In the annals of family camping in Alberta, there is perhaps no greater legend than that of Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort (often misspoken as Old MacDonald’s Farm). Nestled along the south shore of Buffalo Lake, almost equidistant from Edmonton and Calgary, the family-run and family-focused Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort is an institution with few provincial rivals.
At least that’s what we were led to believe when we first started camping back 2011. We bought our first travel trailer when the kids were 4 and 2, having decided that RV camping would be our summer recreational activity of choice, and began asking around for recommendations on where to actually go with our little home on wheels. Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort was quickly and often mentioned. We booked our first visit in 2012.
First Visit – First Impressions of Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort
Much like with Sylvan Lake when I first moved to Alberta, the hype over Ol’ MacDonald’s was perhaps too enthusiastic. I’d grown up spending summers at amazing Sauble Beach on Lake Huron. Sylvan Lake never had a chance by comparison. Likewise, I’d spent those summers at Carson’s Camp, also an institution of family camping. Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort never had a chance by comparison either.
The entire campground struck me as run down. Public buildings were dirty with dust. Some felt almost dilapidated. Some things didn’t work while others did work but seemed amateurish. I had an overwhelming sense that Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort was a once great place that had been let go.
I remember one specific moment during that first stay that seemingly confirmed my assumption. We were wandering around the grounds out front of the museum/arcade when a humongous, sparkling horse trailer hauled by a matching semi-tractor pulled up and parked in front of us. Stenciled printing on the cab door mentioned names all ending with MacDonald.
I had no doubt it was the campground owners, or at the very least their family. I leered at this impressive rig before returning to my campsite convinced that the next generation of MacDonalds had inherited a once proud campground and was using it as a cash cow for their own enjoyment while the resort itself slowly rotted away.
In retrospect, that was a hasty and entirely unfounded judgment on my part, borne from a limited data set and the biasing of childhood nostalgia. Still, it was a strong enough first impression that we never returned to Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort in subsequent summers.
And to be fair, that weekend wasn’t a complete disappointment. The neighbouring campsite also had a family of four in it. They too had an older daughter and younger son, both close in age to our own children. The four kids began playing together and eventually we adults followed their contagious lead. By the end of the weekend we had new friends and we’ve camped with them each year since.
Seven years on, and with dozens of campgrounds behind us, I decided it was time to give Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort another try. I enlisted our friends from that first visit and we planned an overdue reunion at the place where it all began. This is what my fresh eyes and fresh perspective thought of Alberta’s most famous family campground.
Second Visit – First Impressions of Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort
My first impression this second time around, was that Ol’ MacDonald’s looks as though a traveling carnival set up shop here fifty years ago and never left. The mismatched buildings, bi-coloured tents, and haphazard layout of the entire place give it a very organic aura. As if a farmer stepped out of his house one morning and just start building a campground on impulse.
I didn’t appreciate this homemade, blue collar character on our first visit. It’s dishevelled and rough in a nostalgic kind of way. A far cry from the modern, luxurious lakeside resorts springing up around the province these days. It won’t appeal to everyone, certainly not those with opulent expectations, but I found it appealing. More this time than the first, anyway.
Similarly, I didn’t get as much of the ‘resting on their laurels’ vibe this time around. It felt like there was a renewed focus on the whole operation. A purpose beyond raking in the cash. That’s not to say the place has been completely overhauled, by any means. It remains every bit the home handyman venture writ large it’s always been, just less ignored. I’m not even sure why I felt this way. Perhaps I’m getting soft as I age?
Regardless, whether my first first impression is most accurate or my second first impression, there’s no denying Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort remains incredibly popular with Alberta campers. Getting sites can be a challenge. Getting prime sites, even more so. There is no rolling three month reservation opening like there is for provincial parks. Booking a campsite at Ol’ MacDonald’s, be it for a weekend or for a week, is something you do not want to delay. There are families that return year after year and book their next stay as they depart from their current stay.
A second indicator or Ol’ MacDonald’s popular greets you the moment you arrive. For the good listeners in the crowd, it’ll greet you even before you leave home. All campers are required to fill out a consent waiver, children included, relinquishing the campground of any liability for death, injury, or property loss.
