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.

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Jeff Civillico – Physical Comedy At Its Best


Crowd-pleasing entertainer juggles his way into your hearts…

What do you get when you combine the rubber-faced madness of early Jim Carrey with the heart-stopping physical comedy of Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis? Whatever your mind can conjure, it’s unlikely to resemble the reality of handsome headliner Jeff Civillico.

Vegas fans have been lining up for a decade to enjoy Jeff Civillico: Comedy In Action. He’s been on marquees from V Theater to the former Imperial Palace (now The Linq) to the Flamingo. What started out as a guest segment in variety and magic shows has evolved into a full-fledged production befitting the multi-talented star.

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In recent years, Jeff’s taken his all-ages show to audiences around the country. His contagious energy and outrageous antics elevate a wide variety of corporate functions and fundraising events, too. Still he manages to return each week to Las Vegas for filled-to-capacity performances at Paris Hotel Casino.

So, what exactly does Jeff Civillico do? Alas, the answer’s not so simple. You may as well try explaining Cirque du Soleil to a friend. But the simplest way to describe Comedy In Action is “It’s an interactive juggling improvisational prop-comedy marshmallow battle.” And Jeff’s co-stars are a plunger, Granny Smith apples, a straitjacket…and you.

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Tireless in his delivery and wildly spontaneous, Jeff fires off jokes so quickly that you’ll barely be able to catch your breath. He even makes wisecracks while balancing a massive construction ladder on his chin. Nobody is safe from Jeff’s humor, either. Children are props in an electrifying plate-spinning sequence and two unassuming dads become accomplices in the most unhinged unicycle ascent you’ll ever see.

Click HERE to continue reading…..

Photos: Sam Novak

 

 

 

 

 

‘Potted Potter’ Casts a Laughing Spell on Vegas


Bally’s rapid-fire Hogwarts spoof is a silly, irreverent treat…

The quaint Windows Showroom at Bally’s Hotel Casino has been home to a number of successful productions, from The Bronx Wanderers to legendary Wayne Newton. Even 50 Shades: The Parody enjoyed a long, healthy run in the second-level space.

Now the quirky venue is hosting another laugh-filled movie spoof, this time without the riding crops and blindfolds. Experience a phantasmic adventure filled with magic wands, dark arts and fearsome dragons at ‘Potted Potter – The Unauthorized Harry Potter Experience’, a face-paced and humorous retelling of the wizarding-world saga.

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‘Potted Potter’ was created by Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, sharp-witted BBC actor/writers who clearly love the source material. They’re also the stars of the production, which has toured through the United States and the rest of the world. Clarkson and Turner themselves came here to launch the Vegas residency, acting out all the characters in the two-man comedy. They’ll be here only a short while before passing the torch to a new Sin City cast.

Nobody can skewer pop culture like the British (think Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Little Britain and the films of Simon Pegg). The students and faculty of JK Rowling’s beloved Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry prove to be perfect targets for this style of humor. Using just a few silly props and lots of audience participation, Daniel and Jefferson plunder and pillage the entire seven-book epic (and dozens of characters) in only seventy minutes.

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Children will have an especially good time at the all-ages ‘Potted Potter’. During a media event that this writer attended last week, an adorable five-year-old girl with amazing improvisational skills was welcomed onstage for a magic-wand battle. Her deadpan responses and gestures matched anything that the professional cast could dish out. It was truly a priceless moment, one of many sure to follow in the open-ended run.

Click here to continue reading….

Find Your Inner Ariel at MERMAID SCHOOL


Weekend childrens’ classes are Westgate’s latest “outside the box”…

Going through my daily round of press release emails is a lot like attacking the pile of presents under the Christmas tree. Some of them I can’t wait to open up (“Chippendales Announces Latest Guest Host”). Others feel obligatory…like a Visa gift card from the mother-in-law (“Hash House A Go Go Introduces New Cocktail, Extends Happy Hour).

Then there are the ones that stink like rotten fish and get tossed into the garbage without opening (“Chris Brown Returns to Drai’s Nightclub”, “Mariah Carey Announces Christmas Show at Caesars Palace”). But my favorite emails are the ones that have you scratching your head in wonder. Things like “Learn To Be A Mermaid at Westgate Las Vegas”. Seriously?

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Regular readers know that bringing the children to Vegas is one of my biggest pet peeves. But Westgate is a different kind of resort. A privately-held timeshare company, their twenty-eight locations cater to families around the country. Of them, only the Vegas location on Paradise Road has a casino (and a topless revue).

Naturally there is crossover of timeshare owners with kids, so Westgate Las Vegas offers a limited selection of entertainment and activities that appeal to the little ones. Shows like Magic of Jen Kramer…and Dirk Arthur before her. Dining at the glorious gardens of Benihana Village. And yes, weekend mermaid classes.

