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Soak it in

Between the inventive pools and the absorbing star of the show, SpongeBob SquarePants, Orlando's Nickelodeon-themed Holiday Inn makes a splash.

CRAIG PITTMAN and SHERRY ROBINSON
Published September 25, 2005

ORLANDO - It seems like half the time our television is tuned to Nickelodeon or Nick Toons. Our kids love SpongeBob SquarePants, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and some of Nick's other animated shows and characters.

So when we heard that a Nickelodeon-themed Holiday Inn was opening in Orlando - the first of a planned chain - we knew we had to check in and check it out.

After all, it's not every day you get to meet a star like SpongeBob.

I'm Ready! I'm Ready!

Nick's logo, an orange-colored splat, was stamped everywhere at this Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn. So were images of such Nickelodeon characters as Dora the Explorer, the Fairly Odd Parents, Rugrats and, of course, SpongeBob. But they were just pictures; no sign of the characters themselves.

The registration desk features a separate check-in for kids. Our two boys could barely contain themselves when they got their own keys to the room. (Fortunately 3-year-old Cameron didn't notice that, at our request, his key did not actually work.) They also got a bag of Nick-related goodies, including a tube of Nickelodeon Crest toothpaste.

As we made our way to our room for the weekend, Sean, 7, was dancing with excitement. Then we rounded a corner and he saw the four-story complex of water slides gushing around the pool and blurted out: "It's my dream come true!"

But still no SpongeBob.

Sponge Guard on duty

We changed into bathing suits and though the night air made the chilly water in the slides seem cold to us adults, the boys charged on, laughing. We tried to draw them over to the heated pool, but they kept running back to the slides.

Everywhere you looked around the pools, there were lifeguards in red suits and with whistles watching out for the kids. The guards were added when the hotel got the Nick brand; previously there had only been swim-at-your-own-risk signs, said Terry Whaples, president of the Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn.

Now the pool area is a much more popular attraction, Whaples said. At the Lagoon, a huge picture of SpongeBob sits atop the crazy configuration of slides, water jets and climbing nets. There, a 400-gallon tank dumps its contents onto everyone below, adding to the fun.

At the Oasis, the other pool on the property, there is a smaller water slide and a lap-style pool. Its water tower has a geyser that erupts unexpectedly.

We were having such a good time we wanted to call friends who live nearby to join us. That's when we found out only hotel guests are allowed in. The hotel recently started distributing wristbands at check-in to make sure that only paying guests get to enjoy the facilities.

Home sweet pineapple

Of course, you can't spend all your time in the water. Eventually you have to go to your room, and this hotel has 777 of them, all suites.

The Nick hotel is near another Holiday Inn that also offers family-friendly rooms called "kidsuites." But that hotel is older and lacks the Nick brand and water slides.

At the Nick hotel, the kidsuites can be either two- or three-bedroom, with twin or bunk beds for the kids' rooms. There are TVs in the parents' rooms, the kids' rooms and the family room, which also has a pull-out sofa. There is high-speed Internet access and a minikitchen with a sink, refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker.

The hotel also offers smaller one-bedroom suites and "Nick @ Nite" suites with master bedrooms, a parlor and either a kitchen or a whirlpool bath.

If you get tired of swimming, sliding or getting splashed, there are other activities on the 24-acre site:

A minigolf course with a sports theme winds around the inner wall of the buildings near the Lagoon and features clubs that are just the right size for kids or their parents.

A basketball court offers hoops at different heights, and there's also a sand play area at the Oasis.

A bar and grill serves poolside burgers, dogs and the like at the Lagoon. You can also buy prepackaged snacks and drinks at the Oasis.

I'm your biggest fanatic

Depending on the season, the rooms cost from about $165 to more than $400. Not the cheapest place to stay in Orlando, just the only one where you can see SpongeBob.

Jeff Dunn, president of Nickelodeon Enterprises and Film, said that taking into account the company's movies, toys and television shows, the hotel "is the first thing we've done where the price point makes a difference. We think we've hit it (the price) right down the middle."