Now, I honestly don’t know what to make of this form. It’s been my understanding that in genuine situations where the legal system becomes involved, these waivers are essentially useless. And I understand many people find them to impinge on their rights, not to mention unwelcoming. I prefer to view them as a small nuisance, easily accommodated if you pay attention to communication, and ultimately a sign that management is keeping things under control. Spend just a day or two at Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort and it quickly becomes apparent that this place could easily devolve into an utter gongshow without proper supervision. I’m happy that the owners are keen on preventing that from happening.
Upon Arrival at Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort
You are first greeted by a campground representative in a little phone booth sized office at the entrance. This part of your visit goes much smoother and more pleasantly if you’ve already printed off and filled out the aforementioned waiver. You’ll receive directions to your campsite, a rundown of some rules, and a large map with the entire campground layout on one side and a detailed listing of rules and activities on the other. This sheet is your bible for the weekend, especially if you are a new or infrequent visitor.
And you will need it to find your site. You truly can’t appreciate the spontaneous make-up of Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort until you attempt to find your campsite. Seriously, just look at the map and try to count the sites from 1 through 492. The labyrinthine loops start off relatively sensible but eventually start jumping all over the place with almost no rhyme or reason. In fact, the inexplicable jump from 314 to 414 after marching upwards in numerical order from 1 really does have no reason to it.
Yet, it’s kind of charming. If nothing else, it reveals how the campground has grown and expanded over the decades. I mean, if you were building this entire place from scratch you would never even think of recreating this mess of a layout. That’s kind of sad, in a way. Totally understandable and prudent, but sad. There’s still room for imperfection in my world.
Mimicking the wacky layout, regular campsites at Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort also run the gamut of layouts, sizes, and services. Most of them are back-in, though a few pull-throughs and shared sites do exist. The bulk of the sites in the more amorphous, presumably original loops, are about 50-50 unserviced and water/power only. Three groups of newer sites with a more regimented layout have water, power, and sewer.
During our first stay, we had a single digit campsite meaning it was one of the very first. These early sites, found nearer the water and towards the beach, are located in a lovely area with mature, albeit scraggly poplar and cottonwood trees. The shade here is nice as is the relative proximity to the beach, but the size and orientation of these sites limits accessibility for some larger RVs. When booking you will be assigned appropriate sites according to your rig size, so don’t be surprised if you end up relegated further afield.
Our second, recent visit had us camping in the fully service 400 block of sites. These must be the newest campsites at Ol’ MacDonald’s as the trees are younger and smaller, though thankfully still present. They are also the most cramped campsites available, living up to the sardine can metaphor the rest of the campsites mostly avoid.
We were lucky to find ourselves in a corner site facing an open field, thereby limiting the claustrophobia inducing confines of these sites. It wouldn’t have been my first choice for a site, I’d prefer something in the original loops if possible, but it could have been much worse had it been an interior site in this block.
All sites, new or old, come with a picnic table and a firepit, as expected. Older sites, hidden amongst the mature trees and on what must be former shoreline/beach, are mostly dirt and gravel. This doesn’t make for the cleanest of camping experiences, particularly when it rains. You’ll also want to be sure to bring leveling gear. The sites aren’t wildly off-kilter but they aren’t engineered pads either.
In the four hundred block, the newer sites still have access to sunlight and thus have grass between the gravel RV pads. I like grass on sites as they remind me of my childhood campground. And with the rain we endured during our stay, it made for less mud. But overall I’d tolerate some mud if it meant more space. Your mileage may vary.
There are eight groups sites located around the grounds. None of them are in isolated enclaves away from the other campers, so don’t expect them to offer you and your friends an opportunity to whoop it up. They are also essentially fields, some grassier than others and some more open than others. Each has power and water as well as a picnic shelter and communal fire pit. Otherwise, they are fairly non-descript spaces that could just as easily have been turned into individual campsites or playgrounds for that matter.
Speaking of non-descript fields, a large, sloping one runs from the entrance road all the way back alongside the 400 block and is designated as overflow. Some scattered picnic tables and firepits dot this area and I shudder to imagine a weekend so busy that this gets filled with campers. If you really want to camp here but don’t have a reservation, I suppose it would suffice for a couple days but you would really have to want to be there to bother.
