A man jumps off a ledge and into the water at Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Germany, one of five Armed Forces Recreation Centers where troops enjoy deep discounts on lodging and local attractions. (Brad Hays / Armed Forces Recreation Centers)
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Steve Bell knows the military's Shades of Green resort on the sprawling Disney World campus better than most. He's been going to Orlando's Magic Kingdom since it was just an enchanted village.
Growing up in Massachusetts, his family first started making annual treks there in 1970, when Mickey's fledgling Florida funland was still just known as the Walt Disney World Preview Center.
Hardly a year has passed since then that he hasn't gone back.
"Shades was one of the original Disney resorts and had one of their first golf courses," says Bell.
Back then, it was known as the Disney Inn. He's been staying there regularly since the military first converted it into a troops-only resort 18 years ago.
The resort is one of five Armed Forces Recreation Centers, three in the U.S. and two overseas, where troops enjoy deep discounts on lodging and local attractions.
And like any hotel, he says, some rooms are better than others.
Bell, a heavy-lift flight engineer who retired from active duty a few months ago, now works at the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Panama City, Fla., where he helps coordinate civil search-and-rescue efforts. Conveniently, he's only about a six-hour drive from Disney World, where he now goes several times a year gathering fresh material for his Military Disney Tips website.
"Shades is a wonderfully spacious hotel," Bell said.
It has 586 of the largest standard resort rooms on Walt Disney World property, including 11 family suites. The 450-square-foot standard rooms comfortably sleep five. The three-bedroom suites sleep 14.
"We have rooms with views of the pools, overlooking the garden, and overlooking the PGA Championship golf courses," said Shades manager Toshi Matsumura.
Bell's favorite rooms are in the older wing of the hotel. While the resort was expanded in 2004, "they just finished remodeling the older section last year, so those rooms are all in prime shape.
"Pool-view rooms are very nice, especially on the ground floor because you can go right out the sliding glass door to the pool," he said.
For many, the best room comes down to price.
While the rates at Shades — which, like all five of the Armed Forces Recreation Centers, are adjusted according to rank — have always been a deal, he said, in recent years they've gotten even better.
Disney's Armed Forces Salute program cuts up to 40 percent off stays at its other resorts, which means managers at Shades have had stiff competition for military vacationers.
"It used to be you'd rarely see any discounts or specials at Shades, but now they're trying very hard to compete with the Armed Forces Salute," Bell said.
Still, specials are almost always for standard rooms.
While an extension is expected, the Armed Forces Salute is currently set to expire Sept. 30.
"Shades is still a great deal and great place to stay. But really, the best thing about Shades is the way people treat each other there," Bell said. "It feels more like family. People say hi to each other."
For the best deals, shoot for off-season stays.
"Special deals are offered during our anticipated slow periods," Matsumura said. The best times: The last two weeks in August, and all of September and January. "Another great time to come is the three weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter break," Matsumura said.
Look for specials on the Shades Facebook page and website, usually advertised about three to six months in advance. "However, we sometimes offer last-minute specials to recoup a last-minute group cancellation," Matsumura said.
That's true for the other military resorts as well.
At the Edelweiss Lodge, the AFRC resort nestled along Germany's alpine border with Austria, off-season bargains are usually found in October, November, January, March and June.
For example, the lodge currently offers three nights for the price of two through June, throwing in a $25 gift card as well.
This newest AFRC, built in 2004, replaced facilities that had been in use by GIs since the close of World War II, and has become a popular mid-tour R&R destination for those serving downrange in Afghanistan.
While you can generally book off-season rooms on short notice, "during peak seasons rooms can be filled up to seven or eight months in advance," said Edelweiss marketing assistant Scott Thurston. "We accept reservations up to 365 days in advance, so the sooner our guests can make a reservation, the better."
Every room in the Edelweiss sports sweeping views of snow-capped Alps. In fact, the lodge sits at the base of the Zugspitze, Germany's tallest mountain. So, the best rooms in the house depend more on individual needs.
Some might want a bigger room; others might want a balcony to breathe in that fresh mountain air. "We offer both," Thurston said.
Suites "have all the amenities of a standard room but also sleep up to 10 people, have a master bedroom upstairs with a full bathroom, and separate bedrooms located downstairs and tall vaulted ceilings," with even better views of the Alps.
Lucy Lau, a manager at the Hale Koa Hotel in Hawaii, said her favorite beds in the house are in the Deluxe Ocean Front rooms, "which provide the best overall view."
All rooms are about the same size, about 300 square feet, and offer the same amenities with varying bed options, but are priced by the view from the room's lanai — island-speak for the balconies and patios.
"Got to the hotel two hours prior to check-in, and the clerk upgraded us from a garden view to a partial ocean view," gushed one recent Hale Koa visitor on TripAdvisor.com "Two king beds made the room seem a little small, but we were hardly in there."
The hotel's two towers sit on a 72-acre property along some of Waikiki's best beaches. Although the second tower was built in 1995, Ilima Tower, the older of the two, saw top-to-bottom renovations that were completed in 2009.
While Hale Koa enjoys rave reviews overall, another recent visitor on TripAdvisor wasn't impressed with the renovations. "The room was the only letdown of the hotel. The furnishings such as the carpet, bedspread, and sheets were old and outdated — something you'd see in the late '80s, early '90s."
Off-season deals are typically offered for stays in April and May, as well as September through mid-December, Lau said.
South Korea Charm
The Dragon Hill Lodge in South Korea's bustling capital of Seoul has historically catered more to official travelers on temporary duty than off-duty troops.
With the Army's Yongsan Garrison slated for closure in 2016, however, all that's changing with the hotel "transitioning its focus to serve the vacation traveler," said Bill Bradner, an AFRC spokesman.
For example, the hotel recently partnered with a leading tourism agency to create the "Discover Seoul" program to provide bus and walking tours, as well as discounted tickets to local attractions, he said.
While hotel manager Michael Kim said "all rooms have an elegant interior," one recent poster on the Dragon Hill's Facebook page complained the rooms were overpriced.
"Air Force lodging is way better," reads the May 24 comment. "Motel 6 is better!" Nightly rates for leisure travelers range from $64 to $144, depending on rank.
One soldier, however, was so impressed with his recent stay that he took the time to write the local newspaper about it.
When Sgt. Dale Lamont Thomas was told he'd be staying at the lodge during his inprocessing, he thought, "OK, just a typical room to rest my head and feet; nothing special," he wrote Stars and Stripes in a May 27 letter. "But I was in for a treat. My breath was taken away as I walked into the lodge, and I fell in love with this amazing place."
During most of the year, you'll need to book a room about a month in advance to ensure availability, Kim said. Look for specials, however, during the last two weeks of the Christmas season, when rooms go for as low as $39 a night, he said.
Cape Henry Inn and Beach Club
Officials had high hopes for turning the Cape Henry Inn and Beach Club into the fifth jewel in the AFRC crown.
With 120 rooms and cottages renting for $98 to $225, the Inn is located along prime Chesapeake Bay beachfront. Two bedroom cottages, built about 10 years ago, are among the favorites for families, while couples tend to prefer the "Pelican Room" queen bed suites.
Unfortunately, the resort won't be around much longer, at least as it is now.
"For a number of reasons, both political and financial, we're not going to be able to make the capital improvements we need to turn it into a true resort," said military resorts spokesman Bradner.
According to its website, the Cape Henry Inn will stop accepting reservations at the end of September, "and will not operate as an Armed Forces Recreation Center after that date."
Bradner said plans call for the Inn "to revert back to a standard military lodging facility," though it will still be available for both vacation and official business travel.