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Glamping in Ventura

Before children, camping was an adventure. We got dirty. We drank during the day. We slept on the dirt with only a thin layer of stuffed polyester protecting our bodies from the rocks. We cooked on grills powered by fires we painstakingly built from twigs and newspapers. We powered through the day and talked around the campfire late into the night. S’mores.

Us before kids (just in different bodies)

After my first son, Kaleb was born, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to do it while practicing Attachment Parenting which involves: nursing on demand (=no sleep) and still enjoy the sun and the waves that had become the staple of our annual surf camping trips. It just wasn’t going to happen. And then it did. We rented a luxury RV, something I said I’d never do, ridiculing it as glamping (glamour camping) instead of actual ‘set-up your own tent, shower under cold water in under 3 minutes and bring a huge cooler full of food that you hoped wouldn’t spoil in the 3-5 days it would be under the blaring sun’ kind of camping.

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Ahh this is the life….

It was actually pretty great. I got to sleep with my baby in an air-conditioned, quiet bed while the rest of the crew did whatever they wanted in the outside world. Kitchen, refrigerator, private bathroom with a hot shower. Plus all the regular camping stuff we loved. So it was settled, that’s how it would be and that’s how it’s been the times we’ve gone camping since.

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Thank you mommy for not making me sleep in the dirt

Last week, though, we got invited to go camping at the Kampgournds of America KOA Ventura Ranch campsite. The promised accommodations listed a Deluxe Cabin. This would be a curious departure from our newly redefined rough and tumble camping days aboard a mobile palace. Plus, we usually glamped camped at the beach and this site was about half an hour inland.

OK, so let’s talk about the location. First of all, who knew there was a secluded paradise nestled between a couple ghost towns only an hour’s drive from Los Angeles? Well, maybe not ghost towns but we definitely felt like we were crossing into another world (picture the movie Deliverance),

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OK, maybe not that bad but kinda scary! (Photo courtesy Warner Bros.)

as we all craned our necks to look out the side window when we drove by a deep ravine that housed what appeared to be the remnants of a mobile home and bulldozer. My kids asked if anyone lived there. I said I didn’t know. I couldn’t see how they’d come and go if they did.

When we arrived at the site, we picked up our keys and got a glimpse of what awaited us for the weekend.

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A whole roster of family fun!

They directed us to a cabin that looked like it had very little to do with camping except for the magnificent surroundings in which it was set.

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Our weekend view
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….and the place from which we’d be viewing it….

Camping essentials awaited.

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Campers need s’mores kits with white wine to wash them down…..

The boys couldn’t wait to explore and luckily we brought their bikes.

PRO TIP: bring the bikes!
PRO TIP: bring the bikes!

The thing about camping is camping people are really friendly. It’s not like the real world. In this world, it’s easy to meet new people and connect in warm and fuzzy ways.

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Kaleb making new friends

Something unique to this camping site, though, was the preponderance of peacocks strutting around.

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Hot to trot

They really were everywhere.

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Kaleb decided he would try to make friends with them too.

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Here kitty kitty kitty

They may have been turned off by his assertive nature.

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Our first camping injury

We later learned that the peacocks have been there for generations. The land used to be owned by the Chumash Indians and the Chief visited the Australian Head of State back when they still lived on the campground land and it was a custom back then – by the Australians – to gift peacocks to all new relations established between countries. So that’s how they got there and I thought it was pretty cool that they’re still there!

Our weekend schedule was packed but the first item on the agenda was creating s’mores by the campfire and we didn’t want to miss that so we had to tear ourselves from our explorations and get some grub on.

Daddy took the lead.

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The outdoors brings out the grill in a man!
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Is it ready yet?
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Now we’re talking!
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Gourmet kid dinner

Then it was time to meet the other members of our group over an old fashioned s’mores cookout.

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Showing ’em how it’s done
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Fire’s smokey!

 

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Oh oh!
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still yummy!

After all that sugar, it was time to go to bed because we had a full day planned for tomorrow.

Once we were able to wrangle the jumping jellybeans into bed, they settled nicely into their loft beds.