Something that isn’t designated on the map or even mentioned on Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort website is that one of the loops is restricted to seasonal campers. I haven’t a clue how you get one of these sites and they seem reluctant to advertise this feature. There are also a handful of cabins, but they too are a mystery to me as I can find no information about them either. Neither the seasonal sites or the cabins were of interest to me anyway, so I didn’t ask anyone about them but if you were curious, I suppose asking would potentially solve the mystery.
Fresh water in the entire park is potable. Group sites all have a tap. The serviced sites have it on site. Those on unserviced sites, however, would be wise to load up their trailer tanks as the public taps around the campground are sporadically located at best.
Firewood, on the other hand, is readily available at the general store. It costs $6 per bundle. Precut and prepackaged somewhere else and shipped to Ol’ MacDonald’s on skids, the bundles are not huge. They look smaller than the grain bags we typically buy at other campgrounds, but it does appear to be decent quality spruce for the most part. That price isn’t the worst, to be honest.
We lucked out and didn’t need to buy any wood. We brought some of our own for starters and then had neighbouring campers leave on the Friday and offer us their leftovers. It was a decent haul from these generous campers and we sent the kids to hunt for more at other, now empty, sites. The quality of this wood varied greatly, but free is free. Campers unite in kindness.
With all the ways to get dirty here, bathrooms, and particularly showers, will be of utmost importance to families. This also applies to campers like us who don’t like using our small RV bathroom for such chores. There are several flush toilet bathrooms located around the campground. These vary in design and size but all are decidedly lacking in luxury.
Bathrooms in the original loops are especially funky. They look more like outhouses or repurposed wood shacks. As such, they are very, and I do mean very, basic. But they get the job done.
The larger, newer, and more accommodating bathroom and shower buildings look more like something you’d find at a major construction site. There are three of them and again they have a very slapdash look, as though created from salvaged parts. Some have urinals, others do not. Some have stainless steal sinks, others white. The showers in the building nearest our site appeared to be spewing water directly into a 1960’s wood-panelled rec room. It’s all so very weird, but again, they get the job done.
Showers are not free, requiring tokens purchased from the “Grandma’s Kitchen”, the central hub of Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort. I didn’t take a shower so can’t comment on hot water or any other aspect of doing so.
Two of the shower buildings have attached laundry facilities, a wonderful touch for a family oriented campground with a beach. Coin operated and newer looking machines, I don’t remember if these were here the first time we visited nor did I use them. Still, they’re a helpful amenity that more campgrounds really should have.
At The Beach
As for getting dirty, be it from sand or sweat, fun at the lake is the biggest draw of Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort. Their private beach is one of the nicest around by Prairie standards. Large and mostly sandy, it offers families a great way to spend sunny, summer days. Expect it to be packed on beautiful weekends.
When it is hot and sunny, you can find relief at the ice cream shop right beside the beach. Only open when weather demands it, the ice cream stand is oh so good when open. A handful of flavours at a reasonable price, ice cream is a no-brainer during summer. Kudos to Ol’ MacDonald’s for having this.
Next door is a concession stand serving typical fast food fare, as you would expect. I didn’t sample as I was too busy enjoying my ice cream, so I won’t comment on quality.
They also sell a small assortment of beach toys and related wares for those who forget to bring their own or suffer from breakage and are desperate to calm the resulting kid freakout.
One small accessary, but a unique and noteworthy one, is the air compressor outside the concession building for blowing up water toys. A great idea that would be a fine addition at all beaches
On the Water
The lake, however, has some issues, as do most lakes in Alberta. It is an oversized slough, plain and simple. Swimming in it will be at your own discretion, which isn’t to say that it’s gross, it’s just not pristine.
The water remains remarkably shallow a long ways out. That’s great for young kids, limiting drowning danger somewhat. And though we were there later in August, the water wasn’t especially warm. I thought it would be warmer considering how shallow the lake is and the time of year. I just touched it with my hand but didn’t go swimming as the weather wasn’t quite warm enough for my delicate features to be exposed.
