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Disney vacations are a rite of passage for military families, thanks to amazing discounts, heavy military populations in Florida and California, and most importantly because they’re a special destination to celebrate mom or dad’s return from deployment.
Of course, these aren’t the only reasons military families travel to Disney World and Disneyland. The parks are ideal for family reunions when a PCS takes you far away, and sometimes, a Mouse House vacation is the perfect family Christmas present.
Regardless of the wide range of “whys,” most people need a little help planning the trip. You can certainly go DIY (some folks love planning the adventure), and we’re here to help by giving you a go-to guide to work through the details—just keep reading below.
But you might go a different route and work with a military spouse Disney vacation planner. For a special Disney occasion, a professional who stays up to date with the latest military discounts, travel dates, reservations, times, and everything in between can be an invaluable resource when you feel like you’re in over your head with Disney details.
We’ve asked military spouse of 14 years, Kristin Van Osterom of Wishdrawals Disney Planning, to help military families navigate their Disney trip planning with some in-the-know advice and tips. She’s an experienced travel pro and lifelong Disney afficanaido who specializes in creating (without a fee) the magical Disney trips military families dream about. Kristin has provided many of the tips included in this article, including the “More Tips for Your Trip to Disney” at the end.
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3 Important Things to Know Before Planning Your Disney Trip
When you’re starting to think about your trip, you might hear about some perks or opportunities that sound super exciting. Keep in mind that there are many similarities between the parks, but there are many differences, too. So don’t assume one program, discount, or event translates equally between the two. For example, Disney World has its own My Disney Experience app, but Disneyland has yet to follow suit.
1. Budget your trip and determine your family’s priorities.
Don’t be tempted to fall into the “Go Big or Go Home” trap when you’re planning a Disney vacation. You’re not alone; the temptation happens to everyone. It’s only natural to want to pack in as much as you can in one trip.
It’s important to realistically prepare your budget early on and use it to guide your hotel research and create your most important events and things-to-do list.
Travel pro Kristin recommends choosing a resort or hotel choice first. Are you a family that likes to hang out at the awesome hotel pool and enjoy all of the amenities on the property? Or, are accommodations the least important detail on your list, and you’d rather spend money on delectable dining experiences? Of course, there are no right or wrong answers, but your choices should reflect your family’s priorities to guarantee a memorable Disney experience.
2. As of November 2021, advanced reservations are required to enter both parks.
The continued health and safety precautions at the parks mean advance reservations are required to enter. So, you need to buy tickets before reserving your preferred dates—the further away the dates, the better chance you have to find reservations. Remember, you won’t be the only family who wants to live Disney life for a week during spring break or have a festive holiday at the park.
3. What is the Disney Military Salute Program?
Basically, it’s the program that helps military families visit Disney World and Disneyland at heavily discounted prices. It’s hugely popular, not only for the tickets, but because it includes discounted rates for overnight stays.
But, you have to stay up to date with each park individually because their dates and prices change.
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5-Day Disney Military Salute Tickets
- With Park Hopper Option: $349 plus tax
- With Park Hopper Plus Option: $379 plus tax
- With Park Hopper Option and Disney Genie+: $424 plus tax
- With Park Hopper Plus Option and Disney Genie+: $454 plus tax
4-Day Disney Military Salute Tickets
- With the Park Hopper Option: $329 plus tax
- With the Park Hopper Plus Option: $359 plus tax
- With the Park Hopper Option and Disney Genie+: $389 plus tax
- With the Park Hopper Plus Option and Disney Genie+: $419 plus tax
No Disney World Blockout Dates
Purchase July 6, 2021, through December 12, 2022, for use between July 6, 2021, through December 16, 2022.
- 3-Day Military Promotional Park Hopper Ticket: $225
- 4-Day Military Promotional Park Hopper Ticket: $260
Disneyland Blockout Dates (when certain annual passes are not usable):
- December 17, 2021 through December 31, 2021
- April 9, 2022 through April 17, 2022
Two more important notes about the Military Salute Program:
- To buy the discounted tickets for both parks, you’ll have to visit your closest U.S. military base ticket office.
- Each military member is only allowed six tickets. Only the servicemember or their spouse can pick up the tickets with a military ID.
What to Know Before You Go to Disney World
Get ready; there’s a lot to learn! Start by getting familiar with all four parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. This helps your planning and could sway you to choose one resort over another.
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My Disney Experience App
It’s all about the My Disney Experience App. The app is a one-stop shop for everything you need at Disney World. It’s comprehensive, so take some time to get familiar with everything it has to offer. In the app, you’ll find:
- Disney Genie and Disney Genie+
- Personalized itinerary
- A tip board to track wait times
- Dining and attractions reservations
- Contactless dining choices
- In-park navigation
- Park hours
- Virtual queue
- In-app chat
- Mobile check-In
- Digital room key
- Bus arrival times
It’s not easy (and probably not possible) to walk into a Disney World restaurant for a meal without a reservation. So it’s a good thing you can make your plans 60 days in advance for traditional sit-down dining or the treasured dining with Disney characters experience.
Disney World Resorts
To plan your stays, it’s helpful to know Disney World has three categories of resorts: Deluxe, Moderate, and Value. Then, you can tailor your experience to the amount of money you want to spend on lodging.
Don’t forget, through Disney’s Military Salute, you’re eligible for resort discounts. Typically, the discounts are bigger for Deluxe resorts and smaller for Moderate and Value resorts. Resort discounts are limited, though, meaning your favorite resort might have sold out of military rates for the dates you’re interested in.
