Monday afternoon through Thursday morning, the boys and I were in Utica, Illinois, at Grizzly Jack's Grand Bear Resort with MacTroll's parents and his three brothers and their families. The reunion was planned and financed by his parents. So, 10 adults and nine children came from way out east and way out west, and way up north and, um, an hour and a half away to stay together just outside of Starved Rock State Park.
I'd asked about Grizzly Jack's before, and I know some of you have given me your thoughts on the resort via Facebook. Whether the adults loved it or hated it, everyone came back with the same response of -- "The kids really enjoyed it." And our kid was no different. He woke up demanding to know why we were leaving a day earlier than everyone else. I didn't have the heart to tell him it was because his father had given me the dates incorrectly, and that, unlike most people he'll meet in his life, his lame mother had scheduled meetings and doctors appointments that would take weeks to reschedule on that Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. We both bombed on this one. But then again, you do what you can, you know?
As a resort, MacTroll and I were not overly excited about Grizzly Jack's. And here's the deal, that my brother-in-law from California brought up once MacTroll found out that the resort is $10 million in the hole and filed for bankruptcy in January. "You don't build a giant resort in the middle of nowhere cornfields." Apparently, the Kevin Costner "Build it and they will come" philosophy doesn't apply to indoor water parks in Central Illinois.
Our in-laws thoughtfully provided large housing accommodations in a villa and a townhouse for the whole group. As it turns out, when GJ opened, it sold these villas and townhomes to folks as vacation homes that they could then rent back to other families like ours to make money off in rent when they weren't using them. Each place is decorated pretty much the same: think bears meet fake antlers meet moose paraphernalia. The owners then provide things like silverware and cups and dishes. The issue is if you stay at a place that sleeps 12, you'd expect there to be 12 forks instead of 5. See what I'm saying? When GJ originally opened purchasing a Townhouse was like $250,000 for 2800 square feet. Now, you can buy them for $50,000.
On the wall of the villa was also a sign indicating you could purchase their fancy towels and washclothes, but I guess there must have been a run on those, because all we could come up with was that the ones they provided us were so old and washed that they were -- very exfoliating.
We went to the waterpark twice, each for two-hour play dates. Inside are two water slides, one body slide and one raft slide. You need to be at least 48 inches to go down them, so X-man was an inch too short, which was okay. There was a splash park that we made the best of, but it was in complete disrepair. The two spray guns had tubes that were completely broken. MacTroll just reached over the side grabbed the dislodged hose and sprayed family members that way. Above the spray area was supposed to be one of those giant buckets of water that dumps over onto people, but the door to the "ranger station" wouldn't open, so the water dumped inside the house and just kind of drained down rather than pouring. It looked like there was some kind of musical warning system to tell you when it was time to dump (like a clanging on metal as it got full) but it didn't work. The bucket system with pulley to dump water on someone's head below was broken. They had at least put a new rope climbing apparatus in over a broken one, but they left the broken one attached, so it looked dumpy. X-man did okay on the two slides for kids under 48 inches. They had soft landings at the bottom. He also enjoyed going around in the rafts on the lazy river.
The lodge is located just down the street from a quarry blast sight, so the water is very hard. My friend M warned me that their water tasted kind of funny and to take some bottled water along. It was similar to the water at my Mom's in Loves Park, so it wasn't as disconcerting to me. But I was grateful for her advice. The issue is that there was mineral and mold build up all over the place in the water park. You'd float around the lazy river and see it on the walls. The wood on all the steps was turning green and rotting. The underside of the Ranger Station was building up with white mineral deposits from the inappropriate dumping.
The lazy river was supposed to be only for rafters, but everyone was in it. They were swimming around it. They were diving under the rafts to get around people. There was also a small wave pool, but there was no indicator in the room any longer as to when the pool would be starting, so you missed it, or you sat around waiting a long time for it -- a lot. The water was warm and they did have some fun water falls to swim through, which also became the "safety zone" for X-man when the "crazy waves" came on. The waves from the wave pool either came out "traditional" like you were on a surf at a beach or "crazy" like you were in water between docks and it was going sideways. The crazy ones were a bit too rough for X-man, so he'd go into the safety area until they stopped.
The next issue was -- the lifeguards. At Sholem, you get a sense that they're not messing around. Everyone has their crazy scanning headbobs, and they've got their whistles in hand. They've got new suits and sun protection and life saving equipment on hand. At Grizzly Jack's, I watched one lifeguard literally chew her finger nails for her entire shift. Everywhere she moved she had her fingers in her mouth. And she looked everywhere except at the water. One lifeguard was taking his float on a walk. It was crumbling apart. I didn't notice it until I thought it was a chunk of apple floating by. I felt better it wasn't food -- and then I didn't. The guards didn't watch the water. They looked bored. So they gave no sense of reassurance and I didn't let X-man out of my sight.
The indoor Amusement Park named the "Enchanted Forest" was okay, as were the sea of bounce houses outside of it for children ages 3-12. X-man loved running around and pretend playing the arcade games. He also went on all the rides. MacTroll was with him most of the time because during a morning walk/run on the Canal, I managed to jack up my foot (yes, I have an appointment for an X-ray with sports medicine this month) and had trouble walking. The only issue here was that you could tell that because of the poor economic issues, they only had two people running all of the rides. So, you'd wait in line behind the gate of the one you wanted to ride -- and wait -- and hope that enough people lined up behind you so that you could go on it. Then you'd go on that ride as many, many times as possible before the employee moved on to the next ride.
But the biggest difficulty was that everything local was kind of closed in the area. The first night MacTroll and I tried to do a pizza night. We found some places with good reviews online at the nearby Oglesby. We figured we'd pick stuff up. Yeah, one was closed and the other was at the other end of a road that was closed that would require a long detour back to I-39. So, we ventured into Lasalle-Peru and found the Jewel and a Papa John's. This was a theme. We tried to go to an independent bookstore and candy shop in Utica -- both were closed at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday. We tried to canoe at Starved Rock, but the boat shop didn't open until 11:30 a.m. (nice and hot then, right?) When we returned at 11:30 a.m., the shop was open to take our money, but no one with a key was there to unlock the canoes. MacTroll, X-man and I gave up and went back to the moldy water park, while the others sat around waiting for the guy with the key to show up. MacTroll also reported that my MIL tried to stop by the Starved Rock Stables, which were empty of horses and abandoned of people.
But again, despite our reservations as adults, X-man liked it -- because it had bounce houses and rides and water slides and a bunch of kids to play with. So if you focus on younger kid happiness, you'll do fine. Unfortunately, I'm afraid if you enjoyed the park before, you might find it lacking due to the fact that the place hasn't been kept up. So if you return, it's probably not going to be exactly as you remembered it.
I can recommend, if you're in Peru, to get breakfast or lunch at the Fourth Street Bakery. They don't have a lot of breads (but they do have a lot of bagels). X-man and MacTroll both enjoyed a mid-morning snack there. It had a great atmosphere and the owners were very welcoming.
I would not necessarily recommend running on the canal. I entered it at Lock 14. It's a decent path, but it smells of dead fish. And the Illinois River spill over areas around are flooded with beautiful egrets, who walk on their tall, graceful legs. It's amazing to see, until you realize they're walking around the dozens of tires floating in the water. Sigh. The whole area needs a giant environmental clean up.