Load up the family and head to Sandusky, Ohio

A giraffe leans over the sun roof of a car to take some food from a visitor at African Safari Wildlife Park in Port Clinton, Ohio.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For our first family vacation with our 4-year-old daughter, we had several criteria: It had to be within a three-hour drive, be reasonably priced, provide enough to do in case of bad weather, and keep my husband and me occupied too.

Our destination: Sandusky, Ohio. It's best known as the home of Cedar Point Amusement Park, but there are plenty of other attractions in the area too.

We stayed at the Great Wolf Lodge, a log-sided resort with an indoor water park roughly 2 1/2-hours from our suburban Detroit home. With 11 locations in the U.S. and Canada, the chain is well-established and had gotten positive reviews from friends. We went midweek and found a good deal on the Internet: $179/night for a family suite with balcony, including an all-you-can eat hot breakfast.

We also packed some of our daughter's favorite books, blankie and a night light to make the bedtime routine easier in an unfamiliar setting. The suite allowed me and my husband to watch TV or read a book in the sitting area while she went to sleep.

To make the ride more bearable, we brought along the portable DVD player and bribed our daughter with ice cream if she promised to keep the "are we there yet?" questions to a maximum of three times. Surprisingly it worked.

Our first stop after we crossed into Ohio was the African Safari Wildlife Park in Port Clinton. The main attraction of the 100-acre preserve is a drive-through fenced-in area where visitors can feed deer, elk, moose and other animals. The park is home to 50 different species, including zebra, giraffes and bison. Online coupons offer weekday carload discounts for $42.95 per car, but we got an even better and unadvertised deal with our Detroit Zoo membership card — half-off the regular price of admission. The deal is good with any zoo membership.

The park provides each vehicle one free small bucket of animal food, and you can buy additional buckets as well as carrots. We saved some money by bringing our own 5-pound bag of carrots, though we didn't mention that to the park attendants.

This undated photo provided by Great Wolf Lodge shows Fort Mackenzie, an interactive tree house water fort at Great Wolf Lodge in Sandusky, Ohio. (AP Photo/Great Lakes Services, LLC) ** NO SALES **Great Lakes Services, LLC

Once inside the preserve, our car immediately was surrounded by deer. It was a rainy Monday, so the park was pretty empty. That made our car even more popular with the animals, who aren't shy at all and clearly are conditioned when they see a vehicle to think "food!"

You drive very slowly, so you can safely take small children out of their car seats. With my 4-year-old sitting on my lap and my husband behind the wheel, we opened the front windows. It wasn't long before a moose grabbed the entire cup of food, put it on the roof of our Pontiac, and chowed down. Pellets of animal food rained into the car and the windows soon were covered with moose slobber. It was too close of an encounter for our daughter, but my husband and I couldn't stop laughing.

In this August 2008 photo provided by African Safari Wildlife Park, an elk takes a cup of food from a visitor to African Safari Wildlife Park, located in Port Clinton, Ohio. (AP Photo/African Safari Wildlife Park) ** NO SALES **african safari wildlife park

After the drive-through area, we parked the car and walked around Safari Junction, where we saw lemurs, alpacas, camels and other animals. Children can ride a pony and camel at no extra cost.

From there, it was a quick 20-minute drive to the Great Wolf Lodge. We timed it so we'd get to the resort around 1 p.m., the earliest guests can check in. It's located on a busy street with plenty of strip malls and chain restaurants, not in scenic downtown Sandusky.

The resort lobby is designed to provide visitors with a rustic Up North feel, complete with animal trophies mounted on the walls. It also has a clock tower that entertains young children with an animated show four times a day. There's also story time about 8:15 each night, a Cub Club with its own staff that does arts and crafts projects with the kids, and the Cubs' Cabin, a dry area for children 6 and under, where they can play games on a computer, put on a puppet show or read a book.

Of course, the whole reason to go to Great Wolf Lodge is the water park. The one in Sandusky has nine slides, five pools, a giant four-story water fort, a lazy river and hot tubs. One of the pools is a zero-depth entry toddler play area, with fountains, small slides and enough room for young ones to swim around. The resort recommends all young children and weak swimmers wear life jackets. It has them onsite for free, though it's first-come, first-served and at peak times, they can run out. Certified lifeguards are everywhere, giving parents peace of mind.

Our daughter was fascinated by the giant bucket atop the water fort that dumps 700 gallons of water on daring souls about every five minutes. A bell clangs for about 30 seconds before the water comes crashing down, so people who don't want to get such a soaking can easily move out of the way.

The resort offers one sit-down restaurant, which we ate at the first night. It's reasonably priced and of course has a kids' menu but enough adult food — and drinks — to satisfy most. The second night we ventured out to one of the kid-friendly chain restaurants along the strip.

Our second day at the lodge — our only full day there — the toddler pool was closed for cleaning, but luckily the weather was beautiful and we spent most of our time at the underutilized outdoor pool, which also has fountains for the kids to play in and a zero-depth entry. On the other end, the pool has basketball nets and we watched one rowdy game of pool basketball.

When it's time to get out of the water, the lodge also has an arcade where parents can easily spend too much money. It also offers various other activities, including a junior lifeguard program for older children and a "wolf walk," where younger kids can learn about different animals and touch pelts from a fox, deer and possum, as well as hold a turtle shell, deer antlers and bison horns.

If you can lure your children out of the resort, Sandusky has a historic downtown along the Lake Erie waterfront, and offers easy ferry service to Put-in-Bay island in Lake Erie. There's also a vineyard and winery open to the public. Those attractions are on our to-do list for our next visit to Sandusky, but this time, we felt our daughter was a bit too young — and too enamored with the water park — to fully enjoy the other sites.

On our last day at the resort, the toddler pool was still closed and the rain had moved in again, so after a final swim in one of the inside pools, we were ready to get on the road. Our itinerary was supposed to include a trip to Goofy Golf, just down the street from Great Wolf Lodge, for a round of miniature golf and some go-cart racing. We didn't get there this time because of the weather, but it, too is on our to-do list for next time.