It’s helpful to know that military are allowed to reserve up to three rooms with this discount in case you wanted to help out family and friends with a deal. But, the military member or spouse has to be present at check-in.
Resort military discount reservations can only be made over the phone, and it’s common to have long wait times. However, Disney vacation planners can take care of this for you—so, there’s no need to listen to outdated hold music!
Here’s another tip: If you’ve already made your resort reservations without the military discount, ask your Disney planner if there’s an option to add the discount. In the past, it was policy to offer the discount retroactively if there’s availability, but plans for 2022 haven’t been revealed yet.
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Shades of Green
If you’ve been in the military for even a short time, you’ve probably heard about Shades of Green (part of the Armed Forces Recreation Center collection). It’s the resort on Disney World property dedicated to military families. The fees are outstanding, and the rooms are roomy to accommodate families.
Shades of Green has been a military family favorite for years thanks to convenient dining and its location next to Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, which means there’s easy access to the monorail.
Know that the servicemember’s rank calculates Shades of Green’s fees. You might want to check other Disney resort fees against Shades of Green; you might get a better deal for a location you like better.
How to Choose A Disney World Resort
Finding the best resort solution will take some thought. First, you’ll need to narrow down what’s essential, like location, affordability, or amenities. Here are some tips for choosing from some of the best places to stay.
- Best for the proximity to Magic Kingdom and the monorail: Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, and Disney's Contemporary Resort. For families with little kids, these resorts’ locations cut down on so much walking.
- Best for families who want a BIG experience: Animal Kingdom offers an once-in-a-lifetime experience and views overlooking animals roaming the savanna from your balcony.
- Best for pool lovers: If you specifically want to plan a day or two at the pool, try Beach Club or Yacht Club Resorts.
- Best for niche location experiences: For guests who want a little more locale added to their stay, try Caribbean Beach, Port Orleans Riverside, and Port Orleans French Quarter.
- Best for budget-conscious guests: All Star Movies Resort, All Star Music Resort, All Star Sports Resort, Art of Animation Resort, Pop Century Resort .
- Best for Skyliner access: Disney's Pop Century Resort, Disney's Art of Animation Resort, Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, and Disney's Riviera Resort. All have easy access to Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
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Disney World Terms to Know
The My Disney Experience App is just the start of new things happening in Disney World.
Disney Genie: You’ll find the Disney Genie inside the My Disney Experience App. Disney created it to help families curate the best strategies for visiting all of their favorite sites. It gives you suggestions on where to go and when.
Disney Genie+: This service is the paid version of what was formerly known as Fastpass+. For $15 per person, per day, you can use Genie+ to book return times for Lightning Lane access. This includes most attractions at most parks, except for Individual Lighting Lane.
Individual Lightning Lane: There are attractions in each park that require extra fees for Lightning Lane access. Here’s an example: To purchase an Individual Lightning Lane for Rise of the Resistance in Hollywood Studios, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge costs an additional $15 per person. The pricing varies depending on the time of year and crowd levels.
Virtual Queue: This is included in park admission and is another way to access some attractions. As of now, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure in Epcot is the only attraction utilizing the Virtual Queue.
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What to Know Before You Go to Disneyland
Disneyland has its own set of fervent fans who appreciate the manageable size and laid-back vibes of the two parks: Disneyland and California Adventure (plus Downtown Disney, a retail area). Add in the rich history that includes walking the paths of Walt Disney’s original masterpiece, and a trip to Disneyland takes on a special meaning.
Disneyland’s app has yet to convert to My Disney Experience, but it’s scheduled soon. It will include Disney Genie, Genie+, and Lightning Lanes. Genie+ access will cost more than Disney World at $20 per person per day. So, for now, you can still take advantage of standby lines and sometimes a virtual queue for the new rides.
You can also make reservations 60 days in advance for reservations on the property.
There are three on-site resort hotels:
- Disney’s Grand California Hotel & Spa: considered a Deluxe hotel
- Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel: perfect for viewing California Adventure fireworks
- Disneyland Hotel: nostalgic Disneyland themes and quick access to Downtown Disney
Disneyland released its military rates for the rest of this year and 2022. If you’re hoping to bring family or friends, you can reserve two rooms with these offers. There are also Disney-approved hotels off the resort. They’re called Good Neighbor Hotels.
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More Tips for Your Trip to Disney
1. Arrive early at the parks.
Get to the parks as close to opening as possible. The earlier you are, the shorter the lines will be. Minimizing line waiting is the key to a fun vacation with children! Crowds start picking up at 10 a.m., so try to make the most out of your early mornings.
2. Take breaks as needed.
Some people suggest leaving the parks at naptime, but see if your small child will nap in the stroller. There are tons of quiet, air-conditioned places to hang out, or sometimes it's just fun to stroll around and people watch while the baby naps. However, it’s important to be mindful of your children and their needs. If they seem overstimulated, maybe a restful afternoon at the resort will be just what they need.
3. Use Baby Swap.
The rides with height requirements offer Baby Swap. One person goes through the line (either stand-by or Fastpass line) and asks for a Baby Swap ticket. Then, after the ride, the other person who was waiting with the baby can go ride without waiting in the standby line. This is good if you intend to ride any of the bigger rides. When you have an older child, it’s especially fun because they get to ride the big rides twice!
4. Bring pajamas.
If your kids are younger and have earlier bedtimes, bring pajamas and change them before the nighttime shows. Then they can fall asleep, and you don't have to worry about changing them before bed.
There you have it! A fantastic start to planning your Disney trip. It takes a while to get familiar with the terms and strategies of everything the parks have to offer, but with help, you can certainly pull off a vacation to remember.
By Dawn M. Smith