By Hannah Sampson
Washington - When Ezell Holley and his family called their budget hotel “the Waldorf Astoria”, after winter storms forced them out of their homes earlier this year, it became an inside joke.
Seven months later, it turned into the trip of a lifetime.
The 91-year-old's nickname for the hotel – and his sense of humour, despite the circumstances – caught the attention of the Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria. His granddaughter Alex Holley, the co-host of Good Day Philadelphia on Fox 29, had provided updates about his plight on social media and in news stories.
"We know that travel is currently very restricted, but once things get better we would love to extend an invitation for him to stay with us a few days in Rome," the hotel wrote in a message to Alex Holley on Instagram earlier this year.
"We need more of his attitude in the world to get through these tough times and would love to see him smile some more."
The offer included airfare for Ezell and a guest. In March, he said that he would like to go "as soon as possible, probably as soon as the pandemic is over".
He didn't have to wait that long. The border started to reopen to American travellers in May, and the Holley family headed over late last month.
"It felt like forever," Alex said. "I remember our fear was 'Gosh, I hope we can make this trip.' Because things kept changing. And we knew we wanted to do it, and we felt like… the sooner the better because you never know with life."
While family members had vied to be the guest to accompany Holley, in the end, they all went – grandpa, Alex and her parents – some of them paying their own way. When they arrived, there was another surprise: Grandpa got the penthouse.
"One of the highlights was when we arrived at the hotel, they had the whole hotel management and staff out to greet us," he said in an interview Monday. "And that was a big surprise and made me feel like I was royalty."
In a video that his granddaughter included in a follow-up news segment, he explores the room in awe. "Oh my lord, this is luxury," he said.
Alex said in an interview on Monday that the woman who was showing them around even teared up at his reactions.
"We were all emotional watching him see this," she said.
The digs included hot tubs inside and out, a star-decorated ceiling, Andy Warhol art, an oversized Karl Lagerfeld sofa and sweeping patio views that included the Vatican.
"I've never lived like this," he said.
His granddaughter replied: "You're living like it now."
Glenn Holley, Ezell's son, said champagne flowed and "all you had to do was think of something and it seemed to appear."
His father was mystified, though, when a worker showed up at night to turn down the bed.
"He couldn't get his arms around why somebody would come in at night and fool with the bed," Holley said. "He didn't know what was happening, so we had to spend about half an hour explaining what turndown service is and why they do it. I realised there's a lot about turndown I don't know."
During the trip, the family visited the Trevi Fountain – where Ezell had once thrown coins and hoped to return – as well as the Colosseum, Pantheon and the Vatican. The news segment showed him dancing with his granddaughter, relaxing with wine and devouring pizza.
It was a trip Ezell never thought he'd get to take again after visiting decades ago when he was in the Army and stationed in Germany. His son had been planning a return trip to surprise him, but the pandemic got in the way.
"I'd given up on the idea of having the opportunity to return," he said on Monday. "But it materialised, and I was so happy."
Speaking about the trip on the air this month, Alex said the original circumstances that landed her family in the non-Waldorf hotel were stressful and scary.
"We're just so glad that now we can replace it with this memory," she said.
She added: "We're going to sit on this one for a while. Who knows if we'll live like that again?"
But Ezell, who turns 92 in December, isn't ready to put his passport away.
"I hope to travel some more," he said. "I still feel good. I haven't decided definitely where I want to go next. I had thought about going to Africa, but I don't know."