While Walt Disney World resorts brace for fewer guests because of continuing economic declines and lingering effects of terrorism and the war in Iraq, one resort near the theme park is expecting business to be brisk for months to come.
There hasn't been a drop in reservations at Shades of Green, one of only four resort facilities run by the Army that caters to military families.
The guests at Shades of Green are acutely aware that their buddies, sons and daughters are stationed in Iraq or are on a ship in the Persian Gulf. And some of those guests could be shipped off to those posts as replacements.
Many of the guests sport telltale military haircuts at Shades of Green, which opened in 1994 to the families of any member of the armed services, the National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard, civilian employees of the Department of Defense and military retirees.
It offers cut-rate prices for upscale hotel rooms and discounts on theme park tickets. Everything is tax-free, and lower-ranking visitors pay cheaper rates.
Almost 300 families at one time can stay at the resort. Rank doesn't matter for those wanting a room because reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. There typically is a six-to-eight-month waiting list at any given time.
Shades of Green has an occupancy rate of more than 95 percent. By contrast, other hotels in the vicinity of Walt Disney World had average occupancy rates in the 70 percent range this winter, according to Smith Travel Research. The hotels in the Disney area have the highest occupancy rates in metro Orlando.
Room rates are determined by military grade. Lower-ranking military personnel pay only $70 a night for a standard room. Higher-ranking personnel pay just over $100 a night. Comparable rooms at other hotels near Disney can cost three times those amounts.
"The younger folks are able to take a great vacation at a cheaper price," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Boyd Ashcraft of Kokomo, Ind., who was visiting the resort with his wife, Beverly, daughter and two grandchildren. "A lot of them are paid salaries that aren't very far from qualifying for food stamps."
Guests of Shades of Green currently are staying in temporary housing, an annex of the Disney-owned Contemporary Resort across the street from Magic Kingdom's Space Mountain ride, while the Army-owned 287-room resort undergoes a $90-million expansion to double its size.
The renovated Shades of Green, which is scheduled to reopen in December, will have 586 rooms, a banquet hall, a new lobby and a water fountain at the entrance holding a flag from each branch of service and POW and U.S. flags in the center.
The resort already has two swimming pools, two tennis courts and is adjacent to two golf courses.
The Army got into the resort business after World War II, when GIs confiscated Nazi property in southern Bavaria. Those properties were turned into resorts for military personnel. Currently, the Army operates four hotels in Garmisch and Chiemsee.
In 1972, the Army opened the Hale Koa Hotel in Waikiki, Hawaii, and the Dragon Hill Lodge in Seoul, Korea, opened in 1990.
By the early 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the removal of many troops from Europe, Army officials decided it was time to build a resort in the continental United States. Orlando was the top choice in a market survey of soldiers.
"What we discovered was although Orlando is one of the top travel destinations, a lot of the people in the military never went. They believed it was beyond their economic means," said Pete Isaacs, chief operating officer for the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center in Alexandria, Va.
Disney officials agreed to lease what was then named the Disney Inn to the Army, for three years, beginning in 1994. But the resort proved to be such a success that the Army purchased the resort in 1996 for $43-million. The Army has a 100-year lease of the land from Disney.
All the Army resorts are financially self-sufficient and are not funded by taxpayers, Isaacs said.
For more information on the resorts, go to the Web sites www.armymwr.com and www.shadesofgreen.org.