A Central Florida Vacation With or Without the Mouse

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Karen and Fred Rosenthal. Photo courtesy of the Rosenthals.
Karin and Fred Rosenthal. Photo courtesy of the Rosenthals.

In 1999 we built a typical Florida bungalow and after selling our home in Illinois in June 2008, moved permanently to Clermont, FL. Located just a few short miles from the main entrance to Walt Disney World (WDW), we became Florida residents and purchased our annual Disney passes. So for the next two years, four or five times a month, sometimes more, we ventured to one of Disney’s four parks.

Karin was still working when we moved and I spent most of my time making our house our retirement home. I played some golf (not very well) but found myself looking for more to do, especially during the weekdays, so I decided to submit an employment application to Disney. I was interviewed and then offered a Guest Relations cast member position at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.

ESPN is a part of the Disney’s corporate portfolio, but ironically the sports complex is one of their hidden gems at the Walt Disney World Resort. The complex is a venue for amateur and professional sports and includes over 30 sports fields, two multi-purpose sports facilities, a track and field facility, a tennis complex, and a 10,000 seat baseball stadium. Plus, the complex is home to the Atlanta Braves during spring training.

Disney World Tram. Photo credit of Fred Rosenthal.
Disney World Tram. Photo credit of Fred Rosenthal.

As a seasonal cast member, I am required to work a minimum of 150 hours a year to maintain cast member benefits and privileges. I get most of my hours in March during the Atlanta Braves spring training games. However, if it weren’t for my grandchildren and the occasion to take them into the parks for free, I probably would have said goodbye to Mickey a couple years ago because the “magic” has gotten stale! We still enjoy EPCOT, especially during their International Flower and Garden Festival (March – May) and the International Food & Wine Festival (September – November). Animal Kingdom provides a fantastic learning experience, but Magic Kingdom is too crowded and my enthusiasm for Hollywood Studios has withered.

As for the other theme parks…Universal Orlando was a “one and done” occurrence. I am not a big roller coaster fan nor am I a Harry Potter follower! It is noisy and the overall experience felt like attending a state fair carnival rather than an expensive theme park. SeaWorld is enormously educational, but its limited growth has been primarily in the development of water parks, though they recently announced the unrivaled new coaster, Mako. Expected to begin operating during summer 2016, this 200-foot coaster will soar to the top as Orlando’s tallest, longest, and fastest coaster. Unfortunately, since 2013, SeaWorld has fought the negative publicity over the release of Blackfish, a documentary that focused on issues pertaining to the treatment of whales in captivity. The publicity has hurt attendance and yet they continue to raise their prices.

Photo courtesy of Fred and Karin Rosenthal.
Photo courtesy of Fred and Karin Rosenthal.

Legoland is the newest of the four major theme parks. Located on the old Cypress Gardens property in Winter Haven, the park is centered entirely on Lego’s, which is not unexpected! Legoland is a fun place for anyone who has played and loves to build with this plastic toy. They also have a water park and recently opened a hotel with each room distinctly decorated with Lego’s.

I certainly do not fault the Disney Corporation for their financial success! I am a firm believer in our capitalistic system, but I’ve watched families spend a lifetime of savings (and MORE) just for an opportunity to experience the MAGIC at Walt Disney World! But it is not only Disney, because when they raise their ticket prices Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and Legoland immediately follow. I encourage those who have never been to any of the theme parks to experience these attractions. But as I just mentioned, park admissions are expensive so hopefully this article can provide some insights into how and where to use your military ID for well-deserved savings.

The four major parks usually offer admission discounts for military but the offers vary according to the season and may contain blackout dates. I suggest you check their websites under “tickets” for current military discount programs. The easiest way to purchase a ticket is online, but the cheapest way to obtain a discounted ticket is through your local Morale, Welfare & Recreation (MWR) or Information, Tickets & Travel (ITT) offices.
You can also purchase tickets at the Shades of Green® MWR ticket office on Disney property or at the Orlando Navy Exchange ITT office located at 7151 Earhart Drive, just a mile west of the Orlando International Airport. These are also the same locations where you can obtain tickets to other attractions. I suggest that you do not purchase any tickets from a local broker! There are counterfeit tickets on the market. Plus, park tickets originally sold to an individual are non-transferable, so unused tickets that are resold may be confiscated if attempted to use to enter a park.

