Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Who's Afraid of Great Wolf Lodge?

We came, we saw, we howled.

I'm not quoting hipster beat poetry. I'm talking about Sunday night at Great Wolf Lodge.

Yes, we did it. Because we are either: clinically insane, suspiciously self-punishing, or just not very good at remembering how poorly we sleep in a hotel room with children.

Our last whirlwind trip, 4th of July, was somewhat of a bust. We still don't speak of "Kaboom Town" in my house, and the mere mention of Addison, Texas, causes us to recoil and squeal "Voldemort" while retreating under the covers with bug spray and wine.

Okay, possibly that's just me. But my point is this: our first "fun family adventure" was heavy on the 'adventure' part, light on the fun. And, as previously mentioned, I had decided to forgo an extended family trip this year in favor of Fridays off and more time with the kids. Clearly I forgot that I actually meant my kids, not 5,000 other random kids I don't know.

And their parents.
And everyone else.
In the world.

Sunday morning started out ... not really well, to be honest. I had promised the boys we'd wake up early and go on a pre-dawn bike ride, which is something we like to do because ... I'm an idiot and we did it once and then I bought these bike lights and was all "yeah, we're gonna do this every weekend." And the boys were all excited (okay, the youngest was excited, the other was like, "so what, I hate everything!" because he's in training for puberty).

I overslept. So no early dawn bike ride with glimpses of woodland creatures (on Saturday we saw a bunny! and a rat!) Lucky for me, my youngest was so excited about Great Wolf Lodge, he woke me up at 6:45 am to ask if it was already light outside (it was).

And what time are we leaving for Great Wolf Lodge? (noon)

And what year were you born, Mommy? (none of your business)

When I answered this question, he scrunched up his face and asked, "But wouldn't that make you, like, 85?" And then he cackled hysterically and left the room to pack.

Within ten minutes, he was sporting a matching ensemble, including footwear and showing me that "of course I packed two swimsuits, matching swim shirts and extra underwear!" His brother told me he packed his own bag, too, but I checked it and found a swimsuit, one flip flop and three stuffed alligators.

Two loads of laundry, one wet dog and an angry meltdown later (rage, thy name is 3rd grade), we were on the road. Oh, and a quick stop at Steak and Shake, where my youngest SWORE he liked the hot dogs, and then it came and it was sliced down the middle and he said, "Oh. I changed my mind. I'm not hungry" at which point, his brother seized the opportunity and piped up with a breakout monologue about how much he loved his burger. Because with two boys?
A Competition.

40 minutes later (when are we going to get there? Can I play on your Kindle? Is this Grapevine yet? Are we going on an airplane? Is there a gift shop?) we rolled into the parking lot. In spite of myself, I was a little excited, I mean, there was a giant wolf statue. That's kind of cool, right?

Then I hit the registration line. You know when you go to an amusement park and the lines are all zig-zaggy because they make you snake your way through an obstacle course before getting on a roller coaster? This was kind of the same, only instead of making me throw up by flinging me upside down, they just flashed a bunch of numbers and forms that made me dizzy and suddenly buying the optional add-on "wolf pack" passes for my kids made perfect sense.

They're very clever, those wolves. I suspect coyotes are working behind the scenes. Anyway, we finally got our passes and our wristbands and our room was ready. The kids could barely contain themselves. They raced down the hall (joke was on them, though, because guess whose wristband opened the door?)

And it was everything they dreamed of.

Bunk bed? Check
"Wolf den" sign? Check
Their own TV? Oh yeah, check.

Seriously, we could have spent the first hour watching FIFA soccer because so they were drunk with the power of their own television, I think they might have forgotten about the water park. Silly us, we told them to turn off the TV.

You know what I like about water parks? I don't.

I like swimming, but not with 10,000 new friends. And the "lazy river" was more of a "hey, don't scrape your knees as the waves pound you into the belly of a perfect stranger" river.

So we moved onto the wave pool, which was kind of fun, if your idea of fun is hoping your kids don't drown. I say "hope" because you can't actually see them anymore, so you have no choice but to adopt a Blanche DuBois attitude about the whole thing. "Ah have always depended on the kindness of strangers ... to save mah kids."

