Nick DestinationsRubbing shoulders with Sponge Bob or Dora the Explorer may not be your idea of the perfect vacation – but your kids will simply love the Nickelodeon Family Suites in Orlando, Florida.

The Orlando family going to Orlando? You bet! We needed a winter break in February, just the family, no au pair and no grandparents. The “24/7 kid fest” offered by the Nickelodeon Family Suites seemed like exactly the right thing for five days and because our three children – ages 9, 7 & 5  – have been dying to go there. So the time was right.

There was even a back-up plan: If Nickelodeon Family Suites was not as entertaining as the “Attraction with a Sleepover” promotional brochure promised, they had a shuttle bus that took you to Disney World in the unlikely event that the kids would be bored.

As it turned out, I had no worries. The kids fell under the SpongeBob spell from the moment we arrived: the “Nick Hotel” fully delivered on all its entertainment promises. It fact, we actually had to drag the kids over to Disney World for a day!

ARRIVAL

Getting to Florida from New York City with Spirit Airlines – a no-frills flyer with cheap round trip fares – was perfect. They got us there and back with no problems. We’ll check them out again for future family trips.

Once we got to the Nickelodeon Family Suites – about an hour from the airport by shuttle – it was clear that we were in “Nick-town.” The Nickelodeon characters from TV – SpongeBob, Dora the Explorer, Cosmo and Wanda, and more – welcomed us as we drove up. Our kids were chattering, pointing, and shouting with excitement even before we had dropped our bags.

Nickelodeon Suites is a huge hotel with more than 700 rooms. It’s done up in a style reminiscent of the 1970s – and wigged out like one of the Nickelodeon TV shows. From the moment you walk into the lobby you know this is “kids entertainment central” with an almost non-stop program of events, things to do, and places to hang out. Off to the side of the reception desk is a reception area for the kids with snacks and the TV tuned into – what else? – Nickelodeon.

ROOMS

The cartoon energy didn’t stop when we walked into our suite. The rooms, either two or three bedrooms, are all “Nicktoon”-themed, with each room featuring a full wall plastered with larger than life TV characters. Our kids woke up to “The Fairly Odd Parents” staring at them every morning. For some kids, this may be too much of a good thing. Our friends’ three-year-old daughter freaked out the first night when she woke up with SpongeBob in her face.

In terms of size and comfort, however, don’t expect too much. There is a small sleeper sofa in the living room, a kitchenette, an adult bedroom (also “Nicked-out” with hyper lime green walls), and a kid’s room (separated by only a curtain due to fire regulations). The kid’s room had bunk beds (too small for a teenager), and of course, there was a TV, a Play Station, a little table with chairs, and a  rickety trundle bed that folded up into the wall.

All of the rooms were small but not cramped – it was definitely a tight fit. Also, there was very little storage space for suitcases and clothes so we used the trundle bed as a dresser (it was useless as a bed). Teens will suffer in these small-sized accommodations.

Despite the vibrant colors, the room was disappointing. I expected a suite where the kids would disappear to their own area, leaving the adults some time to rest and recover. I also expected the adult’s room to be more relaxing and, well, adult.

FAMILY ACTIVITIES

The level of constant activities and entertainment at the Nickelodeon Family Suites was well beyond what I expected.  They live up to their promise of family fun with activities that can be done together.  It was all amazing and fun and non-stop! Here’s just a summary of the options:

Pools: There are two pools, the “Oasis” and the “Lagoon,” each with its own water slide, a huge water tower, snack bar, and whirlpools. In addition, the Oasis pool offered a zero-depth pool, mini golf, basketball area, pool tables and sandy play area.

Poolside fun: Kiddie and parent games are hosted poolside throughout the day.  The lifeguards were in guard chairs and along the pool’s edge, pro-actively watching swimmers so parents could relax a little. One of my favorite activities was the “Dive-In” movie at the Lagoon pool where we could eat pizza poolside or swim while watching a movie.

• “Studio Nick:” Hotel guests can participate in game shows and karaoke at this live entertainment venue. We lucked out while we were there because they were taping 18 episodes of “Slime Time Live” featuring the kids at the hotel, which would air on Nickelodeon the following week. The whole cast of characters was there: JJ, Patchy the Pirate, and slime, lots of slime. (My oldest son did not rest until he saw himself on TV so he sat on a mat for five hours in the Florida sun screaming and cheering when prompted. It paid off; when he returned home he was, indeed, on “Slime Time Live.”)

The Mall: This area includes the “Nicktoons Café,” a food court and breakfast buffet (parents paid $10 and the kids ate for free), cartoonist, balloon twisting guy, and photographer. Because the kids burned through a lot of their “vacation allowance” in the game room, I found it helpful to keep them on a daily budget.