One final comment concerning the major theme parks: Have a game plan! Schedule your day(s) and decide before you enter the park what you want to do and to stick to your agenda. It is not necessary to be first in line when the park opens, nor the last to leave in the evening when the park closes. Pace yourself! Do not plan to see everything, because you can’t! It is impossible!!!!

Use the Fastpass system at WDW (Universal has something similar) to avoid standing in line for 90 minutes for a two minute adventure ride. With the average daily ticket price hovering around $100, you really need a plan. And remember, it rains in Florida! Check the weather forecast before heading to the park and have alternative options if you are caught in an afternoon shower.

Another important consideration in planning a Central Florida vacation is the selection of a lodging facility that meets your needs. There are resort hotels where you can immerse yourself for an entire week without leaving the property. On the other end of the spectrum, there are hotels that are clean, comfortable and simply an inexpensive place to sleep!

Shades of Green Resort. Photo courtesy of Fred Roshenthal.
Shades of Green Resort. Photo courtesy of Fred Roshenthal.

The Shades of Green® is an Armed Forces Recreation Center (AFRC) located on Walt Disney World® Resort property with 27 acres of lush Florida vegetation and wild life. Minutes away from Magic Kingdom, it is nestled between the Magnolia and Palm PGA Championship golf courses. According to the Shades of Green® General Manager, Arnold Cole, “It is the perfect destination for U.S. Military members and their families to vacation.”

Though Karin and I have never stayed at the Shades of Green®, we have enjoyed their fine dining facilities and where we purchased tickets to other venues and events.

Initially renovated as an AFRC in 2004, I understand they are updating their rooms and believe it will be “first class” when completed! I make that bold statement based on my impression of the lobby and restaurants along with the positive services and the helpful staff we’ve experienced. It is a very friendly and comfortable facility!

As an AFRC, the rates for a room are based on your military rank. Rates are reasonable, in comparison to other hotels on Disney property, but if price is a major consideration you might want to look at other options such as military billeting.

Central Florida is sandwiched between two convenient military bases with Space “A” billeting facilities. On the Gulf Coast is MacDill Air Force Base. Approximately five miles south of Tampa, MacDill AFB is less than a 90 minute drive to Orlando. We’ve stayed at MacDill Inn and the rooms are clean and comfortable. MacDill AFB is scheduled to open a new five story lodging facility in the spring of 2016, which offers 2 DV suites, 25 business suites and 323 standard guest rooms.

On the Atlantic “Space Coast” side is Patrick Air Force Base. The Space Coast Inn is less than an hour away from Orlando and close to the U.S. Air Force Space Museum and the Kennedy/Cape Canaveral Center. Though I am not familiar with this particular facility, we have never been disappointed with any Air Force base billeting we stayed in during the past five years – all are clean and many remodeled!

Another lodging option is the Armed Forces Vacation Club (AFVC). Not affiliated with any branch of the military or government, these are primarily time-share condos and hotel rooms available during certain times of the year. There is no membership fee required, but instead they offer selected resorts for a seven night stay for as low as $299 per week to current and former military families. I am familiar with a few of the resorts near WDW so I would consider AFVC an alternative. Just make sure you read the fine print and research the property before making a decision.

There are several brand-named hotels and lots of “no-named” cheap, flop-house motels that surround the parks. Words of warning: Stay away from any property with a name or a hospitality company you are not familiar with or those offering deep, discounted weekly rates, especially those on Highway 192 (Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway) in Kissimmee. I recommend you Google the words “Hotels with Military Discounts in Orlando” and check out TripAdvisor for some revealing comments from others who stayed in Orlando and received a military discount. I think you will find some reasonable deals! Also, depending on the season, several hotels on Disney properties, along with those at Universal Orlando and Sea World, offer a “military discount.” Of course the key is asking for the military discount because if you don’t ask, I guarantee, none will be offered!

