What really went down inside the Taco Bell hotel
When Taco Bell announced it was going to open The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort, I immediately asked when I could make a reservation. I wasn’t the only one. Rooms at the limited-time hotel sold out in two minutes when they went on sale in June, according to the company.
Of course, that was the idea: A quick sellout was pretty much guaranteed and part of the hype. There were a limited number of rooms available because the hotel was—very purposefully—open for only four nights. I stayed there on Aug. 8 along with other reporters, plenty of influencers and a few Taco Bell mega fans.
My presence brought the average age of the long weekend's crowd up by at least a decade. I wasn’t there for a bachelorette party, or walking in with a case of White Claw, or wearing a hot-sauce-packet tank top that showed off a pregnant belly, or celebrating a fifth wedding anniversary. I wasn't getting engaged at The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort. And yes, all of those things and more happened throughout the weekend.
Here's how it went down:
Thursday, Aug. 8
12:34 p.m. PDT
I arrive at The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort. Taco Bell has taken over V Palm Springs. The blend of Taco Bell touches and more typical Palm Springs flair is clear as soon as my car pulls up to the entrance. Streamers in aqua, yellow, orange and black hang from the ceiling outside the lobby.
Those four colors, along with plenty of crisp white backgrounds, are the palette for nearly everything from the Taco Bell-themed bicycles lined up outside to the wristbands that are pulled onto my arm upon checking in, declaring that I'm supposed to be there and that I'm at least 21 years old.
I’m handed a tote bag stuffed with a hot-sauce-packet-inspired towel, a Taco Bell-themed cooling towel, sunblock and a welcome guide that I’ll flip through later.
First, it’s time for my first Taco Bell-inspired treat of the day. Watermelon Welcome Blast is a light teal bubbly drink sweetened with a watermelon popsicle, offered to guests when they check in. There’s an entire popsicle in this glass. It's official: I’ve entered snack paradise.
My king room with a pool view ($199, paid for by Ad Age) looks nearly identical to the press materials Taco Bell has been using to hype this event. If a Taco Bell fan went on an HGTV show to renovate a spare bedroom, it would look a bit like this: The wall behind the bed is covered with a mural collage featuring the Taco Bell logo, palm trees, cacti and a blue sky. The bedding is white, save for a throw pillow that looks like a hot sauce packet (available for purchase for $25—the pillow, not the packet) and a deep blue runner embroidered with the name of the hotel. This is one item I don’t envision people wanting to carry home, but if they do, it’s $60.
The framed art on the opposite wall, near the desk, is an image of Taco Bell's sauce packets. Really, it's hard to go anywhere here without spotting something inspired by those packets: bathing suits, pool floats, yoga mats. You name it, Taco Bell has thought of a way to put a sauce packet on it. Thankfully, these things only look like the packets; they don't smell like them.
The desk is covered with bags of Taco Bell chips that come in mild, hot and diablo—like those sauce packets—and Smartfood popcorn. I peek inside the closet and see two white robes with The Bell logo on them in that same blue from the runner. Each is $50. Cozy enough, but I don't buy it.
The main pool is being called the Fire pool, while another nearly identical pool closer to where the staff is staying is called the Mild pool—both named, of course, for two varieties of those omnipresent sauce packets. The mountains in the distance are the only things here reminding me that this is Palm Springs, not Taco Springs. The Fire pool, with a couple of you-know-what-inspired floats resting on the water's surface, looks inviting. So far, no one is in it, despite the 110° temperature. Misting fans and coolers stocked with Gatorade, Propel and Lifewtr (PepsiCo is a partner, after all) are scattered around to help people stay cool.
After checking out the goods at the Taco Shop gift shop, I walk over to the salon. Guests who get braids and other 'dos can get sauce-packet flowers in their hair. And didn't I also see a sauce-packet flower among the real flowers in the lobby? Yes, yes I did.
My colleague’s suggestion of calling it the Carne a-Spa-da could have amped this up a bit. There are three chairs for hairstyling and two tables for manicures. By the end of the weekend, there will have been more than 100 appointments, according to Jennifer Arnoldt, Taco Bell’s senior director of retail engagement and experience. Her nails? They’re painted in a pale pink with a design featuring the word "M-I-L-D."
