Strolling the expansive, color-saturated lobby at the grand opening festivities of Orlando's Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn last month was like happening upon a scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: a throng of wide-eyed youngsters circled in wonder around a fountain spewing an endless flow of bright-green-colored milk chocolate.

Popular cartoon characters came to life in the form of SpongeBob SquarePants and his sidekick, Patrick Starfish, and Dora the Explorer. Kids, grownups, even normally sullen teenagers couldn't resist the charms of the life-size creatures and jostled for photo opportunities.

The first-ever Nickelodeon-themed hotel is shaping up to be a lucrative partnership for the two family-focused brand heavyweights, Nickelodeon Studios and Holiday Inn. The $110-million complex designed especially for traveling families opened following a 14-month transformation of the former Holiday Inn Family Suites. Features include two interactive water parks, a 3,000-square-foot arcade, a Kid's Spa, 777 two- and three-bedroom KidSuites units featuring separate kids' bedrooms and a TV in every room, and a Nick@Nite lounge for adults. Two of the resort's biggest attractions are the Character Breakfast in Nicktoons Café, where families can meet some of their favorite Nickelodeon characters; and Studio Nick, a $1 million state-of-the-art theater where kids and parents may get pied or slimed.

“This is one powerful brand alignment that makes this resort an unforgettable family vacation,” says Mark Snyder, senior vice president, brand management, Holiday Inn Hotels & Resorts, The Americas.

And it's the youngsters driving business to the property, reports Terry Whaples, operating partner and president. “Our reservations people are fielding calls from kids demanding to talk to SpongeBob and wanting to make room reservations,” she marvels. “They get the number from TV or the Nick website and put the pressure on mom and dad.” Occupancies have soared since the opening, she adds, with summer looking to book out at 95 percent.

“And once they get here, they don't want to leave,” Whaples says. Not even for Disney, Nick's main competition? They'll visit the parks, she says, but they love the hotel's water and pool features, the arcade, and the kids' spa (Hair braiding and temporary tattoos are a few of the services offered).

The strong sales are a far cry from a few years back when post-9/11 doldrums, combined with third-party intermediary pricing pressures, threatened to derail the all-suites property.

Salvation came in the form of interest from Nickelodeon officials looking to partner with an Orlando hotel to showcase and nurture their growing franchise of kiddie and teen cartoon icons. The hotel got a marketing machine in return.

“We're the premier kids entertainment brand,” says Jeff Dunn, president, Nickelodeon Recreation. “We've got the television network, a magazine and a website that receives 12 million hits a month.”

Should the partnership be profitable, look for future expansion of the concept to other family-friendly destinations, suggests Dunn.

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