WESTGATE VACATION VILLAS – The ‘Big Daddy’ of Orlando Resorts


In the concluding chapter of my exciting post-COVID research excursion, I tour the magnificent birthplace of Westgate Resorts…

If you’ve stayed with me this far, we’ve spent the past few weeks on a journey from Las Vegas to Orlando, with day-long jaunts to Cocoa Beach and a rustic dude ranch. Now we’re in Kissimmee, the land of theme parks and never-ending sunshine. That’s where we cap off our vacation (ahem….”research”) with a visit to Westgate Vacation Villas Resort.

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A massive one-stop destination, Westgate Vacation Villas Resort is the “Big Daddy” of Westgate’s portfolio. This is where it all began, with two unassuming structures erected next to a small lake. Founder David A. Siegel had decided to try his hand at a fledgling concept called “timeshares” when the Orlando region was poised to boom. Mr. Siegel had joked that if the vacation-ownership concept flopped, he could bulldoze the “A-B buildings” into the water and call it a day. But the curious lined up in droves and the rest is history.

The original 16-unit complex has grown into a full-service destination boasting hundreds of guest suites throughout a gorgeous collection of towers and modern villas. At its core is Westgate Town Center, a resort-with-a-resort that’s also the heart of this massive operation.

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With all of the activities in and around greater Orlando, you might think that a self-contained resort would be overkill, especially with Disney Parks, Universal Orlando, Sea World, and numerous water parks nearby. Well, think again. At the moment, many attractions are shuttered. Those that are currently open operate under restrictions that might dampen your concept of fun.

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That doesn’t mean you should forgo a longed-desired trip to the Sunshine State. On the contrary! Now is a terrific time to travel, especially for the reasons I’ve cited here. Just know that these are unpredictable times. Depending on the location and activity, you may be subject to face mask and temperature-scans. You’ll want to research the current requirements and protocols of your destination before leaving home.

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It’s also highly recommended that you build flexibility into your itinerary, just in case some of the attractions on your list happen to be shuttered when you arrive. In our new normal, things can change without notice. That won’t be much of a concern if you stay at  Westgate Vacation Villas.

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So, what’s there to do here? How about 14 temperature-controlled pools, hot tubs, and wading pools as a starter? Many of them offer bars, like Banana Cabana, which serves hot foods and pizza, too. If you want to stay cool, relax at the Disney Movie Theater or splash around Shipwreck Island Water Park (more on that one below).

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At Swan Lake, you can rent giant paddleboats, or stay onshore and grab a putter for Jurassic Golf. There are soccer and baseball fields, tennis and basketball courts, and picnic areas with barbeque grills and outdoor kitchens. Grab some bicycles, challenge your high score at Mission Control Game Room, or learn how to play horseshoes and shuffleboard. Click here for a constantly-updated list of what’s open and available.

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Director of Activities Dexter Candelaria was supervising the resort’s meticulous Fitness Center when I arrived. An ambitious young man brimming with enthusiasm, he was excited to tell me all about the fun events that he and his team have created. Candelaria stressed that every activity meets Westgate CARES health and sanitation guidelines while reminding us that “fun” and “safety” don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The resort regularly publishes a list of games and virtual activities created especially for their guests, all with post-COVID safety concerns in mind. Choose from socially-distanced yoga classes, magic and cooking lessons, “Name That Tune”, poolside bingo, ping pong challenges, tie-dye creation, spin classes, and prepacked craft kits to enjoy in your suite or villa.

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Despite the resort’s sprawling footprint, Westgate Vacation Villas specializes in personalized, attentive service. Many associates have been here a very long time, rising through the ranks as they’ve mastered the art of customer satisfaction. This was evident at the drive-up check-in station, where two skilled team members demonstrated the new process, which limits personal contact and allows you to register without ever leaving the vehicle.

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Arriving by shuttle or taxi? No problem. Head inside Town Center‘s lobby, where you’ll find a traditional registration area, retrofitted to accommodate social distancing practices. There’s a welcome center, Sid’s Bistro, Tickets2You theme park service, and timeshare guest services.

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The back wall of Town Center‘s main building is a window to Shipwreck Island Water Park. A two-story masterpiece available only to resort guests and timeshare owners, Shipwreck Island features water slides, a lazy river, jetted palm trees, and of course, a pirate ship at its center. Surrounding the fun are Jolley Roger’s Galley, Crow’s Nest Bar, and Sea Dog’s Bar, with more on the way soon.

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The recently-opened Villa Italiano Chophouse is a Floridian take on Fresco Italiano, one of my favorite restaurants in Las Vegas. It even has the familiar Vespa scooters out front. An elevated dining experience with an extensive wine list and cocktail selections, Villa Italiano Chophouse serves steaks, salads, pasta, pizza….and my weakness, Chicken Parmesan. Visit their full menu by clicking here.

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As our tour was winding down, my guides and I stopped for lunch at Draft’s Sports Bar and Grill. Another favorite that I’ve dined at in both Westgate Park City and Westgate Lakes Resort, this one’s the true original. Pub fare, taphouse-worthy beer selections, and those infamous Draft’s shakes are just a few things you’ll crave again and again.

Outside of Town Center Pavilion, preparations were underway to relaunch the on-site hydroponics garden. Vegetables and herbs grown there will be used in the kitchens of resort restaurants. Inside, Hershey’s Ice Cream Shop brings back the world-famous flavors of my home state (Pennsylvania).

Next to Draft’s is Joe’s Marketplace and Deli, where you can pick up hot foods, snacks, and groceries to prepare you own meals back at the villa. They’ve also got a Corodvano Joe’s Pizza counter, which delivers directly to you. Then there’s a full-menu room service, which includes alcoholic beverages. Cheers!

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Accommodations at Westgate Vacation Villas range from Deluxe Studio Villas to sprawling Four Bedroom Presidential Villas. The economical Studio Villa is larger than a standard hotel room, with more than 500 square feet of living space. Each features a kitchenette with a coffeemaker, refrigerator, microwave, and toaster. The studio can sleep up to four, and bathrooms include a jetted tub and walk-in shower. All full-sized villas include a washer/dryer combo, handy if you’re staying for an extended period.

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The resort has a marina, business center, 10,000 square foot conference center, laundry facilities, three playgrounds, and six meeting rooms. There is no charge for parking, all rooms are non-smoking, and pets are welcome for an additional fee. Activities and common areas are ADA-compliant for guests with special needs. Those wishing to rent scooters can reserve them in advance by clicking here.

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Each year, Westgate Vacation Villas hosts a salute to the American military. Hundreds of free vacations are gifted to real-life heroes and their families. Then during American Military Month, a multi-day celebration takes place on the resort grounds. This year’s gathering was put on hold for obvious reasons, but here’s a portion of the press release from 2019’s event:

“For three action-packed days, Westgate Resorts served and honored the incredible men, women and families who sacrifice to protect and strengthen our country,” said David Siegel, Founder & CEO of Westgate Resorts and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “We are proud to be able to provide a complimentary vacation full of special festivities each year to those who have faithfully served and protected our freedoms.”

Highlights of 2019 Military Weekend included a Military Resource Fair featuring 25 military organizations, Red, White & Blue 5K Run, a stirring performance of the play Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret by Scott Mann, a special appearance by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and an incredible outdoor concert featuring Gary Sinise & The Lt. Dan Band with Lee Greenwood followed by a spectacular fireworks display. Guests also enjoyed free admission to the state-of-the-art Shipwreck Island Water Park. In addition, the Westgate Resorts Foundation contributed $50,000 to military nonprofit organizations.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a timeshare owner to enjoy Westgate Resorts. They’re combination destinations that welcome traditional hotel guests, too. But if you find yourself wanting to learn the details of vacation ownership, presentations and resort previews are always available.

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After returning to Sin City, I attended the grand re-opening of Westgate Las Vegas. It was a spectacular and emotional affair that brought together hundreds of associates and a very dedicated management team. I also spent the past two weekends staying there, as it’s become my staycation go-to. As with all Westgate properties, everyone goes above and beyond to make sure you feel at home.

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So we’ve circled back to the spot where my fondness for Westgate began. Several years later, this company continues to strive harder, do better, and make you feel like family. We’ve also reached the end of my Westgate Orlando Resorts series. Four very different experiences in four glorious days, all operating under strict sanitation protocols to provide a fabulous and safe post-COVID vacation experience.