On either side of the beach, you quickly transition into reeds and there are hints of foamy scum washing up on the beach with the waves. The reeds attract lovely water birds and other wildlife, but isn’t the most appealing setting for me getting in the actual water. Nor is the scum. I will be forever tainted by my childhood Great Lakes experience. Sorry. I was lucky.
There is a very rudimentary boat launch behind the ice cream shop. I don’t own a boat and have never had to launch one, but this looks dicey for big boats. And yet there is a small marina dug into the dirt a hundred metres away from it filled with speed boats and a pontoon boat. Those boats weren’t helicoptered in, so I guess the launch functions as advertised.
Speaking of pontoon boats, there is one docked between the launch and marina that you can rent. I have no idea what this costs and frankly, I’d prefer if there were canoes available instead. That said, it has a waterslide attached to it which no doubt offers lots of fun for families enjoying their summer vacation. This would also allow you to get away from the shoreline and into the deeper parts of the lake for presumably better swimming. It also saves you the cost of having to, you know, buy a pontoon boat.
Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort has two piers running out into the lake. Located next to the boat launch, these offer boaters from elsewhere a place to tie-off when visiting or for local boaters to pause rather than returning to the marina every time they come to shore.
They also make decent fishing spots, as the sometimes rocky and reedy shoreline isn’t the best to cast rom. There are fish in this lake (we saw someone catch one as proof), including northern pike, but rules on keep limits are strict. If you enjoy catch and release, give it a try. If you’re looking for a meal, not likely the best spot for you.
Outdoor Fun at Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort
The fun at Ol’ MacDonald’s isn’t limited to the beach and lake. There are several playgrounds around the campground, each a unique, eclectic mixture of new, old, and homemade. There are wooden play structures, steel obstacle courses, and even rubber tractor tire “tubes”. In a couple of the playgrounds, newer “plastic” play structures have been erected adding some much needed colour to what are otherwise drab accumulations of brown and rust. Kids enjoy these, especially the younger set. Their homemade appeal doesn’t hinder enjoyment and may, in fact, enhance it for some. With several available, your kids won’t be too far from one.
A large grassy space that doubles as a festival green, allows for games like soccer or tossing around a football. There is even a rudimentary ball diamond in one spot. None of these are manicured sports fields, so keep expectations modest, but if you want to toss a Frisbee or goof around a bit, you can do that without the risk of damaging other campers’ cars.
Two of the more infamous attractions at Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort are the train rides and the merry-go-round. There are two “trains” here offering rides to campers. The Children’s Train runs twice daily and is a small go-cart based wooden train designed to look like a steam train. It has two cars and a caboose on which little kids can sit and get a ride around the campground. It costs $2 per kid and is a thrill for little ones.
The Steam Train ride is similar setup only larger. This “train” looks to be a transformed tractor and it pulls haywagons around the campground. It runs at 5 o’clock each evening (except Friday) and is suitable for all ages. It’s a quaint offering that fits well with the pseudo-farm campground theme right down to the old grumpy-looking cowboy who drives this stuff.
The merry-go-round is similarly popular with youngsters. I think it is a homemade ride. If it isn’t, it surely was built a long time ago having a decidedly vintage, and rickety, look to it. A sputtering gas powered engine rotates a collection of metal and wooden benches that circle for a minute or so. It only costs a quarter to ride and riders are encouraged to try tossing their shoes into a milk crate affixed to a post as they rotate around. It’s silly and old-timey but fun for younger kids. Mine, at ages 12 and 10, were no longer interested in riding but loved it on our first visit years ago.
If you’re eager to burn some calories, you can also rent “karts” to scoot around parts of the campground. These single-seat, foot-pedaled contraptions look like motorless ATVs crossed with likewise motorless go-carts. I don’t think they’re homemade, but they may be. If not, they certainly haven’t been manufactured in this century or even the last part of the previous one.
Indoor Fun at Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort
If you don’t like the outdoors, you’re in luck because Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort has lots to do inside as well. They have what I call an entertainment building near the entrance that is part of the campground town square, for lack of a better term. This particular building houses loads of amusements including mini-golf, an arcade, pool tables, and a candy store.
