Indoor waterpark review - Kalahari, Great Wolf Lodge, Splash Lagoon

Written by Heather Starr Fiedler. Posted in PittsburghMom

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As a family, we've had the opportunity to go to a lot of fun places. Among them are the several indoor waterparks within a few hours of Pittsburgh.  People often ask for my review of each and how they compare to one another so here goes.  These reviews are based on our expereinces as a family of four. We've visited them over the past two years when the kids were between the ages of 3 and 6.  You can click on the title of each resort to go directly to their website to view pictures, videos and make reservations.

There are about four major indoor waterparks within a four+ hour drive of Pittsburgh.  From closest to farthest we have
Splash Lagoon  - Erie, PA  (about 2-21/2 hours from Pittsburgh)
Kalahari - Sandusky, OH (about 3- 31/2 hours from Pittsburgh)
Great Wolf Lodge - Sandusky, OH (about 3- 31/2 hours from Pittsburgh)
Great Wolf Lodge - Niagara Falls, Canada (about 4-41/2 hours from Pittsburgh) - *Need passports to cross border

In my opinion, the waterparks should be rated on two separate items; the hotel/resort atmosphere and the waterpark itself. I'm also including an "overall experience" review that takes into consideration customer service, location and price. I'll give you the rundown on each as we see it.

 


 

Splash Lagoon  - Erie PA

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Splash Lagoon bills itself as "one of the world's largest indoor waterparks".  It's an all-seasons resort that features an indoor waterpark situated in the center of several chain hotels. 

Hotels
Unlike the other waterparks in this review, there is no "resort" that is specific to Splash Lagoon. So there is no central lobby or resort feel.  There three hotels that are connect to the resort (Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn and Residence Inn).  In addition, there are several resorts across the street (including the Econo Lodge, Days Inn and Courtyard Marriott) that provide free shuttle service and as also sold as part of the waterpark package. When booking through the Splash Lagoon website you can choose any of the partner hotels and see a resort price that includes the hotel room plus the waterpark entrance for two days (your day of arrival and day of departure).

We've stayed at both the Comfort Inn and the Econo Lodge across the street. As the furthest of the "connected" hotels, the Comfort Inn was quite a hike.  We had to cross through two hotels and a parking lot (although indoors through hallways) to get from the hotel to the waterpark. It didn't make it easy to just "pop back over to our hotel room" for something.  In addition, the Comfort Inn has no elevators, something to be mindful of if you plan to try and take a stroller.

The Econo Lodge, across the street, was very nice.  It seemed much newer than the Comfort Inn and I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again. The walk across the street or the short door-to-door (under covered canopy) was easy and worth saving $100/night on a room at one of the other resort hotels.

I've heard that the Holiday Inn Express and Residence Inn are very nice, but you definitely pay more for those hotels, as they are closer to the waterpark.

While I liked the variety of hotels to choose from, I miss that "resort" feeling that Great Wolf and Kalahari provide.  Prices can range  from $250/night for a family of four during peak weekends to an affordable $129 a night at the Econo Lodge on a Sunday or weeknight.  Specials can be found on their website.

Waterpark
The waterpark itself is one of my favorites.  It has a great combination of smaller slides and toddler play areas and larger slides for adults and older children to enjoy.  Like every other waterpark in this post, you'll find the following
-Big Bucket play area with sprayers, kids (ages 4-8 I'd say) slides
-Lilly Pond (ages 6-12 in my opinion) where kids have to cross the pond on "lily pads" holding on to an overhead rope
-Family Pool with basketball hoops
-Toddler play area (Splash Lagoon has a great toddler play area with two toddler slides, swings for babies, fountains to play in and a foot-deep pool for the little ones)
-Hot tub (Splash Lagoon has one for adults and one for the whole family)
-Bigger slides (Splash Lagoon has about 5-6 bigger slides including two big "toilet bowl" slides for the most daring swimmers
-Lazy River
-Crafts throughout out the day.  They have a "kids club" area that kids can go to for a break. Generally crafts cost extra.
-Food/drinks
-Wave Pool (every resort except Great Wolf Sandusky has a wave pool).  Spash Lagoon's wave pool was brand new in 2011
-Arcade 

Things Spash Lagoon does not have:  Outdoor water play area, Surf Rider, Roller Coaster, Family Tube Ride

Overall, Splash Lagoon rates high on waterpark and just ok on resort (as I said, I like the variety, but dislike the lack of atmosphere).  The location is great, too, since it's the closest by at least an hour.  Customer service at the hotels and waterpark was always great, no complaints.