By the way…with travel prices still at all-time lows (and no job opportunities for this writer in the current economic climate, sorry to say), I’ve decided to revisit Westgate Orlando in a few weeks. Get the margaritas ready, guys…I’m coming back!

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Disclaimer – this is not a paid endorsement for Westgate Resorts. My opinions are my own. As the Vegas Unfiltered Blog slogan states, “Probably biased. Definitely honest”. 

Photos: Sam Novak (some villa interiors courtesy of Westgate)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave The City Behind at WESTGATE RIVER RANCH RESORT


A rustic outdoor adventure awaits you…with all the health-protection amenities of your favorite Westgate destinations…

Welcome to part three of my four-part series on post-COVID Westgate Resorts vacations in the greater Orlando area. Click here for an overview, then head to Westgate Lakes Resort and Spa, followed by Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier and Resort.

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After a glorious Friday on the coast, I headed towards Polk County, an hour’s drive south of Orlando in the central part of the state. Unspoiled by urban sprawl, the region is much the same as it was in the early seventies. That’s where you’ll find Westgate River Ranch Resort, a Western-style “dude ranch”, campgrounds and rodeo with its own mile-long private airstrip.

Situated on 1,700 acres of gorgeous terrain, Westgate River Ranch Resort is surrounded by wildlife and close to a half-million acres of government-protected wetlands. It was down here, and not out west, that the great American cowboy became the stuff of legend.

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Early Florida was home to cattle ranchers like those in the untamed west. You’ll still see cows, bulls, and calves roaming across portions of the state, many of them right here on the resort property. They’re joined by friendly creatures like buffalo and sandhill cranes, and not-so-friendly ones, like the Florida alligator.

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Now a part of the Westgate portfolio, River Ranch Resort has managed to create the impossible. Somehow frozen in time, it’s brimming with ADA-accessible features, modern conveniences, and top-level standards. That’s important in this post-pandemic era, where sanitation protocols and social-distancing measures help tourists to make smarter vacation choices.

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It’s also the primary reason that a city slicker from Las Vegas is rolling through the massive property (click here to download the resort map) in a golf cart driven by General Manager (and former rodeo star) Raymond Duncan.

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As we’re about to discuss the measures that Westgate River Ranch Resort has undertaken to protect guests and staff members from COVID-19 transmission, Mr. Duncan (“Just call me “Ray”, he requests) points to a group of people gathered along a picket fence. They’re petting a horse that’s wandered over to them from the field. “Those kids are going to remember this moment. It’s a feeling you can’t get from a video game. Their parents probably came here as kids, and I’ll bet they’ll bring their own kids someday, too.”

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A lifelong cowboy, Ray never imagined being in charge of an operation of this magnitude. Yet, his role here seems almost pre-determined. Years of riding in rodeos had led to injuries, so Duncan eventually found himself taking charge as an announcer. Commanding attention and respect seemed to come naturally for the country gentleman…he still grabs a microphone every Saturday night for the resort’s authentic rodeo. He also presides over their non-denominational church services on Sunday.

Clearly a man of many hats, Ray is a bit of a celebrity here. Longtime guests have no problem recognizing his face, even when obscured by a bandana that serves as his protective face mask. During our afternoon together, visitors would frequently stop Ray to say hello, catch up and express their pleasure at being able to return after the seemingly-endless shutdown.

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Like other Westgate locations that temporarily ceased operations in March, River Ranch Resort added new amenities, refreshed their current offerings, and positioned themselves to reopen in the best possible condition. They also instituted the Westgate CARES safety and health plan everywhere from accommodations and public areas to recreational activities and check-in procedures.

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Not long into our visit, a distinctive “whoosh” announced the return of an airboat tour at the full-service marina. “Do you want to take an airboat ride?”, he asked me. “In the meantime, I’ll make sure things are running smoothly back at the Lodge”. His concern was understandable, as this was only their second day back from hiatus. So I hopped onto a seat next to the captain and donned a face mask and sanitized ear muffs for an invigorating adventure on the Kissimmee River.

As a former resident of south Florida, I’ve been on airboat excursions before. But I’d forgotten just what a rush it is. Our skilled guide described the system of waterway locks and how they made it possible to navigate much of the state by boat. We soared through the marshes at high speeds, then slowed down to observe a herd of cattle and a mama gator with her little ones.

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Ray was waiting by the golf cart when our boat returned. We buzzed past a massive Swamp Buggy departing for its own adventure and headed towards the campgrounds. Recreational vehicles of all sizes were entering their designated area, eager to shake off three months of quarantine. RV Camping provides electrical hookups of varying amps, and each site has a picnic table and access to bathroom/shower facilities.

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Across the way, tents were being erected on the grass by do-it-yourself campers with their own equipment. If you’d like to experience tent camping but lack the necessary equipment, brand-new Platform Camping provides a six-person tent already set up on a raised platform beneath the trees. Platform Camping includes electric outlets, a picnic table, access to bathroom/showers, and community water spouts. Just bring your own sleeping bags and enjoy a weekend under the stars.

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You may have heard of Glamping (glamorous camping) on television, where celebrities fly from the city and “rough it” for a few nights. Whether or not you have your own private plane, you can try glamping for yourself. Westgate River Ranch Resort gives the trendy outdoor experience a bit of Floridian flavor. Luxury-style tents are packed with modern amenities while still providing an airy, sub-tropical feeling that no conventional resort could match.

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Enjoy a climate-controlled tent with microwave oven, mini-fridge, ceiling fan, real beds with luxury linens (no dreaded cots here), propane grill, and a private picnic table. Listen to the birds from your screened-in porch as you relax in a pair of rocking chairs. Teach your kids some old-fashioned board games (provided in each tent) and make S’mores (from pre-assembled kits) around the community fire pit when the sun goes down. Each night, your Glamping Concierge will light a campfire, and you’ll awaken each morning to personal coffee service delivered to your tent.

Ray told me that the glamping area has become a runaway success. People often plan their return visits to coincide with those of friends they’ve made on previous stays. Sometimes families will reserve multiple glamping tents at special group rates for reunions and parties. It’s an ongoing tradition, one of many that have developed here through the decades.

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If glamping is still too “outdoorsy” for you, there’s a wide variety of rooms, suites, cabins, and cottages to choose from. They range from their original Lodge Guest Rooms (modernized, of course) to two-bedroom Saddle Club Cabins with full kitchens, electric fireplaces, large screen televisions, and jet tubs. Saddle Club Rail Cars are especially cozy, providing many of the modern comforts of glamping at a budget-friendly price. Military, law enforcement, government employees, teachers, healthcare professionals, and essential workers receive special discounts.

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Our next stop was Takoda Village Luxe Teepee Hotel, a separate and private section within Westgate River Ranch. Featuring top-tier accommodations, Luxe Teepees take glamping to the next level. Each air-conditioned unit sits on an elevated deck and has its own fireplace, bathroom, and walk-in shower. Luxe Teepees sleep up to four and provide all the amenities of glamping, along with the use of a personal golf cart. Resort activities are part of the guest rate as well.

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Speaking of activities, there are almost too many to mention. It’s impossible to get bored with everything there is to see, do, and experience. Try your hand at archery, trap/skeet shooting, rock wall climbing, and horseshoes. Hop on a rental boat, tame a mechanical bull, or spend the afternoon on an actual horse.

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You can hit a few golf balls, practice your tennis swing, toss a fishing line, or perfect your backstroke in the resort’s pool. Try prying the little ones away from the petting farm, pony rides, bungee jumper, and zip lines. Finish off the afternoon with ice cream as a friendly goat sits by your feet and emus, peacocks and llamas stroll by.

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When the sun goes down, adults head to the River Ranch Saloon for live music, dancing, and a full bar (the Saloon is currently awaiting approval to reopen). Saturday nights are when the Westgate Rodeo comes alive. A custom-built 1,200 seat arena hosts the all-ages wild-west spectacle (face masks and social-distance seating are currently enforced). Trick riding, barrel races, and bucking bulls lead to a patriotic salute to the Armed Forces.

Under normal circumstances, the rodeo is following by a hayride and a raucous street party in front of the Saloon. Guests can polish their line-dancing skills, play games, and raise their voices in sing-alongs, all hosted by a professional deejay. Understandably, both the Street Party and hayride are currently on pause until the health crisis is under control.

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Group activities and events have become really popular on the Ranch. Weddings, corporate retreats, team-building exercises, and convention gatherings can all be accommodated. A new outdoor pavilion joins the resort’s collection of halls, meeting rooms, and conference centers. Click here for more info.