I bump into William Bradford, a guest who is wearing a yellow shirt with a retro Taco Bell logo on it. He took his fandom to a new level a year ago when he started making one-minute videos singing about the items on Taco Bell receipts that people DM to him on Instagram. Now, he and wife have been invited here for the night. His work on @yoquierotacoballads isn’t a full-time gig. He tells me he's a voice and audio engineer for an ad agency in Arizona. He has grown out his hair so he can get one of the Taco Bell fades. I see him a few hours later with the new Taco Bell logo shaved behind his left ear. It suits him.
Time for my first poolside snack! How do I know? Minutes ago, that recognizable Taco Bell “dong” noise was played, a Pavlovian signal that complimentary food and beverages are on their way to the pool area. In case someone misses the “dong,” the items being served are listed on a sign where there isn’t enough space to squeeze in all of the all-caps letters in the names of all of the treats.
One line reads STRWBRYSHRTCKE. That’s code for strawberry shortcake twists. I've been here for less than three hours and it's like I can speak another language. They taste like fried puffy cereal with a just-sweet-enough sauce to dip them in.
I am handed a tray of Nacho Fries, which are served with four dipping sauces. The fries and the nacho cheese sauce are the same as the seasoned fries that have been served at Taco Bell in limited-time doses since January 2018. The other three sauces—cilantro ranch, reaper ranch sauce (a limited-time sauce at Taco Bell) and a creamy jalapeño one—heighten the experience.
I’m not thirsty, as I’ve had at least two Lifewtrs at this point (man, tht brnd nm looks evn wrse when it’s plurl), but I see Baja Mango Mojitos being handed out. They’re nearly neon green, which confuses me. Shouldn’t they be orange or yellow, like the inside of a mango? Oh, right, Baja Blast is blue, so maybe they blended liquids to make this not-from-nature hue? I sip away anyway. If this is mango, I’m not really tasting it. But maybe I'm having sunstroke.
Have I mentioned it’s 110°? I head over to the Freeze Lounge, which is tucked inside a corner room on the hotel’s second floor. I get there, only to see a “Nope” door hanger affixed to the door. It seems the room needs to cool down a bit before more people can do the same. I’ll be back.
The Freeze Lounge is the only place at The Bell serving the Baja Blast Birthday Freeze, a slushie drink concocted to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Mtn Dew Baja Blast, a soft drink that was exclusive to Taco Bell for a decade. Taco Bell and Mtn Dew’s parent company, PepsiCo, have a long history together. They used to be part of the same company and Taco Bell continues to serve Pepsi drinks.
You can find me cooling off in my own room, snacking on some Fire chips and a Bubly sparkling water, which like the Smartfood, is one of the many PepsiCo products in the room. The mini fridge is filled with Bubly, Pepsi and Pepsi Zero Sugar, Mtn Dew Baja Blast, Starbucks Doubleshot Espresso and Starbucks Cold Brew. The air conditioner is still set to 60°, as it was when I arrived. Again, it's Palm Springs, in August. It runs constantly yet is quiet enough for me to hear the DJ playing by the pool.
As I sit at the desk, where I can take notes with Taco Bell-themed pencils on a subtly Taco Bell-themed notepad, I wonder: Is there another brand that would do this?
Taco Bell isn’t the first brand to offer fans a place to stay. Earlier this month, Oscar Mayer had a Wienermobile available on Airbnb. That experience, while unique, was done on a smaller scale than The Bell. Taco Bell has done large-scale experiential marketing before. Its restaurant on the Vegas strip hosts weddings, for example. A couple who got married there is here this weekend, chatting with TV reporters in a cabana. The Bell seems like one of the most extreme takes yet on a branded event. And that’s what this is. Sure, it’s a hotel, and fans booked rooms. But let’s be clear, Taco Bell wouldn’t be doing this without making sure there are plenty of Instagram-worthy moments for people to share and like.
These kinds of details take time to plan. Taco Bell worked with United Entertainment Group and PR powerhouse Edelman for 18 months to two years pull this off, Arnoldt tells me. At what cost? She demurred. “We wanted to make sure that we did it right and so we really focused on those details that we knew that would make the most incredible hotel experience for our fans,” Arnoldt says after the weekend ends. “It was totally worth it.”
