Tag: Virginia

Great Wolf Lodge Lives Up to Its Hype!

Since becoming parents, we’d been hearing SO much about Great Wolf Lodge, a family resort and indoor water park with 16 locations across the U.S. and Canada. While so many of our fellow parents hyped it up as the ideal vacation spot for families, I’ll admit that it sounded awful to Keith and me. Hundreds of screaming kids running around? Overpriced food? GERMS? No, thank you!

But when we saw a great deal pop up on Groupon recently, we decided to give the Williamsburg, Virginia location a shot. Our package included two nights in a KidKamp suite and a $50 daily food credit at a greatly reduced price. We were also able to go Sunday through Tuesday (our school district had a student holiday that Monday), so we knew crowds would be significantly smaller. So, off we went!

And let me tell you—our two days at Great Wolf Lodge were some of the most fun days we spent as a family all winter. All three of our children—5-year-old twins Matt and Nate and 2-year-old Lily—had a fabulous time. But here’s what surprised us—Keith and I had a blast, too! Here are some of the highlights of our trip:

WHAT WE LOVED!

The water parkThis place is seriously amazing, and that’s great because it’s the only attraction in the resort that doesn’t cost extra money. With 79,000 square feet of space, the water park has something for everyone. There are giant, winding water slides for big kids and adults and tiny slides for the little kids. There’s a wave pool, a lazy river, hot tubs, and a regular pool with basketball hoops. There’s a giant climbing structure with bridges, tunnels, and water features for kids to get lost in. There’s a kiddie pool with spray areas that Lily absolutely loved. And there’s the Wolf Rider Wipeout, an awesome surf simulator that the boys did two times each. (They were the smallest kids doing it—such brave boys!) Overall we spent three to four hours each day at the water park, and we had a blast.

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Here are my water park tips:

  • Get there early! There are a limited number of tables and chairs in the park that often get snatched up in minutes. So get down to the park about 15 minutes before it opens and be ready to stake out your spot. (Note: The resort website lists the water park hours as 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday, but that is subject to change based on the season. So, double check the hours when you arrive!)
  • Bring snacks. The signs posted say no outside food is allowed in the water park, but nearly everyone we saw had their own snacks with them. (They probably just don’t want you rolling in with bags of McDonald’s). So bring lots of food to munch on and plan to eat meals out or back at your room. There is a small food stand in the water park called Buckets Incredible Craveables, but it has a very limited selection of food and no kids’ meals.
  • Bring your own towels. The resort provides towels, but they are pretty tiny and flimsy. And even though the water is warm, it can feel really chilly in the water park when you get out. So we brought the kids their own hooded towels, and next time we’ll bring towels for ourselves as well.
  • Leave life jackets at home. The water park has free Coast Guard-approved life jackets and puddle jumpers, so there’s no need to bring your own!

MagiQuestWwere going to skip this game because we thought the boys were too young, but we are SO glad we didn’t. It’s expensive, but we played for hours, and Keith and I admittedly had as much fun as the boys did. It’s basically a live-action video game. First you go to a really cool wand shop and pick your own wand. Once your game is activated, you wave your wand at any of the “portals” located around the resort—mini touch screens—to start your quest. You then have to collect a certain number of runes before you can do fun things like battle a dragon, defeat a goblin king, etc. The screen tells you which objects you need to collect to get each rune and what area of the resort you can find them in. Then you walk around and wave your wand at treasure chests, boxes, wall hangings, and more to find the objects you need. When you’ve gotten them, you return to a portal, where a character from the game gives you your rune and instructions on how to get your next rune. Its lots of fun!

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The twins opened the treasure chest with a wave of their wands!
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They defeated the evil dragon Charlock!

Here are my MaqiQuest tips:

  • Be patient. The game is tough to figure out at first, but don’t give up. Once you get the hang of it, it’s very addicting! Try to play after the water park opens and before dinnertime—there seemed to be fewer people playing during those times, which meant we didn’t have to wait as long for our turn at the portals.
  • Save some money. As I mentioned, MagiQuest is not cheap: A wand costs $15.99 to $21.99 and the game costs $14.99, but you can play as much as you want throughout your stay! (Then you can bring your wand back on future stays to pick right up where you left off!) The wand itself is super cool, so there’s no need to purchase a wand topper for $17.99 to $19.99. Also, if you have a young child who wants in on the wand action but is too young to play the game, just buy the wand without the game. The wand will still work on all the cool objects around the resort. Lily had a blast waving her wand to open treasure chests, make animals move, light up stars, etc.
  • Be ready to exercise. You may think video games are for couch potatoes, but not MagiQuest. You’ll be going up and down stairs between the second and fourth floors of the resort nonstop to collect objects for the game (unless you feel like waiting forever for the elevators), so it’s a great way to keep your kids moving!

