Ain't It Grand
Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort in Utica, Ill.
By Jenny E. Beeh
By its name alone, Starved Rock doesn't sound like the most promising vacation destination, but it's actually one of the more popular state parks in Illinois, offering camping, fishing, hunting, boating and, of course, hiking through its majestic bluffs and canyons along the Illinois River.
Located just 94 miles southeast of Chicago, the naturally picturesque park and its surrounding area is, well, pretty rustic and sparse when it comes to manmade amenities, except for Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center, the 1930s-era stone-and-log hotel nested atop a wooded bluff—the only lodging facility on the state park's grounds. In fact, until this year, the historic lodge was, surprisingly, really the only accommodation of consequence in the region, which attracts more than 2 million visitors annually, though many of those are day-tripping hikers who come to explore the park's 2,700 acres and 18 waterfalls.
Seeing the area's potential as an overnight or weekend destination for some of those millions of visitors (including many families with young-uns), Grizzly Jack's Grand Bear Resort & Indoor Waterpark opened in 2006 just down the road from the state park. The new resort boasts 92 guest suites, "lavish gigantic log cabins" (each a modest 2,800 square feet, sleeping up to 18 people) and rentable 1,800-square-foot vacation villas (complete with DVD players and whirlpools) all located on its 60 wooded acres.
Developers thought Starved Rock's natural beauty and history would be a natural draw for guests.
Starved Rock sees about 2 million visitors every year. The resort's developers wanted to provide these visitors with some other options, with the indoor waterpark being the main attraction.
Guests are treated to the resort's 24,000-square-foot indoor waterpark, Grand Bear Falls, which features the first motion and sound adventure waterslide in the nation.
Created by Play Pool Products LLC's Splashtacular Inc., the slide provides riders with a menu of themed experiences, from animals to aliens. From four stories up at the top of the slide, riders select from a variety of adventure motifs to experience their own private show via sounds, lights and colors during their 330-foot slippery descent. (Hint: Try the storm setting, complete with thunder and lightning.) Grand Bear Falls also provides sundry waterpark staples like a lazy river, interactive play structure (with dumping bucket) and wave pool.
Guests looking for some dry options have their choice of several restaurants, gift shops, an arcade, and banquet and meeting facilities. But Grand Bear Resort also boasts some other enchantments at the appropriately named Enchanted Forest, which is best described as an indoor small-town, summertime carnival, with nine full-sized rides, including a Tilt-a-Whirl, Free Fall, Eclipse and, of course, the Grizzly, as well as a venue for concerts, a pizzeria and a sports bar.
Developers were pleased with the waterpark, but wanted to provide a different experience for visitors, offering something for everyone.
That versatility plays well to the built-in family market that originally came to the area for that elusive brush with nature. Planners now hope they'll stay—and spend—for the resort's brand of fun.
Chicago is the resort's biggest market. The cabins and resort experience combined with nearby outdoor adventure opportunities provide a great escape.