Of course, it was only a matter of time before the water slides beckoned.

Alas, the youngest was too short to ride the "Tornado," so he and I headed for the kiddie slide. It was was pretty crowded so I hung out below and tried to find him in line. I didn't notice other people, bigger kids and grown men, coming to stand near me. Didn't notice when a sound like a train whistle came from above. I figured that was part of the water slide.

Didn't notice anything, as a matter of fact, until 50,000 gallons of water crashed down on my head.

Because yeah, I'm the dummy standing under the giant water bucket. Spying another adult similarly soaked, I said (thinking I was commiserating) "I did not see that coming."

"Really?" He asked, before shooting a pointed glance up at the bucket and then back down at me. And then I realized all the other guys were standing there to get smacked by water on purpose.

Dudes, the Atlantic Ocean will do that to you for free.

Apres le deluge, moi. And after the waterslide, we found my husband. He had just taken our oldest on the Tornado.

Remember the scene in Death at a Funeral where Alan scoots across the room with an awful smile of fear, trying to pretend there is not a possibly-dead Peter in the study?

If you haven't seen it, stop reading this and go watch it right now. Then picture that face on a man who has just gone down a water slide with his 8-year-old.

"Hey," I asked, trying to be peppy. "How was the tornado?"

My son surprised me by grinning and saying, "Really, really scary! Like, really scary! And I want do it again!"

After he swam away, I asked my husband, "So ... how was it?"

"It was really, really scary," he mumbled through gritted teeth. "And, I don't want to do it again. I just want to sit in this pee-filled pool and try to forget that ever happened."

Since he was clearly suffering from Tornado-induced PTSD, I volunteered for "let's buy a bunch of crap we don't need because Mommy's a sucker and bought the wolf pass" duty.

Swim goggles I could have bought at Target? Check
Glitter tattoos? Check
Magic wands, along with a clue book and instructions I didn't understand for playing MagicQuest? Check

Then we hit the Creation Station/aka build-a-wolf. I was on such a roll, I thought this would be easy. But there was unepxected confusion on my kids' part as they looked at the limp, unstuffed bodies and thought they were getting screwed out of an actual stuffed animal. Finally, one of them said, "Oh, we get to pick any one of these AND it's going to be a real toy? That we can keep? FOR FREE?"

The 20-something kid manning the cash register cracked a jaded smile. "Yeah, that's right, kids," he said making air quotes as he said, "it's free, right, Mom?"

I think someone might have spent too many hours in the build-a-wolf booth.

But the kids didn't notice, they were too busy pumping the pedal on the creepy stuffing machine (because nothing's more adorable than kids pretending to work in a sweat shop).

And yes, I got suckered further into purchasing the "optional" clothing for the critters. Naked wolves? Not on my watch, pal -- this is a family trip.

I didn't even care that I just spent $18 on clothing for toys. Because it was only 5:30 and we'd knocked out half the Wolf Pass list. Then my youngest took off running up the stairs to some treehouse, bent down and promptly lost his brand-new ball cap and wolf ears. In all of 2 seconds.

We raced back down to the first level, I looked everywhere & was starting to sweat when my son found his hat. On some other kid's head.

Confession: I wasn't 100% sure it was his hat. To be honest, I barely remembered the hat, except that it was new and it was Under Armour, which is a big deal among the K-3 crowd.

I take no credit for this - my 6 year old walked over to the kid, started talking and soon a small crowd had formed. Then he walked back to me smiling and wearing his hat. I'm not sure what he said, but I think he may have a bright future in the legal field someday.

Then we limped up to the lobby, where they made him howl for a second pair of wolf ears. I'm not kidding and yes, he did it. I told you -- future lawyer.

The rest of the evening was a blur.

Dinner - check!
3-D family portraits - check!
Personalized leather bracelets they've already lost - check!

Goth girls sporting wolf ears, magic wands, and too much makeup - check! (Because nothing spells dark and edgy like staying at a theme park hotel. With your parents).

Youth and black eyeliner are so wasted on the young.

