Defunctland: The History of the Nickelodeon Hotel


In 1999, the children’s network Nickelodeon was changed forever, with the premiere of a new cartoon series named “SpongeBob SquarePants”. Nickelodeon had developed many popular TV shows in its twenty-year existence, but it had never had a hit like SpongeBob. The show debuted to high ratings, with an audience comparable to Nickelodeon’s biggest series at the time, “Rugrats”. But SpongeBob found massive success in an area that other Nickelodeon shows hadn’t: Merchandising. The company had purposefully shied away from extending the brand too far from the network itself. While Nickelodeon had turned some of its properties into toys, feature films, and video games, they feared that too much merchandising will contradict the brand’s goal of appealing to young audiences. Nickelodeon was supposed to appear as a network run by kids, for kids, and the executives believed that children could tell when they were being advertised to, thus interfering with the channel’s primary objective. On top of this, a general distaste for the Walt Disney Company and its practices had solidified Nickelodeon’s motivation to limit size and avoid feeling corporate. All of this was thrown out the window after SpongeBob premiered. The potential profit for merchandising the show’s characters and setting was too large to ignore, and the title character would turn into Nickelodeon’s unofficial mascot, its own Mickey Mouse, within just a few years. It appeared as though Nickelodeon was cashing in, but they were still concerned with expanding outside of their comfort zone and tarnishing their brand. In lieu of building its own stores like Disney, a type of project that was deemed too risky, Nickelodeon instead licensed its properties to anyone that wanted them. If you could slap a SpongeBob sticker on it, then Nickelodeon would sign a document that legally allowed you to slap a SpongeBob sticker on it. And since they were already beginning to look like their main competitor, why not act like them, too? And what’s more Disney than rushing into a huge, difficult project, fueled by temporary success? Welcome to the Nick Hotel. Going up? (elevator music) On October 9, 2003, Nickelodeon announced that they had formed a partnership with the hotel chain Holiday Inn for the pupose of transforming its Orlando resort, the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort, into the first ever Nickelodeon Hotel. The property was less than five years old, having just opened in the summer of 1999. The resort was Holiday Inn’s first all-suite hotel, featuring 800 suites, two pools, water playgrounds, a restuarant, and a food court. The hotel was located just east of the Walt Disney World Resort, and transportation was provided to all four Disney parks. Nickelodeon had originally considered constructing a new resort themselves, but decided against this due to their constant fear of failure. Orlando was, of course, the perfect location for the resort’s pilot test. It had a huge tourist population of families and young children, and the company had two attractions at Universal Studios Florida: Nickelodeon Studios and the newly-opened Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast. The Holiday Inn was located closer to Walt Disney World than it was to Universal Studios, but Nickelodeon would take what they could get. During the announcement, Nickelodeon revealed that they had plans to build four more resorts throughout the country. The transformation of the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort was to be completed in early-2005, and the renovation would cost an estimated $20 million. (nearly $26 million in 2018) Nickelodeon began advertising the resort leading up to its release, and parents began to book their stays at the new hotel. (Announcer) “Did you hear? Nickelodeon has built a hotel just for you! “Opening this Memorial Day, “the brand-new Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn, in Orlando, Florida! “You get your own bedroom! (Kids) “SWEET!” (Announcer) “Two humongous pools! “Slides and flumes! “A giant arcade! “Character breakfasts! “And live Nick entertainment! “Parents can book reservations by logging on to www.nickhotel.com, “Or call 1-866-Go.2.Nick!” On March 9, 2005, the Nickelodeon Family Suites Holiday Inn, commonly referred to as the “Nick Hotel”, opened its doors. Guests would walk up to the bright orange resort, with characters peeking through the window of the main entrance. This led to the lobby and check-in desk. There were four room layouts that guests could choose from. The first was a one-bedroom suite designed for 1-2 people. This included a king-sized bed, full kitchen, and a dishwasher. The second was a two bedroom kids’ suite. This included a private parents’ room, a living area, a bathroom, and a themed kids’ room. The kids’ room would either feature a bunk bed or two twin beds, and the rooms were themed to different Nickelodeon properties such as