The kids in pyjamas are everywhere, sprinting and shouting through the lodge's third- and fourth-floor hallways with plastic wands clasped in adrenalin-clenched hands. They're aiming the wands at the buzzing, flashing portraits and the talking treasure chests and the computer screens that have been laid out around the place.
My own kid, Cormac, has a shiny black polyester MagiQuest cape flowing behind his running, shouting, four-year-old frame. He's totally captivated by the game's magic, even if he doesn't quite understand the rules.
MagiQuest is an interactive, high-tech treasure hunt – it's a little like The Amazing Race, but for kids and tweens – that the Great Wolf Lodge water park, in Niagara Falls, Ont., introduced this month. MagiQuest has 17 levels, more or less, most of which challenge players to follow clues and riddles through the lodge as they discover 110-odd objects and "random acts of magic," as the theme park's general manager has called them. You're supposed to "collect" each object, via a bit of computer wizardry with your (infrared-tipped, radio frequency identification-enabled) MagiQuest wand.
Which we're really trying hard at, Cormac, my wife and I. But there are so many distractions along the way. Cormac points his wand at a constellation of crystals that are perched on a hallway pedestal. Though they're not part of the level we're working on, they light up suddenly to a glowing cherry cobalt. The kid is highly impressed.
Farther along, a pair of squirrels on a see-saw perched over the lodge's central three-storey mezzanine start rocking up and down when Cormac gives them a wave.
There's a jumbo screen, too – always a problem with a four-year-old. It's one of the game's final levels, where players try to slay an angry computer-animated dragon by pressing buttons on a touch screen and furiously waving their wands. He stops and stares for a good five minutes. As he's watching, I stare down through a window into the lodge's enormous water park. The dragon immolates five preteen players in a row.
After 35 minutes, we've gathered one lantern, one talking tree, one spell book, one fairy portrait and one grumpy tree stump – everything we're supposed to get. But the computer terminal that was supposed to confirm our progress says we've done no such thing. Of course we did. I'm sure we did. What else have we been doing?
Just then, I hear another dad who's ushering his preteen posse into the elevators, explaining, "The wands didn't work."
The game is new here. Maybe there are still a couple of bugs to work out. We pack it in for the night and vow to succeed the next morning.
MagiQuest was first introduced at Great Wolf Lodge in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 2005, and has spread through the water park's 10 other North American locations since. It's definitely a smart business move. Guests pay $30 for a basic wand and four days' access to the game, and there are myriad add-ons available in the lodge's MagiQuest store, of course. You can buy specialized wands and wand-design kits, plus wand toppers that glow and make sounds like light sabres. (I managed to score one of those with my invitation to this press introduction event.) You can buy capes, costumes, MagiQuest belts and even access to an online version of the game in case you can't complete it in person.
Just as important, the game gives older kids another reason to get excited about coming to the place: It's something fun to do in the hours when they're not using the slides. Most of the players we see look as though they're having a fantastic time.
After breakfast the next morning, we go back at the Rune of Freezing quest, starting it once again from scratch. We do it in order this time, careful that each of us gathers the lantern, the tree, the book, the portrait and the computerized tree stump – which even declares that we've succeeded in completing the level. It still doesn't work, though. The central display says my son's wand is missing several of the objects. It also says that overnight I've somehow managed to complete all 17 of the quests in my sleep. "See, it really is magic!" a friend says, looking a little too bemused.
Whatever. We roll with it. I realize that if my wand thinks I've completed all the levels, then we can jump ahead to the end of the game, and try to defeat the angry dragon on the jumbo screen. A friendly tech guy who has been helping us (without much luck) tells us to do just one last thing: collect the dragon portrait in the hallway on the lodge's first floor.
Cormac and I bound down the stairs with our wands in hand, past the mechanical singing woodland animals in the hotel's lobby, past the roaring fireplace and the families in housecoats and Crocs who are making their way to the waterslides. Once we reach the proper hallway, we look around for a minute, but can't find it. Just then, we see a group of bare-chested boys in damp swimsuits, one of them with swim goggles pulled up over his dripping hair. They're out of breath and smiling, with MagiQuest wands in their clammy hands.
"Hey, do you guys know where the dragon painting is?" I ask them.
"Yeah, it's right here, around the corner!," one of them shouts, before stopping dead to stare at the glowing, buzzing accessory topper on the wand that I have in my hand.
"Your wand is totally pro," the kid says, his young voice teetering between adrenalin and respect.
And it is pro, I guess.
We go back up to the fourth floor, taking the elevator this time. The friendly tech support guy in the knight costume is standing at the dragon screen with a gaggle of kids around him. Cormac and I take a crack at the dragon. My son pokes at the icons on a touch screen as the tech guy points, and I shake the wand furiously at the four infrared receivers that are built into the frame around the display.
Our first turn lasts about 90 seconds. The dragon totally frags us.
"Here, have a quick go again," the tech guy says.
But on the second turn, the touch screen freezes. Cormac bangs at the icons, and then the tech guy bangs at them too. Nothing. The computer's all locked up. But it doesn't really matter.
We drop the wands back in our room and head down to the slides for some old-fashioned water park fun.