the best theme hotels in california and kitsch hotels in the usa
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Photo: Hicksville Pines Bud & Breakfast

An Ode to Kitschy Theme Hotels (and a List of the Best Ones in the US)

I long for a time when I can soak in these heart-shaped bathtubs and psychedelic hotel rooms with 15 of my closest friends.
MF
New York, US

As an introverted-extrovert, the pandemic’s hermit social mores have been alright by me. Sure, I miss dancing with randos and having pizza parties without worrying about why my friend is sniffling. But generally, I’ve embraced The Indoors with choice ASMR stimulation, dissociation, and hovel sorcery. Lately, however, I’ve longed to wake up far, far away from my own apartment in a giant clam. Or crack mine eyes in a plastic spaceship, or under a disco ball in a themed hotel in California. I wanna traipse into a roadside, potato-themed joint in the middle of nowhere and think, If I died here, no one would know. But it would be worth it. I want to sink my little goblin toenails into all the shag carpet, across the United States, and I want you to come with me.  

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“Where to?” you ask? We’ll check the option of “Cadillac” or “chariot” for our beds at the hot pink watering hole that is California’s legendary Madonna Inn, and be sure to bring plenty of Whispering Angel. My Liberace appetite for theme hotels has always existed, but it’s gotten even whetter during the long winter nights. So I made a promise to myself and my 16 American Girl dolls to find the best themed hotel rooms, and spare no sensory expense. 

The following are a smorg of my must-sees, must-see (agains), and wild card picks to get our brains sizzling for some juicy-dumb travel to over-the-top locations. Some kitschy hotels are perfect for lovers. Others are a great place to ensare and abandon your enemies. All are excellent for tapping into your best fifth dimension you.  


The Black Swan Inn Luxurious Theme Suites 

The couple-duo known as “A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour” are hands, knees, and toes down one of the best sources for kitsch hotel recommendations. (Scope their vlogs to give your eyeballs joy bath.) The Black Inn Suites in Pocatello, Idaho, is one of their best finds yet. At once a portal to ancient Egypt, a rustic cabin, tropical oasis, and (our favorite) under-the-sea domain. Perfect for your Ariel-Sebastian-Dom-Sub role play. 

More on Black Swan Inn Luxurious Theme Suites on TripAdvisor

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Madonna Inn 

Not all bric-a-brac goes to heaven, but if it does, that heaven looks like the dining room of the Madonna Inn in San Louis Obispo, California. This is the mother of all mothers, the kitsch, mid-century pulse of America, with over 100 rooms whose themes range unofficially from "fried Barbie brain" to "sleazy Flintstone"; Austrian kink-lord to rock shower romance. Start at the spa, take a breather in your room, and end your trip on one of their trail rides. 

More on the Madonna Inn at TripAdvisor  

The Whale House

The Whale House Santa Barbara

Photo: Airbnb

The Whale House looks like a shingled snail that has been living, utterly unbothered, under a tab of acid for the past 40-ish years in the California foothills. Such was the vision (probably?) of renowned architect Michael Carmichael when he built it in 1978, inspired by Antonio Gaudi’s legendary swirls ‘n furls. It’s hidden away in the nature of Santa Barbara, California, could easily house a small batch of potential high-tier commune members, and has a loooong pool that goes straight into the house. 

More on the Whale House at Airbnb

The Dive Motel

Sometimes you wanna feel like a poolside, half-smoked cigarette that’s just fallen out of Laura Dern’s perfect mouth circa the Wild at Heart era. And when that urge hits, it SLAPS, so find a worthy faux-sleaze hotel room at the Dive Motel in Nashville, Tennessee, where the rooms comes with a party-switch disco ball feature, and the main bar is as close to crawling inside Big Buck Hunter as we’ll ever get. It’s hard to believe this baby is actually a contemporary homage to crusty roadsides, which makes us want to Jim Beam-chat the ears off of the owners even more. 

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More on The Dive Motel at TripAdvisor

Cove Haven Resort

Thine eyes do not deceive you; This is indeed a collage of a very real, very massive bathing coupe at one of the world’s premiere love resorts. Cove Haven is in Lakeville, Pennsylvania, and has somehow stood the test of time. It’s one of a few Cove Haven resorts in the Love Belt that was popular in the 1970s, but it’s by far the best of the lot for its abundance of heart-shaped tubs, “Steak and Scampi Night,” and many outdoor adventure trails. AND THAT GLASS. 