Reporters are gathered for a food discussion at a quiet area by the so-called Mild pool. Rene Pisciotti, the chef, discusses how he’s come up with a resort-inspired lineup of Taco Bell favorites and more upscale dishes made with local ingredients. He says he’s worked five or six months on the project. “The food has to be on point,” says Pisciotti.
Now comes what we're here for, the main event: Pisciotti explains four dishes that are being served at The Bell. The media work to get their images just right, moving plates, setting up shots, even asking a staff member to hold one of the sauce packet pool floats behind the bar where the food is set up to brighten up the shot. Sure, I take a photo of the setup. But what I really want is a bite of the food that’s sitting there, getting soggier by the second.
Finally, we get to dive in.
There’s a toasted cheddar club sandwich ($15), The Bell’s twist on a chicken, bacon and avocado club, served with Nachos Fries. The highlight of the sandwich is that the bread has been replaced with sheets of the shell for the Toasted Cheddar Chalupa. That’s an item Taco Bell has tested and plans to take national at some point. The bread, Pisciotti tells us, is baked with cheese throughout and then toasted with a layer of aged cheddar on the surface. It works, but by now it’s gotten cold, even in this heat.
The Bell crudité ($12) includes cucumbers, watermelon radishes, carrots (both fresh and pickled), pickled cauliflower and grape tomatoes, with grilled Gordita bread, black bean hummus made with charred tomatillo salsa, and cucumber crema with cilantro and some of the seasoning blend from Taco Bell’s verde sauce packets, Pisciotti divulges.
The Avocado Toast-ada (hey, some wordplay!) ($12) is served on multigrain bread from a local shop, Bosch Bakery. The toppings include puffed sorghum seasoned with Taco Bell’s chipotle seasoning and something called diablo puffs, which Pisciotti explains are a vegan version of chicharrones (also known as pork rinds) made with the seasoning found in Taco Bell’s diablo sauce packets. This is a stacked snack. Any restaurant serving avocado toast piled this high would have a tough time hitting its margin target.
Candied jalapeño popcorn chicken ($10) makes a perfectly acceptable starter but this isn’t going to put Taco Bell’s sibling chain KFC, or Chick-fil-A, Popeyes or any of the other chicken-focused chains out of business.
I later learn the club and the popcorn chicken are the top-selling items at the pool over the long weekend.
Time to head back to the Fire side. Guests have gathered in the pool, cabanas and on lounge chairs, many of them busy angling to get the right poses. The vibe of the crowd takes some getting used to. If people aren’t busy smiling or turning their heads a certain way for portrait mode, they’re busy checking their devices to see how the photos came out. There is much posting.
Panic! at the Disco’s “Hey Look Ma I Made It” begins blaring. It’s showtime. I look up to see a group of women in fire-sauce-packet bathing suits ($169) and red swim caps, strutting to the pool in time with the beat. They are the Aqualillies, and they perform a 10-minute water dance show that would make Esther Williams blush. Each move in and out of the water leaves the actual fans who aren’t busy working screaming in delight. The Aqualillies are hosting a training camp on Sunday morning in the Mild pool. I later learn about 15 guests attended to learn some moves, dubbed themselves the Tacolillies, and headed over to the Fire pool to perform.
After another “dong,” the Toasted Cheddar Chalupa is being served. For many, including myself, this is the first time we’re getting to taste it.
One bite and I have a hunch Taco Bell has a hit on its hands. The dough is flaky yet dense and fried but not too fried. The crispy-meets-chewy texture reminds me of a scallion pancake from a Chinese restaurant. The hint of cheddar flavor blends well with the ground beef, lettuce, tomato and cheese.
Despite the expansive list of items I’ve already tasted, I’m not stuffed. I order fish tacos at the Baja Bar, along with a Paloma. The fish tacos ($15) are light, with just enough of a crispy, fried taste coming from the coriander-panko breaded cod. I sample one of the tortilla chips served with the meal, realize it’s a hotel chip and not all that special, and skip the rest.
The Paloma ($12) is designated as the spicy cocktail. It’s got enough kick but isn’t alarm-worthy. While I’m finishing up a taco, black bean crunchwraps are being passed out, so I have a few bites and manage to do so without spilling beans or sour cream on my shirt. That’s a win.