Photo courtesy of iStock Photo.
Photo courtesy of iStock Photo.

Plan on playing golf? Prepare for sticker shock!!!!!  I love the game enough to play in a league every week and it helps keep a round of golf reasonable. Also, as a Disney cast member, I can play at one of their three 18-hole championship courses for a discount and is probably another reason I haven’t left. But for the average tourist who wants to hit the links while in Central Florida, they will find the non-resident rate can exceed $200 per round!
Central Florida is often referred to as the Golf Capital of the United States. There are several beautiful and pristine courses in the Orlando area, but because the number of rounds being played is beginning to diminish, you can find courses offering specials to entice players.

Seasonal play is a big factor! During the winter and spring when the snowbirds are here and the tourist season peaks, expect the rates to be high. During the summer and early fall, morning rates are reasonable and anything after 12:00 noon when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees, rates are normally cheaper! Some courses offer military discounts, but be careful because the discount is often applied to non-resident rates which are much higher than those for Florida residents; therefore probably not much of a savings. If you want to play golf, I suggest you check out one of these websites for discounted rates: GolfNow.com, GroupGolfer.com, or GolfLink.com.

I was recently introduced to the Veteran Tickets Foundation, which gives away free event tickets to all kinds of events across the country, including Orlando. The foundation gives complementary tickets to events such as football, baseball, soccer and basketball games, concerts, zoo passes, plays and more! Individuals, veteran support groups, business organizations and team owners make these tickets available to those who have honorably served our nation! There are no fees and all you need to provide is proof of your military service.

There are other websites offering reduced prices for attractions, entertainment, dining and other activities. A quick Google search will uncover many of them. Just make sure you totally understand any offers before you make a purchase!

I’ve only scratched the surface to all the activities, events, attractions, communities, festivals, museums, parks and gardens that incorporate Central Florida. There is so much to see and enjoy during a vacation, but never enough time. Do not get entangled in the hassles of running around and trying to see everything in one or two weeks. It is impossible!

Unfortunately, many Florida vacations end up with memories of exasperating days at the theme parks, sunburned skin from sitting around the resort pool, expensive dinners, maybe a round of golf at an exclusive course that just aerated its greens, a bag full of souvenirs for family and friends, and more than likely, an empty wallet with maxed out credit cards. Enjoy your vacation and relax with your family because there is nothing worse than a stressed out family vacation. Even if it is just a husband and wife with no screaming kids!

Photo courtesy of the Rosenthals.
Photo courtesy of the Rosenthals.

Although I pointed out several discounted opportunities for a vacation in Central Florida, I would be remiss if I didn’t actually highlight a few of my discoveries during the past seven years as a Florida resident.
● The Friday edition of the Orlando Sentinel’s Calendar Section is loaded with entertainment and dining suggestions.
● Daytona International Speedway.
● I Discovered more lakes in Central Florida than in the entire state of Minnesota with plenty of fish and sunbathing gators.
● The “rite of spring” begins for baseball fans during spring training in Orlando, Lakeland, Kissimmee and Melbourne.
● The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex is not what you might expect.
● The Bob Carr Performing Arts Center features dance, opera, comedy, theater, music, film, ballet and more.
● The Amway Center is a great venue and hosts other events besides the Orlando Magic, Orlando Solar Bears, and Orlando Predators games.
● The newly renovated Orlando Citrus Bowl is the current home for the Orlando City Lions MLS team and three NCAA Bowl games, plus much more.
● The Fantasy of Flight in Auburndale is a World War II aviation museum with live vintage flight demonstrations.
● The Orlando Museum of Art offers an annual family membership and includes reciprocal admission to over 75 other museums.
● The Orlando Science Center.
● The Museum of Military History (Kissimmee)
● The Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens (Sanford)

 

Author: MSgt. Fred J. Rosenthal, USAF (Ret)
Clermont, FL
therosenthalgroup@sbcglobal.net

Reprint from November–December 2015 • Volume 45, No. 6