Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort: Comforts of Home but With "WOW"
By Karen Rubin

Those wizards in Lake Buena Vista have done it again, and I don't mean the theme park Imagineers. The dynamic duo of Terry Whaples and Jim Olson (not Superman's sidekick), the brilliant creators of the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort concept (the first truly family-friendly resort) and the ingenious Kidsuites concept, have come up with a new fantasy-come true for families: Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort.

Just a mile from DisneyWorld's gate, this new $80 million resort hotel, a prototype we hope for others in family-oriented destinations around the globe, provides unparalleled comfort and convenience for families, not to mention extraordinary value. It is as if some unseen godmother was watching over and answering parents' wishes.

Want privacy on your family vacation and space to sprawl out (like at home)? Every one of the 800 units is a suite. Parents can have their own bedroom, and the kids can enjoy their room with their own Nintendo and television (and remote).

Want to be able to sleep in and not have to fuss about breakfast? A complimentary full American breakfast, is served buffet style from 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. with just about anything anybody would want, and, if so inclined, your spouse can even take up a tray to your room. Want to be able to get a snack at midnight? There is a food court and a marvelous convenience store right in the lobby that is open until midnight (kids eat free with parents). The convenience store even stocks Lean Cuisine selections that you can cook in your own kitchenette.

Home late from the theme park but still want to get in a swim? The pools (there are two enormous pools, one that is free form and delightful for romping about, another where you can do laps; all are heated) and fitness center are open until midnight.

Teenagers (and preteens) want to hang out? There is a fabulous "Locomotion" arcade as well as The Crossings, an entertainment space where kids delighted kids in Karaoke (there is also other entertainment, like bingo or a magic show). These spaces open out to the general area, so the kids can feel like they are off on their own, but everything is in view of everything else.

Kids want to feel special? When you check in to the train-themed lobby, youngsters have their own check-in at the Caboose and receive a goodie-bag (there are even some tokens for the arcade).

Don't want to drive to DisneyWorld (and pay the parking fee)? HI Family Suites provides a free shuttle bus; there is even a lobby counter where you can pre-purchase theme park tickets to Disney as well as Universal and SeaWorld.

Want just to relax and hang out, resort style? There are playgrounds at the pool, and even in the pool, and activity areas all around, so you can lounge around. Parents can feel comfortable that there are child-safe gates around the pool areas, and the areas separate the youngest children from the older kids. There and even giant umbrellas over the spray-pool area shading children so they don't get burned by the sun. Help yourself to equipment for ping pong, putt-putt golf, hopscotch.

The "Wow" Factor

But this is Orlando, after all, and the 800 suites in the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort come complete with "Wow" factor. We experienced it upon walking into our Cinemasuite (one of only 12). Wow! There is a room with a wall-sized (50-inch) television and VCR, recliner chairs (even a drink holder), red velvet curtains and a red-velvet belt (just like at the movies), Surroundsound, a movie poster, and even a bucket of microwavable popcorn. (Movies are available for rent, as well).

Families traveling with children will want to opt for the Kidsuites, a revolutionary concept devised by Terry Whaples and introduced into her Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort, the first truly purpose-built resort with families in mind. These two-bedroom suites include one bedroom with a theme that will delight children, such as Endangered Species; the kids' room has bunk beds as well as a pull-out sleeper bed, a 20-inch television, video player, fun phone, Nintendo 64, CD/cassette player and activity table with chairs. (Parents have to sign a Parent Responsibility statement that reminds them that children under six should not have the top bunk). The second room, geared for parents, has a king-sized bed, 25-inch television, ceiling fan, combination vanity/work station with separate model line, lighted make-up mirror and hair dryer. The family room has a pullout sleeper sofa, 25 inch television, video player, rocking chair and game table. The units also have a kitchenette with refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, in-room safe, iron and ironing board Essentially, you are getting 425 sq. ft. of living space.

The resort offers 482 Kidsuites to choose from, and they have various themes such as the Hi and Lois comic strip; Kellogg's Tony the Tiger; Edy's Ice Cream cones; the Coca Cola polar bear; US Space Camp astronaut; A&W Rootbear; Endangered Species rooms (has manatees); 100 sponsored by Walt Disney World have the facades of their five theme parks; and some have the choo choo train or a hot-air balloon theme.

Indeed, the remarkable themed "third room" is what distinguishes Holiday Inn Family Suites from an all-suite hotel.

About 200 units are Classic suites, a two-bedroom suite accommodating up to six people; these feature one bedroom with a queen-sized bed, 25 inch TV, video player, ceiling fan; a semi-private bedroom with queen bed and 20-inch TV; and a parlor with a pull-out sleeper sofa, 25-inch tv, video player rocking chair and game room, and kitchenette. Typically, these can be linked to a Kidsuite unit, and is ideal when families are traveling together or with grandparents (as we did).

A new variation on the Classic suite just being introduced is Classic.com, geared to families with teenagers. In these, instead of having bunk beds, the second room has a queen-bed and a computer system with Internet access.

