Sooner or later every parent is faced with pleas from their offspring to visit a theme park. It’s a rite of passage of sorts, but has a tendency to fill one with dread at the thought of queues, crowds and fast food. Then come the hotels… Themed hotels are famed for their psychedelic colours and extravagant architecture, each deliberately designed to deeply immerse guests in the fantasy world found in theme parks. The décor and furniture fit the theme, staff are decorated in Hollywood-esque costumes that make them look like actors on set and even seemingly incidental fittings, like ventilation grills and handrails, are built bespoke to fit said fantastical theme.
Getting it right is far from child’s play, as there’s a fine line between the end result looking contrived and kitsch rather than transporting guests to a far-flung place where dreams come true.
The industry leaders don’t simply offer high-end escapism amidst all the mania and magic, but use every trick in their spell book to ensure guests are treated like royalty in the park. Five-star service inside the world’s busiest tourist attractions sounds like a tough ask, for the right hotels, it’s just a walk in the park…
1. NEW ENGLAND COMES TO FRANCE
If you like hotels to be more than a box-shaped building with a sign slung above the door then the Newport Bay Club at Disneyland Paris is for you. There’s a tremendous sense of arrival as you pull up to the sprawling cream-coloured mansion which looks like it would be more at home in Maine than just outside France’s capital.
Walking into the lobby is like stepping onto a luxury liner from a bygone era with glossy wooden decking, brass lamps hanging from above, colourful flags lining the walls and nautical objets d’art sitting on shelves. This meticulous attention to detail gives it the air of a private members’ club rather than a themed hotel.
The rooms have deep blue carpets, bed frames that look like they have been made from boat parts and furniture in the style of travel trunks. Fortunately, the fittings are more five-star than old-fashioned, as there are UAE plug sockets, LED TVs and USB charging sockets.
Guests of the hotel also get a head start as early access to the parks comes as standard. They are just a 10-minute walk from the hotel but there’s a free shuttle for when the weather isn’t so magical. The more you pay, the more time you save as the suites come with a pass which gives guests access to a fast lane for ride queues.
If that’s not enough, pay extra for a VIP guide who can take you right to the front of every ride for the ultimate in luxury timesaving. To get the same level of service in the hotel book access to the Compass Club – a private lounge which serves complimentary snacks and drinks throughout the day and has a dedicated reception desk, so you never need queue to check in and out.
2. FAIRY-TALE FACADES OF PORTOFINO
The setting couldn’t get much more surreal. A series of continental-style, multi-coloured road-signs direct visitors to a harbour lined with Vespas, olive trees and cafés. Souvenir shops housed in fishing huts and town houses painted in pastel colours with cracked plaster walls surround the water’s edge. Then a string quartet starts a serenade from a balcony. You almost expect a director to leap out calling “Cut!” because this full-size mock-up of the Italian resort of Portofino is in fact in Orlando and what seem to be houses are actually rooms in Universal Studios’ Portofino Bay hotel.
There’s nothing make-believe about the facilities at the hotel, which is run by upscale American chain Loews. There’s a full-service spa, five restaurants and three pools with one suitably styled as a ruined Roman aqueduct.
The elegant Italian theme pervades the hotel. Padded tapestries line the inside of the elevators and room numbers are shown on porcelain plaques, which would usually have a house name etched into them. The beds have elaborate headboards, there are marble table-tops and cream-coloured shutters between the bathroom and bedroom. You don’t even need to walk to Universal’s two parks, as a boat service from the harbour whisks you there and back.
Guests of the Portofino also get queue-cutting privileges in the parks and early morning access. You don’t have to carry any goodies whilst there, as a service delivers them directly to their room. The Portofino’s room key can be used to pay for them too, so you can leave your wallet at home. It makes the experience seem all the more surreal until, of course, you get the bill which may well bring you back down to earth!
3. WATER WORLD IN DUBAI
Many hotels claim to have an on-site waterpark but don’t actually live up to that lofty billing. Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai isn’t one of them. It is home to the world’s biggest waterpark and guests of the hotel get free entry. If waterparks conjure up images of pathways strewn with towels and multi-coloured slides snaking down from steel scaffolding think again. Aquaventure looks more like a country club than a waterpark.
Some slides start in Aztec-themed temples and pass-through verdant gardens filled with palm trees and tropical birds. Others float past futuristic sundials and emerge underneath stone heads of Greek demon Medusa.
There are record-breaking rides with almost vertical drops for true thrill-seekers, while half of the park is encircled by a spaghetti-like network of lazy rivers which takes nearly an hour to get round. Cleverly they connect to the rides, so you glide on a rubber ring from the exit of one slide and float off to the next.
