The Great American family roadtrips of yesteryear probably don’t happen like they use to, but here we are in the thick of summer and for many families that still means travel time! As a kid, travel means a lot of things different than when you’re traveling as an adult. Travel, as an adult, is frankly a pain in the ass. First you have to get time off work...then make a plan to cover your ass while you’re gone…and make sure your passport hasn’t expired...then cuss up a storm when you realize it has...then it’s time to pack, figure out a way to the airport, and then figure out a different route when your first flight is canceled and you could miss your connection (as I learned recently). And that’s not even scratching the surface of all the logistics involved if you were driving the whole way. Oh! And then you have to find a way to pay for all of it too…
Kids on the other hand haven’t a care in the world when it comes to travel. Your packing is done for you, you don’t have to worry about paying for anything, and your biggest problem is going to be boredom en route, or only slightly worse, puking en route. As most adults dream of nights so careless they end in puke, you’ve obviously got it pretty easy. You’re already on vacation during the summer, and then to put an actual vacation on top of that is just a cherry. It’s carefree fun and bliss piled on top of more carefree fun and bliss.
My childhood was no exception to that carefree fun and bliss—we traveled quite frequently and economically throughout the East, South, and Midwest during our summers growing up. Lots of weeks and weekends away in exotic places like Decatur, Indianapolis, and Hannibal, Mo. Back in the good old days before the word “staycation” was invented to annoy us all, the words “HOLIDAY” and “INN” were code for adventure-sleeping in a bed that wasn’t yours, running around unattended, playing with big loud ice machines and going home with a fresh stock of towels for the hall closet.
Excitement always built as we checked in. The smell of a hotel is not always a pleasant one, but to a kid it’s inviting and mischief provoking. These stays were mini-paradises. Once our bags were dropped, my sister and I always roamed the halls to do our “exploring” completely unsupervised, I might add (it was a different time then, yes?). Hotel quality at that age was essentially weighed on just a small handful of certain elements, and if the sign said “Holidome” or “Fundome” then 8-year-old Chip Joyce was sold.
Meanwhile back in the room, my mother would usually conduct her own obnoxious inspection of our digs- lifting toilet seats, opening drawers, and stripping beds. There was the time she found a French fry (that didn’t belong to us) in the covers of a bed. That happened at a Days Inn in Mt. Kisco, NY, a community which at the time was still basking in its newfound fame as the primary filming location for Fatal Attraction. There was also that time in Washington DC when we found a mysterious dark red stain on the floor between the two beds. We never stayed in any Econo Lodge ever again after that...
We did have a few special favorite places that we stayed time after time. Crystal Lake’s Holidome was without a doubt our gold standard. A good restaurant, a huge pool, fountains you could throw money in, a serious gift shop, and the biggest atrium we’d ever seen, full of ping pong, pool tables, shuffleboard and skill cranes. I’ve not been there in literally decades now, but it’s still in operation.
There was also the Holiday Inn in Carlinville, where we spent numerous Easter weekends and even had a lake you could fish on! It’s still there I think, under different ownership. Bloomington had a Ramada Fundome that was also no slouch. I spent a New Years Eve and a State Speech competition there when I was a freshman in high school. It was leveled years ago.
These days with just two of us we usually end up in pretty nice places thanks (or no thanks?) to Jenny’s fear of bed bugs. Our “best” hotel experience of recent memory was Memorial Day Weekend 2013 in Memphis for a Paul McCartney concert. We booked a room at the Clarion near Graceland for one night—the same night that several hundred members of the Hells Lovers Biker Gang had booked every other room in the hotel. We slept with one eye open that night and left early the next day.
But that’s the thing—most places we stay now are “nice”, not “fun”. It’s pretty difficult to find a legitimate Holidome or any of its derivatives these days while traveling. They’re still out there, but Holiday Inn quit pushing the concept years back and it’s even hard to find a reliable and accurate list of currently operating Holidomes online. Many of them have been sold, closed or left in disrepair.
There’s really nothing “magical” about a regular hotel as an adult, and considering the evolution of the industry, they’re probably far less magical for kids these days too. Family suites with wi-fi are the preferred amenities now over extravagant atriums with mini golf, ping pong, snack machines and game rooms. Ah yes, those hotel game rooms…
In my youth, the worth of any overnight accommodation was always weighed by a hotel’s game room. Holidomes had more than just video games, they were practically mini-amusement parks, but practically anywhere you stayed had at least a few machines occupying a corner of the property. I wasn’t a huge arcade kid in real life, but I was in a hotel. A compulsive list maker even at a young age, I took stock and always knew the game situation going in no matter where we stayed. And on return visits to places, I could tell what games had been swapped out or moved between visits.
My original vision for this article was to have been a survey of local hotel game rooms still in operation, but gosh darn it, they’re just not really out there as much anymore. Even after calling friends and business associates in the industry to awkwardly ask, “um, does your hotel have a game room?” I kept coming up short. There was only one place I could think of locally that would probably satisfy. I hadn’t set foot there since the mid-90s, but had a hunch the Property Formerly Known as Holiday Inn Brandywine could deliver.
After the Holiday Inn name was taken off in 2004, it was tossed around by different owners, first as a Ramada until 2009, and then as the “Grand Hotel” before landing on it’s most recent incarnation as a Travelodge. I decided to do a little research trip and see what was left of the old Holidome. I thought going might be a step back in time, but I really had no idea what awaited.
