When I started brainstorming this whole series I knew there was a gap in my knowledge when it came to the benefits Disney offers our military families. These amazing folks give up their loved ones to protect us & I am so thankful for what Disney does to honor their service. There's no better way to share the benefits that are available than from someone who has used them. I'm so excited to introduce y'all to my friend Amber. I got to know her & her family years ago when she & her husband mentored us in our premarital counseling. They are the real deal friends, and although the military has taken then many miles from us, I'm thankful social media keeps us all connected. Be sure to stick around to end of the post to learn more about her & her favorite things about Disney. Without further ado, I give you Amber!
As the wife of an Air Force Chaplain, I have to say I LOVE being part of the military community! While I don’t love packing or moving every 3 years, and worst of all-having to find a new hairdresser every couple of years - I do love the opportunities that moving with the military affords my family and I. The ability to see places, try new foods, and experience cultures all over the world is priceless and I absolutely wouldn’t trade it for anything! And can you guess my family’s favorite place to travel? You got it. DISNEY WORLD!!! It is the one place that everyone in the family enjoys. My hubby likes to get on the Magical Express and escape into the “Disney Bubble.” No driving since we take the busses everywhere, no worrying about money since we prepaid for everything, no thinking because we have already planned our Fastpasses and dinner reservations, just relaxing. I love the magic of Disney - mainly the mousekeepers that allow me to never have to make a bed for a whole week and who cook and clean up after ME!!!!! (It’s worth every penny!) And of course my girls love all the fun that the World has to offer - rides, characters, shows, pin trading, water parks, Dole Whips, pixie dust galore! It really is a piece of heaven, don’t ya think? I swear we would stay there forever if I didn’t have to sell a kidney to live like the royal family we are…or…er…think we are. (Don’t they call my daughters princesses all the time for a reason?)
I have to say, the only way our family could ever afford to go at all is thanks to the generous discount that Disney offers to members of the military. What???? Never heard of these discounts? There are plenty, and while Disney offers discounts at both Disney World in FL & Disneyland in CA, I will explain the Disney World discounts in more detail, because, well… I’ve never been to CA! (Can you believe a military wife that’s never been to Cali?!!? - maybe we need to put it on our wish list so we can go to Disneyland??) Anyways…… Disney World Military Discounts…..
The best deal is what Disney calls the Armed Forces Salute. For 2016, this package includes a 4 day Park Hopper pass for $196 per person, and the Water Park and More pass can be added for a mere $34! A service member or spouse (only one) can purchase up to 6 of these tickets per year. (There are blackout dates over spring break and Christmas) This is an AHHHHMazing deal, when you consider that a 4 day park hopper pass will run you almost $400 at regular price. And that 'Water Parks and More Pass' is a pretty cool addition too! The 'Water Park and More' add on pass allows you to choose 4 fun visits from the following 6 options:
- Blizzard Beach
- Typhoon Lagoon
- 1 round of golf at Disney's Oak Trail Golf Course
- Disney's Fantasia Garden's Miniature Golf Course
- Disney's Winter Summerland Miniature Golf Course
- General admission to ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex
This seemed a little confusing to me at first, but basically you can choose 4 more experiences in addition to your 4 Day park hopper Park Tickets. You can go to Blizzard Beach for all 4 visits if you want, or spread them out and do 4 different experiences & customize it to your family’s needs. A regular price admission for a day at a Disney water park will cost you approximately $60/day, so for an additional $34, this is a great deal, especially when you consider you can go 4 times, in essence extending your vacation up to 4 additional days (4 days in the parks and 4 days doing 'Water Parks and More').
Lest I start to sound like a Disney ad, let me preface by saying that we have only used this add on once during our last trip. When our daughters were younger, the water parks were just not in our wheel house - it was too much for a 5 day visit for little ones. This last trip we splurged for our “Daddy is back from Deployment” trip and it was really quite amazing! Our girls were 11 and 8 and we thought for such a small price, let’s give it a try. The family loved it! We went to Typhoon Lagoon and went on everything! It was a blast. We are so glad we did the water parks, although I have to say we probably wont do it again, unless we go for longer than a week. We like a “down day” from all the fun somewhere in the middle of a Disney trip. Our family is pretty low key and after 3 days of WDW excitement, we (mostly mom and dad) need a day to sleep in, mosey on to a late brunch, sit by the pool for a few hours, and take in a relaxing nap before a late meal at Disney Springs! Typhoon Lagoon invaded our down day, and as a result my hubby got sick from all the constant going. We felt like we were catching up the entire the second half of the week - no one wanted to get up before 10am, and we had some cranky tweens that were seriously trying to destroy my Disney Magic. So, all in all, would I recommend the Water Park and More? Yes! Will we do it again? Probably not unless we go long enough to schedule water parks AND a “down day”, but that’s just what works for my family. The deal is so good, I’d say even if you are considering it, give it a try just once.
