The Orlando International Airport is officially opening a USO Welcome Center for the hundreds of thousands of military members and their families who visit Central Florida annually. “Most people, when they think of USO, they think of [singer and entertainer] Bob Hope,” said Charles Rogers, chairman of the board of directors of USO Central Florida. “Or, they think of welcome centers at the airport.”
The welcome center, tucked away near ground transportation on Terminal A-side, is the first at the airport in 15 years. The last one closed due to a lack of donations brought on by the closing of the Orlando Naval Training Center in the mid-1990s. But with Orlando continuing to grow as a vacation destination, and military members obtaining discounts during their stays, their presence has grown. “A lot of it is driven by the fact that 750,000 people visit the Shades of Green facility a year,” said Rogers, speaking about the resort at Walt Disney World that offers discounted stays to military members. Rogers said military organizations informed him that about 700,000 military retirees, active-duty members and veterans also live in Central Florida.
The welcome center features a gaming center, a quiet room and a play room for kids. Some of those sections were sponsored and donated by Universal Orlando, Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando. The play room donated by SeaWorld features painted walls of coral reefs and fish. Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin also donated to help cover the starting costs of close to $1 million, higher than the first-projected cost of $750,000.
All food is free, and the center features a 14-seat granite counter table, accompanied with fridges full of microwavable meals, snacks and soda. At 3,100 square feet, the center is “not the largest, but is certainly one of the large ones,” said Rogers, who said that most airport welcome centers are between 750 and 1,500 square feet. “It’s wonderful because I’ve been through here a 100 times and I always wondered when they’re going to get a USO Welcome Center,” said Norman Niederman, a resident of Cape Canaveral and a retired member of the Air Force. “This is beautiful.”
Since its soft opening Aug. 25, the center has had 1,632 visitors, an average of about 63 per day. It’s open daily 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Military members, retirees and their family must show the proper identification at the front desk. Rogers said one man came in recently and signed in as a major general. “He said he’d been to 80 USOs around the world, and this is one of the best,” Rogers said.
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