note: I was given complementary passes for food, accommodations and other activities to attend the grand opening event at Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg, MA.  But all opinions are my own.

We had seen the commercials for a long time: Great Wolf Lodge was coming to the New England area!  My kids – avid water park fans but haters of bugs and heat – were so intrigued by the idea of an indoor water park that when we were offered the chance to be there on opening day, we couldn’t say no.  Even though it was on a school night.

We prepped for the trip the way we do with most new places.  I spent a lot of time with the boys on The Great Wolf Lodge website so not only did we know what would be there, we knew what rides and activities were going to be appropriate for their skill level and height.  They had pictures of the rooms online as well and we “walked” through the park, learning about each of the rides and requirements.  We created our own social story so there would be no surprises.

We arrived in the evening around dinner time and it was a little late for us to use the water park that night. There was no disappointment, however, since there was still plenty to do:

getting our wolf ears

getting our wolf ears

In the Howlin’ Timbers part of the park, there is a nine hole indoor golf course.  It was perfect for Howie and Lewis.  They had a blast playing the course.

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Mini Golf

There is also a giant arcade area near the restaurants and lobby.  Not surprisingly, this is where my kids wanted to stay the longest.  Like many arcades these days, the games are paid for on a pre-paid card so there’s no fumbling with money or tokens for each game.  I was amazed at how quiet the arcade was.  Usually arcades are not only my kids’ sensory overload nightmare, but mine as well.  The Great Wolf Arcade was quiet and calm. So we were able to stay and play for a long time.

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skee ball anyone?

Alongside the arcade is a pizza place and ice cream shop.  We opted for pizza to go and brought it back up to our room.  I have to tell you – I have incredibly picky pizza eaters.  The “Hungry As A Wolf” pizza passed the test from all three of them. That’s almost unheard of in our house.

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mmmmm…pepperoni

We were given a KidCabin Suite in the newest part of the resort, overlooking the Howlin’ Timbers play area.  The room was one queen bed plus a fold out couch and then a separate area with a bunk bed and day bed.  My kids settled into their own special area, which also has its own TV.  They were in heaven.

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Bottom bunk man. And yes, wifi is included free at the resort. We asked ahead of time.

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Oldest kid gets the top bunk

At the risk of TMI, this was the first time in our vacations as a family that Tim and I shared a bed at a hotel.  And the kids actually stayed in their beds.  That doesn’t even happen at home.

The kids had the buffet breakfast at the Lodge Wood Fire Grill restaurant in the morning.  Here’s where they were annoyed at me for taking a picture before they could eat:

ok...maybe only two were annoyed with me...

ok…maybe only two were annoyed with me…

There’s also a Dunkin Donuts on the premises for breakfast, lunch, dinner and whenever you need it.  Because this is Massachusetts and there needs to be one on every corner.  Thank goodness.

We hurried back to the hotel room to change into our swim clothes.  And off we went.

The water park area of the resort is split into two sides.  Great Wolf took over an existing water park area so one side is where the original park had their waterslides and the other side is all new.  It seem to cut down on the crowds and confusion and it wasn’t so overwhelming.  It also made it easier to find each other as Tim and I played “divide and conquer” with the kids.  He did the bigger slides with Gerry and Howie and I spent most of my time with Lewis in the Tadpole Pond area.

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obstacle course on Big Foot Pass

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The best way ever for my kids to fight each other

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lazy river riders

In all, my family tried out every ride at the water park.  Gerry’s favorite was the Howlin’ Tornado:

The Howlin' Tornado.

The Howlin’ Tornado.

That was the view of the Howlin’ Tornado from our hotel room.  Through the rain.  That’s right – it poured the whole day we were there.  Did we care?  Nope.

Howie’s favorite was Alberta Falls – the dark tunnel side.  It may or may not be because Tim told him it was like they were getting flushed down a toilet.

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Alberta Falls

And Lewis was incredibly happy to stay at the little kid area.  And I was incredibly happy to have him stay here.  I actually sat down.  At a water park.  It was a miracle.

