Oh ... who
lives in a pineapple under the sea?
For three days in early March, my
6-year-old daughter was convinced she, and not SpongeBob
SquarePants, was the answer to that musical question.
You cant blame a
kid -- or a grownup, for that matter -- for feeling as though shes
landed in Bikini Bottom, home of SpongeBob and his animated
buddies, when staying at the Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday
Inn, which is in the final days of a makeover in preparation for a
Memorial Day weekend grand opening.
wall-to-wall Nickelodeon cartoon characters at the 777-suite
property, located just minutes from the east entrance to Walt
Youll find them
shaking hands and signing autographs in the lobby and in the mall
area. There are images of them gazing down from the rooftops while
youre lounging or playing in the swimming pool, and plastered on
the walls in the kids bedrooms.
Its a part of the
Nickelodeon Experience, according to Terry Whaples, operating
partner and president of the property and a holdover from the days
when it was simply a Holiday Inn Family Suites.
But the presence
of Nicktoons stars is only a small part of the experience. There
are games and movies poolside, two on-site waterparks, character
breakfasts and a huge video arcade, for starters.
What were going
for here is a cruise-ship-on-land feeling, said Whaples. People are
out at the various theme parks all day. So when they get back to
home base, you want to give them all something to do, something to
get them out of their cabins, so to speak. Families have diverse
interests, and we try to appeal to all of them.
The first television network for kids has
spawned the first destination resort for them, as well, with a few
perks thrown in for mom and dad, too.
At the time of
our visit, the hotel was still in serious hard-hat mode, with dump
trucks and heavy machinery nearly outnumbering minivans in the
But there was
enough of the conversion in place for us to get a good sense of
what the Nick Hotel was all about. Our room was poolside in the
portion of the property that had already completed the
It was a
SpongeBob suite, to the delight of my daughter, which meant that
images of the absorbent and yellow and porous character adorned the
wallpaper in her bedroom.
included kids rooms starring Jimmy Neutron, the Fairly OddParents
and Rugrats, all boldface names to the braces-and-backpacks set and
their younger siblings.
One thing that
was clear from the moment we entered our suite was that thered be
no fighting over the TV remote at this place. There was a 36-inch
set (with DVD player) in the main living area and additional TVs in
the master bedroom and kids room. The lineup included just about
all the essentials for kids, from MTV and VH-1 to the Disney
Channel, Animal Planet, the Cartoon Network and, oh yeah,
The living area
also featured a large and comfortable sleeper sofa and a small
table and chairs for in-room meals.
There was a
kitchenette with a fridge, microwave, dishes and utensils, and a
king-size bed and spacious closet dominated the master
But its the kids
bedroom that is the star attraction in the suites. The deep-sea
blue wallpaper with images of SpongeBob and Squidward on a
jellyfishing expedition is the first thing that caught our
A bunk bed gave
our only child a couple of sleeping options, and opposite the bed
was a wall unit that housed the TV as well as a boom box (sorry,
folks, no headphones) and a Nintendo 64 gaming system. There were
no games in the room, but hundreds of titles are easily obtained
for a small rental fee at the hotels video arcade.
The kids room is
relatively small with no closet and limited cabinet space, but in
our case that didnt pose a problem because of the ample storage
space in the master bedroom.
The fully loaded
accommodations can make getting the kids out of the suite a
challenge, but the sound of splash dives from the Oasis Pool just
outside our room did the trick for us.
You couldnt ask
for a better layout to the pool area. There must have been at least
100 chaise lounges encircling it. At one end was a water park with
geysers, water cannons, rope ladders, flumes and buckets that
dumped water on unsuspecting rugrats.
Adjacent to that
wall of wetness were two hot tubs where parents could settle in and
keep an eye on the kids. At the other end was a pint-size version
of the play area for younger or less adventurous children. A snack
bar (with beer and wine for sale, as well) doubled as an
observation deck there.
Music helps set
the mood on the pool deck, and parents will be happy to hear that
kids did not seem to have a whole lot of input on the playlist: Its
more Buffett than Britney, to be sure.
Several times a
day, the staff organizes Nick-style games poolside, which means a
lot of volume, a lot of parents looking foolish and more than a few
people getting Nickelodeons trademark green slime dumped on their
heads. To a true Nick fan, that goo is the sludge of the
In addition to
games, the hotel plans dive-in movies, family-friendly flicks shown
on a giant screen on the deck. Great idea, if you can keep the
popcorn from getting soggy.
A second pool
with an even larger water-park area was still under construction
during our visit. The Lagoon Pool features a zero-depth entry area
and a 400-gallon dump bucket. A basketball court with hoops at
varying heights and a nine-hole mini-golf course are
We ate most of
our meals at the hotels buffet. Kids eat free with paying adults at
the Nick Hotel, with the exception of breakfast, when everyone eats
on the house. All the basic food groups are there for kids,
including hot dogs, burgers, chicken nuggets and corn dog bites,
and theres grown-up fare, as well. There will be other dining
options by the summer, including a Pizza Hut Express, an A&W
Root Beer stand and a Nicktoons Cafe offering full-service and ala
Also scheduled to
open later this month is the [email protected] Cafe, where parents can go
for a late-night cocktail or cup of coffee. And taking a page from
their neighbor to the west, SpongeBob and friends will be getting
some early wake-up calls as the property offers character
breakfasts for $16 per person for anyone age 13 or older, $8 for
kids 12 and under.
The dining area
is located in the Mall, which is sort of the Times Square of the
property, sandwiched between the two lodging areas. Two other
components of the Mall are worth a mention: the video arcade and
the game-show studio.
The arcade is
wall-to-wall pinball, Skee Ball, air hockey and virtual-reality
games, and even those noisy Dance Dance Revolution machines that
always seem to draw a crowd. This is also where guests can rent
video games and movies.
Studio Nick is
clearly the pride and joy of Whaples and her staff, a $1 million,
180-seat, high-tech creation that she says is
computerized and automated; it rivals anything they have over at
Universal [Studios, home to the Nickelodeon network], Whaples
Nickelodeon to eventually broadcast some of its live-action shows
from the studio, but for now it will host six game shows a night
for the entertainment of a studio audience only. Guests can attend
free of charge, join in as contestants and even win
more than anything else will scream Nickelodeon, Whaples said.
"Game shows like Double Dare are what attracted many of the kids to
Nickelodeon in the first place. We feel this is going to turn this
place into a real Nickelodeon attraction experience. What were going for is making this the most awesome
Brian Shanles day job is
general manager of the Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn. At
night, he goes home to his wife and their five kids, who are all
under age 12, making him the perfect candidate to stay at his own
hotel.Here are his picks for best
room and restaurants.
room: I stay in any of our 470
two-bedroom Kidsuites that have bunk beds. If I had to pick one, it
might be Room 764, which is on the sixth floor overlooking the
Lagoon courtyard and has a breathtaking view of the 400-gallon dump
bucket (at the Lagoon Pool). I love watching the delighted kids
when that bucket tips!
restaurant: There are many
local restaurants that we enjoy. Some of my favorites include Joes
Crab Shack for seafood (four locations in the area, the closest on
South Apopka Vineland Road), Bahama Breeze for Caribbean (on
International Drive) and the Rainforest Cafe (at the Downtown
reporter Gerry Bourbeau, send e-mail to [email protected].