Just a word of caution….military tickets are slightly different than tickets sold to the general public. Regular guests now have their tickets downloaded directly on to their Magic Bands (read more about them here) and they never need a paper ticket. Military, however, need the paper ticket pictured above. Even though you will eventually link them to your Magic Band, you will still need to take those paper tickets and get them activated at a Disney Customer Service Booth before you can enter the park. A Military ID needs to be shown at that time as well.
The best place to get your Armed Forces Salute tickets is through your base ITT office where they are tax-free. I recommend that you order early (3-4 months before your trip), as it can take up to 6 weeks for delivery. You will want to be sure to get the tickets in time to link them to your online account (My Disney Experience) so that you can book your Fastpasses 60 days out from your trip! This part of the process is somewhat confusing, and I ended up just calling Disney and had them walk me through the process of linking my tickets. They are great and SUPER knowledgeable! If you cannot get tickets on base for whatever reason, they are available tax-free at Shades of Green, a military only hotel on WDW property. However, my informants have told me that they are now charging a fee for this service. Tickets can also be purchased at any Disney Customer Service Ticket Location, however they are taxed at those kiosks. My personal opinion is that unless you are staying at Shades of Green (SoG) or need to go there for some other reason, don’t bother getting tickets from them. After the “fees” you only save about 2% by avoiding the taxes there. The bus system to SoG is not useable to anyone other than its own guests, so unless you have a car, it can be rather difficult to get to. If possible, save the hassle and buy at your ITT or from Disney direct.
This is especially significant for those special event tickets as well. The Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party & Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party both offer discounted tickets on certain nights to military members and their families. These discounted tickets can only be purchased from a Disney Customer Service Kiosk or at SoG. They cannot be purchased in advance from ITT. The discount is significant, and my family loved going to MNSSH this past year. Disney closes the park at 7pm & only those with tickets to the even can enter. There are a limited number of ticket holders which means short lines to rides and low crowds to see fireworks and parades. Rare characters come out of the woodwork and treats are given out for FREE!!! We were able to go trick or treating and came home with lots of yummy candy loot from the Halloween Party. We would definitely do this hard ticket special event again in a heartbeat. It was worth the added expense after the military discount for us.
Ok enough on tickets - but you also need a place to stay right? You can bet they did not forget this necessity! Disney lets military book hotel rooms with or without a dining option at a discounted rate too! There are two main options if you are looking to stay on property - Shades of Green or Disney owned hotels. Disney hotels are broken into 3 categories- Value (least expensive), Moderate, and Deluxe (most expensive). They offer military members a discount of up to 30%, 35%, and 40% respectively on your hotel stays - another great value! I have stayed at several hotels on Disney property and have not been disappointed with any option. As you would expect, the more expensive the hotel, the bigger the room (and beds) and the more amenities they offer. All Disney hotels also come with access to the Disney bus system to and from the airport, as well as the parks. We love staying on property in the “Disney Bubble”, and have enjoyed whatever hotel our budget allowed on that trip-and with that discount, we usually are able to upgrade our hotel or at least our room!
Shades of Green is historically where most military members have chosen to stay. It's a military only hotel, which means everyone there is Active Duty, Reserves, a retired Vet, or is sponsored by one. On site, there is a Class Six, a tax-free gift shop, and an ITT office which sells the previously discussed WDW ticket deals as well as discounted tickets to many other Orlando attractions. Having only ever visited there to purchase tickets, I cannot say too much about the hotel itself. It looked well kept and offered the atmosphere you would expect in a military vacation location - lots of red, white, and blue and flags and friendly, respectful people. Rooms are priced based on your rank which is what makes SoG a huge hit with military vacationers. SoG is considered a deluxe Hotel, so it's a nice perk for a Jr. Enlisted to be able to get a room for roughly the same price as a moderate or value Hotel. SoG also offers Extra Magic Hours, shuttles to and from the parks, and some hotel packages include free dining at the hotel. I know many people who have frequently used SoG and love staying there. While this beautiful hotel has its perks, there are a few drawbacks too which have influenced why our family has not chosen to stay there to date. First of all, they do not participate in the Magical Express - the free shuttle to and from the hotel. So staying at SoG without your own POV would require a taxi or other shuttle service. Additionally, the bus service from SoG to the parks only departs hourly. If you show up 5 minutes late, you have to wait 55 more minutes to get the next shuttle - that never seemed fun to me with excited children in tow and a FP waiting! And speaking of Fastpasses, because SoG is not considered a Disney hotel, reservations cannot be made until 30 days out. Lastly, the clincher for us was that you may not participate in the Disney Dining Plan while staying at SoG. For some this may not be an issue, but we love using the dining plan for many reasons and not having access to it is really just a deal breaker for us. Maybe someday when the kids are grown we will have the pleasure of experiencing Shades of Green, but for us right now it just doesn’t work.