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Life jackets are provided for all ages and all sizes at the park but we opted to bring our own.  Considering the fact that I brought three suits for each kid because I didn’t know what would fit or feel right for them in the moment, the more familiar we are with something, the better it is.  Our own life jackets bring that sensory comfort level.

Speaking of sensory issues, I kept checking in with Howie about how he was doing and feeling along the way.  The water park was not crowded but it was very echoey and I was worried that he would be on noise overload.  He kept telling me he was fine.  The only thing that seemed to bother him were the smells in the area near our hotel room.  Everything was new : paint, carpet, beds.  Those smells were slightly overpowering.  But there was no heavy chlorine smell in the park and no overly bright lights.  Every half hour or so, there was an alarm that went off at the wave pool.  But that was it. All of the places where I expected that he would have a hard time, he did great.  All of the kids did great.  I was amazed.

We had a late check out of 2pm, so we stayed at the water park area until about 1:30.  We changed quickly in the hotel room and checked out.

Our water park passes were good though until the park closed that night.  There are lockers and changing rooms if we wanted to stay.  We chose to check out the other parts of the Howlin’ Timbers Play Park instead.

The ropes course is included with the water park passes.  So we had to try that.  And by”we” I mean everyone else in my family that is not me:

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getting strapped in

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Who is this crazy kid up so high?

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The lower ropes course was more their speed.

I was super impressed by the staff at Great Wolf and how attentive they were.  When the line to go on the ropes course got long, two other staff members appeared out of nowhere to assist on the course.  The staff all seemed to be local as well, as indicated by their town on their name tags.  I love the boost to the local Worcester County economy with that.

After the kids were off the ropes course, they played two games of bowling each.  No rental shoes needed.  And bumpers for the kids so no gutter balls.  This was a big hit with my guys.  It was also not noisy at all like many bowling alleys.  Again that made it so much easier to stay and play.

 

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Strike!

There were several things that we didn’t get too because we just ran out of time and energy.  There’s a whole MagiQuest game and movie theater that we didn’t even attempt.  It looked like fun but we had to save something for next time.  There’s also a kid spa and a story time that we skipped.  My kids aren’t fans of people in costumes so we stayed away from those areas.

Because I am always looking through my special needs parenting glasses, there are a few things that stood out to me at the park.  First – it was very quiet.  Many areas were carpeted so there wasn’t a lot of noise bouncing off the floor and walls.  The lighting was also natural light in many places in the park.  The arcade was calm and quieter than most arcades I’ve been in.  There was also a variety of food choices on the menus for the restaurants so there seemed to be something for everyone.  We did bring a lot of our own food but every room has a decent sized fridge and microwave so that wasn’t an issue at all.

Now we were there for the grand opening and it wasn’t very crowded.  We’ll have to go back to see if all these things stay the same when the resort is full.

I also liked that everything was on their website so we could preview it ahead of time, even the room layouts. That was huge in making sure my kids knew everything before we left.  We aren’t the “surprise!  Here we are!” kind of family.

There are definitely some things to know before you go.  You can’t purchase day passes only to the resort so you have to stay overnight. The water park passes are included as part of the hotel room, as is the ropes course.  While there, I was thinking how wonderful it would be to have our kids’ home therapists with us to help with turn taking, peer interactions, and meals, yet I didn’t actually want to pay for a hotel room for them. Considering the number of special needs families who may need to bring a babysitter/therapist/teacher along to help out, I did ask if you can purchase additional day passes though for people joining your party who are not staying over.  The answer was yes to that. Definitely ask when you make the reservation to see how many day passes you are allowed to have.

Your room key is a chip in the water park bracelet so there’s no possibility of losing your keys (or having them stolen) while swimming and you can choose whose bracelets are activated as keys.  We did have to warn the kids that they would need to wear the bracelets all the time as this is usually a sensory issues for all of my kids.

