Stellar talent raises awareness and funds to combat opioid crisis through ‘Victoria’s Voice Foundation’
Ah, freedom…it feels so wonderful. Gone are the capacity limits, mask requirements and temperature checks. Restaurants are back to serving great meals, clubs are opening and entertainers have taken to the stage. As Las Vegas welcomes back conventions, sporting events and concerts, one of the first fundraisers out of the gate is MUSIC FOR LIFE: An Evening to Save Lives at Westgate Las Vegas.
If you caught my article from a few days ago, you know that June 5th will be an exciting evening with actor Mark Patton (A Nightmare On Elm Street 2) to benefit LGBTQ youth. As luck would have it, the star’s host hotel Westgate will have their own spectacular show on the same evening. On June 5th at 7 pm, a collection of world-renowned names will donate their talented vocals for Victoria’s Voice Foundation.
The story behind Victoria’s Voice is one of tragedy and inspiration. Westgate Resorts patriarch David A. Siegel and wife Jacqueline lost their lovely daughter Victoria to a drug overdose in 2015. Only 18 years old at the time, Victoria left behind a secret diary that her parents found with the help of a friend. The grief-stricken parents decided to publish the diary, along with helpful resources, as a book. Their hope is that Victoria’s first-hand account might change the path of other youth facing the same demons.
In the ensuing six years, Victoria’s Voice Foundation has grown into a a massive initiative of projects, events, videos and resources. They’re aimed at ultimately ending the tragedies that result from drug dependency and abuse, especially in our young population. You can learn more about the services available from Victoria’s Voice Foundation by visiting here.
After the chaos of 2020, the nation needs charities like Victoria’s Voice more than ever. That’s why Westgate Las Vegas is bringing the power of entertainment to their International Theater for a one-night concert like no other:
Music For Life
A tribute to life, this momentous program aims to feature the country’s top talent and recognizable artists to parents and kids alike, such as AJ McLean of the Backstreet Boys, Chris Kirkpatrick of NSYNC, and Jeff Timmons of 98 Degrees, in one of the most exclusive venues in all of Las Vegas, The International Theater of Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.
Known to be the home of music icons Elvis Presley, Dionne Warwick and Barry Manilow, this venue now becomes the site where David and Jacqueline’s friends and partners will come together once again to take the mission to the next level.
An Evening to Save Lives: MUSIC FOR LIFE is a special event to support the critical mission of the Victoria’s Voice Foundation to end the opioid crisis and save our youth. The work of the foundation is even more urgent now as the current COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an alarming increase in the number of overdose-related deaths. All of your support and donations from this invitation-only event will help us continue our fight.
Music for Life is being produced by Johnny Wright, one of the most successful music executives in the industry. Wright has played a key role in the careers of multi-platinum acts like Janet Jackson, Menudo, Jonas Brothers, Backstreet Boys, Justin Timberlake and NSYNC. The concert line-up definitely reflects his background, with the inclusion of some significant performers from the boy band era.
World’s greatest party rocker DJ Lux will bring the crowd to its feet. Then Chris Blue, one of the brightest new stars on the scene, will take to the stage. Chris is the winner of season 12 of The Voice and is rising up the charts with his new single “Moon”. Watch the video here.
The roster of entertainers should thrill a broad spectrum of attendees. Fans of Detroit-style R & B can groove to the smooth, sultry sounds of Soul of Motown. This five-person act, which sets a new standard for tribute groups, just returned to Westgate Cabaret with their residency show. In addition, members Sean and Brandon Godfrey have risen to new heights with their NPerson duo gigs at Westgate’s International Bar.
Vocalists include Chris Kirkpatrick of NSYNC, AJ McLean of Backstreet Boys, and my personal favorite….Jeff Timmons of 98 Degrees. Jeff and I go back a number of years, and this Sin City mega-hunk is always ready to dive into charity events…especially ones that take place in his hometown.
To reserve your seats for this one-of-a-kind evening, follow this link. Tickets start at only $39.95 (plus taxes/fees). If you’d like to learn more about Victoria’s Voice Foundation, head here.
