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I like to joke that my wife and I used to be Ritz-Carlton and Park Hyatt people. Today, we’re Embassy Suites fans. While not entirely true, it does reflect how our priorities have shifted. We now value a suite with a wall and a door that gives us privacy when our daughter falls asleep at 8pm. A breakfast buffet or food at the hotel club lets us start the day quickly and appeases the ever-changing palate of a toddler.
So when it was time to celebrate my in-laws’ 70th birthdays, our group of six adults and three kids (ages 2, 3 and 5) were looking for something different. An all-inclusive meant that nobody had to think twice about ordering the filet or another glass of wine. We wanted a place that appealed to the kids but didn’t drive the adults crazy, either.
Enter the Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. And spoiler alert: If you know anything about Nickelodeon, yes, I did get slimed.
During our weeklong stay, many things surpassed expectations, but a constant drip of service hiccups kept me from loving the hotel. It was a great experience, but given the high price we paid, there were just too many little things that annoyed me.
My in-laws booked through their travel agent and got us a package where the kids stayed for free.
Our Flat Suite came to $5,460 for the seven-night stay, while my in-laws’ smaller Nest Suite was $3,920 for the week. The main difference, besides size, was that their room didn’t have a wall separating the bedroom from the living room. In the end, they got a free upgrade to a Flat Suite in our hall anyway.
There were a few add-ons that we signed up for, such as 15% off spa services and a private sliming for a family of four. We were also offered a $10 credit off any bottle of wine that was $50 or more, up to five times. But we ended up sticking with the free house wines, liquors and beers.
At check-in, we were given a letter confirming the benefits. Little did I realize that holding on to that letter would be essential. At the spa, they took the letter and ended up stapling it to our bill to send to the front desk. However, when we later booked the private sliming, they too wanted the same letter to also staple to that bill. Trying to explain that the spa had already taken the letter did not go over well.
We’d already chartered a van for our party of nine for the 30-minute drive from Punta Cana Airport (PUJ), and it looked like everyone else who’d landed had a similar idea, most of them apparently on package trips that included ground transportation. The sea of signs that greeted visitors at the airport exit was overwhelming.
As we pulled up to the resort, I noticed two separate check-in buildings. That was my first sign that the Nickelodeon Resort actually shared its grounds with another all-inclusive, the Sensatori Resort Punta Cana. I got the full story later, after noticing many kid-free couples hanging out around the shared pool and beach. Imagine the horror of somebody escaping on their honeymoon to Sensatori only to learn that it shared all the restaurants and most of the pools with the kid-heavy Nickelodeon resort. (Yes, there are a few such horror stories on TripAdvisor.)
The resort sits on the north side of the island, facing the open ocean. The waves were rough during our weeklong visit, and the beach was covered in seaweed. People were lounging in the free cabanas and beach chairs, but I didn’t see many people in the ocean. The pool was really the center of action.
The resort was spread out, with the beach, pool bar and a few restaurants at one end and the main restaurants, spa, shop and a kind of town square at the other end. It was a five-minute walk from one end to another. Across the road (or through the pedestrian tunnel) was the waterpark and kids club. Golf-cart shuttles came frequently, making the trip from the lazy river to the beach pretty easy.
As soon as we entered the lobby, the adults got sparking wine and the kids frozen green “slime” smoothies. Both were loaded with sugar, with the slime winning the taste test.
Right off the lobby was a nice kids’ play area with a giant light board, fun rocking chairs and a TV playing Nickelodeon shows.
Good thing, because the entire check-in process took 30 minutes. There wasn’t a line or any particular reason, just lots of random paperwork and a really slow staff.
That turned out to be a pattern throughout our stay: Everyone was extremely friendly, but the paperwork needed for the simplest tasks, such as reserving a character breakfast, was cumbersome and took away valuable time that could have been spent at the pool.
My family and my sister-in-law’s family got the rooms we had booked. My in-laws were upgraded one category to our room class, and we were all placed together in the same hall in the building closest to the beach.
