Goodbye, tropical Caribbean. Hello, Northwoods cabin.
A sneak peek of Great Wolf Resorts' newest property shows the water park in north suburban Gurnee is a sea change from the property's previous incarnation as KeyLime Cove.
"Everything has been stripped down to just the bare bones and redone -- the rooms, the water park, the food and beverage offerings," general manager Emilio Fabico said during a tour of Great Wolf Lodge Illinois, which officially opens Friday. "Any visitors who were familiar with what it looked like before will be surprised."
An invite-only grand opening ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Chance the Rapper is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday. The Grammy-award winning musician will be one of the first guests to give the water park a whirl. Chance the Rafter (sorry -- couldn't resist) will be accompanied by children in SocialWorks' Kids of the Kingdom summer program, Chance's youth-empowerment charity. Great Wolf is donating $75,000 -- $5,000 for each of the park's 15 slides -- to the nonprofit group.
Great Wolf began testing the waters -- literally and figuratively -- earlier this month, welcoming a limited number of visitors during its soft opening period. When it debuts Friday, the Gurnee facility will be Chicago-based Great Wolf Resorts' 17th indoor water park in North America.
Great Wolf snapped up KeyLime Cove last year, pumping some $60 million into transforming the Caribbean-themed water park and bringing it in line with the Great Wolf brand.
Aquamarine-colored columns toward the back of the water park mark where the old KeyLime Cove ended. The expanded area includes a new wave pool and a pair of raft rides: Double Whirlwind, a raft slide that whooshes guests through two back-to-back vortexes before splashing into the landing pool, and a 476-foot-long family raft ride called River Canyon Run. The rafts for both rides fit up to four people.
The previous wave pool is now a splash area aimed at the younger end of Great Wolf Resorts' target audience of toddlers to early teens. A lazy river meanders through the 80,000-square-foot water park that also features a Great Wolf fan favorite, Fort Mackenzie, a multilevel structure topped with a giant bucket that tips 700 gallons of water every few minutes.
Finishing touches are still being put on four large cabanas in the center of the water park, kept at a balmy 84 degrees year-round. The cabanas come with refrigerators and televisions and can be rented for the day.
Another change is the addition of an outdoor pool, sunbathing area and bar. It's not a lap pool; it's more of a place to dip your feet and cool off while the kids play.
"Some of the pack members (Great Wolf employees) we hired from KeyLime Cove said people always used to say they wanted an outdoor option, and now we have one," Fabico said.
For fun that doesn't involve having to towel off, Great Wolf created a 40,000-square-foot adventure park that includes a climbing wall, ropes course and nine-hole minigolf course. The entertainment area also has an arcade with more than 100 games, a four-lane bowling alley scaled down to children's size and MagiQuest, a live-action adventure game that has kids wielding wands and scouring the resort to uncover tools needed to take down dragons and goblins.
As it rolls out new properties, Great Wolf has been making an effort to up its culinary game. The Gurnee resort includes a 100-seat "farm-to-fork" restaurant, Barnwood, that sources much of its produce from Prairie Wind Family Farm in Grayslake and Tempel Farms near Wadsworth. Barnwood is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Jumbo lump crab cakes with succotash and chipotle aioli, filet mignon and wild mushroom risotto are on the menu. (Pro tip: Request a table by the large glass window if you want to watch the water park action down below.)
More casual fare is served at Campfire Kitchen on the lower level, where you'll also find a taco stand and Hungry as a Wolf, dishing up pizza, pasta, salad and sub sandwiches.
The resort has 414 guest rooms, just like KeyLime Cove did. But they've been revamped to exude a more rustic, outdoorsy vibe.
Rooms start around $199 a night for four people, including water park access. Great Wolf doesn't sell day passes to the water park for people who aren't staying at the resort, but hotel guests can purchase up to four additional passes at $50 each for visiting friends and family. The resort is at 1700 Nations Drive, just off the Tri-State Tollway, near Six Flags Great America.
Families can choose from 13 styles of suites, such as the popular Wolf Den and Cabin suites, which come with a kids' area tricked out with bunk beds and Great Wolf character themes.
The Northwoods decor has long defined the brand that got its start a little over 20 years ago in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., the self-proclaimed water park capital of the world. While there are plenty of similarities between the original and the new, the Dells property seems more like a Great Grandfather Wolf Lodge compared to the next generation, which skews more contemporary in both its design and offerings.
The difference is especially obvious in the massive lobby, a traditional spot for children to watch shows featuring animatronic Great Wolf characters. In Gurnee, the production is a much more high-tech affair using 3D projection mapping and other bells and whistles.
One thing that hasn't changed: Pajama-clad kids will still gather in the lobby at night to hear good, old-fashioned bedtime stories.