Spa: Both kids and adults can be treated to a manicure, pedicure, hair braids, and strings. Oh, and the spa does airbrush tattoos, too.

Fitness center/gym: For the adults this is pretty rudimentary – just a converted hotel room, but better than nothing. After all, you don’t really come here to keep the adults entertained.

Babysitting:  Available for $50 per child per night and included dinner and a backstage tour of the studio.  Not worth it in my book (especially after seeing backstage) but plenty of kids participated.

This summary doesn’t come close to doing the Nickelodeon Family Suites program justice. To pick out one of many events, “Studio Nick” is a theme show with participants chosen from the audience. My son signed us up for “Who Knows Best,” a Newlywed-style show pairing a child with a parent. The questions (“What is your mom’s shoe size?” “How much did you weigh when you were born?” “Is your mom the Beauty or the Beast in the morning?”) tests the child’s knowledge of their parents. Then they flipped it around and asked me what I thought his answers were! Amazingly, my son knew me better than I knew him. Thanks to him we pulled out a win in the final round, which involved charades. Watching the shows was just as enjoyable as participating.

‘Nick Culture Highlight’ One of the highest achievements for any child at Nickelodeon Suites is getting “slimed,” being covered in a green, sticky goo. I couldn’t believe that being slimed was actually the grand prize. At various times throughout the day, a giant bucket on top of the slide in the Oasis pool dumped green colored water on the throngs of kids below.

NICK STARS

Dora, Sponge Bob, and the others may be famous for the kids, but for me the real stars at Nickelodeon Family Suites are definitely the staff.

As a family, we have done our share of traveling to theme parks and tourist sights, but we have never encountered anything as pleasant and reassuring as the Nick team. I was continually impressed by their courtesy and helpfulness, from the first greeting at the lobby, to the lifeguards – the most attentive and well-trained anywhere! – and anyone you happened to speak to in between. Actually, they spoke to you – something all New Yorkers will have to get used to. Any time we passed a staff person (housekeeper, store keeper, etc.,) they said hello to us and the kids. Every staff person was totally tuned in to the kids and making them – and their parents – feel at home. This was also true each and every time I phoned the front desk (and that was A LOT.) I was greeted courteously and the person genuinely tried to help me. This was a welcome respite from the usual quick “I’ll transfer you” dismissal often heard at other hotels.

That is not to say, however, the front desk people were always able to help me. I learned that three months prior to our arrival the number of employees had jumped from 350 to 650, and not everyone was fully briefed on all the amenities offered. I caught on and learned to call at least twice if I was told the hotel did not offer something.

The quality of the staff also left me with a good feeling about the safety of my children. Initially, I was a little concerned about the exterior corridor style hotel. I have a vivid imagination and could picture a kid being snatched from the hallway. But I learned that the hotel has thought of this as well. They claim that exterior corridors are safer (than interior) because there are fewer places to hide. They also have a “Code Adam” response that shuts down the whole place in the event a child goes missing. Because I knew that every Nick team member was alert and watching out for the kids, I felt good about being there and letting them run around.

FOOD

The less said about the food served at Nickelodeon Suites the better. In a word, it was awful. The sub sandwiches, pizza, burgers, and breakfasts were tasteless. My kids could barely digest their chicken nuggets. I was shocked! The food was plentiful (unless you arrived 30 minutes before the end of buffet) but the choices made my kid’s school cafeteria look positively gourmet.

Nickelodeon Family Suites urgently needs to pay more attention to the quality and the nutritional value of the food served – to better coincide with their premise of “activity and good health for your children.” Maybe less quantity but better quality?

Close-by: the “other” entertainment

In the unlikely event that your children lose interest in the Nickelodeon program, the hotel provides a regular shuttle service to Disney World, Universal City Walk, and Downtown Disney.

We took an $8 cab ride to Pirate’s Cove to play mini golf and to eat at T.G.I. Friday’s, which tasted soooo good after several nights of Nick-fare! (Don’t order-in pizza or Chinese, it’s as bad as the Nick buffet.)

There is a laundry service available via the front desk. I didn’t learn about this until the end of our trip and spent a few hours washing and drying at the machines provided. NOT a chore I wanted to do on vacation.  However, necessary, as being slimed with green goo is a highlight of the trip for the kids. At various times throughout the day, a giant bucket on top of the slide in the Oasis pool dumped green colored water on the throngs of kids below.

Despite the funky food factor, the less than thrilling rooms, and my youngest son being sick, I would absolutely return to Nick Suites.  The activities made for a memorable, quality family time.

Nickelodeon Family Suites has gone through a recent management change. If you have been there recently – let us know!