Wilson died at home Wednesday, but a cause was not immediately determined.
Wilson is widely viewed as the father of the modern-day hotel. He started with a single hotel outside Memphis and built his company into a worldwide behemoth. Travelers around the world could expect comfort, cleanliness, quality service and good food at moderate prices.
"Kemmons Wilson has transformed the motel from the old wayside fleabag into the most popular home away from home", Time magazine said in a 1972 cover story about Wilson.
A millionaire by 1951 from real estate deals, a chain of popcorn machines and a jukebox franchise, Wilson devised the idea for Holiday Inns during a family vacation to Washington. He said he wanted a chain of motels where children could stay free.
"My six-dollar room became a 16, or my eight-dollar room became 18," Wilson recalled in a 1996 interview. "I told my wife, Dorothy, that wasn't fair. I didn't take many vacations, but as I took this one, I realized how many families there were taking vacations and how they needed a nice place they could stay."
Charles Kemmons Wilson was born an only child in Osceola, Ark. His father died when Wilson was 9 months old and the family moved to Memphis, where Doll Wilson, his mother, got a job as a dental assistant.
During the Great Depression, she lost her job and Wilson quit high school to work. With a $50 loan from a friend, he bought a popcorn machine and set it up in a movie theater lobby. By 1933, he had made $1,700 from the popcorn business and bought a house for himself and his mother.
He then mortgaged the house to buy the local Wurlitzer jukebox franchise.
After the trip to Washington with his late wife Dorothy, Wilson built the first four Holiday Inns in the Memphis area before turning his company into a national and then international corporation.
Johnson's contacts and ability to raise money fueled the chain's growth. At its peak, a new Holiday Inn was opening somewhere in the world every 2 1/2 days. Today, there are more than 1,000 Holiday Inns across the United States, and more in other countries.
"He expanded the hospitality industry with innovation," Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton said Wednesday. "Kemmons had a zeal for work and his energy level was boundless. Even in his 80s, he was still making business deals. We mourn his passing."
Wilson also designed the famous Holiday Inn sign using his experience in movie theaters as a guide. The name Holiday Inn was taken from a Bing Crosby film.
"I knew the value of a marquee. I said I want a sign at least 50 feet tall and have a marquee on it," Wilson said in 1989.
He was hardworking and down-to-earth. One of the famous "Kemmons Wilson's Twenty Tips for Success" reads: "Only work half a day. It doesn't matter which half you work — the first 12 hours or the second 12 hours."