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Covering nearly all of Westgate River Ranch Resort in a few hours had gotten me ravenous. Fortunately, Ray suggested that we head to Westgate Smokehouse Grill for some authentic barbeque and fixings (click here for the menu). Along the way, we passed a small village selling anything you could need or want during your stay.

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There’s a General Store (groceries, take-out foods, deli, oven-hot pizza, firewood, and an ice-cream counter), Western Store (hats, boots, clothing), laundromat, kids’ center, and a fitness facility. Ray told me that Westgate River Ranch has its very own zip code, which is why the smalltown street includes a post office. Towering overhead is the ranch’s water tower, a functioning symbol of the private universe that’s been created here.

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It was already well past lunchtime, so the Smokehouse Grill team was cleaning and preparing for the evening’s dinner guests. Randy Shaffer, the resort’s Food and Beverage Director and a veteran of Sea World Orlando, joined us at the table. The three of us shared awesome food, stories, and laughter…just like when my father took me camping many years ago. Earlier in the day, Randy had proudly shown me his favorite toy – the restaurant’s outdoor smoker grill.

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Soon it was time to bid farewell to my new friends and return to modern-day Orlando. As I got on the highway, the innocent pleasures of the American dude ranch disappeared in the rear-view mirror. There they would remain, untainted by the madness of early 2020 and eager for the next group of COVID-weary souls to arrive.

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In the final chapter, join me at Westgate Vacation Villas, the birthplace of Westgate Resorts. What began as two small structures is now the epic granddaddy of them all, boasting a two-story waterpark and even a luxury movie theater.

Disclaimer – this is not a paid endorsement for Westgate Resorts. My opinions are my own. As the Vegas Unfiltered Blog slogan states, “Probably biased. Definitely honest”. 

Photos and airboat video by Sam Novak, other videos via YouTube

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basking in the Sea Spray at Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier and Resort


Oceanside family fun with enhanced safety protocols awaits post-pandemic adventure-seekers …

Welcome to part two of my four-part visit to Westgate Resorts in Florida. In chapter one I visited Orlando’s Westgate Lakes Resort and Spa and explained why a Vegas blogger was doing travel research in the Sunshine State. Click here to check it out, otherwise, let’s head directly to the beach for the next stop on our tour.

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A pleasant drive about 45 minutes east of Orlando International Airport, Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier is a historic landmark and attraction that will take you back in time. As you cruise towards the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll pass through gorgeous unspoiled terrain and lush inland waterways, ideal for boating, fishing and swimming. Remember that this is gator country, so observe posted signs and warnings.

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Next comes the stunning Port Canaveral. Dredged between 1951 and 1955, Port Canaveral is one of the busiest in the world for cruises. It’s also Port of Call for the famous Disney Cruise Line. Ships are currently docked there due to travel restrictions, so you may want to stop for some incredible photos.

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Before you know it, you’ll arrive at Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier. Slather on the sunscreen and step through the brightly-colored welcome sign for a day of carefree fun. Only a few steps away is a sparkling shore teeming with surfers, jocks and sunbathers. While the rest of the country is cautiously venturing from their homes, you can revel right now in all things “beach-y”, secure in the knowledge that the Westgate CARES enhanced health and safety program is in full swing.

Built in 1962, Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier is steeped in Space Coast history. Originally named “Canaveral Pier”, it was THE place to view rocket launches during the space race. Even today, crowds gather on the 800-foot-long structure to view SpaceX and NASA take-offs from nearly Kennedy Space Center.

Although it has evolved through the decades (including a $4 million redesign by Westgate in 2014), Cocoa Beach Pier still evokes an era of innocent fun. That’s when surfers and families piled into their wood-paneled station wagons for a day at the water. Fans of Ron Jon Surf Shops know that the company began right here, too. And through the years, the popular tourist destination has been home to a dance club and a concert venue for acts like The Beach Boys and Ziggy Marley.

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Today, Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier has five restaurants, four bars, and a variety of shops. Diners can enjoy expertly prepared seafood dishes and tropical cocktails as ocean waves pass directly beneath them. Fishing enthusiasts have long gathered here to cast their lines from its deck. For the time being, social distancing protocols have required the suspension of fishing (to monitor capacity and patron health), but it’s expected to return when the time is right.

Every Christmas season, the “SkyDiving Santas” drop from the sky and land next to the Pier. Their arrival signals an annual collection drive on behalf of Toys for Tots. It’s one of many family-friendly activities and live shows that take place year round. Charity events include the National Kidney Foundation Walk, NKF Paddle Out and Rich Salick Pro-Am Surf Festival.

There are dedicated spaces for meetings and events, fishing equipment rentals, outdoor showers, lifeguards and volleyball courts. You can even have the Westgate Resorts team help you to plan an entire wedding and reception. Check out the live webcam feed (above) to see what’s happening right at this moment.

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Whether you’re staying near the Pier or driving in for the day, you’re bound to need some supplies. Look for Trader Rick’s Marketplace, where surfer dudes go for sporting essentials like body boards, volleyballs and sunglasses. You can pick up some beach chairs and umbrellas, or rent a pair of bicycles ($25 per person daily fee includes helmets and locks) to cruise up and down the beach.

For the ladies, Tropical Threads Boutique features swim suits, sun dresses, jewelry, hats and locally-made accessories. The Pier Shop carries t-shirts, souvenirs and memorabilia for gift-giving, along with beach-themed decor for your home. My tiki mug should get quite a lot of use if pool parties return to Las Vegas this summer.

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If you’re heading directly to the sand, stop by Sea Dogs, a modern take on the traditional Coney Island snack shack. Nestled under an eye-catching yellow canopy, Sea Dogs’ menu fills the air with the fragrance of smoked turkey legs, Nathan’s hot dogs, and buttery popcorn. Sundaes, cold soft drinks, chocolate-dipped frozen bananas and frosty beers will take you back to the days of carnivals. The only things missing are midway games and amusement rides.

Since I was on an official visit for this article, my flipflops and board shorts were back at Westgate Lakes Resort. So it was straight to business courtesy of a tour from General Manager Andrew Spinner. Operating an outdoor tourist attraction during a pandemic would be a daunting task for anyone, but Mr. Spinner and his team had Westgate CARES health protocols in place long before it was required (an advantage of being part of a large organization). You can click HERE to see what measures are currently being observed at the Pier.

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To monitor access, a single entry point requires temperature scans (a two-second touchless process) by a security attendant before admission. Electronic overhead counters monitor how many individuals are visiting the Pier at any given time. Strolling up the ramp, I noticed several signs detailing ongoing COVID-19 protocols, along with dispensers of hand sanitizer within easy reach.

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The Boardwalk Bar is open daily and ready to welcome guests. Walk-up ordering has been temporarily restricted in lieu of table-side cocktail service. The Boardwalk Bar specializes in Crab and Seafood Dip, Chef’s Killer Wings, a popular Happy Hour and Build-Your-Own Mojitos. Click here for the full menu.

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As has become the new norm, disposable menus, plates and utensils protect diners from contact-transmission concerns. Tables have been spaced further apart to enhance social distancing. The approach was innocuous and everyone seemed to be having a great time. Visitors were able to forget the trauma of this spring while enjoying good food, cool drinks and the relaxing scent of salt spray….proving once again that now is a great time to vacation.

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As you continue further out over the water, you’ll encounter Pelican’s Bar and Grill. Also limited to outdoor dining at the time of my visit, this air-conditioned indoor-outdoor restaurant evokes the atmosphere of Key West. You’ll be sippiing margaritas in no time while perusing Pelican‘s lengthy list of seafood dishes, burgers, clam chowder and sweets.

At its very end, Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier boasts Rikki Tiki Tavern, an inviting and relatively-new bar/dining area that can accommodate up to 100 guests. The walkaround bartop specializes in a long list of refreshing tropical cocktails. It was here that I hunkered down, under its cool thatched roof, to enjoy some freshly-made specialties from Pelican’s menu.

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As I dove hands-first into three great dishes, I could hear surfers below me cheering as the next great wave rolled in. If you’ve never tried surfing, Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier offers classes.  Alas, those board shorts were still back at the hotel, so I focused on dungeness crab legs and a Mai Tai instead.