Even as I pulled up, it appeared to still be stuck in an identity crisis….this ”Grand Hotel” signage can be found outside, even though it apparently hasn’t been the “Grand Hotel” since 2010.
If you know me, you know that I’m loving this already…
I just walked right in, expecting to see how I knew it gone to the ages, but there it was-built in 1980 and with 240 rooms, still one of the largest hotels in the area. And pretty much as I remembered it. This second level view gives a great overview of the atrium with that distinct Holidome look we all remember-the curious design, the plastic plants, and that hypnotic carpet, which I’m guessing is maybe not original, but is also definitely not new…
If you look up you’ll see these flags of the world severely yellowed with age but still hanging from the ceiling where they’ve been since Reagan was president. I think these were a fairly common decorative motif in the Holidome heyday, bringing a “see the world” conceit to Brandywine Drive, which has been devoid of much international flavor since Shogun was razed.
Another angle from the same second level view provides a glimpse at this covered breakfast area and mini adjacent lounge. I remember loving and appreciating just how much furniture and electic architecture they could cram into their atriums.
Heading back to the first level, at first glance I thought I was in a condemned elevator when I noticed another outdated reference to the Grand Hotel on the inspection certificate, but no, it was all up to date. They just haven’t managed to change the name on it in the past five or so years.
Stepping off the elevator back on the first floor, you find this glass wall of mystery with black plastic concealing the contents of what lies within...what was behind here I wonder? A conference room? A gift shop? I simply don’t recall, and the door was locked. I’ll have to leave it as mystery since I don’t want to draw attention to my sneaking around here...
Down this hallway you get a good view of a classic noisy ice machine and stash of vending machines. As a kid, all spare change on anyone in our traveling party would soon be extorted and brought to spots like this, that strange little nook at the end of the hall carved out specifically to house Hostess fruit pies and Skor candy bars. But the change in carpet patterns indicates our trek has gone seriously off-track, so back out to the atrium…
Here’s a ground level shot of the breakfast area and its booths. Not pictured are its juice machines and self-serve microwaves and toasters.
Adjacent to the breakfast space is the resident bar/restaurant, a spot that’s managed to keep its identity as The Peppertree Restaurant I think through several hotel re-brandings. Cozy and inviting, thought not quite set up as I remember, it definitely appears to have been upgraded in recent years. On this particular day, a large banner hung at the entrance welcoming “Peoria Backgammon Club”, a no doubt wild bunch that the Hells Lovers would have nothing on.
The last time I actually recall being here for a specific reason was an awards banquet during junior year of high school, held here in the Brandywine Ballroom. I opened the doors to look inside, but things were dark. Let’s not draw attention, right? Moving on…
Here beyond the fake trees is another shot of the center of the atrium, set up for what I’m guessing is the aforementioned backgammon club? And to think, in its days as the Grand Hotel, they hosted MMA fights here.
Ah yes, now I recall the best rooms always had direct sliding door access to Holidome Central. There must have been some upcharge to these rooms because we never had one so conveniently located to the action. And there’s that carpet again…it just doesn’t stop, does it folks?
Now we're getting to the good stuff. Two pool tables remain in the atrium, but that’s not all!
Nearby is the pool, unattended at the moment but as I remember it. I always loved how close everything was—you could jump from the pool to the bar over to the ping pong tables and back again—holy sensory overload!
Make sure you follow the rules!
Directly next to the pool was the sauna, which I did not go in as it was already a hot day. Directly next to it, locked in what appeared to be a guest room at one time was the exercise room, and just beyond that, a workman fixing a bathroom sink.
At last, the video games...only three, which seems scant for a space so big, tucked in one of the many improvised corners of the atrium. Here we have a game based on Jurassic Park III (officially deemed the worst of the franchise now I think), an installment in the onetime popular Cruisin’ driving game series Cruisin’ Exotica, and one simply called BAGS. I’m guessing that it’s not as exciting as playing BAGS in real life...with the atrium so big and spacious, they could probably just set up an actual bags game. But then that might distract the backgammon players.
Right next to the video games, it’s another vending machine...and a skill crane! These kinds of readily available first world conveniences pretty much sums this all up for me. I once had a severe skill crane addiction. I was pretty good at them too. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t piss away hundreds of quarters through the years reaching that level of expertise. I could have bought so many SKOR bars with that money instead.
Deep inside the skill cranes confines you see dozens of third world constructed faces plumped with non hypoallergenic stuffings just begging for release….hey! I spy Beavis! I bet he’s been trapped in here every since he and Butthead were relevant.
One observation I made while trespassing here was how quiet and dimly lit it was, somber to the point of near depressing. All this space and potential for fun, just sort of cast aside by people more concerned with finding a charging station. At one time, this atrium was consistently filled with the giggles of rambunctious children spilling things and running when they should be walking. This trek to the (for now) Travelodge has made me so nostalgic, I’m tempted to head over to the mall for Garcia’s Pizza and an Orange Julius. Maybe I’ll buy a suit at Chess King. That cheese at Swiss Colony is the best.
Happy travels to you and yours this summer. If you’re lucky enough to make a “Great American Escape” just remember that wherever you go, whatever you do, take time to marvel at its plastic foliage and make sure there’s a game room.