Story time in the lobby with a very peppy guy named Jonathan who led the kids in games and stories and then told all the kids there was a dance party at 9:30 pm and they could stay up ALL NIGHT and wouldn't that be AWESOME - check!

Angry trek to elevators with 2 kids who wanted to swim and dance ALL NIGHT - check!

Cue montage of wrestling kids, semi-dressed build-a-wolves and TV volume turned up WAY HIGHER THAN ANYONE SHOULD EVER LISTEN TO A SOCCER GAME, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

Somehow by 10:30ish, both kids were asleep. My husband, playing the role previously established by me in "Kaboom town" had come down with a tubucular cough. That, and the dulcet tones of snoring, lulled us to a few restless hours of sleep.

The good news for me? I had to work the next day, and I left the Lodge at 7 am.

The bad news for my husband? See above.

They rolled into the house around 2:30, still clutching build-a-wolves, sticky cups of soda, and for some reason, rubber sharks, peppering everything with "Next time we go to Great Wolf Lodge..."

When they'd taken their wolfen booty up the stairs, I took my husband aside. "Did you tell them when the 'next time' we'd go to Great Wolf Lodge might be?"

"Sure," he said, coughing. "When they have kids of their own."


So yeah, who's afraid of the big bad wolf? Not us.

And 2 weeks from now, my husband is taking our oldest to NYC -- maybe I'll get HIM to write a post for that trip,. Me, I'll just be hanging at home with the 6-year-old. Maybe catching up on Cupcake Wars. Or maybe we'll have a sleepover. That'll be super calm and relaxing.

But, guess what book I just pre-ordered? Birnbaum's Guide to Disney 2016.

Because yes.

We're going to Disneyland.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Kaboom Town: A terrifying tale of fireworks, fire ants and rollaway beds

A family battles oppressive heat, terrifying crowds and cruel stinging beasts only to lose their youngest child in a freak elevator accident. Sounds like a perfect recipe for a horror movie, right?

That was last weekend.

4th of July. America's birthday. Or, as I now think of it,

The Worst. Holiday. Ever.

It all started out, as many bad ideas do, with a trip to Sea World. Every summer, my husband and I debate where to take the kids (2 boys, 8 and 6) on vacation. Every year, he suggests trying someplace new and every year I lobby for Naples, Florida. What can I say? I know what I like. Uncrowded beaches, Cuban food, and, it must be said, the best tacos in the world. We live in Texas. We don't joke about things like tacos.

This year was no different. He wanted DC and New York. I didn't want to spend precious vacation time chasing a six year old through Manhattan. He wanted East Coast, I wanted the Gulf Coast. He suggested North Carolina, but the sharks beat us there. Finally, I had a vision (panic attack). This was our first summer living in a house with our very own pool, why go anywhere? Instead of cramming family time into one frenzied week, why not take off Fridays, chill chez nous and enjoy long weekends all summer? I pictured poolside playdates with popicles and sangria. Channeling Karen Blixen, I thought:

I had a pool. In Texas.

Knowing, of course, that my husband would think this plan sucked, I proposed we kick it off with a road trip somewhere we'd never been. And that place was Sea World, San Antonio. Clearly, I'm a masochist. No one with any real sense of self-preservation would propose a trip to Sea World over the biggest holiday weekend of the summer. But I know my husband. Go big or go home is his M.O. And you can't get bigger than Shamu. So I booked it. We were set. We told the kids, they were happy, and all was good.

Then I got sick. Sinus infection, bronchitis. 3 miserable weeks, and suddenly it was time for Sea World and I was still coughing up a lung or two. So, plan B. (really, more like plan Z at this point, but who's counting?). We offered my sons a choice: go to San Antonio with Dad and I would stay home and rest or - EVEN BETTER KIDS - see the biggest fireworks display in Texas, a mere 15 minutes away in Addison. Even typhoid moi could hack that. So it all came down to Orcas or Mommy. They chose me. But then, Shamu's not paying their allowance.

I booked a hotel to avoid traffic and to make it an ADVENTURE. On Friday, July 3rd, we dropped off the dog, packed our bags, and headed down the road toward the Hotel Intercontinental. What would we do first? Swim in the pool? Jump on the bed? Hit the Kaboom Town fair, reported to be chock full of carnival rides, corny dogs and a daredevil air show? Life seemed so full of possibilities.

