(Note to readers: I was an invited guest of the Wilderness at the Smokies Resort and most expenses were covered, including some of our activities and excursions. I was not otherwise compensated and, as always, my opinion remains my own.)
This year I’ve been looking at our travel experiences in an entirely new light. Since we’re homeschooling for the first time, I try to incorporate educational experiences for our children even more now than I did previously. Since we are no longer hindered by school calendars, we’re able to travel more often and seek out these opportunities for fun and education. Education becomes an experience and an adventure when you take it on the road!
So, when I was recently offered the opportunity to visit the Wilderness at the Smokies Resort in Sevierville, Tennessee with my family, my challenge was to make sure that this getaway would be as educational as it was adventurous. How in the world would I do that at a resort whose claim to fame is a massive indoor/outdoor waterpark?
Turns out it was much easier than I ever anticipated! In fact, Wilderness at the Smokies provided the perfect backdrop to our picture-perfect getaway in the Smokies. As an added bonus, we got to travel there during what is arguably the most beautiful time of year in Northeast Tennessee – autumn.
We set off with an ambitious itinerary of activities and expectations, determined to make the most of every opportunity. My goal was to achieve all of our educational goals for the week, and yet come away feeling like we’d experienced a great adventure and yes, vacation!
Wilderness at the Smokies Resort is located right off the highway leading directly from Interstate 81 into Sevierville, the small town where Dolly Parton grew up and has returned to lavish her affection after attaining great success as a singer/songwriter/entertainer.
Sevierville opens right up into Pigeon Forge, where Dollywood, outlet malls, hotels, and a plethora of tourist attractions are located, and Pigeon Forge leads directly into Gatlinburg, the tiny and picturesque mountain village that is the gateway to the Smoky Mountains.
I refer to this entire area, encompassing Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest as “the Smokies,” just so you know. They all seem to run together, which might make you think that they are all one big locale. However, I can assure you that they each have their own special personality – unique qualities of their own which deserve individualized attention.
After a warm, friendly welcome and seamless check-in process at the resort, we were blown away when we opened the door to our “home away from home” for the next four nights. Our Two-Bedroom Fireplace Suite in the River Lodge Suites section of the resort exuded a mountain lodge vibe with its coziness and décor. However, don’t let the term “coziness” fool you – it was spacious and very well-appointed. My parents were with us on this trip, and there was more than enough room for all six of us, plus another family, or even two more – this set-up is equipped to handle seventeen!
The suite was actually two adjoining “lock-off” suites. The first one we entered featured a full bath, a fully-equipped, full-sized kitchen with a dining table, a living room with a beautiful stone fireplace, sofa-bed, and a “Murphy bed” built into the wall. Of course the boys claimed the super-cool Murphy bed as their own immediately.
Through a door to the adjoining room was a bedroom with a queen sized bed and another sofa-bed. This room also featured a private balcony with a view and an additional kitchenette (with another small fridge, sink, and microwave).
As we walked past the kitchenette and continued on through the dressing area (vanity with two sinks and second full bath), we were exclaiming, “Wow! This place is huge!” But we weren’t done. Just when we thought that this suite had such great space and everything we could possibly need to be more than comfortable during our stay, we discovered even more.
In fact, it took my father about 30 minutes to figure out that there was another bedroom with two queen-sized beds, another sofa-bed, and another small dining table with two chairs (which worked out great as a makeshift office/classroom), just around the corner from the second bath.
Plenty of closet/storage space, a total of three TV’s, free Wi-Fi, and additional comfortable seating rounded out the super-clean amenities. There was plenty of room for meals if we wanted to cook and eat in, for homeschool classes if we needed it, and just plain old rest and relaxation (as if there was any time for that!).
Even though we had arrived late in the evening on Sunday, the indoor water park was still open for another hour and a half. Of course my boys were ready to go – so why wait? They, along with my husband and my 70-year-old father, had a blast that first evening in the wave pool and on the water slides!
The next morning we awoke from a comfortable night’s sleep to a spectacular autumn day in the Smokies. The weather was perfect – sunny, warm with crisp breezes – not a cloud in the sky! The leaves were at their peak, bright oranges, reds, and yellows that I’d always called “Fruit Loops colors” as a child. We were excited to get started on all of our activities for the week, which included mountain-top hiking, creek-walking, Legacy Mountain Zip Lining through misty mountain air (exhilerating!), spending hours (5 of them! The boys, and all of us, loved it!) at the fabulous Titanic Museum, and enjoying a one-of-a-kind dinner show at the Lumberjack Feud (filling & fun!). Whew! That’s a lot to get done, especially if you’re trying to get your homeschooling in, too.
It turns out that all of our activities and adventures provided ample educational opportunities (which will require additional posts, on all of the above plus more!). This left of us plenty of time to explore as many of the amenities as we possibly could at the Wilderness at the Smokies Resort between activities.