The concept is great but the execution is wanting. The building is essentially a large drive shed much like you would find on any operating farm. The entrance room houses a small retail store selling candies, fireworks, and souvenirs. Selection is meagre at best but even a handful of jarred candies will entice kids.
In, on, under, and above everything in the store is a makeshift museum displaying every imaginable item in a typical, early-to-mid-twentieth century farmhouse. This isn’t a proper curated museum but rather a collection of family heirlooms and novelties that the owners have kept over generations. It’s quirky and mildly interesting and, thankfully, free to view.
Through a second door you will enter the massive open area housing all the other goodies. Here too is a wild and diverse collection of artifacts from farm life decades past. Larger items including vehicles and tractors are found here. I even discovered a Mennonite (think Amish) buggy that was refurbished in the Ontario town where I went to high school. That was certainly unexpected.
The walls are covered in tools, garments, and signage. By and large, it’s all “junk” and yet fascinating to look over if you’re middle-aged or older. Some kids might find it curious but most will just be bored by it. They’re more interested in fun, and the coin-op bar style pool tables coupled with the vintage arcade games do exactly that. None of these amusements are particularly special or professionally refurbished; this isn’t a throwback venue. But they work and entertain the kids, assuming you remembered to bring some coins like in the olden days. Some still cost only a quarter; others, $1.
The mini-golf is also located in this building. True to form, it’s a backyard special consisting of nothing more than a series of hand –built, platformed greens. The course winds around all the other stuff inside the building and is not challenging whatsoever. It’s inexpensive, thankfully, and possibly fine for wee kids to cut their teeth on.
For me personally, this is by far the most disappointing feature at Ol’ MacDonald’s. The homemade appeal wears out when it comes to this mini-golf course. It’s basically crap. It doesn’t look fun, isn’t maintained, and frankly, sucks. I would love for there to be a proper mini-golf course. There is plenty of room to build one outside the building.
A juke box situated in a recreated rec room to the side of the pool tables, allows for music to entertain patrons while playing the games. This music gets piped outside too and the entire central hub has music playing non-stop all day. Thankfully this constant noise does not carry to the campsites. Had it radiated to our campsite, a short walk from the hub, it would have truly ruined our weekend. You may not know this, but juke box users aren’t always the best DJs.
The overwhelming impression this entertainment building leaves you with is dingy. Nothing in there has been cleaned in ages. There is dust everywhere and on everything. Combined with the fourth-rate mini-golf and modest gaming, I was left wanting more. This could be SO amazing but it isn’t. This is where those ‘resting on their laurels’ sentiments returned for me, big time.
The (non) Petting Zoo
Outside, across from the entertainment building is a single, fenced, pasture inside of which live assorted animals. There are a couple of horses, a couple of chickens, a donkey, and some goats. I’m not sure what is the point of these animals? They don’t do much. In fact, at one point I thought one of the horses was dead as it just lay there motionless for an unsettlingly long time while the second stood over it.
The chickens look cool and the goats are cute. You can plunk some coins into a food dispenser and feed the goats if you wish, but this isn’t a petting zoo. Again, it gives the place some rural charm, I suppose, but I felt more like I wasn’t sure if these animals were neglected or not than enchanted by them.
The Central Hub
The grounds to the north end of this field are what I’ve been referring to as the central hub. The rental Karts and merry-go-round are here along with the firewood. There’s even propane available for purchase, a rare sight at campgrounds nowadays.
A large tent from which a small market operates on weekends can be found on the grassy area next to the merry-go-round. There’s a massage kiosk in the mix but I never saw it actually open. And a fancy little cabin houses a coffee shop to satisfy the addicts each morning.
The primary building is affectionately known as Grandma’s Kitchen. It’s the campground general store and sells ice, camping essentials (even some parts), pop, chips, and baked goods. There is also a small restaurant inside, hence the “kitchen” in the name, selling the usual diner fare like burgers, fries, salads, and poutine. Seating is available inside or out and they serve a pancake brunch Sunday mornings.
When we camp, we bring food with us. I know, weird. I therefore didn’t taste Grandma’s wares, but the baked goods looked tasty and there’s really few ways to irrevocably screw up burgers and fries. Greasy is good regardless.