The resort also features 18 Sweet Heart suites which are ideal for honeymoon couples (and other romantics). Nothing Mickey Mouse-ish about these, the Sweet Heart suites feature a bedroom with king-sized bed and 25-inch television; a parlor with a 50-inch television, pull-out sleeper sofa and dinette table; and a 117-gallon heart-shaped whirlpool tub, mood lighting, scented bath lotions, heated towel rack, terry cloth robes, dual shower heads; there is also a refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, in-room safe. This comes in handy because Orlando is the number one honeymoon destination in the U.S.

There are 73 Residential suites which feature a full kitchen and a home-away-from home atmosphere, accommodating up to four people.

There are also five Business Suites which feature a separate office area with work desk, copier/fax/printer with private fax number, separate modem line, 25-inch TV and video player; a bedroom with queen-sized bed, 25-inch TV; a parlor with pull-out sleeper sofa and 25-inch TV, video player, rocking chair and game table, and kitchenette. (The resort also offers a 24-hour Business Center and plans to offer meeting space.)

The different styles of suites (which may be combined) make the resort particularly well suited for reunions, destination weddings, and for travelers who are combining business meetings and conventions with a family holiday.

The fairy godmother in all of this is Terry Whaples and she is not hidden at all. In fact, you can see her with a puppet, Daisy, on television giving guests an orientation (and safety speech), and practicing her ventriloquism. But she may be playing the clown (she is a graduate of Clown University and encourages her staff to also take the program) in order to amuse children and also get personal reactions from guests. Her partner, Jim, may well be the conductor on the choo-choo train, giving rides to the kids around the property. Both regularly stroll about the property, making sure every detail is in ship-shape.

Indeed, Terry turned to ship design to maximize the use of space in the rooms, and tries to create the effect of a cruise deck, with all the activities near at hand, for the pool-side activity areas.

Parents will also appreciate the efforts made to make the accommodations child-safe, starting with the non-slip tiles in the bathroom; gates around the pool areas, the staff of 15 security guards trained to spot a child whose parents are lost.

The two are constantly coming up with ways to make the guest stay that much more enjoyable. Breakfast was the first major challenge to surmount: imagine 3,000 people, about half of them under 10 years old, all trying to get fed in a short space of time. Terry first sought out the hotel industry for guidance, but no one else is offering this kind of program. She next consulted the Army and to University dining hall specialists, but none of these had to cater to so many children. In the end, they devised their own system of "divide and conquer"-offering three separate buffet stations (even these are adorably themed as trains) all serving the same things, and separate stations for drinks and for bagels and such (forget china, silver or glass). It actually works, we found.

The entire 24-acre complex is designed so that you can get everywhere walking under cover. The resort is built so that there are two distinct "residential" areas, which preserves an intimate scale: the East Track, geared to families with younger children, has 500 suites surrounding a courtyard which features a zero-depth entry pool with water park features; J.J's Playland, with a kiddie pool, miniature play houses, giant sun umbrellas and 25-foot high train-themed tubular playground with a circular slide; ping pong and shuffleboard, two whirlpools, and a recreation center where kids can check out children's books and board games; there are also afternoon activities scheduled seasonally. The 300-suites in the West Track complex have a more adult atmosphere, and surround a courtyard with an Olympic-style lap pool, fitness center, and two whirlpools.

Anchoring the two "tracks" is Grand Central Station with the lobbv, eateries including the Club Car casual restaurant (kids 12 and under eat free from a special kids' menu, with adult); "Cabooze" bar and lounge for the "over 21" crowd; Food Land Express with Pizza Hut, A&W Restaurant, and Edy's; the Diesel & Steam Convenience Store features refreshments, snacks, and microwaveable foods (you can also order pizza delivered to your room), and the video arcade.

There is a lot of charm to the resort, as well. There is a lovely verandah, overlooking a pond with ducks, where you can enjoy your meal or enjoy a quiet space.

Whaples is already seeing her family suites concept being copied, and not just by Holiday Inns' Sunspree (one just opened in Malaysia). "That's all right. The real winners are families," she says. But it will be much more difficult to match the sum total of amenities, activities, and value-added features that guests find so welcoming at Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort. It will absolutely spoil you for a traditional hotel.

Rates range from $99 to $169 per night-a tremendous value when you consider the units accommodate up to seven people and the room rates include breakfast as well as shuttle bus transportation to DisneyWorld, not to mention children eat free with parents (11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the food court, noon to 4 p.m. in The Verandah, and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the Club Car). Some packages are available (check the website), such as a Sweetheart package and a golf package.

Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort is at 14500 Continental Gateway, Orlando, Florida, 32821, 407-387-KIDS, or 877-387-5437, or 800-HOLIDAY; or visit, www.hifamilysuites.com.

Taking a ride on a choo choo train is one of the many delights that await children at the new Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort, Lake Buena Vista ( Karen Rubin).

2001 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. E-mail questions or comments to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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