Ok, ok...so I know that Disney doesn't have an airline, but they can still be helpful! Many airlines offer military discounts or at least offer perks to military members. Southwest & American Airlines are known to offer official military discounts and most offer free bags for the military member. So how can Disney help? As a military family, I highly suggest getting travel insurance. Let's face it, even with the Disney military discounts, you are still spending a small fortune for this week of Magical Bliss, and the insurance is a small price to pay comparatively. If you book your trip (military room, dining, and airfare - NOT tickets...get those at ITT, remember?) directly through Disney, they can offer you travel insurance and it will cover if you need to cancel the trip of the military member's CO rescinds his or her travel for whatever reason! However, Disney needs to book your flight for it to be included in the insurance they offer. If you call Disney and ask to add a flight to your itinerary, they will be more than happy to help you, though it may not be the best rate you can get. If you do a little legwork, you can find the flight you like & then call Disney & ask if they can get you the same deal, and most likely they can. Also, if you book with a military friendly airline, you can often get free bags! And don't forget to visit your local USO while waiting for your flight. They are always so friendly and are happy to feed you and entertain you during your layover
If you are renting a car or using another form of transportation, just ask if they have a military discount. I am always amazed at the companies that want to honor their service members. They may say no, but they may say yes, too!
So I’m gonna just repeat myself here…anywhere you go associated with your Disney vacation ask if they offer a military discount!!!! You are bound to find discounts on everything from strollers and scooters to off-property hotel rooms and golf fees. It's not typically Disney’s policy to offer military discounts at their restaurants as they offer such other great deals, but many of the independently owned restaurants and shops at Disney Springs are very happy to do so! I’ve even heard of people asking, and even though the company doesn’t officially have a policy for a military discount, they were given an employee discount or something similar. People want to show their appreciation to you and this is one way they can do it. On our trip this fall, my husband really wanted to go to House of Blues for their Gospel Brunch. I knew they offered a military discount for their afternoon performance, but by the time I called to book it, they were sold out. I was devastated! This was the ONE thing Matt asked to do. I politely explained my disappointment and the clerk put me on hold. She came back and offered me the discount at the morning performance!!!!! SCORE! She was such a dear and I thanked her profusely. The food and show were great and we were honored to represent the AF at the brunch that morning, all because I asked!
Disney really does love its military, and its shows! Every time I call, I hear “Thank you to and your husband for your service!” and even after good wishes and discounts, the gratitude continues into the park. Every day at Magic Kingdom, there is a flag retreat at 5pm and a veteran is chosen to participate in the ceremony. All onlookers stand at attention as music is played, the flag is lowered and respects are paid to our veterans! I find it amazing that in 2016 this type of unapologetic patriotism is still on display. Additionally, some restaurants, including Pecos Bill and Liberty Tree Tavern offer a thank you card to anyone they know to be a veteran. Isn’t that sweet?
While Disney offers its thanks to military members and their families through gratitude and discounts, we also say thanks back! If you are lucky enough to be able to take advantage of these discounts, let me encourage you to reciprocate! I always try to remember to say thanks to the cast members who offer me these discounts. Remember, Disney doesn’t have to do this - it’s a generous gift to our service members and I hope we show the same amount of gratitude back to the mouse! So next time you do Disney…be sure to thank those cast members for letting Disney dreams come true for military families too!
Ambers favorite attraction at WDW: Hand's down, Expedition Everest!!!!
Amber's favorite snack/food at WDW: Where to begin? Disney food is my favorite! Once upon a time, Sanaa, an amazing restaurant at the Kidani Village Lodge served a dessert called Chai Cream. It was a spiced cloud of sugar and happiness.....and then they stopped serving it! Now I must focus my energies on the Strawberry Soup at 1900 Park Fare or my new favorite - the Lobster Roll at the Contempo Cafe.
Amber's favorite Disney memory: This past fall we took a trip to reconnect after my hubby’s deployment. We were lucky enough to score reservations at Cinderella’s castle at the time the fireworks went off. It was such a surreal moment. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. After 7 months of separation, there we were as a family-eating an amazing meal in a gorgeous castle, surrounded by fireworks and princesses and what felt like magic. I knew I was so lucky to have all that was around me, and that so many other families were not that fortunate. I felt so grateful and blessed in that moment. So grateful to have my family back together and so blessed that we got to be part of such a great experience together. It was dream that I was allowed to step into for a moment, and etched in my heart forever.