Walt Disney World Military Family Vacation Guide
Planning a trip to Walt Disney World doesn’t need to be stressful. This post is a complete guide to help break down, step by step, how to plan the best vacation for your Military Family. Whether you’re Active Duty, Retired, Reservist, or an Honorably Discharged Veteran, this post has you covered.
Where to begin when planning a Walt Disney World Military Family Vacation?
The first question I always ask someone when they’re planning a Walt Disney World trip is, When are you wanting to go? Followed up by, Do you know where you want to stay? Do you know how long you plan to stay? Are you planning a break day? How many park days are you wanting to do? Don’t worry, all of these things will be explained.
1. Check Your Dates
Just like pretty much anything else, timing is everything when planning your Walt Disney World vacation. As of June 2020, the Walt Disney World Resort now requires theme park reservations in order to enter any of the four theme parks.
Because of this, I always tell people to check their preferred travel dates to make sure that those days are still available. You can check the theme park reservation availability calendar on Disney’s website. If you have specific dates, it’s best to book your trip as early as possible. But know that in order to make theme park reservations, you have to have purchased your park tickets. *More detail on theme park reservations below
2. Book Your Hotel
So you’ve checked your dates. Now, where do you plan on staying?
When looking at hotels, are your dates set in stone or are they flexible? Depending on the answer to that, you might want to compare your options. If this is your first time planning a Walt Disney World trip, you may or may not know what all your hotel options are. Depending on your Military status, you may have more affordable options than you are aware of.
Shades of Green
My number one suggestion for Military families on where to stay when planning a Walt Disney World vacation is Shades of Green. If you’ve never heard of Shades of Green, do yourself a favor and read the related links to the right, for ALL the details.
But for a quick run-down. Shades of Green is a resort ON Disney Property and is just for Military Members and their families. This includes Active Duty, Retired, National Guard, Reservists, Honorably Discharged Veterans, DoD employees, and a few more. For more eligibility information, read Shades of Green eligibility details.
Shades of Green is going to be THE best bang for your buck when it comes to hotels in the Orlando area. Rates are based on rank and/or category type. It is also one of the few non-Disney-owned resorts where you can get all of the same benefits as guests who are staying at Disney Resort Hotels; without the hefty price tag. But, because it is not “technically” a Disney Resort, it doesn’t have that Disney feel that the Disney Resorts have.
Disney Resort Hotels
If you are wanting to be fully immersed in the “Disney Bubble’, then staying at a Disney Resort Hotel might be the way to go. Disney does offer a Military Room Discount for most of the Disney Resort Hotels. The discount is subject to availability and there are some exclusions and fine print so make sure you read the Offer Details before you call and ask for Military discounted room rates.
The room discount is also only for Active Duty, Retired, Reservists, National Guard, Coast Guard (and a couple others). If you aren’t eligible for the Military Room Discount or the resort you are looking for isn’t available with the Military Room Discount, know that you should check the Special Offers tab when booking a Disney Resort Hotel. Disney often releases special promotions throughout the year. At the time you’re booking your resort, if there isn’t a current promotion available, book your resort anyway. Keep checking back to see if a promotion does become available during your travel dates. If a promotion becomes available, you will want to call Disney and have them apply the promotion to your reservation so you can be sure to save your money!
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Armed Forces Vacation Club
My last hotel suggestion is really only if you can’t get a room at Shades of Green and/or the Disney Resort Hotels are out of your price range. Or, if you are looking for a hotel with more space because you’re traveling with a large party. So my suggestion is to look into the Armed Forces Vacation Club. If you don’t know what the AFVC is, it’s a FREE membership specifically for Military Service Members – All Veterans, Past or Present, and DoD employees. The membership allows you to book a week long (or shorter) vacations at hundreds of resorts all over the world for a DEEPLY discounted price.
