay.  From Mandalay Bay you can catch the free tram to Luxor and then back to Excalibur.  There are two trams but only one stops at Luxor.  The trams arrive approximately every 5 minutes so it's a great option!  I used it often one trip when I stayed at Excalibur but attended a work conference at Mandalay Bay.

This was taken in October 2011.

A great picture opportunity at the Luxor tram drop-off.

The interior of Luxor is hollow so there is plenty of room for a unique shopping and gambling experience.  The rooms are only on the exterior walls of the pyramid and the elevators actually incline (up, over, up, over - for every floor).

Interior view of Luxor - looking up to center.

Interior view of Luxor.

One of the reasons I have been to Las Vegas many times is the price.  If you do your research, you can eat, sleep and have fun in Las Vegas without spending much at all.  It's not as easy now but airline tickets used to be cheap too.  

Excalibur is one of the locations that I have stayed at often.  They generally offer great rates for rooms (especially in the spring) and it's in a great location on the strip (the corner of Las Vegas Blvd and Tropicana).  Not only do they offer the tram to help you get to other casino's but it's on a main corner of the strip.  A location that offers walkways to to the casinos on all four corners.  
An older picture but still the same look of Excalibur.

New York, New York is another main casino/hotel on the corner of Las Vegas Blvd & Tropicana.  All casinos have a ton to offer but one of the main attractions of this one is the roller coaster that runs around the exterior of the building.  

New York, New York
You can get a great picture of this from Tropicana on the opposite corner.
MGM Grand is on another corner.  We love that they have a Rainforest Cafe inside!  I have stayed there once but I avoid it now.  They have a lot to offer but I was put off by the location of our room.  It has been a few years but when we stayed there we had to walk a very long distance to get to our room from the elevator.  You can tell by the picture.  Imagine that the elevator is in the middle and your room is at an end of a wing.  It's much bigger than it appears in the picture and we were hauling our luggage with us.  If I stay there again I will ask an employee to bring our luggage!

During our last trip to Las Vegas we caught the lion feeding in MGM.   They have the days and times posted on their website.  My kids really enjoyed seeing this.  

While walking on the strip you will encounter a wide variety of entertainers.  Of course we had to stop for pictures with many of the character.  It was like being at Disney and Universal again!  Of course we tipped $1 to each character.

The Coca-Cola store is very interesting and worth checking out - especially if you like Coke memorabilia!

On the top floor of the Coca-Cola store there is a small restaurant where you can eat.  What I thought was interesting is an "Around the World Tray" that they offer.  For $7 you get a tray of coke samples from around the world.  I would have taken a picture of the tray but adding it to the blog wasn't something I thought of at the time.  

Picture of the Coca-Cola restaurant menu
Next is the M&M store.  Another store that you have to visit.  There are four floors packed with everything M&M that you could imagine.  You can even purchase personalized M&M's at the store.  Don't miss the free 3D show on the 3rd floor.  Even as an adult I enjoyed it. 

There are many picture opportunities with M&M character statues.

Near the Coca-Cola and M&M stores you will see a cart set up where you can buy last minute show tickets for a very discounted price.  I highly recommend checking it out if you have a free night and your looking for something fun to do.  I know that they also have one of these locations inside Circus Circus near the hotel check-in.  Sorry but I don't have a picture.

Fortunately my little ones didn't see "Mickey Mouse" counting his tips!!!

The Mirage is another great spot on the strip.  Their volcano erupts on a schedule and is very entertaining.  

This picture was taken a few years ago when I was VERY pregnant.

Picture taken October 2011
One of my favorite free shows is at Treasure Island (TI).  They have a nightly schedule where the ships in the exterior waters of the casino "come to life" with actors that are sure to entertain you.  They have revamped the show since I first started visiting Las Vegas but it's always fun.  You will want to get there early because there is barely standing room when the show starts.  Also, if you have little ones it will be hard for them to see if they are not near the edges.  I haven't really found the "best spot" to stand at but I would probably recommend the center walk-way (leading into the casino) but next to the ropes facing the red ship (the red ship moves to that location).  Both ships have action but at least you can see the majority there.  Also, while in that spot, if you have a young ones you could hold them up without really getting in others way.  If you stay at Treasure Island there is a small area you can stand in that is raised and gives a great view of the entire show.  

The picture below will give you an idea of when the show runs.  We found out the hard way that the hours change in the "winter months" since it gets dark earlier.  We almost missed seeing the show all together but we squeezed it in our last night.  It was the one main thing my son was looking forward to so we couldn't miss it.  Also, we park at the mall next to Treasure Island.  Parking is free and there is a raised walk over the street to get to Treasure Island.

Picture taken October 2011.
Another "TI" picture opportunity
Another fun stop for us is Caesars Palace and the Forum Shops.  The first time I visited there we joked about how there are a million ways to get in but it's hard to figure out how to get out of the casino ;-)

I have many family pictures in front of this statue over the years!  

There are two sets of statues that come to life to entertain shoppers.  It is amazing!!!  One is the "Fall of Atlantis" near Planet Hollywood and the other is "Festival Fountain" on the other end of the Forum Shops near the Cheesecake Factory.  The shows run every hour on the hour.  Check out their website for start and end times.  There are also signs listed at those two locations.

They look like regular statues but during show time they move & talk!
There's fire and water action!

The beautiful view you will see while walking through the Forum Shops
Circus Circus is further down the strip.  It's not in a great location if you want to walk around in the popular areas of the strip (at least not yet - there was a lot of construction around that area in October 2011).  It is an older casino/hotel but they have expanded some.  You can usually get the best room rates there and it is very kid friendly.  A tip - I do not recommend staying in the motor lodge rooms.  They are separate from the casino/hotel and they are really dated.  In the big top there are free circus acts every half hour (check website for start & end times) and many carnival style games.  They also have an indoor theme park for an additional fee.

Picture taken from behind the circus stage looking at bleachers 

As you move further down Las Vegas Blvd you will pass many wedding chapels and liquor stores.  You will also come to the "Gold & Silver Pawn Shop".  Which is more famously known as "Pawn Stars".  Of course we had to stop and check it out.  

We didn't see any of the stars of the show.  I was told ahead of time that there are usually lines waiting to get in so we got there at opening in the middle of the week.  There weren't lines but is was very busy!  Most of the customers seemed to be like us - views of the show.  I didn't see anyone trying to pawn anything.  The store was much smaller than I had expected and at least half of it was product promoting the show.  

Other sites on the strip that I feel are worth mentioning:

The Stratosphere reaches high in the air.  You can pay to take the elevator to the top where the observation deck is.  It's worth doing at least once.  They also have many thrill rides at the top.  

There is also a mini Eiffel Tower at Paris.  I haven't been in it but I've heard you can pay to go to the top.  

The fountain show at Bellagio are worth checking out.  You can visit their website for times.  

Every casino has a gimmick to get you in the door and hopefully gambling.  Keep an eye out for specials and unique opportunities.