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Between mid-March and the end of April, school music groups from around the country travel to central Florida to take part in the WorldStrides OnStage Heritage Festival at Universal Orlando Resort, where education meets fun in the sun and more.

I’ve enjoyed visiting the resort the past few years, watching as their educational offerings expand from parades to festivals and workshops. I also like taking non-work trips there with my family. Universal Orlando Resort offers a lot to see, do and of course, eat, at pretty reasonable prices for a theme park destination in central Florida. I delighted in a second stay at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, enjoying the convenience of the water taxi from the hotel to Universal CityWalk, for park access or dining. My first night in town, I attended the Blue Man Group show again, daring to sit a little bit closer to the stage this time. That show never fails to entertain and should be part of any well-rounded trip to Universal Orlando Resort.

This year, I even ventured into Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville for a proverbial cheeseburger in paradise, and learned that, even though it does not open to the public for breakfast, the restaurant will host school groups for breakfast or other group meals, which would certainly be convenient if there were a nearby performance in the morning, workshop, or festival event in one of the parks or at CityWalk.

I also had the chance to walk all around the all-new Universal’s Volcano Bay water theme park, amazed at the spectacular array of water park rides and innovations it has to offer, along with convenience and comfort items, from lockers to private cabana rentals and more. The park is adjacent to my other favorite hotel there, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, so if my family and I go back when the weather is warmer with plans to spend time at Volcano Bay, returning to Cabana Bay makes the most sense. If you’re taking your students to the resort and plan to add this awesome new water park to the itinerary, staying at Cabana Bay is the obvious choice.

Now, as much fun as all this sounds, I gained another level of appreciation for band directors, parents, and others chaperoning large groups of teens to an amusement resort. This was not a vacation for me, I was there all day to observe the performances of some amazing student groups, listen to their adjudicators give post-performance mini-clinics, and see just what it takes for WorldStrides OnStage Heritage Festival and Universal Orlando Resort to create an overall awesome experience for music students that will create a lifetime of memories.

The festival host was Laurel Osai, the 11-year veteran director of sales at WorldStrides OnStage. I asked her what it was like working with Universal Orlando as a festival location. “It has been phenomenal to have more park options for the students. Universal Orlando has been amazing, providing a professional stage crew, and sound crew. It’s a true partnership, and the experience for the directors overall has been taken to the next level. Especially, as you’ll see tonight, at our awards ceremony at Toon Lagoon Amphitheater in Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Universal Orlando puts on a huge production just for Heritage Festival attendees, with dancers and performers and characters, which has revamped our entire Orlando festival package. We are so grateful for our partnership, and it’s been an amazing experience.”

I asked Laurel if the festival package was more exciting to students being at Universal Orlando Resort versus some other locations, and she replied, “Absolutely. Our festival package now includes the multi-day park-to-park [Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure] tickets. Also, festival attendees will stay on the Universal Orlando Resort property – another amazing benefit. Being able to perform with the festival onsite at Universal Studios Florida maximizes their time in the park, they kind of get that behind the scenes feel at Universal Orlando, and they’re able just to walk into the park from there. So those things have really revamped the way that we do the package, and the groups really love it, and they’ve taken advantage of that experience.”

Eric Marshall, vice president of park sales, echoed the feelings about working with WorldStrides, saying, “With the opening of Cabana Bay, and some of the things that we did with music, it went from a relationship where we just did one component, which was basically tickets and awards, to this complete experience, that’s staying on-site, that’s competing in our sound stages, awards, multi-day tickets. So, it’s really been a great evolution of the relationship, and we’re really proud of the festival experience that we’ve put together.”

I watched several festival performances from early morning until early afternoon, and saw some amazing student groups, from concert bands, to orchestras, even guitar ensembles. Each of these excited groups received an informative and detailed mini-clinic at the end, helping the students and their directors gain insight into techniques to make their performances better.

I asked Laurel to share more with me about the adjudicators today, and their experience with WorldStrides OnStage Heritage Festivals. She said, “They’re part of our hand-selected network of adjudicators that we train annually in our WorldStrides OnStage adjudication philosophy. Many of them have partnered with us for decades. For example, we have Barry Bernhardt here, director of bands at FIU [Florida International University]. Barry is part of our WorldStrides family – he has been with us since ‘85, pretty much from the beginning of Heritage Festivals.” I also asked her if a group will have different adjudicators if they come back next year. “Yeah, that’s a really good question. If a group comes every year to Orlando, there might be some repeats, but we really try to have a variety. Sometimes we have local adjudicators, like Barry for example, who is from Miami, but we often fly adjudicators in to a festival site. Each ensemble is adjudicated by a panel of three – so out of that three, there is a chance they might work with an adjudicator they’ve worked with before, but more than likely an ensemble who attends every year will see a variety of adjudicators.”