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The day of my visit (May 26), some of the restaurants and shops were not yet open. Keith’s Oyster Bar at street level was one of them. Since then, they’ve all begun serving guests once more. You can visit this page to view updated hours, but there’s no reason to delay visiting Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier. It’s a refreshing, purifying experience…and after three months of quarantine, the perfect tonic for your ailing spirits.

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The next stop on my seaside adventure was nearby Westgate Cocoa Beach Resort. A gorgeous complimentary trolley shuttles passengers between Westgate’s pier and their resort. Before hopping aboard, you’ll want to take photos alongside the famous whaling-ship anchor. There’s quite a story behind it, as told by Westgate Vice President Brian Siegel:

In 1984 my brother and I found the anchor while we were on a three day lobster trip 16 miles SE of the Cocoa Beach Pier. After the season closed we went back to retrieve the anchor. We had a friend who owned a shrimp boat pick up the anchor and bring it back to Port Canaveral where we had a crane waiting. The anchor was made in the 1800’s and came off a whaling ship approx 200ft in length. The ship would sail up to two years until all the drums were full of whale oil. Most of these ships came from Gloucester Massachusetts “America’s Oldest Seaport”. The anchor is 10′ 5″ tall and weighs just over 6,000 lbs.

Brian Siegel – Cocoa Beach Native and Westgate Resorts VP

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Westgate Cocoa Beach Resort was opened in 1972 as the iconic Wakulla Suites. It’s said that astronauts used to spend their free time around its pool during the heyday of the space program. You can even find their names carved into bamboo stalks that grow beside the poolside tiki bar.

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The property underwent a top-to-bottom renovation in 2018. All 120 Luxury and Signature two-bedroom suites have modern stainless steel appliances, sleek new furnishings, complete kitchens and luxurious comfort. At 812 square feet, they’re far larger than the standard hotel room, allowing families to enjoy plenty of personal space.

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Each suite has two full bathrooms, one king bed, two twin beds and a queen-sized sleeper sofa to accommodate up to six people. Other on-property amenities include complimentary laundry, free parking, business center, fitness center, ATM, and a large heated pool. All guest accommodations are non-smoking. Click here for rates.

I’m going to take a little detour here to divulge some behind-the-scenes info, peppered with a little Vegas perspective. During my tour, General Manager Valerie Anderson said that she was able to bring many of her staff back during their shutdown to refresh the resort. Everything from painting and power washing to landscaping and minor updates were completed by staff members that would have been otherwise furloughed. The only outside company they used was to trim the tops of palm trees, a specialized task that requirs professionals. 

I admire management choices like this, especially after witnessing the deplorable conditions at a well-known Vegas resort on its own reopening day. A company’s commitment to guests and staffers is enhanced when everyone puts their best foot forward. Westgate’s meticulous conditions mean even more when the associates who made it happen get to share in that pride.

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As with all Westgate properties, Cocoa Beach Resort has done extensive enhancements to their operations and procedures. My visit happened to coincide with their first day back after the shutdown. Despite an impending sold-out weekend, everything was running smoothly. I watched as team members greeted arrivals at the new outdoor contactless check-in (for details visit here). Inside the lobby, plexiglass shields and face-masked attendants demonstrated their commitment to COVID-19 concerns.

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Accommodations receive an intensive sanitation process before guests arrive, and all common areas get the Westgate CARES treatment. Poolside lounge chairs and rattan seating at the Mukua Lanai Adult Relaxtion Zone have been spread further apart and receive regular cleanings. Aloha Tiki Bar & Cafe remains in operation (thanks for the Mai Tai, ladies!) but once again, servers take orders and bring food and drinks to you in disposable containers (no walk-up ordering at this time).

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The centerpiece of the resort is the new Wakulla Falls Water Park. Available only to resort guests, Wakulla Falls features a two-story waterslide, playful splash pad for the little ones and what may be the largest lazy river of any Florida resort. Naturally, all slides, rafts, vests and touch points are regularly sanitized, and the splash pad limits the number of visitors at any given time.

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If you’re heading to the beach (and why wouldn’t you?), Westgate Cocoa Beach Resort has its own private access point. Cross over an inviting picnic area and through rows of natural seagrass to enjoy a glorious day in the sun. The resort provides a free-of-charge Beach Concierge Service, where you can grab chairs, umbrellas, sunscreen, lip balm, volleyballs, towels and coolers of ice. You’ll definitely want to unwind until the sun goes down.

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In part three, I head to central Florida for Westgate River Ranch Resort, a rustic campground, luxury “glamping” experience and full-service destination. It features an authentic weekly rodeo, airboat rides, live animals and the kind of outdoor activities you’ve always dreamed about doing. And yes, it too has undergone “Westgate CARES” enhancements.

Disclaimer – this is not a paid endorsement for Westgate Resorts. My opinions are my own. As the Vegas Unfiltered Blog slogan states, “Probably biased. Definitely honest”. 

Photos by Sam Novak, Port Canaveral via Facebook, and Westgate Resorts

Videos courtesy of Westgate Resorts, edmondson69 via YouTube

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WESTGATE LAKES RESORT – A COVID-safe Waterfront Paradise For The Quarantine-Weary


Chapter one of a four-part series on post-pandemic traveling…

This year will undoubtedly be remembered as the most stressful of our lives. Just when you think the coast is clear, a new form of chaos arrives. But enough is enough, and it’s time to step out into the sunlight.

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Summer is already upon us, still people have been wondering “Is it too soon to vacation?”. That’s a valid question, especially considering the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. But after what I’ve just experienced during a week of research, the answer is a resounding “Pack your bags, hop on a plane and go have some fun!”

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As I wrote here, post-COVID vacations are incredibly tempting. That’s especially true when you consider the massive efforts undertaken by airlines, restaurants, service workers, and tourist destinations to welcome you back. Things will probably never be cleaner, safer, less crowded, and more convenient than they are right now.

Then there’s the issue of $$$$. Sure, finances are dangerously tight for most households. But if you happen to have funds tucked away or received a stimulus check to help jump-start our ravaged economy, this may be the most affordable vacation opportunity you’ll EVER see. So grab the family, say farewell to two-plus months of isolation, and join me in Florida for this four-part series on Westgate Resorts.

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I began my research by climbing aboard a Southwest Airlines nonstop from McCarran International Airport to the Sunshine State. The popular airline’s longtime open-seating policy lends itself well to social distancing, as did a five-person-per-group boarding process (see their enhanced COVID-19 protocols here). The journey was relaxing and comfortable, with plenty of room to stretch out (over 120 empty seats on my nonstop flight).

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Once in Orlando, I’d observe the enhanced sanitation protocols that Sin City guests can expect when historic Westgate Las Vegas hotel-casino reopens very soon. Stops at their locations throughout east and central Florida would permit me to see the Westgate CARES program in action (click HERE for complete details) and its consistent application throughout vastly different styles of resort.

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My itinerary ranged from two self-contained stay-and-play destinations to an oceanside pier and a rustic outdoor “dude ranch” complete with campgrounds, airboat rides and a weekly rodeo. There are twenty-four Westgate locations in all, including New York City, Park City UT, Mesa AZ, and historic Williamsburg VA.

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My first stop was Westgate Lakes Resort and Spa, an all-in-one complex just a short drive from Orlando International Airport. Located near major theme parks, Westgate Lakes has over 2,100 guest rooms and timeshare residences that appeals to the family crowd. The resort was just making final preparations to welcome back guests as I drove in, so I was able to take photos and get a lengthy tour while it was mostly vacant.

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Once you arrive at the entrance, you’ll be greeted by a new drive-up check-in procedure. This option allows guests to limit person-to-person contact, so they can receive room keys, a resort map, and related materials from the comfort and safety of their vehicle.

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The Pavillion’s main lobby still offers a traditional registration desk, but the area has been retrofitted with social-distancing markers, sanitizer dispensers, and plexiglass shields between desk agents and guests. All employees wear face masks, and visitors are encouraged to do the same (they may be mandatory at some indoor locations or for certain activities, depending on the current guidelines of your vacation period).

You may have heard that some businesses and attractions now scan the body temperature of arriving guests (a two-second touchless process) and ask COVID-related health questions before granting access. At Westgate Lakes, the only time this is done is before visitors enter the on-site restaurant or when they’re about to participate in resort activities like water sports, mini golf, etc…

Strolling through the Pavillion, you’ll find Sid’s Bistro (with Starbucks service), a timeshare presentation area, and a discount ticket desk for major theme parks. The second level of the building is home to the award-winning Serenity Spa (read my review here) and a hall for vacation ownership/timeshare presentations (also redesigned for social distancing).