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So cozy…..
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Ahhhh….

While Mommy and Daddy sat on the porch with a glass of wine….

The next day everyone was excited to hit the rock walls after breakfast. For $10, visitors are able to scale the walls and gently return to Earth only to go again.IMG_9566

The boys must have gone up and down 20 times each.

Mommy made it to the top – once. Almost.

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It’s harder than it looks!

There’s also a track around which you can ride peddle carts.

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Kaleb making more new friends.

Next it was time to take our (my) tired arms and create a memorable souvenir: a tie-dyed KOA t-shirt.

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Creating art in nature is the best….
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Nope, it doesn’t wash off….
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Kaleb making more new friends….he really is a friendly guy!

This was a fantastic project we got to take home and proudly wear our creation around town. After lunch, it was time for a little excitement: zip lining.

There are two platforms from which riders can plummet zip down. The first is 800 feet long and the second is 650. Riders speed along at 25 mph. It costs $15 for the first line and $25 for both.

After strapping on their gear, the boys were ready to go. Riders must be 70lbs. to ride alone but they can go tandem if they don’t meet that requirement.

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Waving goodbye to their fans

There are 485 KOA campsites around the country. Some of them are franchises that are privately owned. Ventura Ranch KOA owner, Scott Cory, loves his work and spent the weekend helping guests in a variety of activities. This Saturday afternoon, he spent hours on the hot platform strapping people safely onto the zipline.

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Cory has a wonderful imagination and wants to turn the whole campsite into a nature wonderland for kids and families. He took this once dilapidated, mostly abandoned, county campsite five years ago and has already made it an escape for city families. He’s got even greater plans to expand his vision. He wants to extend the length of the zip line ride. He’s building more teepees and deluxe cabins and tents by next season since they’re always so busy. He’s also in the works of adding two new water slides to the pool area by 2018.

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Wait. Are you sure we want to do this?
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OK, we’re ready!
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I’m gonna pee my pants!
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Don’t pee your pants!!!!
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Yippeeee! (no peeeeeee!)

Mommy got to go too!

Next in our turnstile of activity, we got to go mining for gems in the KOA kampsite quarry…..or rather mining station.

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Ye ol’ watering hole

Mining is free but you have to buy a bag of goodies buried in sacred sand to participate. Those vary between$7-$25.

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Ready to get rich!

First you dump the contents of the bag into the sifter.

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Then you submerge the pans into the water to let the water uncover your treasures.

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Sifting, sifting…
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OMG! Look Knox!
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EUREKA! Just like the olden days.

After cashing in on our treasures, we decided to commence our new life of leisure by exploring the various nature paths surrounding our campsite (er, cabin). We heard about the lovely Big Foot Trail and found a clue on how to get there.

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Truly terrified.

We knew we’d be going on the Big Foot hike later with the group but we decided to see if we could find him on our own first. The trail led down to the river bank, which of course, led to the discovery of rocks, which of course led to the activity of throwing them.

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Practicing in case we actually find Big Foot

Along the way we passed by some of the other cool accommodations available to guests.

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What an adventure

There is a row of super deluxe cabins which were first featured on the TV show, American Dream Builders.

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I used to be on TV, now I just hang out with peacocks

It was a contest to see who could design the cutest little space.

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It’s what’s on the inside that counts anyway

Corry bought the cabins after the shows aired and now rents the spaces out for weddings and to high-end glampers.

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Would you want to get married here? I do! I do!

But back to our hike. We had had a really rough week as a family before we arrived on our retreat. Getting away from it all couldn’t have come at a better time. There really is something about Mother Nature that soothes and brings out the best in everyone.

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See? We’re not even trying to kill each other!

We saw a cute little playground after our hike and the boys found what appeared to be a stranded spaceship. So we had to check it out.

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Clearly a transport forgotten by NASA

They went on a short space mission.

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Captain! I think I see life!

That night, after dinner, we went with a bigger group on an actual search for the legendary beast, Big Foot.

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Spookyyyyyy

We did actually find him but for some reason, as luck would have it, my camera wouldn’t take snap his picture, so you’ll just have to take our word for it.