To make you feel like royalty, the loungers each have a button next to them so that you can call for a waiter, with drinks and snacks on tap. To get the same treatment inside the hotel, book an Imperial Club room which comes with access to a lounge with complimentary snacks and drinks throughout the day so you can cool off whenever you want. Additional nods to intuitive service reign supreme, with waiters gliding over with complimentary water when you’re waiting at reception, and at dinner, your table is found for you before you even have to ask.
Complimentary golf buggies whisk you from the lounge to the park in five minutes. If that’s too long to wait, there are cabanas in the heart of the park which come with a platter of fruit, a chiller with water and a locker. Tell yourself that you’re going to Atlantis for the sake of the kids, but you’re likely to enjoy just as much as them…
4. DISNEY DELUXE IN ORLANDO
Four Seasons is famous for its historic hotels. Amongst the collection is the George V, an Art Deco landmark in the centre of Paris, and a former 15th-century convent in Milan, which has vaulted ceilings and tapestries on the walls. Disney World in Orlando doesn’t sound like a logical location for the upscale chain but its hotel here is almost as historic as its counterparts. The Four Seasons Orlando is the chain’s only hotel inside a Disney resort, although it doesn’t actually sit on the media giant’s property and isn’t owned by it.
The hotel epitomises Four Seasons’ mantra of understated luxury. From the outside it looks like a soaring sand-coloured villa dotted with intricate iron balconies and topped with turrets. There are no costumed characters roaming around the lobby, which in turn looks more like a high-end art gallery than a hotel.
Cream-coloured flowers stand in tall, elegant vases and there is acres of marble, on the floor, the ceiling and even the walls, which are lined with exotic art. Metal panels carved in the shape of water swirls sit behind reception and the most visible nod to the hotel’s location is found by looking up. A chandelier with giant glass bulbs shaped like bursts of fireworks hangs above a spiral staircase and gives a hint of things to come.
The rooms aren’t dominated by a gaudy theme and there are no mouse ear silhouettes hidden in the décor as is common in Disney’s hotels. Furniture is bound in cream-coloured leather, there are deep carpets, avant-garde art on the walls and a walk-in wardrobe. The rooms are also packed with high-tech touches. There are Bose wireless speakers in case you want music in the bathtub or on the balcony; a bedside iPad can be used to call room service (24 hours of course) or make restaurant reservations; and the bathrooms even come with their very own magic mirror as a remote control conjures up a television screen in the middle so you can watch movies whilst soaking in the tub.
Over at the pool there is free sun cream, after-sun and even bug spray. Calling it a pool is something of an understatement though as it is home to every kind of water feature you can imagine. There are hot tubs and a lagoon with a sloped entrance, so you don’t need to use steps to get in. Unlike Disney’s own hotels, one of the pools is for adults only and it comes complete with underwater speakers. For more adventurous guests there’s an infinity pool with water which flows over the edges, so it looks like it’s part of the lake next door. Then comes the main event…
Inside a mock crumbling fort is a sprawling play area for kids with waterfalls, grottos and fountains which spring up unexpectedly. A stairway in a tower looks like it will lead to a look-out but it’s the entrance to two water slides which wind around palm trees and battlements. The lazy river is anything but lazy, as powerful jets propel you past water sprays from gunpowder barrels and waterfalls roaring through castle ruins. Guests walking by can even take part by firing hoses at unsuspecting punters bobbing past on the inner tubes.
It has an air of Pirates of the Caribbean and can be tough to lure kids away once they start to play. The hotel seems to have thought of everything to keep little ones happy. The steakhouse on the 17th floor has panoramic views of the fireworks in the fairy-tale-themed Magic Kingdom park and there are even low clothes racks in the rooms for kids. There are buses from the hotel to the parks and the shops there will send anything you buy directly to your room. But by far the biggest benefit of the hotel is being in an oasis of luxury inside a bustling theme park complex, without any of the intrusions. It really does feel like being in another world.
5. THE ART OF MINIMALISM IN ABU DHABI
When Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi opened in 2018 it took the theme park industry by storm. The indoor park immerses guests in immensely detailed lands themed to Looney Tunes and DC Comics superheroes, such as Superman and Batman. Curtains can be seen through the windows of buildings in the caped crusader’s hometown of Gotham, whilst walls look weathered and there are even artificial manhole covers in the floor. It set the scene for an extravagantly-themed on-site hotel but instead, Warner Bros. built something more minimalist. There is good reason for this.
Staying in a themed hotel can often be an overbearing experience. The environments are sometimes so immersive that they seem surreal. It’s hard to be convinced that you’re actually in a log cabin high up the mountains when you’re staring through a window onto a balmy swamp in Florida. Likewise, the illusion is shattered when a sliding door glides open in a mansion meticulously themed to the turn of the century.