Bowling: The resort has a mini bowling alley that’s perfect for small children because it has shorter lanes, bumpers, and little five-pound balls. Plus, you don’t need to wear bowling shoes! We went bowling with friends who visited the resort the same weekend as us, and all of the kids had a blast. (We did have a problem with balls getting stuck on one of our lanes, but it was still a good time!) The cost was $5 per person per game.

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Even 2-year-old Lily got in on the bowling action!

 

Our suite: As I mentioned earlier, we stayed in a KidKamp suite, which is a large room with a queen-size bed, a full-size sofa sleeper, and a tent-themed sleeping area with bunk beds. The twins loved sleeping on the bunk beds in their own separate space. We liked that the room had a mini fridge and a microwave. There are many other room options at the resort at various price points, ranging from standard rooms to themed suites (like ours) to premium suites with lofts, fireplaces, and jacuzzi tubs. Our friends stayed in one of the premium suites and loved it.

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Playing peek-a-boo in the KidKamp Suite

 

Free lobby activities: The lobby always has some sort of free activity or show going on for the kids. We found The Great Clock Tower Show to be a bit creepy, and the kids were bored by the nighttime Story Time. But, all three loved the little activity table that offered coloring pages and guided activities like Bingo and friendship bracelet-making.

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Coloring in the lobby while Daddy waited in line for Dunkin’ Donuts

 

The wolf ears: To our surprise, we all got a free pair of wolf ears at check-in! Lots of grown-ups got into the spirit and wore them around the resort.

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Modeling our wolf ears! Daddy wore them too, but he was behind the camera!

 

The wristbands: As someone who’s been known to lose hotel room keys and forget my wallet, this was huge for me: When you check in, you get a waterproof wristband that you use as your room key, your water park entry, and your payment for activities and food (it all just gets charged to your room). How convenient is that? Plus, the kids felt super cool and important sporting their wristbands ( though they couldn’t buy things with theirs).

 

Now, here are a few things we didn’t love (but didn’t totally hate):

WHAT WE DIDN’T LOVE

Northern Lights ArcadeWith its wide variety of games, this place would be awesome for older kids and teenagers, but it was really overwhelming and chaotic for my three kids. Almost every game uses Paw Points, a reloadable gaming card that you swipe to play the game. That means that unless you have one adult to accompany each child around the arcade, your small kids are going to be swiping the card haphazardly without realizing whether it actually worked … and spend all of the Paw Points without playing a single game. Trust me, I know! So I’d say steer clear of the arcade if you have younger kids.

The food: The best food option at the Great Wolf Lodge was the Dunkin’ Donuts in the lobby. Keith went there every morning to get us breakfast and coffee and it was included in our $50 food credit—WIN! We got pizza and wings one evening from Hungry As A Wolf and ate it in the room. It was decent, quick, and convenient. But the buffet dinner we ate at the Loose Moose Bar & Grill was not very good. (Perhaps the breakfast would have been better, but who has time for that when you’ve got to get to the water park?) My advice? Eat dinners off site, or pick up food to bring back to your room. There are lots of casual or fast-food dining spots only a minute or two away, including Carrabba’s, Chick-fil-A, and Sonic.

 

Clearly, we loved a lot more things about Great Wolf Lodge than we didn’t love! And we only scratched the surface of the attractions that are available there. There are 4D movies, a miniature golf course,  a fitness center, a spa, and so much more. We definitely plan to visit again to try out some of these other activities.