Finally, the kids couldn’t stay awake another minute and mommy was yawning after our full day but we couldn’t leave without using the firewood they had provided.

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There is a store onsite in case you forget some glamping essentials but no butter for your corn. So if you forget that, you’re out of luck.

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Gratuitous campfire selfie.

This was a great trip and such a short drive from our house, it was nice that the kids weren’t trying to kill each other or whine through the last hours of the usual drive because it only took us about 45 minutes to get there on a Friday night! Bonus points!

We had to say goodbye to all our new friends after breakfast and before Knox was even done swallowing his food, he was already asking when we could come back.

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So do you camp? A survey released this year called the 2016 North American Camper Report  says more of us are. More than half of us are millennials, 18% are African-American and 11% are Hispanic. What’s your favorite part or memory you treasure? Let’s go camping!

Splashing Around at the Great Wolf Lodge

Recently, LA Parent offered my family a trip to the Grand Opening weekend at the Great Wolf Lodge in Garden Grove, CA. Even though I had never heard of this family resort, I was pretty confident we’d have a great time: a weekend away ~ not rushing from kid’s sport to sport, no cooking, no cleaning? Twist my arm.

All I knew was that it was an indoor water park. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about that. I’m a water person and I love thrills so naturally, I love water parks but I feared weird smells and gross germs could fester in an indoor environment. Still….we were excited to get away.

We arrived and received swag bags with Paw Passes to experience the entire resort, which apparently had a lot more to offer than just the water park. We also got these cute little pink wristbands that have RFID chips embedded so they acted like room keys, passes to the waterpark and allowed you to buy anything on the resort simply by waving your hand. Who wouldn’t like that?

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The boys loved their room, which included their own private little Wolf Den.

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Roar! We love our wolf ears!

And their very own bunk beds.

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They wore their bathing suits to school because they didn’t want to waste any time!

And after fighting Friday gridlock on the 405, Mommy and Daddy loved our champagne welcome!

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Daddy doesn’t really like champagne (he’s just pretending for the picture). More for Mommy!

The boys couldn’t wait to get into the water park! Who are we kidding? Mommy couldn’t wait either!

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This is the life…..

The indoor park was much bigger than I imagined it would be. There were 12 slides, some big enough to accommodate several raft sizes. The temperature was a cozy 84 degrees….and at my age, I also appreciated not having to hide from the sun as my baby oil slathering days are long gone. No hats to keep track of, no chasing the kids around with sunscreen……I started to see the benefits of this crazy indoor water park idea…especially as we were experiencing a rare SoCal rainy day outside (imagine if we had planned this extensive outdoor weekend only to be thwarted by the rain…).

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Best thing EVER!
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What would a water park be without a lazy river?

At Fort Mackenzie young explorers could find adventure crossing suspended cargo nets, aiming water cannons at passerbys

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I got ’em!

and barreling down tree top slides. There’s also a giant bucket that dumps 1000 gallons of water after a sequenced crescendo of beeps alerting those below to……

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Here it comes!
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Watch out below…..
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Every 4 minutes….

Much too quickly it was time for dinner but the kids were okay leaving since they knew there would be some forbidden fruit at the buffet to look forward to and by forbidden, I mean tons of sugary desserts which is a no go in our house. I was already cringing on the inside to what I anticipated would be a fried food fiesta and an oasis of sugary hell.

But the dinner buffet was actually very impressive. A few vegetarian options and many exotic vegetable preparations as well as some succulent cuts of meat, seafood and original chicken preparations.

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Surprisingly yummy

And of course, there was the promised dessert. I let them each choose one and they both went for a cupcake that looked very tempting actually.

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I approve, Knox says. (in his jammies prepared for story time!)