MUSIC FOR LIFE will be held Saturday June 5th at 7pm inside Westgate International Theater. Tickets start at $39.95 (plus taxes/fees).To better accommodate accessible ticket needs, Westgate Las Vegas Resort has requested that all special seating accommodations be solicited only through their representatives. Please contact a Westgate Las Vegas Resort representative for further help with your ticket purchase. Advance ticket purchase may be required. Telephone Number(s):702 732-5755 OR 800 222-5361
Embattled actor shares survival story that cuts deeper than fred kreuger’s glove…
It seems as though every horror movie franchise has an entry that’s perceived as the “red-headed stepchild”. There’s JASON X, in which Friday the 13th’s hockey-masked slasher is sent into space. HALLOWEEN 3 replaced Michael Myers with a mask-making Irish warlock (sounds absurd but is actually freaking awesome!).
Some of these films eventually gain a huge cult following for being ‘ahead of their time’. That’s exactly what happened to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: Freddy’s Revenge. A sequel to Wes Craven’s 1984 breakout hit, 1985’s homo-erotic Part 2 broke nearly all the rules. “Nancy”, the survivor of the first film, was written out and forgotten. Robert Englund‘s dream-stalking Fred Kreuger was now able to occupy the real world. But the most daring decision was to make Kreuger’s new target an awkward teenage boy.
That might not seem like such a big deal now, but remember that in the 80’s, Jamie Lee Curtis and other female “scream queens” were screeching their way to the top of box office and video rental charts. To complicate matters, Elm Street 2‘s sensitive male protagonist “Jessie Walsh” seemed to be (despite initial denials by the writer) more than just a little gay. He appeared to be PLENTY gay. And as it turned out, so was Mark Patton, the actor who brought Jessie to life.
I could delve into great detail on how Patton’s breakout role, combined with his closeted homosexuality, made life a living Hell for the young man. But you can relive it through Mark’s own words via the award-winning Scream, Queen – My Nightmare On Elm Street. This powerful documentary, which holds a 100% critics rating on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, dives deeply into Patton’s painful treatment, fan backlash, casting-director blacklisting, public slandering, and his eventual decision to leave Hollywood and the United States behind.
Decades later, Mark was found in Mexico by private investigators who were hired on behalf of NEVER SLEEP AGAIN. This four-hour Elm Street documentary (ironically spearheaded by Heather Langenkamp, the actress he replaced) allowed Patton to revisit his experiences on Part 2, which now carries the label of “gayest horror film ever made”. Thus began his journey back into the limelight, one that changed Mark’s personal outlook from “victim” to “survivor”….and eventually to “social activist”.
Patton believes that his personal survival of Hollywood homophobia can inspire today’s LGBTQ youth, so he’s coming to Las Vegas for a special screening of Scream, Queen. What’s more, he’s inviting a group of gay Las Vegas teens (some of them homeless) to attend. Cineloggia Movie Prop Museum Gallery, in conjunction with THE CENTER (also known as the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Las Vegas), will welcome these young people free of charge.
Mark Patton devotees, Elm Street enthusiasts, and the general public are invited to purchase tickets to Scream, Queen and two related events. Here’s the press release:
As you may remember from my previous articles, fan-centric events really are a hot ticket. I’ve covered the annual Star Trek Convention, told you about meet-and-greet opportunities at The 35 Cinema, and given you insider details on this year’s DAYS OF THE DEAD in downtown Las Vegas. Now Sin City cinephiles have the rare opportunity to spend a few intimate hours with horror cinema’s most reclusive trailblazer.
Westgate Las Vegas has graciously offered their services as host hotel for Mr. Patton during his first appearance in Sin City. The iconic resort will present MUSIC FOR LIFE, a benefit for Victoria’s Voice Foundation, on the same weekend. I’ll be providing information on that concert, which raises funds to combat America’s youth opioid crisis, in an upcoming article.
If you’d like to attend any or all of Cineloggia‘s Mark Patton/Scream, Queen weekend events, tickets can be ordered here. And if you’d like to offer support for THE CENTER, they always welcome sponsors, volunteers, supply donations, and financial aid. Click here to learn more about THE CENTER.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Director of ActivitiesDexter 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ManagerAndrew 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 PresidentBrian 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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!”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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?”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ChefRobert Walter), beer or cocktails.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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”.
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.