The resort didn’t feel overly geared to kids unless you went looking for it. For a weeklong trip with my family, that was good for my sanity.
Every day, a printed calendar of activities highlighted free character meetups. Several characters appeared at intervals throughout the day in the designated meetup spot. Some of the characters we encountered were SpongeBob SquarePants, Patrick Star, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cosmo and Wanda from “The Fairly OddParents,” the crew from “PAW Patrol” and Dora the Explorer and Boots.
An official photographer was on hand to take — and sell — photos. But the staff also happily volunteered to snap family photos with your own phone, endearing them to probably every parent at the resort.
In fact, the kids’ staff were some of the friendliest people we met throughout the trip. They quickly made connections with each of the kids and were a presence throughout our stay. My wife and I came to really appreciate them.
Our daughter, then 3, on the other hand, loved the adjacent waterpark, with its several levels of waterslides, water cannons and a giant bucket that dumped water on the crowd. And all of it was in a shallow pool that didn’t require floaties. Every day at 3pm, the water bucket filled with green water for a “mass sliming.” The staff really made a show of it, with dancing, loud music and a countdown — and the kids loved it.
The grownups, meanwhile, got a break on the lazy river, although it wasn’t quite fast enough and the whole area lacked enough shade. A nearby bar and restaurant meant you never had to leave.
For an extra $85, you could have a private sliming involving a slightly thicker green goo for up to four people. It was a fun photo opportunity, but it wasn’t something I would have done if it weren’t included in our package.
The nearby kids club featured an indoor slide that ended in a ball pit. The club was open from 9am to 5pm and then from 7pm to 9:30pm, but noon to 2pm was family time, meaning kids had to be accompanied by a parent for those two hours. Kids had to be at least 4 to be dropped off. (They made an exception for our daughter, who was just a few weeks shy of her fourth birthday.)
Our daughter spent a few hours in there over two days and enjoyed making crafts. You know it’s a good sign when you come to pick her up and she wants to stay longer.
For more time with the characters, we went to the character breakfast one morning for an additional $35 for adults and $27 for kids. On the face of it, that seemed reasonable for a character breakfast, but it seemed like less of a deal once we remembered we already had free breakfast at the resort’s main restaurant. And the food here was exactly the same — we were paying extra just for an up-close experience with many characters at once. Still, given that the free character meetups were scattered through the week, this was a nice way to see them all at once and not take away from other experiences.
The concierge didn’t explain to us that the breakfasts had specific themes — one was just for the Ninja Turtles and the other was a pajama party with Dora, Boots, SpongeBob, Patrick, Cosmo, Wanda and Chase and Marshall from “PAW Patrol.” The Ninja Turtle one ended up being sold out, so we ended up at the pajama party, which our family preferred anyway.
It was a small group at breakfast. The characters did a little dance for the crowd and then made the rounds from table to table taking photos. My daughter, who was still scared of characters, didn’t attend, but my nieces loved every minute of it.
Each night, there was entertainment for kids near all the restaurants, including a small circus one evening and outdoor children’s movies another night. For adults, there were performances, bands and dancers. The kids often also jumped into the fun.
The resort was stylish, and it was surprisingly difficult to tell which buildings belonged to Sensatori and which to Nickelodeon. Our room felt modern, but it also obviously seemed not to have been designed for kids — especially the sleek but impractical bathrooms.
Sure, there was a beautiful, giant soaking tub and a nice, standalone rainfall shower. But neither was ideal for young kids. The tub was too deep for any normal-sized parent to reach in and comfortably bathe his or her child. And not every child will take a shower, especially by themselves.
Then there were the sinks, trendy his-and-her sinks with generous counter space. There was just one catch: They were already high up, but the giant lip that rose up several extra inches to form the basin prevented our toddler from washing her hands by herself or brushing her teeth. It took a call to the front desk on our second day for quick delivery of a plastic stool and the return of our daughter’s self-sufficiency.
There was corrosion around the corners of the glass walls in the bathroom and plenty of scuffs and scratches. But otherwise, everything was in good shape. And I appreciated that the toilet was in a separate room.