If you decide to visit Great Wolf Lodge with your family, I have a few more tips:

  1. Go when there’s a deal. I frequently see Great Wolf Lodge deals on Groupon and similar sites, so keep your eyes peeled. If you’re an active or retired military family, emergency medical service personnel, or a police or correctional officer, you can take advantage of the Howling Heroes promotion, which gives you up to 30 percent off a suite for stays through October 31. And, keep in mind that weeknights are cheaper than weekends!
  2. Maximize your time. Though check-in isn’t until 4 p.m. and checkout is at 11 a.m., you can access the water park starting at 1 p.m. on your arrival date and until closing on your departure date. And you can often get early check-in if your room is available—we did! There are showers in the water park you can use before you leave.
  3. Two nights is perfect. It’s enough time to take advantage of many of the resort activities without feeling rushed, but not so long that your family will burn out and have meltdowns.

If you decide to visit Great Wolf Lodge, let me know what you think. I hope your family enjoys it as much as mine did!

Has your family been to Great Wolf Lodge? Leave a comment below and let me know how you liked it! And if you have questions, just ask and I’ll do my best to answer them!

 

How It All Began

Eight years ago on a beautiful July day, I boarded a plane to Los Angeles with a one-way ticket and a heart full of hope. Everyone I knew had called me crazy. My parents questioned whether I’d return home alive. But I just knew what I was doing was right.

I guess I should backtrack and explain how Keith and I met, for those of you who don’t already know. I was an editorial assistant at TIME For Kids magazine in New York City. It was an entry-level job; the first rung in the ladder I was planning to climb to the top of a magazine’s masthead. I absolutely loved the job, but since it was such a wonderful place to work and people rarely left, there wasn’t much opportunity for me to advance. I was starting to feel restless.

Then one afternoon, my editor rushed into my cubicle and asked if I could take a story off her hands. It was about anysoldier.com, an amazing website through which you can send care packages to “Any Soldier” stationed overseas. She was set to interview the founder of the site, Marty Horn, the next day, but things had come up and she was swamped. I told her of course I would write the story. I recall even making a joke along the lines of, “Maybe I’ll meet a hot soldier. Hardy-har.”

Anyway, I did the interview and wrote the story, then decided to send a care package myself. I went onto the site and ran my finger up and down the list of names in true eenie-meenie-minie-mo fashion. It landed on John Molamphy, First Sergeant of B Troop, 2-14 CAV of the 1st Stryker Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. He was the point of contact who would pass out packages to soldiers in his troop. I  sent him a package and then quickly forgot about it—until February 4, 2005, when I received an email with the subject line, “Thanks from Iraq.”

The email was from John Molamphy himself. He thanked me for sending the package and wrote a few paragraphs about his unit. I replied and told him about the story I had written. A week later, he responded with some more small talk and the following:

“I was going to tell you good things about my commander, Keith Walters, but he just told me I couldn’t go on a mission tomorrow, so I’m mad at him.  He thinks I need to stay safe or something.  I’m going to give you his email so you can tell him off for me.” And he left the email address.

Now, I must be incredibly dense, but—I kid you not—I had no idea that this was an attempt to hook me and Keith up. Growing up in New York City and knowing nothing about the military, I thought a troop commander must be some really old guy. I thought John was just trying to have fun with his commander. So I decided to play along by doing exactly what John requested—I sent Keith an email and told him off.

A few days later, Keith wrote back. He made a few jokes, then wrote:

“John says you live in New York? I went to college upstate and love NY, even though I’m a Los Angeleno to the core! Want to start a friendly coastal rivalry?”

And THAT is how this crazy adventure began. Keith and I started a written battle about the merits of Los Angeles vs. New York. No topic was off limits: Dodgers vs. Mets, Tupac vs. Biggie, Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” vs. Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” We even took turns writing lyrics from songs about California or New York. (His lyrics were very Beach Boys heavy, as you can imagine.) Before long, the conversations moved to our lives, our interests, our thoughts and feelings. Only a month later, I declared to my uncle over dinner that I was going to marry this man. Something about the way I said it made him believe me.

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Here is one of the first photos Keith ever sent me of himself in Iraq!

So there I was in July 2005, after five months of practically being chained to my computer, flying to LA to finally meet Keith. Of course, it was everything I’d expected it to be. Everyone always asks if there was a movie moment the first time we saw each other; if time stopped and we threw everything down and ran to each other with some cheesy love song playing in our minds. But there was no movie moment. It was better than a movie moment. Keith pulled up to the baggage claim at Long Beach Airport (which is outdoors), got out of the car, and handed me a rose. We gave each other a hug and a quick kiss that felt more familiar than they should have, considering we’d never even seen each other in person. Then I got in the passenger seat of his Acura TL (which we still own), said, “What is this crap you’re listening to?” and changed the radio station.