Beside the merry-go-round is an old, refurbished school house. Inside is supposedly a theatre showing old family movies for a modest price when demand permits. In our two visits we have never done this. A brief look at the scheduled movies didn’t grab our kids’ attention either. But as an alternative activity for young kids on a rainy night, this has potential to be fun.
Heading towards the exit, Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort has an impressive eight outlet dump station. The layout is … peculiar. Looking like an afterthought, the dump station is divided into two groupings of four, each with two side by side outlets. Just a casual glance at this setup when nobody was using it had me thinking that trailers using the inside outlets would get trapped. The entire exit road that runs immediately adjacent to the dump stations must be a nightmare during prime checkout hours. Not the best designed dump station, in my opinion, but hey, it’s free.
Ol’ MacDonald’s does have wifi, but I’ll be damned if we could get it to work. The signal was strong when near the entertainment building, but none of our devices could connect. I am unsure if this is purposeful or accidental. A little bit of a tease. Nonetheless, plenty of cell service in these parts.
Odds and Sods
The resort also has its own recycling system. Behind the campsites are milk crates in which you can deposit your empty beverage containers. As you can imagine, there can be quite a few of them over the course of a happy weekend. The empties are collected and the return funds donated to several local charities. This is a terrific idea and one that other campgrounds, including the provincial parks, should adopt.
Adding to the impressive list of things to do, Ol’ MacDonald’s now hosts an annual music festival in early September. Primarily a country music event (not surprising) the lineup showcases new and old artists of varying pedigree along with tribute acts. There is an all-ages beer garden both nights and cowboy church on Sunday. I don’t know what is but it sounds intriguing.
Furthermore, an additional large circus tent was erected in a field near the 400 block of sites where we were camping. On certain evenings there is a family-friendly magic show. I had no idea this existed until we actually set up our camper and began exploring the grounds. There is no mention of it on the map or website. There is a cost for entry and seeing as we were there with friends, we didn’t check it out. I hope it was an entertaining show because this is kind of a neat idea and gives credence to the “resort” moniker.
With so much going on, and so many people present, you might be concerned about the noise level and those worries are warranted. Good Lord, there are a lot of kids at Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort. As there should be, this being the demographic they cater to. In no way am I complaining so much as pointing out that you won’t be immersed in a peaceful, wilderness park.
These are the busiest playgrounds I’ve ever encountered while camping. And the kids that aren’t on the playgrounds are playing, biking, shooting hoops, hanging out at the arcade, romping around the beach, and generally having an amazing, and loud, time. Add in the jovial adults and potential for evening fireworks, not to mention the constant music at the hub, and one could be easily put off by the racket.
But the place is not a feral free-for-all. Quiet hours are 11 to 8 and they say these are strictly enforced. I have no reason to suggest they weren’t. Patrols went around into the evening and between 11 and 8 we had no trouble sleeping. I can’t think of a better way for a family campground to behave.
The Verdict – Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort
Okay, I’m well past 5000 words now, which is bloody insane. Time to wrap this review up with a long awaited final rating for this renowned Alberta camping landmark? I’m torn, folks. On one hand, Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort is everything it purports to be. As a family oriented, private campground on a lake in the middle of the Prairies, it’s hard to find much fault with what is offered. I can fully understand why this place is so very popular with a particular subset of the camping population.
That being said, it’s hard not to leave there wondering how much better it could be. That likely sounds pretentious to some, but it’s how I feel. And I’ll offer up the mini-golf course as the prime example. As far as mini-golf courses go, it’s a joke. It could be, and should be, so much better.
Ol’ MacDonald’s has such wonderful, modest, country charm that is diminished by a lack of upkeep and investment. No, I don’t expect gilded fixtures and all the hipster trappings of the big city but surely this place could be a little bit … more? Maybe that’s the trouble with outsized reputations. They inevitably lead to equally outsized expectations.
I will give Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort on Buffalo Lake 3.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. It’s a fun, unique, and enjoyable family campground. Its popularity is no surprise. As much as some adore this place, though, I can just as easily understand why others don’t. If this is the style of camping you prefer you won’t be disappointed. I just think it could be even better with some TLC. To each their own.