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Next door is an expansive fitness facility and juice bar that rivals freestanding gyms. Neither had yet reopened during my stay, but preparations were being made to do so. Group fitness classes had also been suspended for the time being, but the fitness center is offering virtual versions via the resort’s TV channel that you can participate in from your guestroom.

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Head back outside and you’ll discover seven pools, outdoor bars, jogging trails, barbecue pits, water activities, and outdoor mini-golf. Adjacent Village Shops is home to the Marketplace, Deli, Cordovano Joe’s Pizza, a bowling alley, game room, and Drafts Sports Bar & Grill, all under by a cleverly-concealed parking structure topped by a modern convention center/ballroom with scenic views.

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Restaurants will “temp” you and ask COVID-related health questions before granting entry. You’ll also be asked to sanitize your hands at the door. Menus are printed on disposable paper, or you can pull them up on your smartphone by scanning the restaurant’s touch-free QR code. Plates and utensils are also disposable/recyclable, and packaged take-out foods are sealed with a security label to ensure sanitary delivery.

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Tucked inside of Drafts Sports Bar is “The Clubhouse”, a themed meeting room great for smaller professional gatherings and parties. The mens room has a humorous wall known to as “The Beer Recycler” (don’t think too hard). Outside, an entertainment promenade features atmospheric lighting, fire pits, live music and lounging areas where you can wind down at the end of the day.

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Since we’ve already addressed the fears of air travel in this post-COVID reality, let’s cover the issue of safety and cleanliness in guest accommodations. Having traveled regularly for the better part of two decades, I probably have an edge over the casual vacationer on the subject.

You see, I’ve been to cities around the world, sleeping in establishments ranging from rundown roadside motels to jaw-dropping penthouse suites. And even in the swankiest of places, there’s still that concern of “Just how thoroughly has this place been cleaned?”.

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After seeing Westgate Lakes’ crew in action, I can happily say that this was the VERY FIRST TIME that I felt assured of top-to-bottom cleanliness. I didn’t reluctantly press the light switches. The fear of germs was absent when handling remote controls and bathroom fixtures. There was no hesitation when I sat on the furniture or enjoyed my morning coffee at the breakfast bar.

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Why did this time feel different? Because I’d educated myself in advance, knew about the Westgate CARES approach, had observed their sanitation protocols, and recognized the efforts to protect my health. So I unpacked my luggage with peace of mind and enjoyed four nights of blissful relaxation.

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My reservation was for a one-bedroom villa in a newly-opened tower (there are over 25 buildings within the resort). Villas offer are much bigger than the average hotel room and provide ample space for the average-sized family to spread out. There’s a king bed, jacuzzi tub, modern bathroom with walk-in shower and a queen-size sleeper sofa. Accommodations range from a budget-friendly Studio Villa with kitchenette (sleeps four) to four-bedroom Presidential Villas that can accommodate up to twelve guests.

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Villas include their own laundry appliances and screened-in balconies or patios. Fully equipped kitchens have been supplied with cookware, utensils, coffeemaker, glassware, and plates. The entertainment center/sound system is equipped with a DVD player and extensive programming options. Property-wide wi-fi is standard for guests.

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Those who prefer to avoid contact with others can order groceries directly from the onsite Marketplace, request contact-free delivery, then prepare their own meals. All on-site restaurants and the deli deliver room service, too. But if you’re like me, you’ll want to head over to Drafts Sports Bar and Grill for some awesome pub grub (courtesy of Executive Chef Robert Walter), beer or cocktails.

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Westgate Lakes‘ multi-acre layout (resort map here) is quite conducive to social-distancing. Buildings are spread throughout the property and the entire resort is walled and gated, so you can feel safe whatever you’re doing (just keep in mind that the lakes contain natural wildlife and are not meant for swimming).

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There are basketball and tennis courts, sand volleyball, bicycle rentals, swimming classes, horseshoes, daily activity schedule, paddleboard, boat rentals, and fishing. Park-like spots invite you to sit down and enjoy the peaceful lake scenery and nature sounds.

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Since I’ll be visiting vastly different resorts in this series, I’ll be pointing out their specific operational changes now in place to ensure your safety. At Westgate Lakes Resort and Spa, adjustments are such that you’ll barely think about them. For instance, poolside foods and cocktails are still available, but orders are taken and delivered by mask-wearing staff members as you enjoy the sun.

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Loungers and dining furniture are frequently disinfected, especially between each guest, they’re spaced further apart, and capacity has been decreased, especially at indoor locations. For recreational activities, all equipment is sanitized between uses. That includes the putters at mini-golf, rented bicycles, playground equipment and bowling balls. An under-construction Treasure Cove Water Park will most likely have social-distancing protocols in place when it opens as well.

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The resort provides courtesy round-trip shuttle service (see schedule here) to nearby attractions. Universal Orlando reopened its gates on June 5th and Sea World has its sights set on June 11th. As for Disney Parks, a phased reopening is in the works, tentatively beginning July 11th. Click here for the latest updates directly from the “Mouse House”.

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With all of the entertaining things to do at Westgate Lakes, you may never want to leave the grounds. And in this post-pandemic world, it’s important to have those options. But however you decide to spend your Orlando vacation, now’s the time to make it happen.

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In the next part of this series, I’ll head to the ocean for a day at Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier and Westgate Cocoa Beach Resort

Westgate Lakes Resort and Spa is located at 9500 Turkey Lake Road Orlando, FL 32819. For reservations call 888-826-3409 or visit them online here

Disclaimer – this is not a paid endorsement for Westgate Resorts. My opinions are my own. As the Vegas Unfiltered Blog slogan states, “Probably biased. Definitely honest”. All photos were taken by myself.

 

 

 

 

 

A Change Of Pace: When East Meets ‘Westgate’


Leaving Las Vegas to experience Florida resorts in the era of social distancing…

Being a combination blogger/freelance writer, one of my responsibilities is to peruse social media and news to stay current on the subjects I write about. Weary from the dearth of heavy-handed COVID-19 news and gossip, I’ve turned towards LinkedIn, a business and employment website that’s recently surged in popularity.

There I learned about Orlando-based Westgate Resorts’ vacation packages that offer fun, sun, relaxation, and adventure with a socially-distant spin. The company has over two dozen destinations (listed here), everywhere from Park City, UT to Branson, MO, and Myrtle Beach, SC. Westgate’s plan for addressing COVID-19 concerns intrigued me, especially since a long-planned visit to the area was coming up soon.

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The article, published by Red Tricycle (a family-oriented travel site), selected Westgate Lakes Resort and Spa in Orlando as an ideal place to ease back into vacationing, all while observing the parameters of our “new normal”. Encouraged by the possibilities, I reached out to the Westgate Resorts team and made arrangements to visit a few of their properties.

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Hopefully, you’ve seen my articles on measures being taken by Vegas resorts to make their reopenings a safer experience. I’ve also shared info on one of the first Vegas restaurants to welcome guests back into its dining room. Now that things are underway here, it’s time to shake off that desert sand and head back to my former digs in central Florida.

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The fact that I’ve already covered the Westgate CARES safety initiative in this article about what the future will look like for cleaner hotels, makes it a no-brainer to choose Westage Resorts for my first post-COVID excursion out of Sin City. If you’re even slightly pondering a trip this summer, it would be worth your while to read it, or at least check out the cheat sheet above.

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Also, you might fairly question the wisdom of taking a trans-continental journey so soon. But keep in mind that this flight has been on the books for quite some time. Also, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t support the efforts being taken by major airlines (I’ll be taking Southwest Airlines), restaurants, and resorts to implement sanitation and social-distancing protocols. Plus, my brain, like yours, is fried from being locked up for two months. So let’s have some well-deserved fun, shall we?

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Arriving in Orlando, I’ll be settling into a home base at Westgate Lakes Resort. Close to major attractions, this family vacation spot offers Serenity Spa, the world-class day retreat whose outstanding Vegas location I’ve reviewed here and here.

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From there, I’ll be taking a day trip to the myriad of restaurants, sights, and surf activities at Cocoa Beach Pier. Just down the street is Westgate Cocoa Beach Resort, a luxury hotel with spacious suites and a private waterpark dedicated to hotel guests.