We drove directly to Jamba Juice in Santa Monica, got Orange Dream Machines, and drank them on a bench on the palisades, overlooking Santa Monica State Beach and the Santa Monica Pier. That night we went to dinner and a movie in Pasadena. The next day, we hit the road for an 18-hour drive to Washington State so that Keith could process out of Fort Lewis.

We spent the next eight days in Seattle, having a blast. We went to a Mariners game, ate at great restaurants, walked around, and just enjoyed each other’s company until I had to get back to New York for work. On the evening before I left, Keith asked me if I’d move to the San Francisco Bay Area with him, where he’d be attending grad school at Stanford University for the next two years before heading to West Point (his almer mater) to teach history. I said yes. I quit my job and moved in with Keith in Mountain View, California in January 2006. Nearly eight years later, here we are.

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This photo was taken at Point Reyes the week after I moved to California to be with Keith. Look at how young we looked!

Needless to say, my life as an Army wife started out in a rather adventurous way, and the adventures have not stopped. I knew life would be a roller coaster, but I had no idea just how down the downs would be and how up the ups would be. Less than three weeks after our wedding and only a few days after we got back from our honeymoon, Keith moved to Norfolk, Virginia for nine months for an Army assignment. We had expected him to be at West Point for a third year, and I had recently started a job as a senior editor at Scholastic News, so I stayed in New York. We took turns visiting each other every other weekend.

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The saber arch outside the West Point Cadet Chapel just after we got married, July 18, 2009

Then we moved to Colorado Springs in the summer of 2010, and I feel like we hardly saw each other for a while. Keith spent a lot of time training. He’d be in the field anywhere from a week to a month, over and over again. Even when he wasn’t in the field, he’d work incredibly long hours, sometimes not getting home until 8 or 9 pm. Two weeks after our twins were born in June 2011, Keith deployed to Afghanistan. Three months later, he was shot in a green on blue attack in which we lost two very good friends, and was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to recover.

Yes, it’s been a very, very long road. But here we are back in LA, where it all started for us. And I have to say—I feel 100 percent content and complete in all aspects of my life. I love Keith more than I did the day we met, and we have two incredible little boys.  I am doing work I love that allows me to spend a lot of time with Matt and Nate. Keith is enjoying his fellowship at the RAND Corporation. And—here’s the shocker—I love living in L.A. I mean, I really love it.

Yes, there are all of the obvious reasons I’m having a blast here—the amazing weather, the gorgeous beaches, the great food, etc. But what I love most are the possibilities. (That’s my favorite thing about New York, too.) I love waking up every day not knowing what might happen. When we go to our local beach, will we see a movie being filmed? Will we see dolphins and sea lions swimming only a few yards from shore? Will we see a real-live rescue taking place? We’ve seen all of these things.

On Tuesday evening, Keith and I found ourselves on the Sony Pictures Studios Lot, watching an advance screening of Captain Phillips for RAND employees and donors and their guests. This weekend, we are headed to SeaWorld San Diego with the boys. On Monday evening, before the Dodgers playoff game, Keith is being honored in a ceremony on the field of Dodger Stadium as the Veteran of the Game. They will show pictures of him on the big screen and the announcer will talk about his Army career.

I can’t believe all of the good things happening for us, and sometimes I wonder what we did to deserve it. But then I remember, we did earn it. Keith has three Purple Hearts. We’ve been through a lot of heartache and challenges. We were apart for the start of our dating life, apart for the start of our marriage, apart for the start of our journey as parents. Now we are together and having a blast.

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Our family at Torrance Beach on Labor Day 2013

I ask that you take two messages from this story. One is, take chances. Send the package. Write the email. Board the airplane. Don’t be afraid to take the bumpy, uncertain road in life. You never know where that road might lead you and where you might end up. Whoever knew this New York City girl would be relishing life in Los Angeles as the wife of an Army officer and the mother of twins? I sure didn’t—but I’m so glad it’s the life I’m living!

