Westgate Resorts has beautiful vacation properties all over the globe. But for the past few years, the Orlando location has been the go-to spot. Though the resort is extraordinary, one weekend a year it bleeds red, white and blue.
This December, Westgate brought more than 1,000 military families to its property for a free vacation weekend filled with performances, demonstrations and more. It’s more than a give-back for the organization, though. It’s personal.
Mark Waltrip, Westgate Resorts chief operation officer, served 20 years in the Air Force – 11 active duty and nine in the reserves.
“I enlisted in 1979 and achieved the rank of staff sergeant before being selected for the Airman’s Educational Commissioning Program, an academic scholarship program that sent me to the University of Colorado,” he said. “I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering.”
After graduation, he was selected to attend the Air Force Officers Training School, where he was the Distinguished Graduate and awarded a regular commission as an Air Force officer. He retired from the Air Force in 1999 as a captain.
His time in the military was life changing, he said.
“It opened my life to the path that has led me to where I am today,” Waltrip said. “I was extremely blessed to have never stood in harm’s way, but I have served with many military members who have. I’ve earned a deep appreciation for what the sacrifices they and their families have made in service to our country.”
This appreciation led to him writing and producing a song for country artist Lee Greenwood. “A Hero’s Walk” is a haunting story of lessons in gratitude and honor.
“It was based on a story he told me about a young sergeant he met on a USO tour who lost his legs in an IED attack,” Waltrip said. “When Lee told him, ‘Thank you for your service’, the sergeant replied, ‘Don’t thank me, I lost six of my men.’
“I believe this epitomizes the character of our military members. No matter how or where we served, every one of us knows someone who gave more than we did, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. This is why many of us may seem uncomfortable when someone thanks us for our service.”
For the past 11 years, Westgate Resorts has used the weekend in December to give back to these families and more. It’s an event he personally looks forward to each year.
“These events and the great work of our foundation are what makes Westgate Resorts so unique and special,” Waltrip said. “We are a company that is founded on this one simple premise: we have the important responsibility of being the custodian of the vacation memories of the families that visit our resorts.
“We need the very best service-oriented team members to fulfill this promise, and who better than those who give freely of their own time to help others in our community? These events not only attract and retain these types of team members, but it gives them a great sense of personal pride and fulfillment.”
Waltrip said that “from first-hand experience,” he knows most military families couldn’t afford the vacations that Westgate Resorts offers.
“And just as important, they get to spend it with other military families in an environment where they are being celebrated for their service,” he said. “Just think about the last friendships they are making at this event, and how they must feel when they see their children having fun at the family events. This is definitely a vacation memory they will carry for the rest of their lives.”