When we stayed earlier this year, it was opening weekend and the hotel had so many guests that its resources were stretched thin. For instance, there was a considerable wait in the food court, something that Whaples said had not been expected. She said now that the hotel had to be like a cruise ship on dry land, catering to customers who would rather stay there than venture out to one of the parks.

Both times we visited the 3,000-square-foot arcade, it was packed. On our first visit, the token dispenser ran out - and that was at 9:30 a.m.

Several times the arcade games didn't work. The staff quickly jumped in to fix the problem and hand out free tokens, but the constant breakdowns frustrated the kids.

Near the arcade is something a little friendlier to a family on a budget: a free computer-game arcade where anyone can play Nick-themed online games. It was so popular that we had a hard time finding an open computer.

The arcade, computer games and a gift shop were all in a part of the hotel called the Mall. That's also the location of the food court, which offers various fast food brands, and the NickToons Cafe, site of the Character Breakfast.

For $16 per adult and $8 per child 12 and younger, you get a a buffet with scrambled eggs, fruit, pastries, pancakes, waffles and Rugrats.

Most of the characters - folks in big, unwieldy costumes - wander around visiting the tables. They aren't allowed to speak, so the breakfasts are really just a photo op. Still, each time Dora and Boots the Monkey passed us, Cameron got excited.

And then, at last, we saw the star. But Mr. SquarePants does not do tables. His costume is so cumbersome, the staff was afraid he would knock tables over.

So the Sponge stands alone, in a corner, swiveling his boxy hips to tunes played on the restaurant's sound system. He stopped long enough for us to line up for photos. Then he was right back to cutting the rug.

After all the excitement of the Nick hotel, and finally meeting SpongeBob, our kids didn't want to leave. As we drove out of the parking lot headed for Interstate 4, Sean gave the place a rave.

"The only place funner than this," he said, "is Disney World."

- Reporter Craig Pittman can be reached at 727 893-8530 or craig@sptimes.com Lifestyles editor Sherry Robinson can be reached at (727) 893-8305 or robinson@sptimes.com

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: From the bay area, take Interstate 4 to Orlando and take Exit 67 toward S International Drive. The Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn is at 14500 Continental Gateway, Orlando. This is near all the theme parks. Thanks to the Nickelodeon connection, the signs and literature make a point of pushing Universal, but there are shuttles to the other parks.

STAYING THERE: Depending on the suite and the season, nightly rates run from $165 to more than $400. For reservations, call toll-free 1-866-462-6425; or go to www.nickhotel.com

If you would like a specific Nickelodeon character featured in your suite (our kids love SpongeBob but we had not asked in advance and got All Grown Up characters as our room decor), you can request this when making reservations.

PLAYING THERE: You may not want to leave this place to visit the big theme parks: Between the water slides, the Arcade and the characters, this hotel is also part theme park. You can also play miniature golf, basketball and enjoy games in the room.

If the kids get tired of splashing in the pools, there also is a Kid's Spa offering manicures, pedicures, hair braiding, hair wraps and air-brush tattoos.

There is daily live Nickelodeon entertainment, including special appearances by Joe of Blue's Clues. In Studio Nick, guests can find the nightly Nickelodeon Entertainment line up - from a live interactive show to Nick-style games. Watch out for the slime.

EATING THERE: There are plenty of places to eat on the property. The Grill located at the Lagoon Bar features wraps, salads, burgers and hot dogs. The Oasis pool has a snack bar with prepackaged sandwiches, salads and chips. In the Mall, the Buffet serves breakfast and lunch daily (the Kid's Eat Free program is available here.) The food court features a Pizza Hut Express, A&W - the All American Food and Barnie's Coffee & Tea Co.

The Character Breakfast is $16 for adults and $8 for children. September is Nick Jr. Month and on weekdays, the Character Breakfast is free for everyone in the suite.

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