Val Van Kooten got a rude shock when she tried to book a motel room for her family.

Not only couldn't the five of them bunk in one room for the night -- against fire regulations, the Iowa teacher was told by more than one reservations clerk -- but there weren't even connecting rooms.

``Everything seems set up for the two-parent, two-child family,'' lamented Van Kooten. She's started stashing an air mattress and sleeping bag in the trunk -- to slip into the hotel room for her 6-year-old when they have no alternative.

``I don't like to do it,'' she said. ``But my kids are too young to be in a room by themselves down the hall. I don't want to have to pay for two rooms, either. Are we doomed to sneaking our youngest child into hotel rooms?''

Not if Terry Whaples has anything to say about it. Whaples, long an innovator on the family hotel scene, is spearheading the new Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort a mile from Disney World that's set to open this July. After taking a tour recently, I believe families like the Van Kootens will think they've stumbled into hotel Nirvana here -- especially when they realize they're paying $129 or less a night, including a hot breakfast for the entire gang. I hope other hoteliers take notice.

What's different at Holiday Inn Family Suites -- the hotel chain's first all-suite foray -- ``is the way we've allocated the space for every member of the family,'' says Whaples. ``Kids don't share a bed or sleep on the couch at home. They shouldn't on vacation, either.''

Unlike other suite hotels, here kids and parents get separate bedrooms in a 500-square-foot unit. Just as important, they get their own TVs. Anyone who has endured the bickering in a cramped hotel room over which channel to watch knows what a difference that can make. The kids have their own VCR, Nintendo 64 and CD player, too. Many of the kids' rooms are themed around space exploration, the environment and animals, complete with giant murals, while other suites at the resort offer big-screen TVs and fitness equipment.

There's a comfy parlor area complete with fridge, microwave, TV, rocking chair and game table (kids are handed checkers when they check in). And though there's one bathroom, moms get a makeup area and extra hair dryer in the bedroom.

Just as much thought has been given to pleasing traveling families outside their rooms, too. There's a huge water playground where games and arts and crafts projects will be offered during the day. Young children will gravitate to the kids' check-in and indoor playground in the lobby, older kids the arcade and library with hundreds of children's titles. Evening children's activities will be scheduled so parents can get a guilt-free night out.

Whaples said every detail at the new hotel was based on what families said they wanted. ``In time traditional hotels will be dinosaurs,'' she predicts.

Suite hotels already represent one of the fastest growing segments of the hotel industry, reports Smith Travel Research, the independent Nashville-based firm that tracks these trends. Their number has more than tripled in the last decade -- to 1,647 suite and extended-stay hotels, with nearly 220,000 rooms.

These hotels range from the decidedly upscale Embassy Suites with free hot breakfast and cocktails -- even kids' programs at some locales -- to the new, more modest SpringHill Suites by Marriott and Comfort Suites (free continental breakfast) to bare-bones options where there isn't even daily maid service.

Originally targeted to business travelers who need a home-away-from-home for days or weeks at a stretch, they've proved a big hit for parents and kids who crave the space, mini-kitchens and free breakfast that can easily save a traveling family $30-40 a day -- all at a price comparable to a single hotel room .

In fact, for the first time, Marriott's 300-plus Residence Inn chain is targeting families with a special national summer promotion touting rates from $90 for apartment-like units that have full kitchens.

``Absolutely, suites are better than a hotel room,'' said Maria Hicks-Langlois, a New Hampshire mom who opted for a suite hotel on her family's recent trip to Orlando. ``Instead of the children in a double bed next to you, you have a little privacy.''

That's unless you've booked a suite for your preteen's birthday party so they can swim, have a slumber party and gorge on the free breakfast. `It's a new trend,'' reports Embassy Suites' Jennifer Hoffman.

Just remember when you book that all suites are not created equal, warns Consumer Reports Travel Letter, which recently surveyed 36 different suite hotels. Some so-called suites didn't have separate bedrooms with a door. Others might not be as large as you expect. ``I feel like we were misled,'' said Carol Allen, a Toronto mom disappointed by what she found at the suite hotel her family had booked.

I know how she feels. We recently stayed in one where the kids' room was the size of a closet. Even worse is to arrive and discover the hotel doesn't offer the amenities you want, like a pool, restaurant or kids' program. It's important to do your homework before you book.

That's what Val Van Kooten did before her family's upcoming trip to Branson, Mo. She's booked a suite with plenty of room for everyone. ``At least they won't be fighting over the TV,'' she says.


Ask if there special weekend rates starting Thursdays or family rates:

Call Holiday Inn Family Suites at 877-387-KIDS or www.hifamilysuites.com. Introductory rates for the rest of 1999 start at $115. Ask about single-parent and grandparent packages.

Call Embassy Suites at 800-EMBASSY or www.embassy-suites.com. Rates start at $89 and average $129.

Call Spring Hill Suites or Residence Inn at 800-228-9290 or www.marriott.com. Rates start at $75 for SpringHill, $85 for Residence Inn.

Call Comfort Suites at 800-228-5150 or www.comfortinn.com. Rates start at $60.

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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