The night’s show begins. For years, Taco Bell has supported budding musicians through its “Feed the Beat” program and tonight one of them takes the poolside stage. Fletcher sings a few of her own songs, most of which she tells us are about her ex, and her version of “Better Now” by Post Malone. In addition to her ex, Fletcher talks about tequila. A lot. Soon, someone is bringing the band tequila shots, and then the show continues. She sings a quick cover of “Tequila” by Dan and Shay before playing her song “Undrunk” to end the show.
After Fletcher’s set ends, the poolside partying continues at a disappointingly calmer pace. The lights are on in the pools and the cabanas, with the palm trees illuminated too. It’s cooled off considerably. You know you’ve been outside for too long when 92° feels cool.
Back in my room, I notice the cookies placed on my bed, one that looks like a fire sauce packet and the other that looks like a taco. Too full to try them now. Goodnight.
Friday, Aug. 9
Yoga. About 10 of us sign waivers before we get ready to do downward dogs and other poses, each on a hot-sauce-packet yoga mat ($40 at the Taco Shop, but free to use here). A staffer informs us there will be a drone flying overhead during the class. If it wasn't filmed, did it even happen?
While in my room, I realize the mostly white bathroom is one of the few spots with very little Taco Bell branding or splashes of color, save for the subtle logo wraps on the toiletries. Good call, Taco Bell. Good call.
Ok, I’m heading to the Baja Bar as my complimentary room service breakfast was a no-show. There, I see another reporter who seemed to have the same issue. At least it wasn’t just me. I tell myself I’ve worked up an appetite from yoga and that I should do my best deep-dive reporting, so I go ahead and order four of the six items on the bar's breakfast menu: cornmeal pancakes ($10), a breakfast burrito ($10), chilaquiles made with fire tortilla chips ($12), and a horchata-date smoothie ($8).
While I wait, Chef Pisciotti comes by. With his help, I’m able to snag one of the no-show room service trays and have it at the bar. Shh, we’re breaking some hotel foodservice rule here, but it’s The Bell. Are there really rules?
The tray includes pancake delights, which look like donut holes but taste more like pancakes, and ingredients for build-your-own breakfast tacos: scrambled eggs, potatoes, bacon, flour tortillas, cheese and salsa, including Taco Bell breakfast salsa. One of the packets implores me to “be your best self,” so I dig in. Minutes later, the rest of my food arrives. I am now sitting at a poolside bar with four dishes and a smoothie. I might look crazy, but that’s fine. This is The Bell!
I walk over to the salon. The writing on the wall inside sums up the mood: "Feed me tacos and tell me I’m pretty." Before my appointment I meet guests including YouTube creator Rosanna Pansino and her boyfriend Mike Lamond, a gamer better known as Husky, I soon learn. Lamond gets a Taco Bell logo fade while Pansino looks on.
Waiting outside is Dustin Glass, a manager from Fullscreen visiting The Bell with this apparent internet power couple. Later, I watch as Glass gets a "Fire!" fade, but his beard remains untouched.
I opt for the Baja gel mani ($40), a design inspired by the Mtn Dew Baja Blast drink, featuring sparkles and painted-on bubbles and pieces of the Taco Bell logo, making me feel like a mermaid with a love of fast food.
I meet Ashley and Ethan Fieldman. Ashley, who gets her hair braided and gets the Party Pack manicure, and Ethan, who gets both the "Fire!" and logo fades shaved into his short reddish hair, are checking in today. When Ethan heard about The Bell, the couple canceled plans to spend their anniversary in Prague. Let that sink in.
I ask for one more Watermelon Welcome Blast before I head to the airport. After all, now I have the nails to match. I won’t drink the whole thing, but after a day here it would feel wrong to pass up the ‘gram-worthy color scheme.
I take a quick ride around the parking lot on one of the hotel’s bicycles and it’s time to leave. The only thing missing is a goodbye “dong.”
So, will there be another Taco Bell hotel? “We’re known for limited-time-only products, this was a limited-time-only experience. I don’t know. We’ll just have to see,” says Arnoldt.
Reflecting on the weekend, Arnoldt wishes they installed a confessional area where fans could record their love for the brand. To me, that’s what the whole place felt like.
One confession I can record here: I gained 2.5 pounds.
Video produced by Max Sternlicht. Video includes images and footage provided by Jessica Wohl and Taco Bell.