In addition to the Loose Moose Family Kitchen, which is buffet style dining, the resort has four other restaurants. Lodge Wood Fired Grill, is a little fancier and offers some gourmet style options but is still casual, after all it’s an indoor water park resort. Another is a grab and go, of the pizza and burgers variety, called Hungry As A Wolf and smartly situated by the arcade. Finally, two are located inside the waterpark, Grizzly Jack’s Bar and Grill, a full service restaurant, in the small section of outdoor space the resort holds and a more limited selection of fast food can be had at Bucket’s Incredible Craveables. There’s also a Dunkin Donuts some, like me, might find essential for staying caffeinated to keep up with the kids and a wicked little shop called Bear Paw Sweets and Eats for those who are planning on doing extra Boot Camp classes next week.

The GWL offers kids a daily roster of activities, depending on the season. Daily, there is yoga and arts and crafts. Seasonally, there is Howl-O-Ween in October and Snowland in December.

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Namaste

You can also find furry little pals, Wiley Wolf and Violet Wolf, roaming around the hotel.

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The kids gathered in the lobby after dinner to enjoy a tale where the fuzzy creatures were part of the action, which always makes a tale more enjoyable. (This is a nightly event)

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At the end of story time, we ran into some friends, the Prince family, who were also invited to family media weekend. This was great because any weekend with friends makes a weekend way more fun.

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Boys will be boys!

The Paw Pass around Howard’s neck allows access to areas around the resort. Guests could buy them to gain access to a set number of bundled activities which saves money instead of paying for them individually.

One of the activities both families enjoyed immensely was called MagiQuest. MagiQuest is a type of digital, fairytale scavenger hunt around the hotel. You start at the MagiQuest gift shop and select a magic wand that is programmed with your player name and vital stats (obviously a marketers dream machine 😉

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Kim Prince is clearly impressed
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This young pup will soon be transformed into a king or a knight to slay dragons and stuff.

Then you pick one of the many available quests and off you go to fight monsters, find magic crystals and save pixies.

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Just point your magic wand and the crystal is stored inside. I wish I could carry all my treasures that easily!

Deposit your goodies at one of the video portals scattered all around the hotel and fight virtual battles as you progress through your journey.

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I can slay dragons in my board shorts!

There’s also an option for the younger guests to try their hand at mini adventure by joining the Clubhouse Crew, a scavenger hunt created for the littles. They start by picking pieces to put together a stuffed animal character in the same way that Build-a-Bear is born at

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Then the nice Wolf people help them fill their new friends with stuffed animal fluff.

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The finished products – guess which is mine?

These are the cuties that lead younger guests on a much shorter quest through a smaller portion of the hotel.

That night we uncovered another little GWL secret. What we thought were just adorable little animal decorations in the kids Wolf Den, actually came to life and sang songs when you pointed that magic wand at them.

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Sneaky little…..
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Truly a delight!

Everyone really did actually enjoy the surprise. Although, I bet, if our kids were any smaller, we might not enjoy that surprise, say at 3am, if they decided to see if the animals would wake up then.

The next day, we had breakfast with the Prince family and learned about the afternoon tour Kim and I would have get to go on.

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Brady, Kim, Kyle and Stuart at their very best at 8 in the morning! (Well she looks great anyway!)

Our friends, Morgan and Justin, who live locally also joined us. Although the water park is open to hotel guests only,  people can join you by paying for a $40 day pass. You can request an equal number of day passes to the number of people staying in your room. We decided to test out the waterproof pouch the hotel provided on one of the raft rides.

I swear all that screaming equals fun!

Then my brave boy decided to try out the Wolf Rider Wipeout, which is an artificial endless wave where people can surf or boogie board until their little muscles give out….as long as they can stay balanced or hold on!

Well….there’s always next year but daddy did pretty good!

OK, I sped that up for brevity’s sake but he did pretty good! The lady who took us on the media tour said she had never seen a grown up actually surf, only teenagers and kids – lower center of gravity and all – so I think my honey has earned his pat on the back.

Speaking of media tour, Kim and I left our lovely families to continue exploring all the available activities at the Great Wolf Lodge resort – all so we could share with you. Aren’t we sweet?

First we were taken down “Main Street” where all the other attractions of the resort await. There is the Howl at the Moon glow in the dark mini golf.

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Photo courtesy of GWL – because we ran out of time and didn’t get a chance to try this!

There is also mini bowling at Ten Paw Alley, which we did find time to do and it was really cool. Perfect for pint sized bowlers.