And then I checked us in. The line at the front desk should have been my first clue. Families everywhere, clutching tote bags, toddlers, pool toys and cases of beer. But, hey - that was us, minus the beer (ok, fine: mini boxed wine had been stashed in the cooler bag in case of emergency). When I finally made it to the front and learned we were in a room with one king bed, for the four of us, I tried not to get upset. I asked for a rollaway bed. After all, we were here for fun and fireworks, not hanging out in the room. Plus, my husband was sure there was a couch.

Ten minutes later, after waiting for an overheated elevator, we entered our room. If by "couch" they meant a small chair with smaller ottoman, tucked into a corner next to the "we're calling it a king" sized bed, then sure, there was a couch. There was also a phone that did not work, not enough towels and the room was too hot. I'll admit it, I was frustrated by the accommodations, but as my spouse so gallantly reminded me: "Hey, this was your idea, I went along with it, so let's have fun." Wise words from someone who had already spied the pool scene on his way in from the parking garage, and opted to stay in the room and wait for the rollaway bed while I took the boys swimming.

Because yeah, the pool. Picture a small L-shaped pool with a wooden deck. Now picture 200 people in that pool, about 30 of whom had squeezed into the hot tub, most of them under 5. Because nothing goes with hot tubs like toddlers and swim diapers.

My kids were loving it. Or at least from what I could see, since they ditched me the moment we hit the pool and disappeared into a sea of swimsuits and beer cozies. I found my youngest, frolicking in the e-Coli-warmed waters of the hot tub. "Come in, Mommy!" he urged. But alas, I couldn't see a spare inch of cement and also? I was already hot. And I'm talking body temperature. I did not have nearly enough self confidence or tattoos to pull off the swimwear some other braver (drunker) ladies than I were sporting. To them, I say bravo. To me, I say stick with the tankini.

After 30 minutes of constant head-swiveling to make sure my kids weren't drowning, alternated with tubercular coughing that earned me more than a few stink-eyes from the other moms, I called it. "Come on, kids," I said with all the bravado I could muster, "let's dry off and go to Kaboom Town!"

We left the pool and walked back toward the elevators. I noticed quite a few people in traditional Indian dress milling around tables laden with brochures and merchandise. According to a nearby sign, there was a conference going on. A meditation conference.

Yeah. Let that sink in.

One gentleman sported a sign around his neck saying "silence." I had to wonder who planned this and was it someone's idea of a joke? "Y'all should totally have your quiet meditation conference in Texas over 4th of July! It'll be AWESOME!" I hoped they already knew how to meditate, because judging from the now block-long line of folks waiting for check-in, it was gonna take a lot o' deep breathing to keep it karmic in this mess.

We left our plucky Hindu neighbors behind and entered the belly of the beast, AKA, Kaboom Town. I was picturing a few rides, maybe a bounce house, and some food vendors. What I was not picturing was a mini state fair, complete with long admission lines, purse searches and total chaos. Thickly crowded already at 5, when the gates had just opened. Shoving past food lines, the kids spotted the Midway and before I knew what was happening, I was abandoned with the blanket to "save our spot" while the hubby and kiddos headed for the tilt-a-whirl. I hunkered down to do more coughing and watch the family next to me plop what looked like a three month old baby on a pillow (aren't those, like, illegal for babies?), while some dude in a suit juggled nearby.

What seemed like hours later, my own family returned, sweating and red, hungry and thirsty. I took the kids on a quest for corny dogs, as they whimpered about how tired they were, and I tried not to lose them in a surge of patriotic tank tops. We made it through 2 foot-long corn dogs before accepting the reality that yes, Virginia, there is a hell. And it is called Kaboom Town.

The escape route is a blur, but I'm sure we traveled miles to get out of that park. I vaguely recall a vendor hawking plastic swords. I may have bought one. At that point, arming the six-year-old seemed like a good idea. Stumbling free of the melee, we spotted an ice cream truck, standing like a mirage in a bank parking lot. We stopped. There was a line. And then, a lovely line of parachutes floated into view. As we watched, I became aware of a strange stinging sensation. "I think something bit me," I said.