When we got home. the kids were asking when we were going to go again.

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This mini-vacation came exactly at the right time for our family.  We needed a stress free time away from the house where we could just relax and be ourselves.

We got that at Great Wolf Lodge.

I know we will be back very soon.

Vacation
All I ever wanted
Vacation
Had to get away…” – Vacation by The Go-Gos

 

 

 

“I took the kids to a barnyard and creamery. The goats are humping each other and there’s a bunny that is definitely not alive.  And we got rear ended on the way here.  Has school started yet?” – my text to a friend yesterday morning.

It has been a long hot week.

This was our first full week of summer vacation at home.  Last week we spent three days in the middle of the week at Our Happiest Place on Earth.  Not Disney, but Story Land in New Hampshire.  So this was my first week that I was full on in charge of the daily activities for three boys who either play together fabulously or throw Hot Wheels cars at each other.  There’s no in between.

So…yeah.  I’ve been pulling 18 hour days of being Julie McCoy.

I woke up on Tuesday thinking it was Friday.  That was bad wishful thinking.

There hasn’t been much in between with the weather too.  For two weeks straight it’s been either torrential rains or 95 degrees out.

Friday was one of those days.  It poured like crazy for two straight hours when we woke up and then turned blistering hot.  I needed to escape the house and chose a little creamery near us that had a barnyard.  They also had something called a “barnyard jump”, which looked like the bottom part of a bounce house.  Even showing my kids all of this, it still took us 45 minutes to get out of the house.

Herding cats is an understatement.

We got about six minutes from our house, and I slowed the car down because the car in front of me was taking a left.  I was at a complete stop when in my rear view mirror I see a small Toyota truck get closer and closer and…

BAM!

I pulled into the restaurant parking lot that was on the side of the road, and the 12 year old driving the truck got out, looking horrified.

(Yes, I’m sure she wasn’t 12.  But she looked it.  Because I’m that age now when anyone under twenty-five looks twelve.)

We exchanged info even though there wasn’t any visible damage to the car.  The kids were wide-eyed but okay.

We got to the creamery right as it opened and the sun was beating down.  As we piled out of the car, one of the girls working there walked by.

“Can you tell us where the barnyard bounce is?” I yelled across the parking lot.

“It’s down the hill but it’s not open.  It’s too wet from all the rain.”

Um…what?

“Do you think it will open this morning?” I yelled again, with a slight hint of desperation.

“I have no idea!” yelled the girl back.

Oh good.

I turned to the boys and tried to explain the situation.

“So, the big jumpy thing is wet from all the rain and it’s not open now.  I know it will be a disappointment if we can’t go on.  But let’s go look at the animals and hey…how about ice cream for lunch!”

That seemed to settle them for a bit and we checked out the barnyard.  On the hill below, more twelve-year-olds were walking around the big jumpy thing with giant hand dryers.

The barnyard had some cute baby chickens, some very loud grown-up chickens, goats, bunnies, alpacas, a pig and a cow.

The kids were most excited by a big dog that kept running by with a John Deere collar.  He ran up and down between the two fences separating us from the animals.

There was one very quiet bunny laying by its water dish.  At first, I thought he was just resting.  It was 90 degrees after all.  But then the dog ran by several hundred times and it didn’t move.  A closer inspection by me as the kids ran with the dog proved that the bunny wasn’t breathing.  The farmer (??) didn’t seem to notice and I didn’t want to upset the kids.

I was then distracted by the goats that started…um…climbing on top of each other.

“Time for ice cream for lunch!” I proclaimed.

That killed a good 30 minutes.  I’m sure Howie ate all sorts of forbidden corn syrup products in his ice cream and I knew I’d pay later, but at that moment I just didn’t care.

(note: I forgot my camera, so these pictures were taken on my incredibly old BlackBerry.  I only have space for 5 pictures to save on the phone so I delete the crummy ones along the way.  Yes, these were the best ones.)

“You can eat the bowl!”