A lot of the resorts have kitchenettes, suites, 1 bedroom villas, and many other options that Shades of Green doesn’t have and are much cheaper than Disney Resorts. However, If you look at the image above, the yellow circle roughly represents the Walt Disney World Resort. And you can see all the resort markers for the AFVC locations. All of them will be considered “Off Property”, and therefore you won’t be able to take advantage of any of the Disney Resort Guest perks that you would otherwise get by staying at Shades of Green or a Disney Resort Hotel. But! You could potentially save a lot of money.
TIP: There are MANY different options on the AFVC website. Make sure you research each resort’s shuttle policy to/from the parks because they may or may not have one; and if not, you will have to come up with a plan on how to get back and forth to the parks.
3. Purchase Your Park Tickets
When planning your Walt Disney World Military Family Vacation, it is going to be a little different than if you booked your whole vacation directly through Disney. Since the only way you can purchase discounted Military tickets in advance; either at Shades of Green or an ITT/MWR ticket office on base, you will have to do everything in individual steps.
For Military Service Members and their families, there are a couple discounted theme park tickets available. There are discounted tickets available for Honorably Discharged Veterans. They are not as discounted as the Military Salute Tickets (which are for Active Duty, Retired, Reserves, National Guard) but for a family of four, the discounted tickets that Veterans can buy can save you upwards of $600!
An important factor to consider before you purchase your theme park tickets, is how many days do you plan to be in the parks? Do you plan to have a break day? With the Military Salute Tickets, you only have the option of either 4 or 5 days Hopper tickets, whereas, with the Magic Your Way Tickets, you can purchase 1 to 10-day park tickets. Depending on how long you plan to stay or how long you booked your hotel, you may or may not want to plan for a break day. Personally, my family always likes a down day, where we can sleep in, hang out by the pool, and go to Disney Springs.
A few other things you can add to your tickets that you might want to consider are the Water Park & Sports options and the new Disney Genie+ add-on.
The Water Park & Sports option definitely is a fun extra for your trip but isn’t “necessary” by any means. If you’re planning a long trip and are really wanting to do the most, the Water Park & Sports option allows you to choose any experience for how many park days you purchased. So not just theme parks, but you would get to choose between those as well as the two Water Parks, ESPN World Wide of Sports Complex, Miniature Golf and FootGolf at Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course.
And then your other option is to add the new Disney Genie+ add-on package. Disney Genie+ has replaced what was formerly known as Fast Pass+. This add-on allows you to book Lightning Lane selections throughout your park day. For more details, pricing information, and tips and tricks on using Disney Genie+, click on the link below.
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4. Link Your Theme Park Tickets
Once you’ve purchased and received your Military discounted theme park tickets, you will have to link them to your My Disney Experience account. If you haven’t been to Walt Disney World recently (or ever) you will have to set up your account and add all the members of your family/party. You will then add a theme park ticket for everyone who is traveling in your party.
5. Theme Park Reservations
As I said before, now in order to enter any Disney theme park, you must have a Theme Park Reservation. You can only make theme park reservations once you have purchased and linked your theme park tickets to you My Disney Experience account. You can make your theme park reservations on the My Disney Experience app or on a computer.
Once you’re on the reservation window page, you will select your party (everyone that has been assigned a theme park ticket) and then select the date and park for EACH day you want to enter that selected park. If you purchased a hopper ticket, you DO NOT need to make a theme park reservation for a park you want to hop to later in the day.
6. Advance Dining Reservations
Now that you’ve reserved your hotel, bought park tickets, and made your theme park reservations, your next reservation(s) you will want to make are your Advance Dining Reservations (also know as ADRs). Advance Dining Reservations are VERY important if you plan to eat at pretty much any Table Service restaurant on Walt Disney World property. Some Table Service restaurants can be EXTREMELY hard to secure an Advance Dining Reservation for.
Reservations can be made on the My Disney Experience app or online on the Disney Dining page. Advance Dining Reservations can be made 60 Days in advance, starting at 5:45am EST. For guests staying at Disney Resort Hotels OR Shades of Green, ADRs can be made 60 days prior to their check-in date PLUS the length of their trip (up to 10 days). Off Property guests will have to log on each day as it is 60 days out to book dining reservations.
