From Iraq To Cinderella's Castle: A Resort For The Military

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
May 16, 2008 By Donald G. McNeil Jr.
AS they enter through the Magic Kingdom gates, following signs with the familiar mouse ears, past the sighing of the monorail and the distant screams from Space Mountain, a few visitors take an unusual route, up a driveway just off the entrances to the Disney World golf courses.
There they find, atop an artificial rock formation, the flags of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard flapping in the Florida breeze. Beyond that lies a resort where there are a lot of high-and-tight crew cuts in the lobby, not to mention more lean physiques than elsewhere in Disney World.
Shades of Green, a retreat for military personnel — of all ranks — their families and guests, sits within the expansive Disney World site outside Orlando, Fla. Officially called an Armed Forces Recreation Center, it is one of five retreats around the world that let servicemen and -women reconnect with their families in the precious time they have together.
Over a recent weekend at the resort, several guests had just returned from the deserts of Iraq or the mountains outside Kabul.
“This is a great way to repay them,” said Capt. Daniel T. Celotto, a marine communications officer back from his second Iraqi tour, referring to his wife and two sons. “What they go through is far more than anything I put up with,” he added, shooing his youngest away from the big Mickey-shaped pool and back into the wading one. “I signed up for this, they didn’t.”
Shades of Green — the name comes from the camouflage hues of the different services — was once a golf clubhouse, and then the Disney Inn, when it had a Snow White theme. The Army took out a 99-year lease in 1994, after a survey showed that Orlando was the top choice among military families for a rest-and-relaxation destination.
The five centers — the others are in Germany, South Korea, Hawaii and Virginia — are run by the Army’s Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, a branch devoted to keeping up morale. Nowadays, according to a military spokesman, they are self-supporting through user fees and outside donations, and cost taxpayers nothing.
In most ways, Shades of Green is a typical resort: two swimming pools, tennis courts and ponds with golden koi, all clustered around 586 rooms for visitors set between two golf courses. But it has some unusual aspects.
The pond, for example, has radio-controlled toy boats with service insignia on them so the Coast Guard boat can ram the Navy one, for example. And where else would one see a resortgoer strolling comfortably around in a “Guantanamo Base Team” T-shirt?
It can be a relief, some visitors said, to be among others who understand firsthand what they’ve lived through.
“You can enjoy the esprit de corps of being with other military,” said Maj. Kurt O’Rourke, a burly Army military policeman who recently returned from a year in Iraq’s Diyala province. “Like a guy I talked to in the hot tub yesterday. He’s in the Massachusetts National Guard, and he has a brother deployed in Iraq — who’s 59. We talked about Fort Dix.”
Major O’Rourke was spending five days at the resort with his wife and children. Over breakfast in the Garden Gallery, his son Andrew, 9, said he liked “pretty much everything,” especially the food. He had just downed a double dose of waffles and still wanted his first ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to be the roller coaster. His sister, Amy, 6, said she liked the pools best.
Although Major O’Rourke’s Iraqi quarters were hardly spartan — he lived in an air-conditioned trailer with satellite TV — they didn’t rival his family’s here. Rooms are on a par with those of top-level Disney resorts charging $350 a night, but cost as little as $89.
The only element too reminiscent of Iraq, he said, was being woken up by the late-night fireworks in the Magic Kingdom. “I swear to god,” he said, “it was just like an artillery barrage.”
This was their third visit. “It’s just so convenient,” said his wife, Sylvia.
The main restaurant is a buffet, so families can move out quickly in the morning. Buses to all the Disney parks are free. The hotel sells discounted tickets to all Orlando attractions, and even the mouse ears and princess costumes in the PX are cheaper.
The ticket office told Captain Celotto that Sea World and Busch Gardens give four free tickets a year to members of the military, “so that saved us $250 right there,” he said. They also have special Heroes lines on popular rides.
Capt. Alberto J. Reynoso had just arrived on a two-week leave from his communications unit, which split its time between Qatar and Afghanistan. It was the second time he had seen his wife and daughter in a year, and they were on a special R & R package that offered a room with breakfast and dinner for all three of them for $130 a night.
“You can’t beat that price,” he said.
By Disney standards, the architecture is so subdued that it might as well be camouflage; it is painted military brown and green. But exposed roof beams and arches of hewn stone give it an American Craftsman air, and it has a hunting-lodge element unusual for Florida: a fire burns in the lobby hearth, even when it’s 90 degrees outside.
AND cellphone signals are spotty because the complex is built to Defense Department “force protection” standards: extra thick walls and blast-resistant windows.
