By TERRY SPENCER
I consider myself something of a hardened, jaded reporter. I was gassed during the raid to seize Elian Gonzalez. I spent weeks watching officials look for hanging chads during the 2000 presidential recount. I've seen more gruesome autopsy photos than the combined "CSI" casts.
But my latest self-imposed assignment had my friends and colleagues expressing concern for my mental and physical well-being -- a weeklong vacation at the just-opened Orlando, Fla., hotel themed on Nickelodeon, the children's cable television network famous for dropping neon-green slime on game show winners and guests.
Actually -- incredibly -- my wife was the one who suggested it. Like a lot of kids, my 6-year-old son, Andrew, loves Nickelodeon cartoons -- "SpongeBob SquarePants," "The Fairly OddParents," "Jimmy Neutron" and "The Rug-rats," baby and all-grown-up versions.
He's seen most of the episodes 30 times, it seems, and he -- and, through osmosis, I -- can repeat lines before they're said.
So when Holiday Inn announced last year that it would remake a hotel into the Nickelodeon Family Suites, my wife booked a week for just after its Memorial Day weekend opening. The resort's Web site promised two miniwater parks, Nick characters interacting with the guests and lots of family fun. My wife called it a cruise ship on land.
I wasn't exactly thrilled -- my ideal vacation would be a tour of major and minor league baseball stadiums. But when I saw how excited Andrew was with his mom's idea, I turned shoulder, leaned in and took one for the team.
Because our suite was $189 a night (about double what we normally pay for a room), we agreed to pass up Walt Disney World -- one mile away -- and other major theme parks. Instead, we'd content ourselves with what the Nick Hotel had to offer and, if necessary, side trips to cheaper attractions, like Gatorland.
We arrived Sunday afternoon after a stop at Kennedy Space Center, about an hour away. The 777-suite hotel's bright yellow, slime-green and burnt orange trim made it stand out amid its upper-crust neighbors -- the regal Gaylord Palms and statuesque Marriott.
The place was hopping and the bell crew seemed a bit overwhelmed by the check-in crush. No one came to our car, so we left it after a few minutes and went into the lobby, which is also brightly colored and has skylights featuring Nick cartoon characters. It has an area where child guests check in separately, signing an old-fashioned guest book and receiving a welcome bag containing an activity book, SpongeBob toothpaste and two tokens for the arcade.
Our two-bedroom suite had a comfortable living room, a small refrigerator, a microwave and a coffee-maker. The living room was comfortable and the adult bedroom was nicely and sedately appointed -- the queen bed was full-size and not the glorified double I've seen in some supposedly nice hotels.
Andrew's room was decorated with SpongeBob murals and had two twin beds and a PlayStation II video game system -- free to play if you bring your own disks, or you can rent games for $5 each.
Considering that the hotel's population is at least half children, the room was amazingly quiet -- only one night was our sleep interrupted when a rude family let its kids run wild on our sixth-floor walkway. That was followed by a midnight fireworks show at Disney that sounded like the London Blitz.
The pool areas are a water-loving child's delight. There are slides -- the tallest about four stories -- and nets to climb. Water jets and spray guns. Buckets to tip over on unsuspecting adults walking below. Many adults -- including this one -- had as much fun as the kids barreling down the chutes, although my wife and I both incurred rather nasty bruises on our backsides banging up against the sides.
There is poolside entertainment -- usually trivia or balloon-passing games that end with an adult or the winning kid getting pied or slimed. There are also water and sand areas geared toward toddlers, a nine-hole miniature golf course, pool and pingpong tables, basketball and shuffleboard courts and hot tubs. One nitpick: The resort should have indoor activities when the pool is closed during lightning storms -- an almost daily occurrence during our stay.
Indoors, there is a food court, an arcade and seven-station computer center where kids can visit children's Web sites (my wife once tried to check her e-mail, only to be shut down by a friendly but lurking orange-shirted employee). There are caricature, face-painting and balloon artists and a spa where girls can get pedicures, manicures and braids -- all cost extra, sometimes a lot.
For parents, the small Nick@Nite Lounge bar and other refreshment stands provide adult beverages to help wash away any nervous tics caused by too much contact with hyperactive kids. But sneaking away for couple-time is almost impossible -- the hotel doesn't offer baby-sitting.
The resort features Holiday Inn's "Kids Eat Free" program -- up to four children, 12 and under, can eat the buffets gratis for each paying adult. We tried the breakfast and dinner buffets once -- the Italian dinner was fine, but the breakfast was mediocre at best with tasteless oatmeal, limp bacon and industrial scrambled eggs.
And at $20 total for breakfast and $50 for dinner, including tip, it was hardly a deal for a family of three, but families with more kids might feel differently. For us, it was cheaper to hit the local supermarket and stock the fridge with cereal and sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, then drive somewhere for dinner.
The interaction with costumed characters was disappointingly limited -- my son saw SpongeBob once except at a special breakfast. That cost us about $50 and featured most of the main Nick characters going from table to table. It also included a free photo -- though it would have been nice if the photographer had asked Andrew to turn around before shooting.
As much fun as the pools were, a person can only take so much sun and water, so after the second day, we started taking afternoon trips to smaller attractions. Along with Gatorland, which displays alligators and other Florida wildlife, we visited WonderWorks and Ripley's Believe It or Not!, two similar museums featuring optical illusions and oddities.
At night, the hotel has two free game shows. "Nick Live" features two families answering trivia questions and, along with proxies pulled from the audience, doing tasks like dressing up adults as the Fairly OddParents. "Who Knows Best" pits three adult-child teams -- a parent or other acquainted adult and a child -- in a "Newlywed Game"-style competition where the teams try to match answers on such questions as "Who in the family stinks up the bathroom most?" First prize -- a bucket of slime dropped on the head.
My son, as we frolicked on the water slides, called the Nick Hotel "the best place ever."
I wouldn't go that far -- I still favor Dodger Stadium or Camden Yards -- but every kid I saw had a smile. And so did I.