My husband, wearing the angry expression of someone waiting on a dozen people to buy rocket pops with debit cards, asked impatiently, "Well, what are you standing on?" I looked down.

An ant hill.

I was standing on a fire ant hill.

I jumped off, foraged through my bag for water bottles, which I emptied onto my burning toes. A couple young men lounging nearby elbowed each other. "Oooh, girl. That's gonna swell." Yep. Pretty much.

I hopped up and down on my toes till the damn popsicles were purchased. Also? The air show started. Zooming planes, death rolls, blah, blah, blah. I could have cared less. All I knew was that my @#$% feet were on @#$$% fire.

We limped back to the hotel. My youngest wanted to swim again. Why not? At least my feet would be cool. So we suited up and headed for the elevators. One opened, but I noticed it was going up. "Wrong one," I pointed out as my youngest stepped inside. "Come back out!" He froze.

And then? The doors started to close. I stuck out my hand, thinking the motion would stop the doors. I thought wrong.

Seeing no slowing down in the door motion, I yanked back my hand just in time as the doors closed ... almost. There was a half-inch gap left, through which I could see my son put his hands to his face as he let out one quick scream.

"Don't worry!" I shouted. "Hit door open! Hit door close!" Nothing worked. We called downstairs. One engineer came. Then two more. They wrestled with the doors. They muttered words like "fire department" and "malfunctioning." They called 911. I tried to cheer up my son by telling him he might get rescued by firemen! (Maybe that was more for me). Glass half full: all this adrenaline was doing wonders for my cough.

Finally, the three of them yanked open the doors enough for him to slip through. I hugged him. We fled to our room, where I declared, "Enough! This ends now, we're going home."

"I'm already ahead of you," my husband replied. "We're all packed."

"We're going?" my youngest asked. "But I wanted to go swimming!" he wailed.

"We HAVE a pool. You can swim at home!" My husband offered.

"But I wanted to swim here! It's more fun!" He continued to cry, "And I wanted ... I wanted to sleep in the rollaway bed!"

My oldest son and I exchanged glances. I looked at my husband. "He's the one who got stuck," I said, sighing. "If he wants to stay..."

So we went BACK to the elevators, a bit more cautiously this time. Well, I was more cautious, Mr. Invincible just skipped merrily onto the next elevator without a care. Ah, to be six. This time, the hot tub was closed and marked with yellow caution tape. I suspect the swim diapers.

An hour later, I had pried them back out of the pool again and we were sitting in lawn chairs on the top of the hotel parking garage with our cooler, stocked with juice boxes, bottled water and oh yes, the emergency wine.

Which I promptly broke out.

The fireworks were spectacular.

And when they were done, my youngest happily crawled into the rollaway bed and went immediately to sleep. My husband, our 8 year old, and I all squashed into the bed. I think my pillow might have been made out of a sand bag, because I woke up with a stabbing pain in my neck.

By 6:30 am, we were mostly awake, packed and ready to go. "I want out of here," my husband said. "I don't want to shower here, I don't want to eat here, I just want to leave." I had to agree. All that was left was to wake up my other son.

"Five more minutes," he mumbled.

"C'mon, bud," I said, "it's time to go."

"Aww, do we have to leave?"

"Yeah," I said as I urged him out of bed. "We're kind of done here. We want to go home."

He cast one mournful look around the room before we left, saying, "I wish we could stay longer, this is the best hotel ever."

"Really?" his older brother asked. "You got stuck in the elevator!"

My youngest just shrugged his skinny little shoulders and said, "Yeah, but I sure did like that rollaway bed."


So yes, we survived Kaboom Town.

We made it home in one piece, blistered toes and all.

On our windshield, incidentally, was a meditation brochure, which I totally meant to read .. but the dog ate it before I had a chance.

As God is my witness, I will never go to Kaboom Town again.

I will sit by my pool, sipping something while calmly, peacefully watching the boys swim.

Don't worry, though, I haven't ruled out family fun.

Because next month?

The kids want to go to Great Wolf Lodge.