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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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