How To Have Fun -- Or Look Like You Are -- At The Taco Bell Hotel
"Would you like a Forbidden Taco?"
"What's forbidden about it?"
"It's a regular taco," the perky server explains, "but the corn and cheese and sour cream make it forbidden."
"Well then, yes."
Officially, The Bell is a pop-up that took over the V Palm Springs (which you may know from the Coachella episode of Insecure) this past weekend. When reservations opened, on June 27, they sold out in two minutes. Every person I met at The Bell felt blessed they had scored a reservation. Well, every person who wasn't there on a media invite.
Thursday, the first day of the experience, was populated almost entirely by influencers aka people who definitely did not look like they ate at Taco Bell on the regular. They spent most of their time taking strategically posed selfies and acting super H-Y-P-E-D to be there.
I was one of those people -- minus the selfies, the sexy beach body and the fake enthusiasm -- and readers, let me tell you, it was B-O-R-I-N-G. Anyone who claims otherwise is feeding you a line.
To be clear, there was nothing wrong with The Bell.
My room was spacious and aggressively air-conditioned. It came with a cute Taco Bell-themed towel, a cute Taco Bell-themed throw pillow and a cute Taco Bell-themed robe. (A card in the hotel warns you that if you take off with any of these items, you will be charged for them. Except for the towel. That's yours to keep.) With a temporary, tropical backdrop affixed to the wall and a cozy, logo-imprinted blanket, the marketing team at Yum! Brands had put its best foot forward.
Then there was the food. I'm a sucker for anything that's filled with gooey, cheese-like substances and/or coated in indefinable crunchy bits. A lot of the food here had both.
The branding had been designed for maximum visual appeal (read: Instagrammability) and the entertainment -- synchronized swimmers, musicians, a DJ -- was good. It's just that on the first day, no one seemed to be having fun.
On Thursday, most of The Bell's guests were glued to their phones. To be fair, they were busy working. They'd just scored a free trip, and now they had to find the best angles for their selfies, fiddle with Facetune, reply to their DMs and perform the umpteen tasks required of modern media influencers. Maintaining that "effortless" I'm-Having-So-Much-Fun persona takes its toll. By 10 p.m., the Bell had zipped itself up as tight as a retirement community and most people were tucked in their rooms, enjoying the AC.
You know when you like a band, but you can't stand the other people who are fans of it? It felt kind of like that.
The next morning, after I ate my room service breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs (did you know Taco Bell makes a breakfast salsa???) and cream-filled doughnut holes, I headed to the pool.
Checkout was at 11 a.m. but I was told I could hang out by the pool until 1 p.m., if I wanted. I figured I might as well do a little work before I hit the road, so I picked a prime lounge chair -- right by the pool, under an umbrella, with a good view of the stage -- and settled in for what I thought would be a quick couple of hours spent working and dipping into the pool.
Then the "regular" guests started to show up. The normies. The fans.
Check-in didn't start until 2 p.m. but people were too excited to wait. Whether they had driven for two hours or flown in from somewhere else, they were excited to be there. No, "excited" doesn't cover it. They were thrilled. These were the anointed, the lucky few who had scored one of The Bell's 70 rooms, an event Taco Bell had said would be a one-time-only thing (we'll see about that).
Who turned up for the Taco Bell hotel?
A couple on their honeymoon. A couple getting married. A couple from Torrance. A couple from Orange County. A dude who had paid $1,700 for a scalped reservation. How is that even possible? Because the reservations, which started at $169 per night, were non-refundable and non-transferable, so the guy he bought the resy from had to fly in from another state to check him in. Totally worth it, he said.
Among the hundreds of hardcore fans of the Taco Bell lifestyle, I met a fifty-something, semi-retired lawyer, one of the few people who snagged a four-night stay at The Bell. He told me he once wrote a 30-page missive to Taco Bell, explaining why the Border Lights menu was going to be a debacle and why the chain needed to start serving breakfast. He was right on both counts.
Like I said, these fans were hardcore.
They didn't come to suck in their guts and look good in pictures -- or at least, they didn't come to only do that -- they came to have fun. And because they were having fun, I started having fun. As the influencers left and the fans arrived, the energy changed.
Within a couple hours, people were making friends, making plans and helping each other sneak alcohol from their rooms down to the pool, which is how I discovered White Claw Hard Seltzer. (My rookie mistake -- forgetting to bring my own booze.) Taco Bell hotel was like a friendlier, more mellow mini-Coachella pool party or what this Old Lady who hasn't been to a major music festival in more than a decade imagines a Coachella pool party is like.
I was prepared to write a story about How I Went To The Taco Bell Hotel And It Was Just A Bunch Of Influencers 'Gramming Pictures Of Themselves. Had I left on Friday afternoon at 1 p.m., as I was supposed to, that's what I would have written. But I'm glad I stayed. And stayed. And stayed.
I love being around people who love whatever it is they're into, even if it's not something I love. (Hot take: Del Taco > Taco Bell.) The fans who started showing up at The Bell on Friday brought the love with them. It was a Taco Bell tailgate party with guests riding Taco Bell-themed bicycles and getting the Taco Bell logo shaved into their heads. I felt like an anthropologist doing fieldwork on fast food fan culture.
What I saw was the difference between people who are paid to like something and people who actually like it, between a rote corporate branding exercise and an event that makes participants feel like they were part of something special. We're expected to curate our personal brands in a way that maximizes our likability, our attractiveness, our fun quotient. Performing fun is a lot less fun than actually having it. These devout Taco Bell fans already knew that.