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Charlotte Area

Great Wolf Resort packs 'em in despite recession

Julie Rose

Over the holiday weekend, rooms were sold out at a new indoor water park and hotel in Concord. Great Wolf Resorts has high hopes for its newest property, despite the recession.

The Great Wolf Resort parking lot says it all. It's packed with minivans and parents like Kelly Gentry herding a crew of water-logged kids. "We live in Davidson and came because we decided not to take a spring break this year and this was it," says Gentry. "The kids all played together and they had a great time."

"Our demographics obviously are families and that will make up probably 80 percent of our business," says resort general manager Phil Cunningham. He says Great Wolf's indoor water park and hotel typically attracts people from within a four-hour drive who stay one or two nights.

The whole place feels like an amusement park. "Now on our lower level what we have here is our 7,000 square foot arcade," says Cunningham as he gives a tour of the resort. "We have our spa. We're gonna go to the left and work our way around." He saves the main attraction for the end of the tour. We enter a balmy room filled with the sounds of splashing water. "Straight ahead is our wavepool," says Cunningham. "These are some of our larger slides over here."

The only way to access Great Wolf's 80,000 square feet of indoor pools, slides and soaking wet fun is to be a guest of the hotel. Rooms during peak seasons like Spring Break start at $280 a night for a family of four. The water parks in all 12 Great Wolf resorts are indoors because the company got its start in chilly Wisconsin. This is the first one in the Southeast and local tourism officials say it makes a threesome of high-powered attractions for Concord and Cabarrus County.

"I mean, Lowe's Motor Speedway has always been a big marker," says DeSales Wagster, president of the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "So has Concord Mills. Well, this is another mega-marker out there for us. "

The Convention and Visitors Bureau helped coordinate a $4 million tax incentive package to lure Great Wolf. The company also considered Myrtle Beach and Tennessee. Wagster estimates guests at the resort will spend $68 million a year shopping, eating and filling up gas tanks in Cabarrus County. The only hitch is that Phil Cunningham says his guests tend to stay inside the resort, "because we are a total destination. So what will happen is when they come, we are pretty self-contained." That includes several restaurant options a general store and place to buy the bathing suit you forgot to pack. So main economic impacts to the area are hotel taxes guests pay and the 500 jobs the resort filled with locals.

There's also the issue of the recession. This can't be the ideal time to be opening a hotel and resort? "Well actually, it is," says Cunningham. "Families are still going to travel. What they're doing is not going as far. We are an ideal regional hub. And we are very much affordable when you combine everything together."

Bookings for the resort's opening week seem to support that argument. Though guest John Watkins quibbles a bit with the "affordability."

"Probably a little pricey, I'd say it's at a premium right now," says Watkins. "This was definitely a treat for the kids."

Only the water park is included in your hotel fee. All other activities cost quite a bit extra. And yet the Watkins family - who live just minutes away in Charlotte - paid several hundred dollars to stay the night and swim. But the best part for five year old Abby turned out to be the only thing at the resort that's completely free.

"All those animals and people start talking. They sing a song about nothing to be scared of," explains Abby Watkins. Three times a day, the plastic, animatronic characters in the resort lobby put on a show for anyone who wants to watch.

"There's a moose and an owl," says Abby, pointing to her favorite characters. "And the raccoon's in there. You know what? I remember the thing that's at the end. 'Hey, the show's over. We'll have to have a brand new show.'"

A show that Great Wolf hopes is recession-proof. Local officials who agreed to the tax breaks for the resort, hope so too.