It's my own fault. I registered late for the Visual Studio Connections conference, and all the rooms at the Orlando World Center Marriott were booked. In my defense, I had to wait for the corporate AmEx card to be mailed to me, since my old card had expired.
But Fate doesn't brook excuses. Using the internal Microsoft travel portal, which we're required to use for all travel arrangements, I searched for the nearest hotel. That turned out to be the Holiday Inn Family Suites across the freeway from the Marriott. Here's how it shows up on my itinerary:
Hotel itinerary from the Microsoft travel portal.
I'm sure you'll agree this looks completely innocuous.
But web portals can be deceptive. When I drove my rented car past "Continental Gateway," I expected to see the familiar Holiday Inn sign.
There was no sign. There was no Continental Gateway. Instead, there was an "International Drive." I kept driving on I-536, through the Disney World Portal, but there was no Continental Gateway. Mickey Mouse beckoned me on to Disney World, but I exited the freeway and ramped on going the other way. The Holiday Inn had to be on this "International Drive."
It wasn't there. What stood in its place was a large cylindrical structure, bearing a giant logo: "Nickelodeon."
Around the sign were huge cartoon characters. Jimmy Neutron loomed over the parking lot. The entry was gated. A guard engaged each driver in extended conversation. I waited in line, with a growing feeling of dread. The guard cheerily told me to park in a "temporary" lot off to the side and check in, then drive to the building with my assigned room.
When I walked into the lobby it all became clear: This was a hotel for children.
The walls were painted in wacky, cartoonish colors. A "splat" motif appeared in various contexts. Children ran hither and thither. An antechamber had a large television playing some animated feature. When I checked in, I was told I had to wear a wristband at all times, so "security can be sure everybody's in the right place." The pamphlet enjoined, "Have the slime of your life."
My room was on the first floor, right next to the pool. And the water slides. And the large projection screen playing Ice Age, with low-frequency effects amplified to a booming, inescapable volume. A seething mass of children swirled around the cavernous plaza. Too late I realized it was Spring Break.
As I inserted my room key (Jimmy Neutron leered up at me from the card), I grasped at the dim hope that the rooms had extraordinary soundproofing. No such luck. Squeals pierced the bedroom window as children descended the water slides. Moe Szyslak once said, "I'm not used to the laughter of children. It cuts through me like a dentist's drill." It was 10:30 PM.
I reasoned that there must be some sort of parents' oasis. One with beer. I set out to find this final island of sanity.
The walk through the huge complex was like a fever dream. Two months ago, I had surgery for my shattered wrist, and the orthopedic surgeon prescribed oxycontin for the post-surgical pain. These hallways had a similar hallucinogenic quality.
Children raced by, covered in towels. A boy rolled past on his skateboard, nearly bowling me over. An open courtyard had statues of Nickelodeon characters rising from an artificial lake of black water. Behind this scene rose the Marriott World Center, taunting me with its nearness.
The cafeteria appeared at the end of a walkway. It was brightly lit, literally causing me to squint. Inside was a "Kid's Spa." Two exhausted parents slumped in a plastic love seat across from the video game arcade. Kids raced in and out of the "Nick Toons" theater.
Hallucinating at the arcade.
Then I saw the bar. It was a small island to the side of the cafeteria. A few adults hunched over their drinks while a girl used a plastic gun to fire foam projectiles at her brother. I bellied up and glanced at the guy next to me. He gave me a look of weary solidarity.
There were only a few beer taps, but my heart swelled to see a small piece of Seattle there: Pyramid IPA. I ordered a pint. The bartender gave me a smile which said he had seen my type before.
The Marriot mocks me with its tantalizing nearness.
I hunkered down over my drink. Just outside, a statue of SpongeBob cavorted atop the black water. The guy next to me asked me where I was from. "Seattle," I replied. He told me he was from West Virginia and said he had always wanted to visit Seattle. He said he needed to see a real city; Charleston was "a terrible place." We went back to our drinks.
SpongeBob mocks me from the black lagoon.
I went back to my room. The movie was still playing. Children were still squealing in the pool. The room was actually a suite, with a separate space for the kids. The room was painted with SpongeBob characters. They were omnipresent, even haunting our sleep.
SpongeBob mocks me in my suite.
Sleep was impossible. The bed was like cardboard. I called the desk and begged for a room somewhere -- anywhere -- else. Eventually, I was moved to an outward-facing room, with only the sound of traffic from the nearby street. It was a long, straight thoroughfare, with undeveloped jungle on the opposite side. Late in the night, drag racers roared up and down, winding their engines up to an alarming pitch and peeling out.
I'm in the perfect mood for the conference.