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Later that week is Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo, located an hour south of Orlando in Polk County. There I’ll get a taste of fishing, horseback riding, zipline, and a petting zoo. I’ll also discover why “glamping” (glamorous camping) is the latest rage. The final stop on my itinerary is Westgate Vacation Villas in Kissimmee. This particular destination near Walt Disney World boasts Shipwreck Island, a full-fledged water park with slides, a lazy river, and even a large-scale “pirate ship”.

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When I return, VegasUnfilteredBlog will have in-depth coverage of my east coast adventures. In the meantime, be sure to visit the blog’s official Facebook page for the latest in Sin City events, and of course….updates on exciting reopening events in post-pandemic Las Vegas.

Photos: Westgate Resorts

 

 

Get ‘Portnoyed’ With Sin City’s Philanthropic Artist


Famed caricaturist Neal Portnoy donates talent and funds to furloughed Las Vegas performers…

Update 7/12/20 – In addition to the wonderful effort that Portnoy Gallery has put forth to assist entertainers in the community, this year it will be hosting a benefit for St. Jude Ranch for Children. The announcement from Dorothy Cannata Portnoy is as follows:

We are excited to announce our Annual Christmas in July event and Raffle Fund Raiser. Limited tickets for social distancing during event and unlimited virtual tickets available. The day will be broken down to 4 sessions each having different raffle prizes and one grand prize at last session including all who bought tickets Pick the group you like best or all. The virtual tickets are set up the same way. Click here for full details. Looking forward to a great day of supporting St Jude’s Ranch for Children.

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Donations of household items are also being accepted – you can request a copy of the wish list from Dorothy Cannata Portnoy by clicking here.

UPDATE5/17/20 –  Neal Portnoy messaged me to let me know that my oversized mug had been “Portnoyed”, too. The honor is overwhelming…and I’m thrilled that he made the decision to include me in this illustrious collection. You can obtain yours and help the unemployed entertainers of Las Vegas by clicking here.

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                                                         Hey, my mug is on a mug! 


For many entertainers, the benchmarks of success are seeing their name in lights and perhaps, someday, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But you’ll know that you’ve really made it when your likeness has been “Portnoyed”.

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Neal Portnoy is a successful artist who specializes in caricatures (or “cartoon portraits”) of famous performers and sports figures. His Portnoy Gallery in Las Vegas is a veritable shrine to pop culture and the entertainment world. Its centerpiece is the Wall of Honor, a collection of Portnoy’s most revered work.

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Once a year, the Gallery holds a red carpet induction ceremony that’s attended by public figures, prominent athletes, celebrities and one very special doggie. Neal’s background as a baseball player and sleight-of-hand entertainer gives him a unique insight that few artists possess. His portraits, most often created with felt markers, capture the dedication of his subjects along with their humor, talent, and charisma.

Working with felt markers is a unique and challenging medium. As Neal explains it:

Markers…unlike oils, unlike acrylics, unlike water colors…is a stain. You can change colors in water colors, acrylics and oils, and kind of put what you want down. But with marker, every line you put down, stays down.  If I make a mistake, I make it into something else…’cause every line is an expression.

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When it comes to being charismatic, the Massachusetts native exudes a wonderful degree of warmth and confidence. It’s easy to understand why some of the most powerful names in entertainment have entrusted their images to Neal. From members of the Las Vegas Raiders to Barry Manilow, Freddy Mercury to Aretha Franklin, each work of art is timeless and unforgettable.

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My first opportunity to chat with Neal was earlier this year. It was at the Summerlin birthday party of influential power-player Mark Messina, where I shared a table with the artist and his charming wife, former New Yorker Dorothy Cannata Portnoy. During our conversation, Dorothy told me that she is the gallery’s Director. She also tirelessly assists her husband in his efforts to support the local community.

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The Portnoys invited me to their studio to check out Neal’s collection. Alas, a certain pandemic became headlines soon after, placing my visit on a to-do list for when life returns to normal. In the interim, I’ve researched the gallery via websites and social media. There I learned about a heartwarming effort that the couple and Mark Messina have created to assist out-of-work Vegas entertainers.

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As you may recall from last week’s article on the Mondays Dark Live Stream Telethon, the residents of Sin City are unparalleled when it comes to taking care of their own. That’s why Portnoy Gallery has decided to donate 50 percent of sales from Portnoyed.com:

Las Vegas has been hit particularly hard due to quarantines and venue closures.  Our entertainers have been among the hardest hit.  We would like to give back to the community, by providing our out of work entertainers 50% of proceeds from our current online products.  Please browse our store for your favorite Las Vegas entertainer, and together we can help them get through this period.

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Up for grabs are 76 uniquely-designed coffee mugs, each featuring a beloved Vegas celebrity. Musicians like the Bronx Wanderers, Niki Scalera, David Tatlock, Mark O’Toole, Michael Shapiro, and Zowie Bowie can join your coffee break, along with comedians Carrot Top, Mike Hammer, and John Di Domenico. Even Messina and my colleagues Gabe Ginsberg, Chet Buchanan and Johnny Katsilometes have their mugs committed to a mug.

To obtain one or more of these uniquely Vegas collectibles (while simultaneously fueling the movement to keep Las Vegas entertainment alive) visit this link. Until the gallery reopens, you can browse and purchase prints of Neal’s creations by clicking HERE.

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Portnoy Gallery is located at 1537 W Oakey Blvd, Las Vegas, NV 89102. Phone 702.685.2929 for more information.

Photos: Neal Portnoy, Dorothy Cannata Portnoy, David Orlov, Dianne Davis, Jonathan Scott

 

Bring the Excitement of Vegas to Your Home with ‘Virtual Experiences’


‘Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition’ and ‘Chippendales’ are just two of many Sin City favorites to enjoy under your own roof…

So, you’ve binge-watched every Netflix series and reruns of “FRIENDS” are making you want to hit the “unfriend” button. What’s a quarantined Vegas junkie to do? Well, if you saw yesterday’s article on the Mondays Dark Live Stream Telethon, you know that Sin City is doing its best to make you happy…while keeping its own artistic muscles in shape for an eventual ramp-up.

As efforts to assist furloughed entertainers are underway, you’re undoubtedly going through your own form of Sin City withdrawal. Now you can gather your fellow Vegas fans (following social-distancing guidelines, of course) and organize a virtual party for honest-to-goodness Las Vegas experiences. They’re brought to you by the same people who make your in-person visits so memorable.

TRAVEL BACK IN TIME AT TITANIC: THE ARTIFACT EXHIBIT

Followers of my contributions to Las Vegas Magazine and BestOfVegas.com know that I’ve penned several articles on TITANIC: The Artifact Exhibition. This self-guided attraction is the biggest collection of recovered articles in this world. Inside are splendid recreations of the decks, staterooms, cabins and more. Immersive special effects allow you to experience the freezing air, feel the throb of the massive engines, and listen to voices from the past.

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TITANIC: The Virtual Experience, is a newly-launched 3-dimensional tour of Luxor‘s 25,000 square foot attraction. It’s accessible on computers, tablets, and mobile devices. The virtual experience is available at two price levels – the Light Version for $5 and the Full Version for $15. Both price levels are accessible for one week and can be renewed at the point of purchase. Options include these benefits:

Light Version – $5

  • Virtual walkthrough of the 13 galleries inside the 25,000 square feet exhibition
  • Detailed information and photos of each artifact on display
  • View what life was like aboard the “Ship of Dreams” through full-scale room re-creations of the Grand Staircase, Promenade Deck, Veranda Café, and more
  • View the largest piece ever recovered, a 15-ton portion of the Ship’s hull
  • Learn about conservation and recovery efforts of the artifacts recovered from the ocean floor

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Full Version – $15

  • All offerings of the basic tour experience
  • Audio tour available in multiple languages
  • Exclusive video content
    • Dive Expedition 2010 – Video of artifacts as they are being recovered from the wreck site at the ocean floor
    • Dive Expedition 2010 – Video of curators on board the recovery ship discussing the artifacts immediately after they were pulled from the ocean floor
    • Dive Expedition 2010 – Video from Titanic’s wreck site, including underwater footage of the Ship’s bow, stern, vast debris field, and more
  • Animated timeline of Titanic from the point of striking the iceberg to the sinking
  • Additional facts and information about Titanic, the wreck site, artifacts, personal stories of her passengers and crew

For more information, visit Titanic.live.

