At the Nickelodeon Suites Resort, which pretty much everyone calls the Nick Hotel now, perception and Krabby Patties are everything.
The 24-acre, 777-room property celebrates its eighth birthday in March, and for the most part, it looks the same: two dizzy-fun water parks, pedestrian suites, 3,000-square-foot arcade, character breakfast, mass slimings. Sure, it's beat up here and there from all the rugrats (and the Rugrats), and as a matter of sheer survival you have to be in a gung-ho mood to deal with the constant manic energy of the place. But it's always been clean, fun and fairly affordable.
And yet, for all its infrastructural stasis, eight years after the orange-and-green lodge opened across Interstate 4 from Disney World, the kid-intensive playpen feels BIGGER, COOLER, BETTER thanks to one little yellow dude:
Gotta love Spongey, right?
Listen, Mickey Mouse will always be the overlord of O-Town. That won't change anytime soon — or ever. But in the span since the Nick Hotel opened on March 9, 2005, Mr. Krabs' top fry cook has become a worldwide phenomenon. Not only is SpongeBob SquarePants Nickelodeon's highest-rated show; it's also the most distributed property of Viacom Media Networks, which also owns such other cable behemoths as MTV, VH1 and South Park's Comedy Central.
SpongeBob — a relatively subversive 'toon, with meta underwater plots about empty boxes, reef blowers and Victorian wigs — has helped the Nick Hotel draw more than 1.5 million families over the years. Various franchises are still highlighted on the property (Dora the Explorer, The Fairly OddParents and more recently the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who host a nightly pizza party), but SpongeBob and pals Patrick Star, Sandy Cheeks and Gary the snail run this town.
And why not? The show's raging popularity means it's not just for tykes; everyone loves the high-pitched, porous porifera. Elements of the show are now infused everywhere on property, including buzzkills Squidward and Plankton being the bearers of bad news on the height requirement board for water slides.
During a recent one-night stay in one of the two-bedroom suites, my daughters never wanted to leave the room, mainly because of the Jellyfish Fields mural bedecking the walls. When the Junior Dalys did emerge, they won SpongeBob figures at the arcade, begged for a Plankton plush in the gift shop, and chased Patrick and Squidward around the madcap character breakfast.
There's also a "4D" SpongeBob movie theater on property, but we didn't make it to that, mainly because I couldn't pull them out of the downright great Lagoon and Oasis pools, where the waterparks (one with SpongeBob characters, the other adorned with jellyfish) look like Rube Goldberg contraptions.
That's a lot of SpongeBob, but why stop there? The Nick Hotel, which also has free stage shows and constant activities for the young'uns, is pretty self-contained; we never felt the urge to leave the property. That said, add another day, and that "mall" area and food court would have had us driving off for decent food.
So here are a couple of ideas: Turn one of the food-court stands (maybe that drab Subway) into a Krusty Krab Restaurant! How cool would that be?! Smart, playful representational architecture, a winking menu, maybe an appearance by Pearl, Mr. Krabs' daughter. Hey, Disney built a Pizza Planet, and that place is always packed and delicious.
And what with all the wear to the suites, why not tear a few rooms down and build a giant version of SpongeBob's house? Show of hands: Who wants to sleep in a pineapple under the sea? That's what I thought.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.