There are currently three separate waterpark areas at the resort, with more attractions to come in the spring of 2015. At this time of year, the two outdoor waterparks, Lake Wilderness and Salamander Springs, are closed, due to cold weather. However, the indoor waterpark, Wild Waterdome, with its wave pool, indoor/outdoor hot tub spa, and indoor tube slides will keep you busy.
But that’s not all! There’s also the Smokies Surf Rider which features 9,000 gallons of water flowing per minute to create a five-foot ocean-like wave for body surfing. Runaway Canyon is a five-story high family raft ride, and Washout Mountain is a multi-level play area for the younger kids, with splash fountains, slides, water cannons and soakers, and a huge tipping water bucket, that splashes down gallons of water when you hear the buzzer go off. Okay, I admit, the “big kids” were having tons of fun here, too!
Oh wait! I almost forgot! The Storm Chaser Thrill Ride! How could I possibly forget a ride that is described like this, “Four guests plummet 55 feet down a thrilling, dark tunnel ride before dropping through a zero gravity fall into a funnel where they experience several fast oscillations before splashing into a pool below.” If this ride doesn’t get your adrenaline flowing, I’m not sure what will!
If you wanted to spend all of your time splashing and swimming at Wilderness at the Smokies, you’d have no trouble doing so, even in the middle of winter. And good news: you can enjoy all of the waterparks anytime, as the use of them is included in your room fare!
However this resort offers even more. My kids absolutely LOVED the “Wilderness Adventure Forest.” This 25,000 square foot family adventure center is a great place to dry off and continue the indoor adventure.
You can purchase an “Adventure Day Pass” or an “Adventure Stay Pass,” the latter of which allows you to enjoy the Wilderness Adventure Forest for the length of your stay. All of the activities are included in these passes, except laser tag, outdoor mini golf, and the arcade games. For these, you can purchase a reloadable action card, determining how much you want to budget for these extras yourself, or simply pay “a la cart”. My boys love arcade games, and since we were on vacation we allowed each of them a $20 reloadable card which kept them occupied for a long time, along with the activities included on our Adventure Stay Passes.
The Adventure Stay Pass includes the following activities: Tree Top Towers ropes course, Mount Wild climbing wall, Moonshine Run indoor mini golf, Daredevils Drop spring ride, Copperhead laser maze, Howlin’ Hound Dog Alley (bowling), and the Cubs Climbing Den playhouse (for the younger kids). We enjoyed every single one of these activities – multiple times. Yes, I said “we.” My boys were especially proud of conquering their fears and excelling in the ropes course and climbing wall.
If you get hungry, you don’t even have to venture away from the resort. There are no less than nine options for dining on the property. It gets even better – at two of the restaurants KIDS EAT FREE*! (*For each adult breakfast or dinner buffet purchase, receive a children’s (age 11 and younger) breakfast or dinner buffet FREE! When the buffet is not available, promotion applies to Children’s ‘off the menu’ items. Holiday and special buffets are excluded from this offer. Available only to guests staying at the Wilderness at the Smokies.)
We enjoyed an excellent breakfast at The Thirsty Miner, overlooking the Wild Waterdome. I was especially enamored of their omelet and pancakes, and the fact that the kids were eating for FREE. And if you have a sweet tooth after a long day of swimming and climbing, you better not miss a stop by the Mountain Marketplace and Deli, located just off the lobby. Just trust me on this.
Wilderness at the Smokies Resort also features retail shops, a fitness center, and a “paint your own pottery” workshop. They can also outfit you for golf, wilderness rafting, or a jetboat adventure. You won’t get bored with so many extra adventures to choose from!
I have to be honest now. The trip we had taken just a couple weeks before this one was to Walt Disney World. I was ready for a restful trip so I was kind of dreading this one, to tell the truth. And, I was worried – how would this impress the boys, after having just returned from the Mouse’s house?
I needn’t have worried. Get this: my boys both agreed that they enjoyed this trip to Wilderness at the Smokies even MORE than the vacation from which they’d just returned! In fact, I’m pretty sure we ALL did. From the six year old, to the 70 year old, we all got exactly what we wanted and needed from this amazing autumn adventure – excitement, education, and entertainment. We also enjoyed “good clean” family fun, and dare I say it…relaxation? Yes, I came away feeling refreshed (there’s something about all of the natural, awe-inspiring beauty around you in the Smokies that just puts things in perspective…), and ready to get back to the day-in/day-out adventure of homeschooling.
The only thing missing from this vacation was more time. I guess there’s only one way to remedy that – start planning our trip back to Wilderness at the Smokies! Now, when do those outdoor waterparks open….?
(Please make sure you check out my upcoming posts about the rest of our experiences on this fun-packed vacation – more info on Legacy Mountain Zip Lining, The Titanic Museum, The Lumberjack Feud, and nature excursions in the Smokies coming soon!)