We left when Howie tried to follow the model train into the employees only area as Lewis was yelling “Pay online! Save time!”

(another note: if anyone can tell me what that is from, I would greatly appreciate it.  So I can make sure he doesn’t watch it again.)

As I was about to tell the kids that we were going home, we noticed some kids jumping on the barnyard bounce.

So with bellies completely full of ice cream…away they went.

please don’t puke…please don’t puke….

“Get out of here bugs!! You don’t want us jumping on you!!”

Best $15 for 45 minutes I’ve spent in a long time.

(last note: I also forgot sunscreen which meant we couldn’t play on the mini-golf course that was “calling my name!” as Gerry put it.  I told them their dad would be upset if we golfed without him so we’d have to go back with him.  Sorry Tim.)

Howie insisted on saying goodbye to the animals before we left.  The definitely dead bunny was still there.

The goats were done with their…business. So they came over to say hello.

Once Lewis started taunting the goats with “Hey goat! Look at you stuck behind those two fences!”, it was time to go home.

But not before one last really bad picture. Someone is all done. Someone besides me that is…

On the way home, we drove by the spot where we were rear ended all those hours earlier.  Howie proclaimed “Hey!  That’s where that truck smashed into us!”

I am pretty sure we’ll hear that for the next 35 years.

We have ten more days before camp starts for Lewis and our Extended School Year program starts for Howie.

Until then, I’ll have my Julie McCoy hat on.  Look for me.  I’ll be the one herding the cats.

Ten more days. I can do it.

Hot summer streets
And the pavements are burning
I sit around
Trying to smile but
The air is so heavy and dry
Strange voices are saying
(What did they say)
Things I can’t understand
It’s too close for comfort
This heat has got
Right out of hand

It’s a cruel, (cruel), cruel summer
Leaving me here on my own
It’s a cruel, (it’s a cruel), cruel summer
Now you’re gone” – Cruel Summer by Bananarama

Thinking of all my friends in the Mid-Atlantic states hit hard by last night’s storm.  I hope you get your power back soon so you can read that I’m thinking about you 🙂

It was an Oxygen Mask trip of a different kind.

My brother and sister-in-law had a brand new baby. They live in Arizona. I wanted to – NEEDED to – visit them.

A much needed getaway for me.

And I took Gerry. A much needed getaway for him too.

Just the two of us.

Pushing aside my maternal guilt and anxiety of leaving the other two with Tim, Gerry and I hopped on a plane last Friday and spent the weekend together.

Just us.

We ate what we wanted.  We watched The Muppet Movie.  We drank too much Sprite and overdosed on Twizzlers.

We talked.

My brother took him to hit golf balls and they played catch.  And they talked.

He smiled more than I have ever seen him smile.

It’s not the answer to everything.  But for one weekend, it was just about us.

Some breathing room for us both.

“I’d fly above the trees
Over the seas in all degrees
To anywhere I please

Oh I want to get away
I want to fly away
Yeah yeah yeah” – Fly Away by Lenny Kravitz

I’m not a big fan of what I call “obligation holidays”. I’m talking about days like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and even my birthday. Holidays when you feel like you’re supposed to be doing something. Everyone asks what you’re doing on those days, and there’s the expectation that you need to do something great – a fabulous dinner, flowers, a midnight kiss. When it doesn’t happen, there’s a feeling of total failure. The end-of-the-day giant letdown.

Summer has always felt like one big long obligation holiday.

There’s the anticipation at the beginning of summer. Oh, we’re going to go on a trip, and go to the beach, and have cook-outs and family bike rides. This will be the year we finally take the boat out again, and…

(that last one is a tough one for me…the boat has been sitting in our garage for six years now. Tim and I used to talk about it every spring, thinking that maybe this will be the summer that we’ll rent a place on the lake for a week and spend the whole day out on the water like we used to do before…well, before everything. We don’t even mention it anymore. We both just stare at the boat in silence as we stack strollers and scooters and trash cans up against it.)