The king bed sat in a small side room with sliding doors that did not lock.
The pullout sofa did the trick for our daughter but was far from the most comfortable one I’ve had in a hotel room.
A minifridge was stocked with juices, soft drinks, beer and a few snacks, and was refilled daily. Some parents probably would have liked milk included, but that tends to spoil quickly.
The balconies had a glass railing and big, comfy chairs. Plus there was a small pullout drying rack. On the rare day we got my daughter to nap, I enjoyed a nice afternoon on the balcony, catching up on work and enjoying a cool beer.
The Wi-Fi in the room and throughout the resort was relatively fast, and the coverage was almost everywhere. My in-room Wi-Fi test got a download speed of 98 Mbps and an upload speed of 63 Mbps.
There was a wall-mounted flat-screen TV with standard channels (including Nickelodeon), mostly in Spanish. We didn’t use it, though.
On our second night, the air conditioning stopped working as we left for dinner. The front desk insisted that our balcony door was open. It wasn’t. While we were out at dinner, somebody came and checked it out and installed a new thermostat by the time we returned. That’s good service — except that there was a pile of plaster and dust on the floor right below the new thermostat.
Two nights later, the air broke again, requiring another trip from the resort’s maintenance staff. That time, they were able to promptly fix the problem.
There was no shortage of food at the resort, and the buffets — especially the breakfasts — were much better than I was expecting.
Each morning, we had dozens of choices, including two omelet stations, a wide selection of fruits, meats, cheeses, prepared eggs, pancakes and pastries.
There were even make-your-own Bloody Mary and mimosa stations.
Basically, there were plenty of options for the pickiest kid — or adult — and there were accommodations for an array of dietary restrictions, including gluten-free breads and almond milk. But the breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets, again with tons of choices, quickly blurred together. This was especially true at lunchtime.
I tried room service one morning. The staff picked up on the first ring and promised me breakfast within 45 minutes. Fast-forward 44 minutes, and there was a knock on my door. The breakfast tray was brought out to my balcony. I would hardly call it gourmet, but my order was correct and warm.
Throughout the day, there were plenty of servers delivering drinks around the pool. And the line at any of the bars, including the swim-up bar, was never long, even though our visit was during the busy spring break for New York City schools. They even had soft-serve ice cream at the main bar, a hit with our kids.
There was a coffee shop open early with caffeine and pastries to jumpstart the day. By nighttime, it was serving up a host of treats for dessert.
Dinner, however, was inconsistent. The burger joint, Asian-fusion and Italian restaurants were our favorites because none of them tried too hard to be anything they weren’t — just good, solid places with lots of choices for everybody.
The fancy, astronaut-themed Spacewalker was fun but confusing. The food was solid, but you could tell that whoever came up with the concept missed the mark. For instance, the shrimp cocktail was served in foam with spheres of cocktail sauce that didn’t quite break the right way. For dessert, I had a sphere of white chocolate with a passion fruit parfait in the middle. Hot, dark chocolate was supposed to be poured over it to split open the sphere. But by the time it got to my table, the chocolate had cooled, and effect was less volcanic eruption and more lump of cold rock.
Then there was the fancy, adults-only restaurant, Kitchen 23. The only establishment with a dress code required an extra $25 fee per person and then had wine flights starting at an extra $35.
The setting was nice and relaxed, the staff attentive. But the chef was trying too hard. This was no James Beard Award-winning chef. So don’t act like one. The combinations of food and presentation were just odd. Do we really need an air-filled baguette with cream-cheese foam?
We would have been better off at the burger joint.
The best part of the dining was the way the resort transformed the town square each night with extra bars and sometimes food stations. It gave the resort a community feeling, and the drinks were among the best-mixed of the entire stay.
The resort had everything we wanted. Most importantly, the pool area was great, and the waterpark was perfect for kids of all ages.
Still, there wasn’t enough shade at either pool, and we sometimes struggled to find enough chairs, but we were a large group on one of the busiest weeks.