I watched the day’s final festival performances by the classical guitar ensembles from Potomac Falls High School in Sterling, Virginia, in awe of what I was seeing and hearing from these students. Their director, William Hart Wells, is director of guitar at the school, which offers four levels of guitar in their curriculum, beginning, intermediate level, advanced, and artist level. I asked Wells to tell me about his experience with WorldStrides Onstage. “We do a trip with my guitar students every single year,” he said, “but we mix up what type of trip we do, or what style of trip. And so, every third year we do what I call the “competition trip,” where we come and play for a panel of judges. In terms of WorldStrides OnStage Heritage Festivals, I was impressed with the judges and the adjudication, the level of event they provide for the students, the attention to detail that they have, both between the event coordinator that you work with throughout the year in terms of planning, setup, what you want to do specifically with your students, and being able to be flexible and making things work literally to an individual school has been a dream. Laurel, our site host, I’ve been with her the last two trips that we’ve done, this year and three years ago, and she’s been incredibly wonderful. I cannot sing her praises enough because three years ago, I literally made like, the biggest gaff a director could, in terms of our competition, because I had all of our students meeting for lunch at CityWalk, and we had to be back in the park like, an hour later. Yeah, it was the first time I’d ever brought students to Universal Orlando. I called Laurel and I was like, “I’m so sorry!” I had students running with food all through the parks. I cannot sing World- Strides’ praises enough. It’s our second time at Universal Orlando.” With the growth of the festival programs, and Universal Orlando Resort’s expanding educational offerings such as performances, parades, and their “Sound Design: Music and the Art of Foley” workshops, resort hotel space is getting tight. For instance, the current student-favorite, Cabana Bay Beach Resort stays at or near full occupancy most of the year. In fact, Cabana Bay saw a 400-room expansion recently open to handle the reservation demand.

I had the chance to learn more about how the company is addressing this, and spoke at length to Vince LaRuffa, senior vice president of resort sales and marketing. Fun fact, Vince is also a drummer, with musical kids, so he “gets it.” Vince said, “My role is to manage and sell the hotel portfolio. Prior to opening Cabana Bay, we had relatively little [accommodations] involvement in youth groups of any kind, primarily because the price point was somewhat prohibitive of the hotel product that we had at the time. With Cabana Bay, that really opened things up to make Universal Orlando an even better, more robust destination for youth groups, because now we can house the kids here, and in an environment that’s teen friendly, that’s safe, it’s a contained destination. And you know, there are elements at Cabana Bay that just lend themselves really beautifully to youth groups. You have a variety of food options at affordable prices, you have the bowling alley, you have the lazy river, the waterslide. I mean, it’s just a lot...two pools. It’s the perfect type of destination hotel for groups of youth. Universal’s Aventura Hotel will open in August of this year. It will have 600 rooms. That hotel is being built across the street from Cabana Bay, and adjacent to Sapphire Falls. The hotel is a prime value hotel, which is the same category as Cabana Bay. The standard rooms at Cabana Bay will equal the standard room rate at Aventura. So, it’ll be the second hotel that we have in that price category and in that category. Aventura is gonna be different type of experience than Cabana Bay. It’s a little quieter. So, it’s a little more sophisticated, in that it has kind of a minimalist type of design. A lot of light, white walls and more modernistic furniture. You’ll have a full-blown Starbucks, just like at Cabana Bay, in the lobby of that hotel. You’ll have a food hall that has four different stations. There’ll be a rooftop bar and restaurant, that I think also the kids will get a kick out of, because we will be serving food up there, and it is family friendly. And the views from the 17-floors up are pretty spectacular. You know, Cabana Bay’s a lot of fun. It’s a high-energy place. Not every guest is looking for that. Some guests will go to the park, experience the energy that they get at the park, and when they come back at night they want something a little quieter, and Aventura will fit the bill for that. We are on a very aggressive growth path, as you can see. When you consider that, you know, we’ve added significant hotel inventory in the last couple years, the plan is to continue to grow the destination.”

And speaking of growth, I learned that Universal Orlando Resort has announced even more budget-friendly accommodation options, across Interstate 4, on International Drive, meaning a school that perhaps could not afford a festival package that let them stay at an onsite property and enjoy all of its benefits, will soon be able to do so. Staying on International Drive will provide some additional meal planning options for directors budgeting a large student group, combining benefits for staying offsite, with, for the first-time-ever, the benefits of an onsite resort.

Vince further elaborated on this exciting option with these details: “There will be 2,800 rooms total. That will open in essentially two phases, the first in 2019, and it’ll be complete in 2020. Those hotels have a lighter, kind of a sand and surf type of theme. The new hotel complex will be known as Universal’s Endless Summer Resort. It will feature two hotels: Surfside Inn and Suites and Dockside Inn and Suites. So, the nicest thing about these hotels is they have a tremendous location, access to everything we offer here at Universal Orlando, because it includes resort-wide transportation, it includes Early Park Admission, all the same benefits you get currently at our existing hotels, but at a more affordable price. And it also enjoys a really interesting spot there at the intersection of Universal Boulevard and International Drive.”

In addition to all of the awesome amenities of choosing a WorldStrides/Universal Orlando festival package, such as staying on-site at a Universal Orlando Resort hotel, early park admission, complimentary transportation, lots of great meal options, not to mention the awesome way park employees are trained to work with any students with special needs, WorldStrides Onstage Heritage Festival packages include two-day, Park-to-Park tickets for every participant, festival performances, and an exciting awards ceremony in the park. The overall festival experience, the quality post-performance mini-clinics with experienced adjudicators, the in-park performance experiences, and let’s face it, the main attraction for the kids, the roller coasters and rides, make planning a trip to Universal Orlando Resort to participate in a WorldStrides OnStage Heritage Festival worth the planning and the trip from all angles.

“At WorldStrides OnStage we’re passionate about taking students outside of the classroom to perform on stages throughout the world. We partner with music educators to give their students performance opportunities that they may not otherwise be a part of,” said Chad Slater, VP of WorldStrides OnStage. “The adjudication is really the heart of the entire festival. Our directors often tell us that they love the “ahha” moment the students experience when they get feedback that clicks.”

“The Orlando Heritage Festival is one of our director favorites because the city is amazing, and Universal Orlando does a really great job of making our festival participants feel special.”

For more information, visit worldstrides.com/itineraries/orlando-heritage-festival/ and universalorlandoyouth.com.



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