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Bowling in flip flops!
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What form! Strike for the boy in the rash guard!
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This is what it looks like if you’re a professional photographer not taking pictures of your kids – photo courtesy of GWL

There is also a spa for kids,  perfect if you have girls – which I don’t.

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Cute girl who I never birthed – photo courtesy of GWL
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More happy strangers enjoying their treatment which includes a scoop of ice cream at the end!

There is also the Northern Lights Arcade which allows you to win tickets for toys you will soon throw away and candy that you will try to throw away when your children aren’t  looking.

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But they love it and there’s cute little games and virtual rides too

There’s also the Howly Wood XD theater that acts like a virtual ride/video game. It’s great because the whole family can play at the same time which really is a blast (literally as you’re shooting zombies etc.).

Kim and I were treated to lunch, along with the other media guests, and heard the Executive Chef, Chris hammond discuss the careful approach all the resorts bring to their food selection.

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Chris Hammond, right, corporate director of food & beverage, Great Wolf Resorts

We found out Hammond’s wife reads a blog called 100 days of Real Food and the mom blogger ripped the food apart at a Great Wolf Lodge she visited. Hammond read the blog post and realized she was right. They needed to cater to people with food allergies and had to offer more healthful and tasty options. As a result, I was thrilled to find out!, they removed corn syrup from all their food products and their ketchup, as well as many other foods, is organic. They use non-GMO foods (hooray!), offer many gluten free options (including the fried chicken!) and seek out locally sourced, sustainable ingredients.

They understood that 1 out of 4 guests have allergies to tree nuts (!) so they don’t serve any products that contain them on their premises. Also, a chef will walk any guest with concerns about allergies down the food menu and address specific ingredient concerns. Now that is thoughtful!

And what’s more thoughtful is they know not every guest cares about eating organic or non GMO so they kept the menu prices the same even though their source costs had increased!

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It’s mostly organic or at least non GMO! Yay!

I finally got back to the water park to observe the other attractions like the America Ninja Warrior style obstacle course at Chinook Cove perfect for adventurous souls to navigate.

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I was going to try this. And then I didn’t.

There were also cute little animals floating around to swim on.

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Who are we kidding? I’m just throwing in cute pictures of my kids!

And for the athletic-minded, there’s a basketball court.

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Something for everyone
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Practicing his layups for the next time he has a match in a pool.

Since I was Facebooking the entire experience (because really, unless you see it on Facebook, did it really happen?), I had friends posting questions about our trip. My friend Diana has a one year old girl and two older boys and wondered if there would be anything for her little one to do. There is a toddler area

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Photo courtesy of Kim Prince since for some reason I never took a pic of this area

and there is also this small outdoor area that is suitable for toddlers as I kept having to wait for them to walk by so I could get this picture and right behind me is an outdoor bar. Plus the resort offers the free use of floaties and lifejackets so really, they could go wherever there aren’t height restrictions.

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So it’s not all indoors

We had to rip ourselves away form the water park to enjoy a mock-tail happy hour for the media families invited. I told the kids we were going to a party and they were okay with that since, of course, we still had another fabulous day of water extravaganza to look forward to and who doesn’t love a party? Plus they planned to go back to the water park after dinner since the it stays open until 9pm. Plus you know they were all about the desserts which are always part of any good party and they were not to be disappointed.

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Ummmm……help!
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Grapefruit juice with pineapple garnish…..yum!
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There was a salty option too……

And the Lodge was so sweet to provide a visit from Wiley Wolf and a balloon artist who handed out his crafty creations.

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They all wanted swords…such boys!

For dinner we went back to the buffet and again were not disappointed!

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The boys got to go back to the water park after dinner so we did that for a while. Then mommy and daddy went back to the room for a nightcap and some room service snacks while the kids slept in their cozy Wolf Den.

The next morning, after breakfast, we decided to pack since we wanted to stay longer at the water park and didn’t want to come back to the room to do it later. The resort lets you stay at the water park until it closes, even though check-out is at 11am. We loaded all our stuff in the car and brought what we’d need to be comfortable at the waterpark and a change of clothes for the trip home. There are lockers but we just kept our stuff in our chairs since everyone was so friendly and we were feeling so good.