The rooms with swim-up pools were nice, but the pools were shared with everybody else in that building. They were never full but weren’t private, either. (As we had toddlers, we got a second-floor room instead, for safety reasons.)
We escaped the madness with a set of 80-minute massages at the spa. At $179 plus a 10% service fee, they were no bargain, but the facilities were clean and relaxing. The massage was one of the better ones I’ve had in recent years, and the indoor-outdoor water area was fine.
A series of water features and sensory pools helped us unwind, and then we lounged in plush chairs under a thatched roof with open sides. While reading my book in relative silence, a heavy downpour came. I was dry but got to enjoy the strong breeze and sound of the rain. I could have stayed there all day, but there was only so much babysitting we could ask of the grandparents. (You can, by the way, ask to have your treatments in outdoor huts just past the wet area.)
The staff members were some of the friendliest folks I’ve ever encountered at a large resort. Everybody was extremely helpful. They just weren’t prompt.
One night, we went out for a 6pm dinner at the Italian restaurant. The kids’ meals came out quickly, but the adults’ main courses didn’t arrive until 75 minutes after we sat down. The kids’ dinners — and attention spans — were gone, leading the adults to balance cuisine against bedtimes.
“I feel like we’re all speed-eating,” my brother-in-law said between rushed bites.
“My dinner was good, but I ate it so fast,” my sister-in-law added.
And there were logistical issues. Dinner reservations were a must, unless you wanted to eat at the buffet each night. We’d made our reservations in advance through our travel agent, but they were nowhere to be found when we arrived. So we made new ones with the concierge. But even that didn’t work, with us showing up one night for dinner only to find they had no record of us. We weren’t the only group to have this problem, either.
My wife had made spa reservations herself directly with the spa a week in advance. When we showed up for our treatments, there was no record of those. We were accommodated at another slot, but were rushed into the treatment rooms with no time to relax.
Finally, we hired an outside photographer to take a family portrait. My wife spent weeks trying to email anybody at the resort who would respond to her. Finally, she got somebody on the phone who assured her it wouldn’t be a problem.
Once there, though, the resort had no record of that conversation and wanted to charge us $130 for a guest pass to let the photographer on the grounds. After some arguing, we got the fee waived. But sure enough, the day the photographer showed up, the security guards at the front gate wouldn’t let him in, having no record of the most recent conversation. Someone tracked down a manager, who finally let the photographer let in, but it ate into our photo session and the children’s patience.
At checkout, we were given slips of paper to show that we had paid our bill. We couldn’t leave the resort without them. They already had my credit card info, so this added measure just felt cheap to me.
The resort was a great spot for families, but had lots of little quirks. The pools were nice, the waterpark amazing and the beach disappointing. Service was friendly but inconsistent. The Nickelodeon theme was there for those who wanted it but also not so in-your-face that grandparents would get turned off by the experience.
There were plenty of food options, but the focus was clearly on volume, not quality. Plus, there were lots of slime-themed items. (My advice: Stick to the normal ketchup.)
Booster seats and high chairs were at every restaurant, and there were changing tables in men’s and women’s bathrooms and several large family bathrooms.
There were lots of little things that left me feeling let down as a parent, though. For instance, all the restaurants had children’s menus, and the waiters were extremely friendly to kids, but if we wanted a kid-sized version or a stripped-down version of something from the adult menu for our daughter, they were downright confused. And none of the restaurants offered us crayons or placemat activities except for the character breakfast. Then there was the nightly turndown service, which happened around 9pm, way too late for a family with small children. Many families with young kids were out eating dinner at 6pm, and I assumed that their kids, like ours, were sound asleep by 9, so this was a hard service decision to explain.
I’ve come to accept that we’re no longer Ritz-Carlton people. And I’m fine with being an Embassy Suites family. But I won’t lament when our daughter ages out of our family’s Nickelodeon resort phase. Until then, though, I’m happy enough to sit back and get slimed — as long as there’s a Bloody Mary waiting for me at the end.
All photos by the author.