SpongeBob, The Fairly OddParents, Jimmy Neutron, Dora the Explorer, Rugrats, Danny Phantom, and more. Guests could request a specific character room, and would be assigned to it if available. The kids’ rooms also featured a television, and some came with a PlayStation 2; guests could rent games from the hotel for $5 or bring their own. There was also a CD player, and an activity table in most of the suites. Unlike the parents’ room, there was no door separating the kids’ room from the living area. This was due to a county law restricting doors on kids’ suites for safety reasons. The parents’ room was unthemed and featured two side tables, a closet, a 25-inch TV, and a makeup desk. The main living area featured a pull-out couch, a rocking chair, a dining table, and a 25-inch TV. The third suite layout was a 3-bedroom kids’ suite. This came with two private parents’ rooms, both with king-sized beds, a themed kids’ room with a bunk bed and pull-out cot, a full kitchen, a full dining room, and two bathrooms. The fourth and final layout was Nick Hotel’s honeymoon suite, called the “[email protected] Suite”. (Oh yeah.) This included a heart-shaped whirlpool, mood lighting, scented bath lotion, an extra-large shower, (Shower for two, baby) and only one private bedroom. (Leave those kids at home.) For some reason, these rooms didn’t last very long, and it seems that they were discontinued within a few years of the hotel’s opening. All suites had the option of a wake-up call from a Nickelodeon character, and simple room service was available. The suites opened from the outside, resulting in the kids’ suites having no windows. Fourteen six-story buildings housed the suites. The main structure comprised of nine buildings, enclosing the Lagoon Pool, and the other five buildings enclosed the Oasis Pool. The main area also featured the lobby, the fitness center, and Studio B, which was a space for special events such as conferences, birthday parties, and, starting in 2009 for inexplicable reasons: Weddings. The Lagoon Pool featured a basketball court, mini golf, a pool and a kiddie area, the Lagoon Bar & Grill poolside restuarant, and a large water park, the main attraction for children staying at the resort. The waterpark featured large cutouts of Nickelodeon characters, multiple water slides, water features, and a large water bucket at the top of the structure. This would periodically fill up, tip over, and douse guests with water. And at certain times of the day, the water would be colored green to simulate slime. This was treated as a special event, with hotel employees gathering everyone and getting them excited for the mass sliming. The Oasis Pool area featured another poolside bar, a kiddie area, a spa, and a less elaborate water park. This was supposed to be the more relaxing area than the often-crowded Lagoon Pool. In between the two hotel structures would be a building referred to as “The Mall”. The Mall featured an arcade, a kids’ spa, and a gift shop, which sold both Nickelodeon and Universal Studios merchandise. There was a 4D theater which had a 3D screen, moving seats, bubbles, and water effects. This would show a SpongeBob 4D film as well as 15-minute highlight reels from recent movies, such as the “Ice Age” franchise, and later, “Pacific Rim”. There was also a theater named “Studio Nick” for game shows and live character shows. When the hotel opened, Studio Nick had two game shows: “Who Knows Best?”, and “Nick Live”. Who Knows Best? was a game show that tested how well families knew each other, while Nick Live was a show in which families would compete against other families in physical challenges and trivia, with the winner getting slimed. A smaller-scale version of the show, called “Nick Live Poolside”, would be performed by the Lagoon Pool, with a small dunk tank dedicated to the show. The Nick Hotel also had a wide array of dining options. The Mall had its own food court, with restaurants rotating in and out from time to time. Restaurants included A&W, Pizza Hut Express, Antonio’s Pizzeria, and Starbucks. There was a buffet open for breakfast and lunch, an adult bar named the “[email protected] Lounge”, and the hotel’s signature restaurant, “The Nicktoons Café”. This reservation-only character dining restaurant served a breakfast and dinner buffet. The main appeal of the Nicktoons Café was, of course, the character meet-and-greets. (French narrator) “And now, a brief tangent on Nickelodeon character costumes.” The Nick Hotel allowed guests to met many of their favorite Nickelodeon characters. There were meet-and-greets set up throughout the hotel, Studio Nick character shows such as “SpongeBob Live”, and dance parties in the pool area. The art of turning a two-dimensional cartoon into a three-dimensional walkaround costume is underappreciated. If done correctly, it can bring a beloved character to life. If done incorrectly, it is creepy. Today, Disney’s walkaround characters rarely come off as unsettling. This is because of