Waterpark - 8
Resorts - 7
Overall Experience - 8



 

Great Wolf Lodge - Sandusky

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Great Wolf Lodge is the perfect place to take the kids while they are still little.  It really caters to the family with young children (under 8 in my opinion).  I'm a big fan of the Great Wolf Lodge chain of resorts.  They're so family-friendly and really cater to the family with young children.

Resort
The atmosphere is just fantastic. The sprawling lobby welcomes visitors with a true lodge feel; big fireplace, wolves howling and huge antler chandeliers.  Right in the center of the lobby is a giant tree that comes to life every evening at 8 p.m. to tell a story about the forest. The kids were transfixed on the animatronic animals and songs. After the tree show, kids are invited (in their jammies) to stay for story time and a singing of Happy Birthday to all those celebrating while there.  The kids absolutely loved the rooms as well.  With many different room types to choose from, families can get everything from the basic room with two double beds, to special suites with dedicated kids "caves" complete with televisions and bunk beds.  Every room is decorated just like you'd expect a lodge to be with lots of antlers and wildlife references.  Many rooms have fireplaces and balconies.  We really just felt like we were "on vacation" somewhere special. And the customer service was flawless at every stop.

Great Wolf Lodges also offer a Cub Club where kids can go take a break from swimming and watch a movie, color or do a craft (some activities are free, crafts usually cost a bit extra).

There are also several dining options within the resort. We never found the need to leave during the weekends we've stayed.  My favorite is the ice cream shop in the lobby. 
Tip:  Sign up for text-based coupons upon check-in and the resort will text you at specific times with coupons you can just show your phone to redeem. (ice cream during the evening storytime, pizza in the waterpark at lunchtime, gift shop coupon right before you check out, etc)

Waterpark
The Great Wolf Sandusky waterpark is very nice. It's one of my least favorites, however, just because it's the smallest.  When your kids are small, this is not a problem. It still has the following attractions
-Big Bucket play area with sprayers, kids (ages 4-8 I'd say) slides
-Lilly Pond (ages 6-12 in my opinion) where kids have to cross the pond on lilly pads holding on to an over head rope
-Family Pool with basketball hoops
-Toddler play area with teenie tiny slides
-Little kid play area with slightly bigger slides (ages 2-6)
-Two slightly larger slides (ages 5-8)
-Two "adult" slides (although my kids went on them at ages 4 and 5 so they're pretty tame)
-Hot tub
-Lazy River
-Small outdoor play area
-Food/drinks
-Arcade

They don't have any bigger/thrill slides or a wave pool.  As much as I like Great Wolf, the waterpark area is probably best for kids under 8 and after that I think they'd be a little bored. It's definitely geared toward younger kids. Prices range from about $149 to $250/night for a family of 4 depending on day of the week and time of year.  Discounts can be found on their website.

Resort - 9
Waterpark - 7
Overall Experience - 8



 

Great Wolf Lodge - Niagara Falls

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Great Wolf Niagara Falls would absolutely be my #1 choice of waterparks if it wasn't the furthest away (and required a passport).  It has all
  the charm and atmosphere of the Sandusky Great Wolf but it has much more. It's newer, so the rooms are even nicer, they offer a "keyless" system where your waterpark wristband acts as a credit card and even unlocks your room door.  They offer the same family-friendly programs as Sandusky (Cub Club activity center, tree that comes to life and evening storytime)

The difference between Sandusky and Niagara Falls is the waterpark itself. The Niagara Falls waterpark is much larger.  It has some of the nicest attractions of any of the waterparks including the standard list

-Big Bucket play area with sprayers, kids (ages 4-8 I'd say) slides
-Lilly Pond (ages 6-12 in my opinion) where kids have to cross the pond on "lily pads" holding on to an overhead rope
-Family Pool with basketball hoops
-Toddler play area
-Hot tub (including an indoor/outdoor hot tub for adults)
-Bigger slides -for thrill seekers
-Lazy River
-Food/drinks
-Wave Pool
-Big tube ride for the whole family
-Surf Rider
-Roller coaster
-Arcade

They also have a neat new adventure for slightly older kids. It's called Magiquest.  The website describes it as this:   "With a magic wand in-hand, you’ll explore an enchanted kingdom and join in the ultimate adventure as you enchant objects, befriend a pixie, learn from an ancient wizard, battle a goblin and outwit a dragon. We guarantee this live-action adventure game is unlike any other you’ve ever played. You’re sure to become legendary when the getaway you planned becomes epic."  I belive the wand cost about $10.