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If you’re looking for something a little less “educational” and a lot more “titillating”, then perhaps you might want to investigate Chippendales@Home, a new interactive virtual experience. Chippendales@Home allows you and your squad to hang out and party with the world-famous hunks live in your own homes.

Chat, flirt, play games, get or give a virtual lap dance – you’ll get to know the Chippendales performers in your own intimate group setting as they host your party making sure your night is special and memorable. Each 30-minute party will feature at least two Chippendales cast members and utilizes the streaming platforms ZOOM, House Party, FaceTime, and Google Hangout.

In addition to Chippendales@Home, the brand has been cranking out online experiences as people are urged to stay inside. Recent digital offerings include at-home workouts with cast members, Instagram Live chats with alumnus of the brand, and light-hearted digital content such as one of its current cast members performing a lap dance for a 12-pack of toilet paper.

As a limited-time thank-you to those who are keeping us safe and healthy, Chippendales is offering Chippendales@Home free to health care workers and first responders. Ticket-holders whose shows were postponed also receive the experience free of charge. For more info or to arrange your own virtual party, visit this link or call 866-CHIPP999.

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If you’re a fan of the long-running SUPERNATURAL series on CW Network, you were probably excited for the annual convention at RIO Las Vegas in March. Sadly, the virus was just beginning to spread and some of you might have opted to avoid the crowds and wait for next year’s star-studded gala.

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Now in an innovative move, Creation Entertainment has scheduled a virtual SUPERNATURAL convention with the participation of three fan favorites. Beginning Saturday, April 18th and running through Saturday, April 25th, director Richard Speight, Jr. and stars Lisa Berry (Billie) and Ruth Connell (Rowena) will host a series of Q & A sessions, chats, tarot card readings, invocations and more.

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What makes this event unique is that a portion of proceeds will go to charities and non-profits like Meals On Wheels, St. Michaels Hospital (Toronto) and Random Acts. For some sessions, participants are asked to pay what they can. Auctions will be held to join in on events designed for a limited number of fans.

To register for the SUPERNATURAL Virtual-Con, click HERE. Participants should create user accounts on the platforms ZOOM and StageIt in advance. Creation Entertainment also brings the official Star Trek Convention to Rio Las Vegas each year.

Whitney Phoenix Strikes a Chord at Bellagio Las Vegas

In addition to these large-scale offerings, there is a wide variety of concerts, intimate performances and live chats being broadcast, as well as the at-home workouts and dance classes I told you about right here.

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Bellagio‘s beloved lounge pianist Whitney Phoenix and singer/actress/comedienne wife Marianne LeMoine Phoenix (50 Pounds From Stardom) shared this marvelous evening recently.

Whitney also took to the keyboard for a solo set while Marianne fielded requests from viewers:

The smooth and classy Craig Canter has been giving regular performances from his own virtual lounge that he calls  “The Piano Room”:

Westgate‘s favorite crooner Mark O’Toole brought us some big band highlights. He sent video clips and updates from the cruise ship he was “stranded” on for an extended time, hoping for a port to disembark at and return to the States. Combine that with canceled flights and missing luggage, and it’s safe to say that poor Mark endured the kind of adventure that movies are made about.

Despite weeks of madness and uncertainty, Mark took a break from relaxing to assist in beloved artist Neal Portnoy‘s efforts to raise funds for out-of-work performers. Portnoy created a collection of custom mugs, each featuring a local entertainer immortalized in the artist’s unique style. Get yours by clicking here, and check out this extremely funny video:

The marvelous David Goldrake, whose IMAGINARIUM magic production at Tropicana garnered my “Best New Show of 2018”, has been entertaining internet audiences with a series of tricks and lessons:

If you know of any other Vegas virtual experiences, online entertainment or events that you’d like to be added to this article, please leave a comment or email me: Sam@VegasUnfiltered.blog

Las Vegas Drive-in Theater is a Virus-Safe Cure for Cabin Fever


Retro-cool outdoor movie theater provides box-office hits without the need for human contact…

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UPDATE 6/9/20 – The snack bar is open. This is the official response:

Concessions is open. However we are only selling popcorn, bottled drinks, pre-packaged candy and ice cream and pre-packaged nachos.

UPDATE 5/11/20 – The drive-in has reopened….again. Check their website for latest showtimes and operating rules.

UPDATE 4/24/20 – The saga of the Las Vegas drive-in theater has become increasingly convoluted and frustrating. After only two days of operating under special permission granted by Nevada’s governor, the outdoor movie theater was ordered to close yet again. Yours truly was on the way there to attend a screening when I received notification of the latest news.

This situation has become a sore spot for Las Vegas locals desperately in need of a little taste of “normal” life. While hundreds are allowed to gather outside of big box stores at will, the concept of being inside your own closed vehicle in what is basically a large parking lot as been deemed “unsafe”.

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Although I have been quite supportive of social-distancing guidelines and closures for public-safety reasons, the state of Nevada has, IMO, seriously dropped the ball on this one. Quite frankly, I’m sick of the inconsistency. Here’s the official statement from West Wind Drive-In as issued on their social media…around 7pm on 4/24/20:

We had received formal approval to reopen the Las Vegas Drive-In with certain operating restrictions and we complied. Unfortunately we have recently been asked to temporarily cease operations pending further direction from the Governor’s office. We are disappointed with this decision but look forward to re-opening as soon as possible. Thank you for your patronage and patience.

UPDATE 4/22/20 – The governor of Nevada has granted permission for West Wind Drive-in to reopen in Las Vegas. See below for details, and click THIS LINK for current movies and showtimes.

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-The drive-in is accessible only to those in vehicles–for movies and A/V presentations only (e.g., worship services).
-Vehicles are spaced at least 10 feet apart (every other parking space).
-No one may leave their vehicle except to visit the restroom.
-Access to the restroom is limited to 1 person (plus a minor child or a disabled companion) at a time. Restrooms are sanitized every 30 minutes.
-The snack bar and entertainment areas are closed.
-Social distancing signage is in place, and all of these restrictions are provided to drive-in customers upon entry.
-Staffing is kept to a minimum; they oversee vehicle entry and ensure the above rules are followed or else a vehicle is told to leave.

UPDATE 4/6/20 – The drive-in is currently closed for movies, but the concession stand is operating during set hours to allow for take-home of their fabulous food and snacks. They’re even throwing in “bonus bucks” if you pre-purchase gift cards. 

Pick up some burgers and a bucket of popcorn for your own movie night and help keep the drive-in in business for when the quarantine is lifted. Click HERE for info on concession stand hours and up-to-date status regarding reopening. 

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UPDATE: Even though a statewide quarantine is currently in effect, Las Vegas West Wind Drive-in is being allowed to operate under strict conditions. See below for details. 

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Located just a little northwest of downtown near Texas Station and  Fiesta Rancho casinos, West Wind Las Vegas 6 is riding a sudden wave of popularity. While many drive-ins are long gone, West Wind continues to be an entertainment success. The modern digital picture is sharper, brighter, and is easily a match for their indoor counterparts. Sound is broadcast through high-quality FM onto your own car speakers, so you can control the volume and “oomph”.

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What makes drive-in theaters especially popular right now is that their unique concept (watching movies under the stars) fits right into the coronavirus outbreak’s “social distancing” guidelines. Once you slide your payment through a crack in the car window, you can avoid being in close proximity to other human beings. The only folks you’ll encounter are the ones inside their concession stand building (or if you need to use the restroom).

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While indoor theaters charge upwards of $12.00 for a single movie, adult admission to West Wind 6 Drive-in is only $7.75. The titles change every week, with a combination of brand-new releases and holdover hits. Certain screens offer a double-feature of two recent films for the same low price. Children ages 5-11 get in for $1.75, and kids under 5 are free. Tuesdays are even cheaper, with adult tickets costing $5.50. The website offers a newsletter with Internet coupon offers, too.

When global pandemics aren’t the biggest worry of your day, you’ll want to return on a regular basis. An expansion of the outdoor dining and playground areas has added to the drive-in’s appeal. The snack bar offers typical movie-going fare but at noticeably lower prices. And, they’ve upped the fun factor with seasonal activities. During Halloween, the snack bar gets turned into a mini haunted house, complete with staff members in costume. Several times a year, West Wind hosts a Customer Appreciation Night with absolutely free admission, fun, and games.

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The main concession building is located in the center of the property. It has a playground and outdoor picnic tables so you can stuff yourself on hot dogs and nachos without missing the movie. Of course, if you want to sneak a peek at one of the other five screens, I won’t tell. They often host special events with pony rides, live entertainment, and a petting zoo.

