Great Wolf Lodge

This ride, called the Alberta Falls, is a waterslide that starts in the waterpark and takes riders through the tube outside the building and back in again. It's four stories tall and two riders travel together. (Courtesy of Great Wolf Lodge New England / December 31, 1999)

This time of year, local families tend to spend their down time outside — camping in parks, relaxing on the beach, dining al fresco, and attending outdoor concerts. But with the arrival of Great Wolf Lodge New England, a 40-acre destination resort with a 68,000-square foot indoor waterpark, many families are heading to north-central Massachusetts to explore the great indoors.

The 100,000-square-foot lodge is the 12th in a chain operated by Great Wolf Resorts, based in Madison, Wis. It opened June 5 in Fitchburg, Mass., an under-the-radar locale 90 minutes from Hartford and within a three hour drive of millions of New Englanders. Prior, if locals wanted to stay at a Great Wolf Lodge, they had to drive 285 miles to Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. Though the company wouldn't say how many families have stayed at Great Wolf Lodge New England, communications director, Susan Storey, says, "We've been pleased with current occupancy and summer reservations." Most visitors hail from Massachusetts, followed by Connecticut and New Hampshire, and multigenerational groups are common, she says.

After turning onto Great Wolf Drive, off Route 2, in Fitchburg, visitors drive up a hill toward the entrance and encounter a 35-foot wolf statue. Inside the resort, amenities such as woodlands-themed suites and restaurants serving lobster are firsts for a New England waterpark. "We create family traditions one family at a time," says Kim Schaefer, chief executive officer of Great Wolf Lodge Resorts, which primarily markets to families with children ages 2 to 12. "Part of the Great Wolf experience is a waterpark reserved for our guests."

Unlike Coco Key Water Resort in Waterbury, Great Wolf does not issue day passes — you must stay overnight for waterpark access, a practice Schaefer says helps with crowd control and enhances the family atmosphere. Lately, rates for accommodations at Great Wolf New England average $250 per night for a double queen suite that sleeps four and includes waterpark passes (a $20 resort fee and tax are additional). The forest theme graces every aspect of the property: guests receive wolf ears at check-in and sweet-faced costumed wolves, Wiley and Violet, roam the halls seeking children to hug.

If you're looking for a serene nature experience, keep this in mind: guests and staff alike frequently howl. In fact, Great Wolf Resorts developed a howl just for New Englanders: Stomp, Stomp, Clap, Clap, WICKED FUN! — which Schaefer, known to employees as Mama Wolf, demonstrated at the opening.

The Great Wolf experience is somewhat Disney-esque. In fact, Great Wolf will open its 13th resort, in Anaheim, Calif., near Disneyland, in 2016. However, as Schaefer points out, a trip to Great Wolf New England does not require plane tickets, a rental car, or a week off. Most guests live within 180 miles of the resort and drive to it. "Even if you just have a night, being here feels like a vacation," says Schaefer, who was the first female boss to appear on the CBS reality show, "Undercover Boss," and is often stopped by fans to pose for photographs.

In addition to lodging, visitors will likely spend money on ala carte experiences, including kid spa treatments, arcade games, meals, and minigolf. "We're not saying this is an inexpensive vacation," says Schaefer, "but there is value here." Though check-in isn't until 4 p.m., families can use the waterpark the day they check in, starting at 1 p.m., and after they check out, amounting to two days of waterpark use for one night of lodging. The waterpark is staffed by dozens of lifeguards who are certified by a third-party, Ellis & Associates, and are routinely audited.

Great Wolf also offers something nature cannot: a "weatherproof" vacation that will never be thwarted by heat waves and downpours. Most activities are indoors, though there is a small, outdoor spray pad area. The room temperature in the waterpark is always 82 degrees. Surf repeatedly churns in the 100,000-gallon wave pool. During Wolf Walks, families learn about Northwoods creatures and fashion an origami wolf in the massive, air-conditioned lobby, nullifying the need for sunscreen and mosquito repellant.

Great Wolf Lodge New England varies from others in the corporate family for a reason. It is the first time the company renovated a property, rather than building it from the ground up. Previously, the Fitchburg site was home to a Coco Key Water Resort and a Holiday Inn. During the renovation process, Great Wolf doubled the size of the indoor waterpark (there are two sections, across the hall from each other), added 160 hotel rooms, and turned a former expo center, occasionally used for dog shows, into Howlin' Timbers, an indoor entertainment area with a 30-foot-high ropes course, bowling, and a 9-hole mini-golf course.

Though the lodge offers activities for teens and tweens — waterpark thrill rides, the Northern Lights Arcade, and spa treatments — the atmosphere is largely geared to pups. Young guests (and some adults) tend to sport wolf ears, wizard hats or tiaras. At night, children pad to the lobby in their pajamas for Story Time, featuring a tale and a goodnight hug from costumed characters. "Hibernation hours" (no running or jumping in rooms and hallways), posted in guestrooms, are from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Some indulgences appeal to the young and young at heart. At Scoooops, guests sit on banana split-shaped thrones and get their tootsies painted and polished. Recently, a mother was overheard talking about the experience. She treated her grade-schooler to a pedicure without checking the price. "Fifty bucks was a bit of a surprise," says the mom. "But it was a treat. And my daughter loved it." As it says on the spa wall, "Life is like ice cream. Experience every flavor before it melts away."

TOP 10 QUESTIONS ABOUT GREAT WOLF NEW ENGLAND

1.What's the experience like?

Some liken the lodge to a Disney-esque docked cruise ship packed with wet and dry amusements, restaurants, shops, and entertainment.

2.Who is Great Wolf geared to?

Families with children ages 2 to 12.

3.Anything for teens?

Waterpark thrill rides (such as Wolf Tail, Howlin' Tornado, a six-story funnel slide, and Wolf Tail, which starts with a drastic drop in an enclosed tunnel), Howlin' Timbers Play Park (an indoor play area with a 30-foot-tall adventure ropes course, a nine-hole minigolf course, and bowling) and the Northern Lights Arcade are popular with tweens and teens.

4.What does it cost?

An overnight stay is required to use the waterpark. Lately, the overnight rate averages $250 range for a double queen suite, which sleeps four and includes waterpark passes. Theoretically, if you didn't spend money on extras, the cost of the trip would be the room rate (plus tax and a $20 resort fee that covers wireless internet, parking, life jackets, towels in the waterpark and access to the fitness center). You can use the waterpark before you check in and after you check out.