And the second message is: Don’t forget about all of the men and women in uniform who are still deployed overseas, and their families. Many of our friends have just deployed yet again, or are getting ready to deploy in the coming weeks. There are still so many people out there fighting overseas, and so many military families making sacrifices.

Thank you all for reading!!!

A Big Move

Tuesday evening, I went out for a much-needed dinner and margarita with a close girlfriend. When I came home and walked in the front door, the living room was completely empty. My stomach instantly twisted into a knot.

Keith had simply moved all of the furniture while I was out because we were having the carpets professionally cleaned the next day. But walking into that empty living room brought back memories of how my last two homes had looked just before we moved—stark, bare, and void of all the love we had put into them. It was a preview of what the house will look like eight months from now, when we walk out of it for the last time.

For those of you who don’t yet know, we have some big news—next summer, we’ll be moving to the Los Angeles area for one year while Keith completes a fellowship at the Rand Arroyo Center in Santa Monica. The following summer, we’ll pack up our lives once again and head to our nation’s capital, where Keith will spend the next three years working at the Pentagon.

I know I use the word “bittersweet” quite a bit on this blog, but that’s just what these next two moves will be for us—bittersweet. On the one hand, we are moving to incredibly awesome places that we both love and know well. Keith is from LA and we’ve visited it tons of times, and we also fell in love with DC when he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia for a year. Also, though Colorado Springs is gorgeous and I’ve made some great friends here whom I will miss dearly, it’s no secret that I’ve been hankering to get back to big-city living (and to the beach). And, I am beyond thrilled that we’ll be a relatively short drive from New York once we’re in DC, so we’ll no longer have to miss family functions or go long stretches without seeing family and friends.

Despite all of those wonderful things, this move will be different from the last few. This time, we have our twins, and our house is not just another house. This is where we took the twins home from the hospital for the first time. This is the living room where they took their first tentative steps. There is the spot in front of the fireplace where each morning they find—and gleefully knock down—a new Mega Bloks tower that Keith built for them the night before. Here is the corner Nate likes to sneak off to with his precious board books. And down in the basement is the playroom, which houses the wall on which Matthew decided to create his latest crayon masterpiece.

In other words, this was our twins’ first home, and leaving it will not be easy. But we know they’ll be excited to have new homes to explore and make new memories in.

Matt and Nate’s first home!

Then there are the logistics of the move. Moving is a lot of work under any circumstances, and moving with young children is even harder. Packing, moving, unpacking, packing, and moving again within a year—all with young children—is downright scary. It is definitely just another aspect of Army life, though. Nearly every other Army spouse to whom I’ve complained has just shrugged her shoulders and said something like, “Oh, yeah, one of those yearlong moves,” as if it’s as routine as a trip to the grocery store. And I guess in the Army, it is.

Some of the wives have told me they didn’t bother unpacking most of their stuff during the short moves. Others said they sucked it up and unpacked every single thing and hung every picture. I think we’re going to do something in the middle. We’ll keep some of our things stored in boxes (like most of our winter clothes—yay!) and unpack the things we use often (like all of the boys’ toys). We’ll certainly decorate to make our next place feel like home, despite how short of a time we’ll live there. The stuff that stays packed, as well as some furniture, may have to go to a storage unit, as we’ll likely have to downsize for the year in pricey LA.

The other bittersweet part of it—for Keith, mostly, but also partially for me—is that these next two assignments will take Keith to his 20th year in the Army, when he can retire. That means he currently has what could be his last job in the “real” Army—meaning in an actual combat arms unit and not in a specialized gig like the Pentagon. After spending more than 15 years in the “real” Army, that will surely be difficult for him to stomach. As for me, I’m not going to lie—it will be nice to say goodbye to field time and deployments and potentially long hours. But it is also weird to think I will no longer see him in his ACUs (the traditional camouflage uniform). Because the sense of pride you feel when your husband or wife walks through the door in his or her uniform, and when you see his or her combat boots next to the front door, can only be understood by other military spouses.

In any case, this move is going to be a great adventure for all of us, and I am so proud of Keith for being selected for this competitive fellowship. He will be doing great things for the Army and working on things he is passionate about. And, with three Purple Hearts received during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he has certainly done his part. He can feel proud of everything he has done—and will continue to do—to help make this country a safer place for all of us. I know I do!