Pro Tip: If you are wanting to book a super popular Table Service restaurant like Cinderella’s Royal Table, Sci-Fi Dine-In Theatre or Oga’s Cantina, try and book a day further into your trip versus that very first day. Your day 2, 3 or 4 (61, 62 or 63 days out) will have more reservation windows because less people are competing for all of the available time slots on day 60. When looking at the time slots, toggle between all of the different times. Don’t just tap “lunch” if you’re wanting to eat at Noon. Tap every single time slot because often a time that wasn’t there before will all of the sudden pop up.
Another tip if you’re trying to book a popular restaurant is to search directly for that Table Service restaurant. Either on the My Disney Experience app or online, search for that specific restaurant and you will see the “Reserve Dining” or “Check Availability” option. This way you wont waste time scrolling to get to that specific restaurant.
7. Schedule All The Final Details
The last couple things you might want to pre-plan before your Walt Disney World trip are things like airport transportation, grocery delivery, pre-buy souvenirs and/or purchase gift cards.
Transportation is a pretty important planning aspect. If you are flying in to Orlando International Airport, you have a couple options. Regardless if you are staying at Shades of Green or a Disney Resort Hotel (Disney’s Magical Express is NO longer), you can book a private car service, MEARS shuttle service, the new Sunshine Flyer or Tiffany Towncar. Shades of Green has just been added to the list of Walt Disney World Resort Hotels that the Sunshine Flyer makes stops to. Routes to Shades of Green already include a 10% Military Discount (*There is no current Military discount on routes to Disney Resort Hotels). Tiffany Towncar is another popular option with Military families, which offers a Military discount and you can call in advance to set up a car seat or booster seat.
Another important tip that can help you save some money and stick to a budget is by making a grocery delivery order prior to your arrival. Especially if you are staying at a Disney Resort, you will want to pre-order things like water bottles, snacks, juices or soda (or anything else your family might need). These things in the parks and in the Disney Resort shops are SOOOOO expensive. Lots of families place orders through Amazon Prime, Walmart Grocery Delivery, InstaCart, or Vacation Grocery Delivery – which is a local company ran by laid-off Disney Cast Members.
And finally, my last tip(s) are to pre-buy items. Items like gift cards, Disney clothing, hats, Minnie ears, toys, bubble wands etc.
Shopdisney often has sales throughout the year on things in the parks that you otherwise would have to pay full price for. Many times I’ve gone on and pre-bought Minnie ears because they were on sale, at a much cheaper price than in the parks.
Buying Disney gift cards are a great idea because they not only help keep you within a budget or let you know how much you’ve spent, I also like to get them for my kids so they know how much money they have to spend on souvenirs or snack items.
Also, if you are a member to wholesale stores like Costco, Sam’s Club or Bj’s Wholesale, you can buy Disney gift cards for 3-5% off the face value. Or if you have a Target RedCard you can save 5% on Disney gift cards. This is a great way to buy “Disney Cash” as we call it in my family, and gift them to your kids for birthdays or holidays. I also like to buy them to pay off our Disney Resort balance. A $2,000 resort bill less 3% by buying Disney gift cards at Costco could save you $60! That’s money you could be putting towards something else!
8. Purchase The Memory Maker
For $98, Military families can purchase the Memory Maker at a huge discount – normally $169! The Memory Maker gives you Unlimited Downloads of Disney PhotoPass photos and ride photos. It is good for the length of your trip and the pictures stay on your account for 365 days! It is hands down the best decision you will make for your Walt Disney World vacation. To have a trained photographer, use an actual camera, take multiple pictures of you and your family, is so much better than trying to flag down a complete stranger to hopefully take a half way decent photo on your smart phone.
To purchase the Memory Maker, you have to go to a Guest Relations window or any Ticket window within Walt Disney World and have your Military ID present in order to receive the discount.
Spreading magic one post at a timeKristin