There's really no attraction that the Great Wolf Niagara Falls doesn't have except an outdoor waterpark. We tend to go in the winter, so we've never really taken advantage of the outdoor. It's got them all. And it's only a few years old so everything is new, clean and functioning.

If it wasn't for the higher price (you pay a premium since it's in Canada) and the longer distance, I'd list this as my clear favorite.

Resort - 10
Waterpark - 10
Overall Experience - 8 (price and location bring the score down)

 


 

Kalahari  - Sandusky, OH

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Kalahari is billed as the world's largest indoor waterpark.  Set on a sprawling campus, the African-themed resort has over 900 guest rooms.  In addition to the indoor waterpark, they also have a huge outdoor waterpark and an adventure park with ropes course.

Resort
Kalahari is HUGE.  I knew it was big, but we were shocked when we saw how big it really is. That said, it has a very strange layout. There is no big central lobby. In fact, there are a least two entrances with separate check-in areas.  We were placed in the back "Sands" entrance and were told to check in there.  The trip from our room to the waterpark took about 10 minutes. We had to walk down several hallways, through the main lobby area, down a flight of stairs, through the gameroom to reach the waterpark. The waterpark is almost hidden away past the game room.  The rooms were nice and each had a balcony.  Guests can reserve a standard room or upgrade to a suite that can hold more guests and rooms with kitchens, etc.  There were several dining options within the hotel and we never felt the need to leave.  We ate dinner at the main restaurant and were very pleased with the service.  They had activities through the entire dinner for the kids which really kept them entertained and happy and allowed the parents to relax. 

One thing I really liked was the soft play area near the arcade. It was free for resort guests and was a great way to spend the evening after we'd had enough swimming.

My main complaint about the resort (and the waterpark) was the crowds. The weekend we were there the hotel was at full capacity and it was just insanely crowded.  There was at least a 30 minute wait for anything; coffee, ice cream, souvenirs, etc.  And the staff was not very efficient or speedy. It got to be very frustrating.  We had the same experience in the waterpark (hour-long waits for slides, no tubes for the wave pool, overcrowded long waits for food, drinks, etc).  None of which the staff seemed well-trained or equipped to deal with.

Waterpark
The waterpark at Kahalari is indeed the biggest one I've ever seen.  With probably a dozen slides, several pools and at least four hot tubs, there were plenty of things to do. We weren't able to enjoy the outdoor waterpark, but it looked very nice and we'd like to return in the summer when we can try it out. Kalahari has the following attractions

-Big Bucket play area with sprayers, kids slides (ages 4-8 I'd say)
-Lilly Pond (ages 6-12 in my opinion) where kids have to cross the pond on "lily pads" holding on to an overhead rope
-2 Family Pools with basketball hoops
-Toddler play area (absolutely HUGE, this was fantastic)
-Hot tub (four indoor/outdoor hot tubs for adults, two with a swim up bar attached)
-Bigger slides -for thrill seekers - at least five or six of these big slides
-Lazy River
-Food/drinks
-Wave Pool
-Big tube ride for the whole family
-Surf Rider
-Roller coaster
-Arcade

As I mentioned before, the crowd levels (Like Splash Lagoon, they also allow day passes, so the crowds are not limited to the people staying in the resort) were just too heavy to enjoy very much of the park. We spent most of the day in the wave pool, which was disappointing.  We also had some issues with customer service (our room smelled like smoke, we weren't given connecting rooms as promised, staff was not always friendly nor efficient, and our kids all ended up with a terrible chemical burn/rash and we're still waiting, two months later, to hear back from management on what could have caused it).

So I really have mixed feelings on Kalahari. I expected to absolutely love it. I thougth it'd be the best of all of them, but I wasn't as blown away as I thought I'd be.  The prices are generally the most expensive of the parks (excluding maybe Canada) at about $250 per night for a family of four.  While I loved the size and selection of activities and rides, I was very disappointed in the overall experience.

Resort - 8
Waterpark - 9
Overall Experience - 6 (customer service and crowd levels bring the score down)

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