I’ll admit to initially being tempted to toss this press release into the trash folder. But “only in Vegas” experiences should be treasured. So after a long night of partying with the guys, I donned my shades and took the elevator down to Westgate’s expansive third-floor pool deck to meet Mermaid Farasha and the little ones who had lined up for that morning’s class.

Mermaid Farasha DesertSiren goes by the name of Farasha Millner when in human form. A professional belly dancer and mermaid performer, Ms. Farasha travels with her mobile tank and seashell to entertain, educate and promote the “Mermaid Code of Ethics”. In other words, she’s a positive role model for youngsters…and anyone in need of a little course correction through the sea of life.

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I was able to briefly meet Mermaid Farasha before the morning’s class and she was indeed glowing with compliments and positive vibes. “Oooh, you give off a great energy” she cooed in my ear. “You’d make a great mer-man”. Yes, I really was blushing.

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Although the Desert Siren was eager to begin, one fledgling mermaid had already been waiting long before anyone else arrived. Nine year old Carson Parker of Florida was up at the crack of dawn…and ready to slip into her fin.

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Accompanied by great aunt Becky Knowles (left) and aunt Kelli Wilkin, Carson was staying at Westgate while mother Melissa Parker, the reigning Mrs. Florida America, was competing in the Mrs. America Pageant. That event was being held the same weekend at the off-Strip resort.

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With her mother in rehearsal for the evening’s show, Carson was eager to learn some new tricks in the water. As fortunes would have it, Carson was already an avid mermaid-er. Adept at doing front flips, she regularly practices at the family’s pool in Melbourne.

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Word had gotten out to Vegas locals about the new classes, too. Seven-year-old Dionni signed up after her mother Tavia heard about Mermaid School from a Facebook friend…who in turn saw a piece on local station KTNV. She proudly posed with her new mermaid fin and couldn’t wait to begin.

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          Seven year old Dionni was eager to go “Under The Sea” in Mermaid School…

Also attending that weekend was Abbie Losch, aka “Mermaid Coral”. You may remember Abbie as the adventurous daughter of Westgate’s own superstar Chef Aaron Losch, whom I profiled earlier this year.

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                   Abbie Losch makes a striking mermaid at Westgate’s pool…

Inside the pool’s merchandise shop, other youngsters were lining up to buy or rent their fins. Some were singing from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”, whose soundtrack would soon be playing over and over (and over) on speakers during the morning’s lessons.

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The class began with a preliminary introduction and explanation of basics for the newbies. The students were assisted in learning to don and stand in their fins. Then came introductions all around. The young ladies were asked to choose a personal mermaid name, then the real fun began.

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After a brief absence, the Desert Siren returned to the pool in full mermaid regalia and shimmied into the pool. Along with showing her students new maneuvers, Farasha emphasized the importance of support, encouragement and respect for each other and one’s own self.

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“You’re in control. You are beautiful. In the mermaid’s world we support one another” she told them. The students learned how to tread water, give a “tail salute” and speak seafaring lingo like “Shello!”. But most of all, they learned how to be feminine, graceful and kind. “There’s so much you can do with this. You are a Mer!”.

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As the class wound down, curious onlookers came over to see what Mermaid School was all about and pose for pictures. Then a young boy swam over to chat to Mermaid Farasha about being a mer-man. “I love your British accent, handsome!”. Yes, the classes are open to boys as well.

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If interest continues to grow, there’s a possibility of adding adult groups into the mix. And why not? Apparently this is a new social movement. Mermaid Schools are popping up all over the country. And they’re a nice fit to Westgate’s other poolside offerings like sunrise yoga classes (Friday-Sunday from 7 am to 8 am, weather permitting) and the Silent Savana sunset sessions I told you about here.

Despite Farasha‘s suggestion that I try on the fins myself, I’ll leave that kind of fun to the younger guests. I’ll be content just to sip a fireball mojito and watch the activities from The Playground, Westgate’s 21-and-up dayclub that I told you about here.

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      Kate’s Island Shop at Westgate’s retail corridor has gotten into the mermaid spirit…

That’s what’s so great about Sin City. There’s something for every taste. And just when you think you’ve seen and done it all, another WTF press release will appear in your in-box. Let’s hope the next one isn’t “Mariah Carey Extends Latest Residency”. There’s got to be a limit to the madness!

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All participants agreed to being interviewed and their guardians signed waivers for press coverage…

Tickets for Mermaid Class are available at Serenity Spa at Westgate’s 3rd floor pool deck. Call 702-732-5648 to purchase tickets by phone. Classes are capped at 15 students.

  • Ages: 7-12. [Participants must know how to swim/parent or guardian must be present during the duration of the class and sign Mermaid School waiver.]

  • Price: $25.00 per class

  • Dates/Time: Saturdays & Sundays from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. 

Photos: Sammasseur, Jamie Losch