If you are thinking about planning a trip to Walt Disney World or already have one in the works, this is a great launching point to help you stay organized and plan the best Walt Disney World vacation for your Military family.
If you are looking for a general step by step guide to planning a Walt Disney World Resort Vacation check out my Ultimate Planning Guide for Walt Disney World.
The Walt Disney World Military Family Vacation Guide
Where to stay
So my first tip when planning any Disney vacation is that you need to decide where you are going to stay. Where you stay is important because your resort is going to set the tone for your entire vacation. When planning a Walt Disney World vacation, where you stay is so much more than “just a place to sleep”. There are several things you want to keep in mind when choosing where you want to stay during your vacation. And that’s location to the parks, amenities, and price.
I know for my family having a hotel that is close by so we can quickly get back and forth is very important. We often take breaks and go back to our resort. We like to avoid the parks when they are overwhelmingly busy and the lines are unbearable. The middle of the day is also a nice time to get a break from the heat and enjoy a dip in the pool. At Walt Disney World you have three options; a Disney Resort Hotel, Shades of Green Resort, and any other Off-Property accommodation.
Staying at a Disney Resort Hotel
Your first option is to stay at a Disney Resort Hotel. Staying at a Disney Resort Hotel is going to be where you will experience the most magic during your vacation. The resorts are all themed differently and some have some truly amazing décor. However, they will most likely be the most expensive out of all your options. Disney does have multiple categories for its resorts that are all priced differently to fit all types of budgets.
Disney Resorts Hotels are broken out in to 5 price ranges:
*Depending on your dates of travel, room rates can vary
- Multiple campsite options including, tent or pop-up campsites and full RV hook-up
- Value Resorts
- Smaller rooms. Most standard rooms have 1 King Bed or 1 Queen Bed and 1 Queen Murphy Bed, the fewest amenities, quick service dining only and are further away from Magic Kingdom.
- Moderate Resorts
- Slightly larger rooms with 1 King Bed or 2 Queen Beds, some amenities, quick service and table service dining, better pools and are central to the 4 parks.
- Deluxe Resorts
- Largest of the standard rooms with 1 King Bed with a Day Bed, 2 Queen Beds, and some have 2 Queen Beds with one Day Bed. All have a wide array of amenities, a variety of quick-service options, table service, and lounge dining, have pools with water slides, and are closer to certain parks.
- Deluxe Villas
- Located in the same resorts as Deluxe priced rooms, these rooms often have a kitchenette or sleep more people.
Before you immediately cross off a Disney Resort Hotel from your list by assuming it will be more than your budget; know that Disney does offer a Military Room Discount for Active Duty and Retired Service Members and their families. In the past, these discounts were on a sliding scale and you could expect “up to” a certain percentage for each Resort Category. Now, you can expect a discount of up to 40% with no clear definition of how much of a discount it is per category. Keep in mind that in the past the higher percentage was for Deluxe resorts and lower percentage discounts for Value resorts. The discounts are “subject to availability” and there are restrictions; so not every resort or room type will be available during your travel dates. The link above has the full offer details, so be sure to read that before calling for a quote. Because of the limited availability that has been reported for the renewed 2022 Military Room Discount, it is best to not have your heart set on any one specific resort.
The only way to find out the Military rates for a Disney Resort Hotel is to call Disney directly at (407) 939-5684 and ask for a quote with the Military Room Discount.
Staying at a Disney Resort Hotel does give you several advantages. You will be ON Disney Property and in close proximity to all four theme parks; which as I said earlier is very important. Being closer to the parks means shorter times spent in transit, which means you’ll have more time to spend in the parks. Some of the Disney Resort Hotels have the most amazing pools that are fun and relaxing for the whole family. You can also find arcades in some resorts and some resorts even have a Spa where you can really unwind.
Then there are the actual benefits you will receive by being a Disney Resort Hotel Guest. Those benefits include Early Theme Park Entry, the ability to book Advanced Dining Reservations for the length of your trip (up to 10 days) 60 Days prior to your arrival, special “Pre-Arrival” prices on select Magicbands, 7am individual Lightning Lane selections, and Extended Evening Hours for Deluxe Resort Guests.