the talented actors that portray them, the brilliant artists that design them, and years and years of trial and error. Nickelodeon did not have the benefit of the latter. All of the Nick Hotel character costumes seem to be designed in such a way that the characters appear as though they are always smiling for a picture. However, this only works if they are staring directly at the camera, which they almost never are. On the other hand, Disney’s costumes are designed to be multipurposed. For instance, when Mickey is smiling for a picture, he will tilt his head up slightly. By design, he appears to be smiling more from this angle. When he tilts his head back down, he is still smiling, but it is more neutral, as opposed to relentless and terrifying. Also, most Disney costumes are designed for some amount of neck movement. This gives the characters more life, as they don’t appear as walking sculptures. Many of Nickelodeon’s costumes featured heads that were too large to move, resulting in a surplus of premium-grade nightmare fuel. Made worse if the children did actually have a nightmare, they would turn on their bed light to reveal the character staring at them while they sleep. In short, every character at the Nick Hotel looked like they were on drugs at all times. Characters appearing at the resort included: SpongeBob, Squidward, Sandy, Patrick, Mr. Krabs, Dora, Boots, Diego, Blue, Danny Phantom, Aang, Cosmo, Wanda, Jimmy Neutron, Angelica, the Power Rangers, (the) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Milli and Geo of Team Umizoomi, Ming-Ming Duckling, Fanboy…and…Chumchum? Chase and Marshall, the PAW Patrol dogs, Pablo, The…Bubble…Guppies? And Little Bill. The costume designs improved over time, but they were still not optimal for character shows. (SpongeBob) “But Squidward, today is the day that we honor the greatest sandwich in the seven seas- -the Krabby Patty! Behind The Mall, there was a man-made lake. While it was not accessible to guests, various statues of Nickelodeon characters were placed on it. The hotel also had Christmas festivities, named the “Let It Snow Celebration”. The resort was decorated in bright Christmas lights and it offered hot chocolate and s’mores around fire pits. Many of the walkaround characters were dressed in seasonal costumes, and there was a special Studio Nick character show, called “Celebrate Nickmas”. So, how much did it cost? The renovation to create the resort ended up costing around $25 million (nearly $32 million in 2018), and a total of 777 suites were available to book. Prices fluctuated throughout the year- a two-bedroom kids’ suite cost between $135-$275 a night, while a three-bedroom kids’ suite cost between $300-$600 a night. The buffet was around $10 for adults, $8 for kids, and free for anyone under 12. The Nicktoons Café character dining cost $17 for an adult and $10 for kids. An all-access wristband in later years would allow guests access to the 4D experience and other activites in the Mall area; this cost around $20. So if you did the math, a family of four spending two nights and a full day at the hotel would cost over $750 during peak season. While this was expensive, the Nick Hotel operated as a resort, with enough activities and attractions to keep guests on property during their stay. This was different than Disney, as more often than not, Walt Disney World Resort Hotel guests will be purchasing tickets to one or more of the property’s theme parks. On April 30, 2005, just over a month after the Nick Hotel opened its doors, Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios Florida closed. A time capsule had been buried outside of the studio in 1992. Kids voted on what they wanted to be placed in the capsule, and items such as a “Back to the Future” VHS, an MC Hammer CD, and a Nintendo “Game Boy” were buried. The capsule was to remain for 50 years, to be opened in 2042. After Nickelodeon Studios closed, the time capsule was moved to the Nick Hotel, where it was reburied and displayed for guests. The Nickelodeon Hotel continued to operate normally for over a decade, adding new entertainment options and shows periodically. In May 2012, “Double Dare Live”, a new game show at Studio Nick based off of the hit TV show, debuted. In 2014, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles “Summer of the Shell” began. Some rooms were rethemed to the heroes, and a laser maze based off of the TV show was added to the Mall. In 2015, the Nick Hotel celebrated its 10th anniversary. But just a month after the celebration ended, the Nick Hotel would receive some devastating news. On January 29, 2016, Nickelodeon announced that the Nickelodeon Family Suites would be rebranded back into a Holiday Inn. The news, while sad for many, was not necessarily shocking. There were a few signs that the Nick Hotel might not be around for much longer. For one, Nickelodeon had a severely reduced presence at Universal Studios Florida, since Nickelodeon Studios had closed in 2005 and Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast had closed in 2011. While walkaround characters still appeared at the park, there was no attraction dedicated to Nickelodeon. This made marketing the resort and the park together slightly more difficult. And more than anything, it was an indication that an era of Nickelodeon was over. By 2016, the original branding was dated, as all of the shows, except SpongeBob and The Fairly OddParents, had ended. Another issue was that the concept for the resort was flawed from the beginning. The Nick Hotel operated like an all-inclusive resort, similar to those found in tropical destinations. The problem was that the Nick Hotel was in the middle of Orlando. This made guests feel claustrophobic, as the resort was not sitting next to an ocean. They also wanted to go experience Orlando’s many attractions, but for the price of the Nick Hotel, guests needed to stay on property to get their money’s worth. However, these were all minor issues. The biggest reason for the debranding was Nickelodeon’s new partnership with Karisma Hotels. This was created to build Nickelodeon resorts throughout the world. The company had never gone through with the plans for expansion with Holiday Inn, most likely due to the Nick Hotel not being a massive success. The resort was popular, but it was clear that the Holiday Inn concept wouldn’t work outside of Orlando. The first Nickelodeon resort with Karisma Hotels would open in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic later in 2016. The new resort would have many attractions similar to the Nick Hotel, but had a more elegant and subtle design and was located on a beach. The Punta Cana resort was met with glowing reviews, and another resort is said to open in Riviera Maya, Mexico, in 2019. Since Nickelodeon was focusing on a more luxurious resort brand, they decided to end their licensing contract with Holiday Inn. There was also one more reason for the closure: the hotel was not in great shape. (French narrator) “The Nickelodeon Hotel, ten years later. These images may be disturbing.” (music) By 2016, the Nick Hotel desperately needed a renovation. This meant either updating all of the Nickelodeon characters and properties, or removing them completely. The timing just happened to be perfect to end the contract. The resort was to receive a $30 million renovation along with the debranding. It was set to reopen on April 17, 2016, however, construction delays pushed the project back nearly two months. Having been announced in January that it was to close, this put the Nick Hotel in a state of limbo for five months, and the hotel stayed open for most of the transformation. During this time, certain activities were discontinued, buildings were being repainted, and logos were being removed. The time capsule was once again dug up and moved to the Nickelodeon Studios in Burbank. Less people were staying at the hotel during this time, and the resort felt abandoned. Many of the themed kids’ suites remained, despite the rest of the hotel being given a blue paint job and replacing all Nickelodeon logos with Holiday Inn. Many of the TVs and appliances had not been replaced since the hotel opened. The Mall area was almost completely silent, with many of the attractions and restaurants being renovated or removed. Finally, on June 1, 2016, the resort reopened as the Holiday Inn Orlando Suites. The hotel still hosts family game shows, the food court reopened with some new restaurants, the water bucket is now dyed dark blue at certain times, the 4D theater now shows some generic movie, the laser maze is now themed to Batman, and the gift shop now sells both Nickelodeon and Disney merchandise. The prices have also dropped significantly, now typically below $100 a night for a room with a kids’ suite. The Nick Hotel was an interesting experiment, to say the least, because it didn’t *not* work. Attendance was consistent, it wasn’t completely neglected by either company, and it avoided what would have probably been a disastrous expansion. At the same time, it wasn’t perfect: the design was cheesy, the activities were immature, and there was little to nothing for parents. Plus, Holiday Inn, known more for having economical prices rather than luxurious facilities, was probably not the best choice for the partnership. Nickelodeon made the right decision in partnering with Karisma Hotels, and it is possible that many new Nickelodeon resorts will open in the future. While these new resorts best the Nickelodeon Family Suites in almost every category, it is still disappointing to see such an elaborate entertainment experience disappear. Seeing the debranded hotel, a skeleton of what it once was, is devastating to those that stayed there and the many more that wanted to. While it might be gone, the Nick Hotel leaves behind a decade of memories of Nickelodeon fans having the best day ever. [Captions largely by Ian Winters]

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