More on Cove Haven at TripAdvisor

Big Idaho Potato Hotel

We’re just relieved someone else has fully baked our dream of living inside a giant potato. Kind of like a more down-home version of James and the Giant Peach (that dude was low-key doing a fancy Semester at Sea; Fight me). You wouldn’t know it by its starchy skin, but this hotel in Boise, Idaho actually has a very bright, stylish, and airy interior that looks better than most of our first studio apartments.

More on the Big Idaho Potato Hotel at Airbnb

Area 55 Futuro House

Futuro House Area 51

Photo: Airbnb

High-key one of the best places to probe and be probed with your lover(s). The Area 51 Futuro House in Joshua Tree, California offers you the opportunity to sleep in a piece of legendary architecture, as “there are Only 85 [of these abodes] in the world,” writes the host, “19 in the USA, and only 1 available you can stay a night in.” Toss those shroomies in your backpack and get ready to (finally) learn how to talk to aliens with your Long Furby.

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More on the Area 55 Futuro House at Airbnb

The Victorian Mansion at Los Alamos 

Victorian Mansion Los Alamos

Photo: TripAdvisor

There is no hornier energy than Plastic Gladiator energy—and that’s just one of the select, exceptionally themed rooms at the Victorian Mansion at Los Alamos in Los Alamos, California (a neighbor of the Madonna, BTW). In addition to time with your Ben-Hur boo, there are rooms themed after romantic Parisian lofts, Grease (see: giant Cadillac bed), ancient Egypt, pirates, and what we can only describe as “Sensual Little House on the Prairie.”

More on the Victorian Mansion at Los Alamos at TripAdvisor

Hicksville Pines Bud & Breakfast

The Hicksville Pines

Photo: TripAdvisor

We will do anything for an A-frame, but especially one with glow-light posters. Hicksville Pines Bud & Breakfast is a new-ish hotel in Idyllwild, California, and was actually partially designed by kitsch/retro lairds Dita Von Teese and Third Man Records. The little houses also pay homage to the owner’s favorite icons: “Dolly Parton & John Waters, his favorite spooky ride and his favorite TV show. Rounding out the chalet themes was a tribute to 70s Honeymoon Kitch, a year-round Christmas room, a tribute to Geek Culture and a 420 room in honor of California's upcoming recreational marijuana law,” according to the b&b's website. Very much here for this fun house. 

More on Hicksville Pines Bud & Breakfast at TripAdvisor

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Don Q Inn

If you’re making your way through Wisconsin, the Don Q Inn in Dodgeville will have you on Cloud Nine with their hot air balloon-themed room, and blast you off to space with their astronaut-themed suite—and that’s just the beginning. In true kitsch hotel fashion, this place offers an assortment of rooms with random themes that we’ll call “jungle,” “igloo,” “pioneer” and more. There’s even an airplane permanently parked out front of the hotel for a killer photo-op.

More on the Don Q Inn at TripAdvisor

The Sundown Estate

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Photo: Vrbo

Remember how cool the Nickelodeon headquarters used to look in the 1990s? This sprawling rental in Scottsdale, Arizona is the closest we’ll ever get to recreating that magic. “Over $1 million was recently invested into renovating this property,” explain the owners, “to create a one of a kind showpiece. This is our crown jewel.” You can up to 14 other guests can spend an afternoon hopping between the salt-water pool, volleyball court, bowling alley, and spa, and numerous playground spaces. Dare we say we’ve found the new cult compound?

More on the Sundown Estate at Vrbo

Wing’s Castle

Caling all cottagecore babes and aspiring witches: Wing’s Castle in Millbrook, New York is your new place of gathering. Built in the 1970s by a local artist, the castle-like estate is comprised of various medieval-themed rooms that include a dungeon, and plenty of follies (such as their very own Stonehenge) for exploring. If you pull up with a large crew, there’s even a separate Snow White-style cottage for rent.

More on Wing’s Castle at TripAdvisor

We’ve barely dipped our toes in the chlorine-filled waters of America’s kitsch hotels, but we hope these will get your list off to a well-sequined start. One final tip? Don’t: underestimate how early (months, sometimes) a lot of these places get booked up; Do: bring along a 1980s pornstar bathrobe for the occasion. 


The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.