Staying at Shades of Green Resort
Your next option for resorts at Walt Disney World is to stay at the Shades of Green Resort. If you’ve never heard of Shades of Green, it is a resort ON Disney property (across the street from Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort) specifically for Military Service Members. Unlike the Military Room Discount for Disney Resort Hotels, Shades of Green is open to all Service Members, past or present. Any Veteran who Honorably served and has a DD214 can stay at Shades of Green in January or September. There are several different categories that a Service Member may fall into and is eligible to stay year round. For full details on the Shades of Green Resort and eligibility requirements click on the link below.
Since Shades of Green is located on Disney property; and even though it is one of the few Non-Disney owned resorts, resort guests will receive all of the same benefits as you would if you were staying at an “official” Disney Resort Hotel (except Pre Arrival Sale prices for Magicbands). Staying at Shades of Green will put you so close to Magic Kingdom, that you could even walk there if you wanted! You will also pay a fraction of the price compared to a Disney Resort Hotel. There are three different rate categories at Shades of Green. So depending on what category your rank falls into, you can save a lot by staying at Shades of Green. Or you might end up paying more if you are comparing the cost of Shades of Green to a Disney Value Resort.
If you are a Military Star Card member, know that you can use your Military Star Card to pay for your resort balance. You can also use your Military Star Card at the resort’s AAFES Exchange. Being able to utilize the Exchange is a huge money-saving aspect that many Military Members take advantage of. And know that if you ever receive those Military Star Card Rewards bucks in the mail, you can use them at the resort’s Exchange.
Your last option for Walt Disney World resort options is to stay Off-Property. Staying Off-Property can save you a decent amount of money depending on where you stay. I’ve heard of many Military families staying at a resort through the Armed Forces Vacation Club that are Disney “Good Neighbor” hotels; which means they’ve been given the Disney stamp of approval. You can find hotels with suites that can offer kitchenettes and sleep more people than a standard room. By booking through the Armed Forces Vacation Club you can stay for less than $100 a night at some of those Good Neighbor hotels.
These Good Neighbor hotels might be the cheapest option out of all three. Just keep in mind that you will want to check and see if that hotel offers shuttle service or not. And if so, is it a free shuttle, or is it something you have to pay for. You will also want to check and see if there is a schedule posted or contact the hotel directly to see how often the shuttle runs. Some Off-Property hotels only have a shuttle that runs to/from the hotel to the parks once every hour or so.
And by staying Off-Property know that you won’t get to take advantage of the extra hours in the parks or the extended dining reservation window. You will have to make each day of your trip’s dining reservations as that date is 60 Days in advance; so if you’re planning on going January 1st – 5th you will have to log on and make your reservations starting November 2nd, then again November 3rd, and again November 4th and so on and so forth. And if you plan on purchasing the individual Lightning Lane selections for the super popular rides like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance or Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, you will have to wait until the park officially opens whereas Disney Resort Hotel Guests & Shades of Green Resort Guests will be able to make their selections at 7am.
Every family’s vacation is different and what is important to me and my family, may not be important to yours. Make sure you do your research. If being close to the parks and immersing yourself in the “Disney Bubble” is what is important to you, call Disney and book that room! If you want to stay on Disney property but can’t justify the cost, stay at Shades of Green. And if you need more space to spread out and booking multiple rooms at Shades of Green is more money than you’re comfortable with, take advantage of the great prices from the Armed Forces Vacation Club and stay at a Good Neighbor hotel so you can be close and stay within budget.
If you are traveling with your extended family and taking a Multi-Generational Trip know that you can pass on the savings to your family members. If you are staying at a Disney Resort Hotel you can book multiple rooms (if they are available) with the Military Room Discount. Previously you could book three rooms with a discount, but now the wording has been changed to “The number of rooms allocated for this offer is limited.” Meaning Disney holds the right to limit you to just a room for yourself or if there are enough rooms available, you might be able to book multiple rooms with the discount. Again, the only way to know is by calling Disney directly at (407) 939-5684.
