At Nick Hotel, kids have the slime of their lives

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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.

Its literally wall-to-wall Nickelodeon cartoon characters at the 777-suite property, located just minutes from the east entrance to Walt Disney World.

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 parking lot.

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 makeover.

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.

Other suites 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, Nickelodeon.

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 bedroom.

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 eye.

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 gods.

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 nearby.

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 carte meals.

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 broadcast-ready.

Its all computerized and automated; it rivals anything they have over at Universal [Studios, home to the Nickelodeon network], Whaples boasted.

She expects 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 prizes.

[Studio Nick] 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 sleepover ever.

General managers picks

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.

Best 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!

Best 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 Disney Marketplace).

To contact reporter Gerry Bourbeau, send e-mail to [email protected].

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