This summer I decided to break the cycle. I know our family better now. I know our limitations and have a better understanding of what we can and can’t do. I set zero expectations for this summer. And as I wrote back in June, I dug my heels in and started counting the days until September.

And now, Gerry starts school on Tuesday, and Howie the week after that. Gerry has a memory bag that his new teacher gave him on the last day of school, and he’s supposed to put special things in there from his summer adventures. I remember getting sad looking at it, knowing that I had nothing special planned, and just hoping we could find a thing or two so the bag wouldn’t be empty when he returned to school.

So here I sit now, the last Friday of August. I’m trying to figure out what we could put in that bag.

The truth is, quite a lot. Here’s what we did on our summer vacation:

-attended a wedding (my mom’s)
-went to Storyland
-went blueberry picking*
-went to the library
-played at the park (not once, not twice, but three times)*
-went bowling*
-went to the zoo*
-shopped at the mall
-went to the beach (just me, Gerry and Howie)
-took family walks
-taught Howie how to ride his bike
-played in the backyard
-went to the New England Aquarium
-saw a ballgame at Fenway Park (ok, this was just Tim and Gerry, but still cool)
-went to birthday parties (two of them – both Howie’s friends, first time ever)
-had playdates
-took all three boys swimming in friends’ pools (once even by myself!)
-survived camp/summer school/swim lessons (just barely)
-had a sleepover (Gerry’s first…more on this another time)
-bounced in a bounce house. All five of us together.

note: the (*) next to some of the activities on the list means I did them with the assistance of a mother’s helper. I hired the 15 year old daughter of Howie’s one-on-one aide to help me out two mornings a week on the days when Howie wasn’t at his summer school. The best decision I ever made and worth every penny. I’m pretty sure this summer would have been an even longer one had I not done that. I’m forever grateful for her help.

I’m exhausted just typing that list. Well, I’m exhausted with a smile on my face.

To the average family, that list might not seem so impressive. It’s probably what most families do during those 12 weeks of summer. But for us? Not so average. Getting us out of the house is sometimes accomplishment enough. Getting us anywhere is impressive.

Were there days when the minutes seemed like hours and the hours seemed like days? Absolutely. Were there days when I thought that all the progress we’d made with Howie this past year had disappeared in an instant? Definitely. Were there days when I sat at the computer, trying to hide my tears from the boys? More than I care to count. Were there tantrums, meltdowns, and screaming matches at some of those activities? Oh yes (just ask them at the zoo…)

But there were also mornings that started with laughter, when the coffee pot wasn’t the first thing I reached for. Afternoons filled with baseball, and swings and bike races. Nights when I fell asleep easily, knowing that we had made the most of the day.

That is our new version of summertime. The living isn’t easy, but it’s the best we can do. I know we’re not the rent-a-place-at-the-lake kind of family. At least not now.

Gerry has several things to put in his memory bag now, including one more to be made today with his dad at the water park. They’ve waited all summer for the perfect day to go. Can’t get more perfect than today.

Perfect song on the radio
Sing along ’cause it’s one we know
It’s a smile, it’s a kiss
It’s a sip of wine, it’s summertime
Sweet summertime”
– Summertime by Kenny Chesney

We just got back from the happiest place on Earth.

No, not Disney.

Disneyworld (or Disneyland for that matter) is just not feasible for my family, logistically or financially.  Flying with the five of us, and our kids at all different ages and stages, is just incredibly difficult right now, not to mention very expensive.  Add in admission to the park, hotel, finding food for my vegan husband and corn-free Howie…Disney is just out of our realm right now.  Plus Tim hates to travel.  So for the sake of our sanity and our checking account, we keep our travels to car trips.

So for us, our “Disney” is Storyland, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  And for my three guys, this place is heaven on earth.