So, if the quarantine has you suffering from cabin fever, West Wind Drive-in Theater has the cure. Step back in time, look for the lighted arches and classic neon signage. Bring a pillow, wear your pajamas and bunny slippers if you like, and it’s even okay to smoke. And, nobody will scold you if you chat or decide to make out in the back seat.

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West Wind Las Vegas Drive-in Theater is open year-round, rain or shine. It’s located at 4150 West Carey Avenue, northwest of downtown. Click HERE for their current movie titles/showtimes or call  (702) 646-3565 OR (702) 647-1379 for more information.

Photos: West Wind, Sam Novak, Yelp!

Hofbrauhaus Brings Munich to Sin City


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Hofbrauhaus celebrates sixteen years in Las Vegas this week. Let’s party! Click HERE to read the BestOfVegas version on their awesome site.

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Las Vegas is known for its endearing recreations of famous cultural landmarks. From the Eiffel Tower and the Egyptian pyramids to the canals of Venice, they’re all here. But venture a few blocks off the Strip and you’ll encounter the most authentic experience of them all…Hofbrauhaus Las Vegas. Hofbrauhaus has been bringing the sights, sounds, and flavors of Germany directly to your table for sixteen years.

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Situated on the corner of Harmon Avenue and Paradise Road (and just a pretzel’s toss from Hard Rock Hotel), Hofbrauhaus is based on the world-famous Munich original. An astonishing structure that’s even more impressive on the inside, every corner is teeming with fun, frivolity, and culinary excitement. No expense has been spared and no detail too small to make your visit a true Bavarian treat.

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The Las Vegas location is the only officially-licensed extension of Germany’s revered treasure. Munich’s grand Beer Hall and “outdoor” Biergarten are here, as are replicas of German chestnut trees that only grow in Europe. The Vegas variety is made using thousands of hand-created artificial leaves placed onto living trunks. Artists have painstakingly duplicated the beer hall ceiling’s gorgeous murals by hand, lending authenticity to the exact 1:1 construction.

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European craftsmen have fashioned dozens of sturdy benches and tables to handle the hundreds of rowdy revelers. As part of the tradition, guests climb onto the benches every day, steins held aloft. They’re arranged in a communal-dining style so you’re sure to make new friends while you eat, drink, and make merry.

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Of course, every restaurant is only as good as its food, and this is where Hofbrauhaus truly excels. They import their smooth creamy sauerkraut directly from Germany, and the dough for their famous Bavarian pretzels is shipped across the ocean in climate-controlled containers. Nothing is processed or made from mixes, and the kitchen uses timeless recipes and authentic ingredients.

The Hofbrauhaus menu is a veritable cookbook of German specialties. Munich Pork Roast (Schweinebraten) and Chicken in Mushroom Sauce (Gegrillte Hähnchenbrust) will vie for your attention with an extensive list of sausage dishes like Majoran – Kalbsbratwurst (veal), Currywurst, Nürnberger Rostbratwürstl (pork) and Geflügelbratwurst (chicken). If you can’t decide, dive into Wurstplatte, a trio of favorites served with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, and onion mustard.

There are a wide variety of vegetarian/vegan dishes, sumptuous salads, traditional desserts like imported Apfelstrudel (apple strudel) and of course, those giant baked-to-order pretzels served with Obatzda cheese and two kinds of mustard. Side dishes and appetizers include Bavarian potato salad, homemade spätzle, bread dumpling, red cabbage, apple sauce, potato pancakes, and radishes & rye.

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Naturally, you’ll want to pair your meal with a few steins of legendary Bavarian beer. Hofbräu Original Lager, Hofbräu Dunkel and Hofbräu Hefeweizen brews are all imported directly from the King’s brewery using 400-year-old recipes. Every keg is made following the Purity Law of 1516 (The Reinheitsgebot) as declared by Dukes Wilmhelm V and Ludwig X of Bavaria. The kegs are shipped to Vegas and stored in a perfectly-chilled beer cellar along with wines and liquor used for Signature Shots.

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Speaking of shots, the Sin City extension of Hofbrauhaus has developed a tradition of its own. Since the little glasses of liquor are delivered to tables on long paddles, some fun-loving guests began requesting a spanking after downing theirs. The ritual caught on and is especially popular for birthdays and other special occasions. So don’t be surprised when you see fellow diners bent over a table or grabbing their ankles. Smack!

But there’s no need to wait for a special event to visit Hofbrauhaus. Every night is a party! There are live bands, sing-a-longs, group toasts, and dancing. Themed events salute both German traditions (Käsespätzle challenge) and uniquely American traditions like National Pretzel Day and the annual “Big Game” viewing.

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Each year, the Beer Hall hosts a month-long Oktoberfest celebration. Weekends are especially festive with keg-tapping parties hosted by guest celebrities like Australian Bee Gees, the Chippendales, Cesar Millan, magician Hans Klok, Rich Harrison (Pawn Stars) and BMX pro Ricardo Laguna. It’s the perfect time to enjoy one of their seasonal beers like Oktoberfestbier with a plate of Oktoberfest Jägerhackbraten (homemade German-style meatloaf).

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But no matter what season you visit, Hofbrauhaus is always a great time. You’ll learn some German phrases, make some great memories and leave with a satisfied appetite and a song in your heart.

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Hofbrauhaus Las Vegas is located at 4510 Paradise Rd. Hours are Sunday – Thursday 11AM-11PM and Friday – Saturday 11AM-12AM

 Photos: Sam Novak, Hofbrauhaus Las Vegas

 

 

TRAVEL BACK IN TIME AT TITANIC: THE ARTIFACT EXHIBIT

Las Vegas is a city built on escapism and frivolity, yet there are abundant opportunities to experience the wonders of reality and history. Numerous museums and exhibitions allow you to enlighten your mind and enrich your soul, from the Atomic Testing Museum to Real Bodies at Bally’s. The biggest and most impressive of these is Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at Luxor.

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Located on the atrium level of Luxor’s enormous pyramid, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition is a massive exhibit befitting the White Star Liner’s “Ship of Dreams”. Much more than a stuffy museum, the 25,000 square foot attraction is an emotional journey back in time to experience what a trans-Atlantic passage on the ill-fated liner would have been like.

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Titanic’s walk-through exhibit is a fully-realized sensory experience. Sound and lighting effects, throbbing vibrations, icy temperatures, and chilling breezes enhance recreations of the Promenade Deck and engine room.

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There are replicas of the Grand Staircase, corridors and cabins belonging to First and Third class sections. The staterooms are meticulously displayed using authentic furniture commissioned for the Exhibition by original manufacturers.

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Sections of the Exhibition are dedicated to fascinating details of the Titanic’s construction, launch, and operations. But it’s the personal stories of the victims and survivors that tell the true tale of the ocean liner and its sinking. Hundreds of artifacts recovered from the wreckage at the bottom of the ocean are on display. They offer an insight into the lives that were lost on that fateful evening.

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Postcards, shaving implements, luggage, clothing, playing cards, money….all of these everyday items from a century ago remind us that each person on board was an actual soul. You’ll learn with reverence about immigrants hoping to start a new life in the United States. You’ll witness the opulent lifestyle of the rich and wealthy, who were just as vulnerable to the chilling waters. And you’ll be inspired by the workers who bravely assisted women and children to the lifeboats, sacrificing themselves in the ultimate act of heroism.

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All of the artifacts on display, including numerous pieces from the ship itself, have been carefully restored and preserved by RMS Titanic, Inc. This organization was formed to serve as the official steward of the wreckage site and its contents. Using the latest scientific advances, experts have cataloged each recovered item and treated it to protect from further degradation. Artifacts will sometimes be retired from the display and others brought in to replace them.

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The most amazing part of Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition is undoubtedly “The Big Piece”, an enormous section of the starboard hull. Suspended mid-air in a climate-controlled environment, this massive relic took several years and countless hours of effort to bring to the surface. An amazing testimonial to the wonders of science and archaeology, “The Big Piece” can only be seen in Las Vegas.

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Optional audio narration devices enable you to hear in-depth details of the various rooms and objects throughout the Exhibition. Descriptions are often provided in…

Click HERE to continue reading…

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit is open daily from 9:30 am to 9 pm.

Photos: Sam Novak, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, Travelzoo, Patch.com, Best of Orlando