If you are wanting to stay at Shades of Green, you can Sponsor a room for your family members. You can sponsor up to three rooms, and in addition, a dependent spouse can also sponsor up to three rooms. If the Sponsor is in Category I, the sponsored rooms will fall into the Category 2 rate. Sponsors that are Category 2 and 3, sponsored rooms will be the same rate. Shades of Green does have a limited number of suites. So if you’re looking for more space and are interested in a suite look at the Room Types for full descriptions and how many people each room sleeps. With a limited number of suites, they can be pretty hard to book. Reservations at Shades of Green can be made 365 days in advance, so if you are interested in a suite you will want to book a year out.
Buying Military Discounted Tickets
Buying Military Discounted tickets can be done at any time. However, it is better to buy them as early as you can because you need to have tickets in order to make Theme Park Reservations. Depending on your Military status, you can save a significant amount of money by purchasing these discounted tickets.
Active Duty Service Member, Retirees, National Guard, Reservists, and their spouses are eligible to purchase Military Salute Tickets. These are the most discounted Walt Disney World theme park tickets you will be able to buy. Every Military Service Member is limited to (6) Military Salute tickets per calendar year and (1) of them MUST BE for the service member/spouse. Regardless of who buys them or where you only get a total (6) per household/Service Member. MIL to MIL families; it’s (6) tickets PER Service Member. *Note: Military Salute Ticket prices are announced every year around October/November. Tickets must be used within the designated dates.
There are also two other discounted ticket options for Walt Disney World; the Magic Your Way tickets and the Stars & Stripes tickets. These discounted tickets are not as discounted as the Military Salute Tickets but they can save you a couple hundred dollars or more. If you are planning a Multi-Generational trip, these would be the tickets that you could purchase if you exceed your allotted (6) promotional tickets. The other important detail about these tickets is that, unlike the Military Salute Tickets, any Veteran with a DD214 is eligible to purchase these tickets.
You can also “gift” the Magic Your Way or Stars & Stripes tickets to family members traveling to Walt Disney World without the Service Member or Spouse. With the Military Salute Tickets, either the Service Member or Spouse must be present when using the tickets. However, with the Magic Your Way and Stars & Stripes tickets, anyone can use these tickets with or without the Service Member or Spouse.
Linking discounted tickets & Shades of Green Resort reservations
Once you’ve purchased your discounted theme park tickets you are going to need to link them to your My Disney Experience account. You will need to do the same thing if you are staying at the Shades of Green Resort.
Once you have your theme park tickets linked to your My Disney Experience account, you will then want to make your theme park reservations. Theme Park Reservations are REQUIRED to enter any of the four theme parks at Walt Disney World.
One of the last planning steps you will want to tackle is making your Advance Dining Reservations, or more commonly referred to as ADRs. At Walt Disney World there are several super popular Table Service restaurants and obtaining a reservation for them can be extremely difficult. This is why making your Advance Dining Reservations is so important if you hope to dine at one of those restaurants.
Advance Dining Reservations can be made 60 days in advance at 5:45am EST online (previously 6am EST so if times aren’t immediately available keep refreshing) or 7am EST by phone. If you are making your ARDs online, you can do so on the My Disney Experience app or the Disney Dining website. For guests staying at a Disney Resort Hotel, you can make your ADRs 60 Days from your check-in date PLUS the length of your stay (or up to 10 days). This gives On-Property guests a huge advantage when securing those hard-to-get ADRs. If you want to know what the popular reservations are check out the Top 5 Advance Dining Reservations post.
Know your limits
Lastly, when you’re finally on your vacation and are at Walt Disney World, remember to enjoy yourself! Make sure you set reasonable expectations for your trip. It’s almost impossible to see and do everything at Walt Disney World unless you are going an extended period of time. So remember to know your limits!
For my family, we don’t do crowds or long lines. We would much rather get in first thing in the morning when the crowds are the smallest and then head back to the resort around lunchtime or Mid-Afternoon. At that point the parks are starting to get really busy and the Florida sun is out in full force. This also gives us a chance to decompress, take a dip in the pool and enjoy an adult beverage. If you’re traveling with little ones (and even school aged kids) they will be ready for a nap. Disney mornings come early, combine that with the over stimulation, lots of walking and heat, a nap is going to be much needed.
looking for general information & tips for Walt Disney World? check out these helpful pages and posts
Spreading magic one post at a timeKristin