The main staircase encircles a two-story-tall rock outcrop with waterfalls plunging through it.
“Because it’s Disney, you’ve got to come up with a storyboard for everything,” said Brian A. Japak, a retired lieutenant colonel who negotiated the initial contract and is now the deputy manager of the resort. “The storyboard for this is that there was a great uplift of rock here and the hotel was built around it. Well, in Florida, there’s no rock underground; it’s all sand. This is chicken wire on rebar with gunite sprayed on it.”
It’s convincing nonetheless, since a team of 14 sculptors, whom he called “the Rockettes,” spent weeks carving fracture lines and painting on moss.
Although the resort hires its own civilian employees, the lease requires that they meet Disney standards — and Disney inspections make the Army’s look like a Mardi Gras parade.
Disney dictates the details of staff uniforms, nail-polish colors, mustache lengths and the rule that only one earring may pierce any one ear.
Disney inspects the videogames. War games are fine; that is, after all, Dad or Mom’s job. But bad language and bloody gore are out.
Sketches for the mural behind the front desk — an Everglades fishing scene — went repeatedly back and forth to Disney’s design headquarters.
“Is the fisherman big enough?” Mr. Japak said, echoing the debate. “Is the alligator too scary for kids? They finally put a bird on him.” (In the mural, the gator has an egret on its back.)
For ersatz authenticity, the resort’s Italian restaurant, Mangino’s, has issues of Oggi, the Italian gossip magazine, lying around. But Disney has them edited — a topless performer in one ballet photo, for example, wore a bikini top of magic marker.
“European magazines tend to show a bit too much flesh,” Mr. Japak said.
The family atmosphere is so pervasive that Eagles, its cocktail lounge, shut down for lack of business. (The resort serves alcohol, but the lounge did not do as much business as the ice cream parlor.)
The surroundings are almost eerily quiet, especially in midday, when families are at the parks. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Disney World has been a no-fly zone. Bird songs can be heard from the golf courses; so can the splashing of alligators.
A small gator lay quietly in the resort’s pond recently, with children vying to see who would dare get closest.
“We have to tell the kids they’re not animatronic,” Mr. Japak said. “But that’s just a little one. Disney relocates them once they get to be more than three or four feet.”
For vacation destinations, the Army recreation centers have rather unusual histories: each was brought into existence by a different war.
The property for the first, in the Bavarian Alps, was originally requisitioned at the point of an M-1 by the 10th Armored Division. It included the headquarters for the Wehrmacht mountain division and Berchtesgaden, where Nazi leaders had vacation homes. Now called Edelweiss Lodge and Resort, it offers skiing, kayaking and tours of everything from Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle (inspiration, as it happens, for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland in California) to the Dachau concentration camp.
The second, Dragon Hill Lodge in South Korea, is a four-star hotel on a base in the heart of Seoul.
THE Hale Koa Hotel — the name means House of the Warrior — on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu grew out of the Fort DeRussy coastal artillery base. Lucky soldiers on leave from the Vietnam War were allowed to “make the passion run” — meeting spouses at the fort’s beach cottages. There is now a 400-room hotel on the site.
Shades of Green stems from the first Gulf war in the 1990’s. The volunteer army had more members with children. Middle Eastern states were not eager to play host to a new recreational center, and few soldiers had any interest in vacationing there anyway.
The centers have been such a success that a new resort has just opened. The Cape Henry Inn and Beach Club, on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach, was also originally a coastal artillery site, and then a practice ground for amphibious landings. It is still more of a collection of beach cottages than a resort, but plans are in the works.
Captain Celotto was pleased to hear about that. His family lives only a few hours’ drive away.
“The biggest heartache of all this is the separation,” he said of his overseas tours. “So I like to do something before I leave, because you know you’re going to miss birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving.”
Visitor information
Shades of Green (888-593-2242; is open to current and retired military personnel, Medal of Honor winners, disabled veterans and some Defense Department employees. Each eligible visitor may sponsor a limited number of nonmilitary guests.
The 586 rooms start at $89 in the low season, with prices depending on rank. Suites are $250 and $275. No tax is added.
There are two swimming pools, two tennis courts, a fitness center, several restaurants, video arcades and easy access to two Disney golf courses. There are free shuttle buses to the rest of Disney World.
The resort offers discounts of 3 to 10 percent on Disney attractions and of 15 percent or more on most other Orlando-area attractions, including Sea World, Busch Gardens and Cirque de Soleil.