Often still, form comes before function so although many of these properties have an opulent theme, the guest experience doesn’t live up to it. The WB Abu Dhabi is an exception. The local audience in the Middle East has high standards when it comes to hotels as there are so many upscale properties in region, so Warner Bros. made sure its property could hold its own with local grand dames. The curved steel and glass structure sits opposite the theme park and looks like a Hollywood Studios office. The theme is distinct enough to be relevant but not so outlandish that it could put people off.
The sleek and stylish studio look continues inside with an airy atrium lit by the kind of spotlights you would find on a film set. Soaring columns show footage from Warner Bros. movies whilst props from the silver screen are scattered throughout the hotel. Michael Keaton’s Batman cowl, James Dean’s boots and an original drawing from The Great Gatsby sit in cabinets next to a spiral staircase. The larger pieces of memorabilia are even more iconic.
The Batmobile from the new Batman movie stands outside near to the famous fountain from the opening credits of Friends, and the eerie self-playing piano in the lobby is a replica of the one seen in sci-fi western Westworld. The rooms exude Art Deco opulence with rotary phones, padded grey headboards, old-fashioned desk lamps and a Marshall radio. The fittings are painted in vivid colours which contrast with the grey curtains and angular wood panelled floor adding to the Art Deco atmosphere.
The rooms are filled with framed pages of scripts, classic posters and comic books. They come with tickets to the park which is only a few minutes’ walk away and in Abu Dhabi’s searing summer heat that makes all the difference.
6. THE MUSEUM HOTEL IN GERMANY
The Kronasar hotel at Germany’s Europa-Park bills itself as a museum hotel and it is no exaggeration. It looks like somewhere that Phileas Fogg would visit with skeletons of monsters hanging in the lobby and faux-bookcases in the rooms. It gives guests the impression they are setting off on a journey to the waterpark which is connected to the hotel. Called Rulantica, it is named after a mythical land discovered by the adventurers from the Kronasar. Everything fits this theme.
The hotel lobby has the air of a library about it, with leather armchairs, alien-like skeletons in cabinets and shelves of books surrounding a crackling fireplace. Old grandfather clocks stand in the corridors and life-rings line the walls. Cabinets containing Norse artefacts like horns, spears and skins set the scene which culminates in the rooms. They look more like an explorer’s study, as the divider to the bathroom is made from a fake chest of drawers and the LED television is set inside a bookcase.
The names of the books give clues as to what lies ahead. There’s Shipwrecks Of The 15th Century and Nautical Navigation In Medieval Times, whilst the drawers contain maps with one labelled Rulantica. It sets the scene for the indoor waterpark next door. Slides snake down icy-looking mountains and weave around full-size fake pine trees complete with artificial bluebells and grass at the foot of them. It’s Disney-level design deep in the Black Forest. The thing that really tips the whole experience into five-star territory is the nearby Ammolite restaurant, that has two Michelin stars and serves a seven-course tasting menu for €163. It sits under a lighthouse but couldn’t be more different to typical themed restaurants.
Discretion is the order of the day at Ammolite as there’s low lighting, grey curtains separating the tables and the only hint of an aquatic theme is the shiny seashell on the table. The magic touch is the menu which starts with Imperial Caviar and follows with scallops, cod, lamb and soup with crunchy dried carrot straws on top. It really is a whole new world for theme park dining.
7. The Main Attraction in Macau
Trekking from park to park is one of the most gruelling experiences of any visit to a theme park resort. It’s slow and far from a premium experience as guests get crammed onto buses and buggies. In an ideal world, the attractions would all be in the same building. Welcome to Studio City in Macau. Although Studio City isn’t a stand-alone theme park, rides are built into the hotel which is themed to the heydays of Hollywood. It is home to a sprawling entertainment centre with simulators, Virtual Reality bumper cars and a 4D cinema, but the most prominent ride is built into the middle of the soaring steel and glass structure.
Standing 425-feet high, the Golden Reel is the world’s first ferris wheel in the shape of a figure of eight. From inside its steampunk-themed cabins, guests get a sweeping view of Macau’s Cotai Strip. The story behind the ride is befitting of a Hollywood blockbuster as it is meant to have been created by two asteroids careering through Studio City’s towers. That’s not all.
A waterpark with 16 attractions sits at the foot of the building and has a rainforest theme. Despite essentially being a hotel pool, the park is no slouch and features a zero-gravity freefall slide and a 360-degree high-speed bowl, as well as slower flumes for kiddies. Many of the slides are painted in a special metallic colour to blend in with the sleek steel building that towers over it.
True to its theme, the hotel’s rooms have an Art Deco look with mahogany furnishings trimmed with gold fittings and angular artwork hanging on the walls. Film reels are printed on some of the walls as a subtle reminder of its inspiration. The theme is far from Mickey Mouse and that’s one of the reasons why it’s a genuine five star deluxe property.