LAKE BUENA VISTA Resort caters to military families

Servicemen and their families get great vacations at reduced rates.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) -- While Walt Disney World resorts brace for fewer guests because of the war in Iraq, one resort at the theme park haven is expecting business to be brisk for the next several months.
War hasn't caused any drop in reservations at Shades of Green, one of only four resort facilities run by the U.S. Army that cater to military families.
"We're seeing the reverse, people saying, 'I may be deployed in a couple of months. I'd like to take my family on vacation before I go,'" said Melissa Colvin, director of hotel operations for Shades of Green.
All too aware
The guests at Shades of Green are acutely aware that their buddies, sons and daughters are fighting in the Iraqi desert or are on a ship in the Persian Gulf. And some of those guests could be shipped off to the same place too, soon.
"Naturally, you want to be there," said 2nd Lt. Bryan Brady, 33, a platoon leader with the Army National Guard in Pennsylvania who was staying recently at Shades of Green with his wife, Regina, and 5-year-old son, Ian. "It's hard when they're over there and I'm here."
Many of the guests sport crew cuts 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 luxury 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.
Occupancy rates
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 of 71 percent in February, a 10 percent decline from the same time last year, according to Smith Travel Research. The hotels in the Disney area have the highest occupancy rates in metro Orlando.
Despite being a getaway where soldiers and their families can escape the worries of the conflict, the war does come up during poolside conversations.
"Some people have a general sense of guilt because we're here on vacation," said Lisa McCann, whose husband, Chris, is a chief petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard in St. Petersburg. The couple stayed at Shades of Green with their 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
"I think people are more reserved, a little apprehensive," she said.
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 that amount.
"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. It already has two swimming pools, two tennis courts and it is adjacent to two golf courses.
The U.S. Army got into the resort business after World War II when U.S. soldiers confiscated Nazi property in southern Bavaria. Those properties were turned into destination resorts for military personnel. Currently, the Army operates four hotels in Garmisch and Chiemsee.
In 1972, the U.S. Army opened the Hale Koa Hotel in Waikiki, Hawaii, and the Dragon Hill Lodge in Seoul 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 Inn
Disney officials agreed to lease the Disney Inn to the Army for three years in 1994.
But the resort proved to be such a success, posting an average occupancy rate of 95 percent, 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 aren't funded by taxpayers, Isaacs said.
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