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How can you not trust a person in wolf ears? And most people wore theirs everywhere, all weekend.

There is a very thrilling ride there called the Wolf Tail. We passed it on our way to tamer experiences. The rider steps into what appears to be a vertical coffin and the door shuts automatically and suddenly, a trap door opens and the poor sap is released to a straight drop through an enclosed slide. No way, I thought. I’m a mom and although I like little spikes through my comfort zone, this would create a huge hole and after all, my kids need me in one piece and I have that tricky back and……my son Kaleb wanted to do it.

Well, there was no avoiding it then.

I grew up going to amusement parks with my family and riding all the rides by myself or with my little brother while my parents brought a newspaper and read at a nearby bench. It felt lonely and I always wished for that big person to hold my hand and revel with me as I walked through my fears. I want to give that to my boys so I do everything with them. (Although I hope they don’t become X-game competitors or big wave riders because at that point, we may have to part ways).

So we stood in line. I consoled myself that there were young girls doing it. If they could do it, I could too! The line was long enough for us to really think about what was about to happen.

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Kinda scared, kinda excited.

Finally we were almost at the front of the line! I wanted to go first but I wouldn’t be able to film Kaleb if I did, so my warrior stepped into the chamber of doom.

OK, it was my turn…..curious to know what goes on in that death trap? Watch on….

All I can say is I did it, my hands were shaking, my heart was thumping but if the line wasn’t so long, I would have done it again!

Finally, we showered in the locker rooms and changed into our clothes. The boys kept asking why we couldn’t just live there. Everyone had a great time and weeks later, they still ask if we could go back. I’d say that’s a big hit and since the hotel room price includes waterpark passes, it’s actually affordable and convenient. And those are the makings of a great family vacation.

And in case you are worried about the circulating water like I was, here is a pretty nifty graphic that explains the painstaking process of filtering and recycling it.

H2O Infographic

The Chair

This is the chair I have lived with for over 8 years.

It’s the chair that I have come to accept as a practical part of my life. It’s not my style but it’s functional and there’s no reason to go out and buy another chair since this one works. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself for 8 years.

There’s a bit more to this story than just a functional chair. This chair used to belong to my husband’s deceased wife. Her passing, 14 years ago,  is a tragedy. It is one that we all live with, in subtle ways, everyday. I’ve done many things around the house that I inherited from her, things to make living here not feel like I am living in someone else’s life. The living room has been remodeled, painted and shifted. The dishes have mostly been replaced. The bedroom furniture (and mattress) is new…..except for, of course, the chair.

I didn’t understand how much it bothered me. I realize now that, unconsciously, I used to picture her sitting in it and getting ready for her day, bantering with the husband we now share and laughing with the child she had to leave behind. In a way, the chair is her anchor to the new life I’ve tried to create with my husband and my little boys and, of course, the boy she had to leave behind. But for some reason, I didn’t have the guts to get rid of it. Maybe, my reluctance was my way of letting her hold on to her grip to the most intimate part of my house. Maybe, in some small part of me, I felt guilty.

I finally shared the meaning of the chair with my husband one night.

He was surprised. He had thought I had brought the chair with me when I moved in. He had no recollection of it previously at all. He asked why I hadn’t said anything sooner. I couldn’t really answer past the tears clouding my vision.

This past Monday I celebrated my birthday. I love birthdays. I’ve decided that as we grow older, every year should be a party to celebrate that we’re still here, that we still get to enjoy the gifts we’ve been given and resolve, in the next year, to become yet even better versions of ourselves.

My husband waited until the end of the day to give me his gift. I could tell he was up to something when I tried to go into our room and the door was locked. OK, honey, I called out. I have no idea what you’re up to, wink, wink, I said to him through the door, laughing to myself that he always waited until the last minute to do these things.

Then the door opened and I rushed in to get something I needed for one of the boys. I stopped right in my tracks. And this is what I saw:

And I started to cry. Because, he heard me.