This was our sixth year at the park.  We first went with Gerry when he turned three (and it was just him) and we’ve gone back every summer around his birthday ever since.  The park has been in existence for over 55 years, and Tim’s mother remembers taking him when he was a little kid.  The park has evolved over the years, of course, but the overall point remains the same – giving kids between the ages of 1-10 and their parents a fun, safe place to have a fantastic family vacation.  For my guys, it’s the one family vacation spot we go.  Howie talks about it ALL year long, and asks starting in December if it’s time to go back to Storyland.

There are many things that make this park special for a lot of families.  For us, with all of our “special needs”, this park is perfect.  First of all, almost all the rides are for kids 36 inches and under.  That means there’s no “sorry, you can’t go on that very cool looking rollercoaster”, or “I know that Crazy Barn looks really awesome, but you’re too small” talk.  There’s very little saying “No”.  My kids get to choose the rides they want to go on, not have the park choose it for them.  Even the baby got to do a bunch of rides, which thrilled him to no end.   Parents can also fit on all the rides with their kids, so it’s truly a family event.

Not to say there aren’t plenty of meltdowns.  But they seem to happen around 2pm at the front of the park at nap time.  Or in my family, when it’s time to leave.

Secondly, the park is relatively small and feels very safe.  Because the rides are geared towards the younger set, there are no teenagers or grownups trying to muscle their way on any of the rides  (nothing against teenagers or grownups, but when I’m with my little kids I don’t want to worry about someone bouncing the ride to make it crazier, or swearing, or causing a ruckus).  Everyone there seems to be either a parent, a grandparent or some relative, oohing or ahhing over seeing Cinderella, waving to the train as it goes by, or sharing an ice cream with their kid.  I’m sure they have had issues in the past with safety, but you wouldn’t know it.  There are no security guards or policemen walking around.  Just Mother Goose and the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe.

It’s the most family friendly place I’ve ever been.  They have special “Mama’s Houses” for moms to feed, change and nap their babies, complete with rocking chairs and clean changing tables.  Every restroom has at least one unisex family bathroom, so we can all go in together.  The rides are clean and all the ride operators are incredibly friendly.  We try to go at off-peak times, so we’ve never waited on a line for more than 10 minutes.  If the line is long at one place, we move on and come back at another time.

Thirdly, and most helpful to me, they list all their food choices and ingredients (color coded by allergen) on their website.  That means before we even enter the park I have a list of foods that both Tim and Howie can eat.  Yes, that list is short (for Howie it was five foods that were corn-free) but at least I know those foods so I’m not checking labels.  You can also bring in your own food to the park, which is a life saver (and money saver) for my family.  Our lunch consisted of yogurt smoothies, goldfish and apples that I brought from home.  And they don’t care.

And finally, for us, it’s the one place where all of my kids’ needs are met.  Lewis can go on rides, throw balls with reckless abandon in their “Loopy Lab”, and run through the park from place to place.  Howie can map out his entire day based on all the rides he wants to go on and run/climb/jump and get all his sensory inputs without feeling overwhelmed.  Gerry can do all the rides by himself now, and we save special rides just for him and Tim to do while Lewis, Howie and I ride the train around the park (over and over and over again).  I must say, Gerry was truly the hero of the day.  He went on rides with both Lewis and Howie, even the ones he didn’t want to.  He rode alone on certain ones because Tim and I were in a seat with one of the other two.  And he let Howie go ahead of him in line – twice – when the purple electric car was coming and Howie was screaming that he needed to ride in that specific car.  Tim and I are, for the most part, worry-free.  Our kids smiles make all the difference.

Not that the trip was perfect.  Things were certainly more stressful now that we have a toddler – the car ride was hard because Lewis was trying to nap but Howie kept shouting/making noise/asking for hugs/stopping to pee.  Lewis also did his best to set a new world record in hotel room destruction.  And it was hot.  Very hot.  But we still managed to go swimming, take pictures, and enjoy each other’s company – the three most important components to a successful family vacation.

Howie’s already planning our next trip back.

There is this little song I wrote
I hope you learn it note for note
Like good little children
Don’t worry, be happy”
– Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin