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Iraq

Orlando resort an oasis for the troops

Nestled at Disney, Shades of Green offers military families an affordable respite, a place that serves those who serve.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published January 1, 2005


ORLANDO - With its well-manicured bushes, cascading waterfalls, roaring, stone fireplace and views overlooking a pristine golf course, the place looks nothing like a military institution.

But there are clues - the guests' close-cropped haircuts, the armed services flags blowing in the wind, the leather Army jackets and Iraqi Most Wanted cards for sale in the gift shop, next to Mickey Mouse T-shirts and Winnie the Pooh bears.

The resort, called Shades of Green, sits just outside the gates of the Magic Kingdom.

And while it looks like any other upscale tourist spot, it's actually the only one in the continental United States built exclusively for members of the armed services. In fact, only three other Armed Forces Recreation Centers exist in the world - in Hawaii, Korea and Germany.

This holiday season, as usual, Shades of Green is filled to capacity with retired service members and military families from the ends of the Earth, seeking the Florida sunshine.

And with so many combat zones in the world these days, a vacation can take on extra meaning.

"Some people who come here could go back to Iraq and lose their lives," said general manager Jim McCrindle, an Army veteran himself. "It's important they can come here and enjoy this resort."

* * *

While Shades of Green welcomes members of every military branch, the Army runs it and maintains Disney standards.

The resort reopened in March after two years of renovation and expansion that doubled its previous size.

The 586-room hotel is tax exempt but self-sustaining. It receives no government funds. Administrators say it turns a profit, but the money goes back into the resort, which allows prices to stay far below those in the civilian world.

And really, that's the point.

Everything is deeply discounted, from the room rates, to the food in the hotel's multiple restaurants and cafes, to the tickets to Disney theme parks. And when it comes to paying for the rooms, the lower your rank, the lower the rate.

"Although they get 52 paychecks a year," McCrindle said, military pay doesn't stack up to most civilian salaries.

For some, the lower prices mean the difference between going on vacation or staying home.

"We probably wouldn't have come down (without the discount)," said Mike Knudson, 42, an education and training manager for the Air Force who's stationed in South Dakota. He's spending 10 days at the resort with his wife, their three children and a son-in-law.

"If we were in the real world, there'd be no way," his wife, Kathy, said. She met a family this week who was paying $2,000 to stay five days at a local resort. The Knudsons, who booked their rooms a year in advance, said they paid about $1,700 for 10 days at Shades of Green.

In addition, members of the military on leave from combat zones are eligible for an extra 30 percent discount, McCrindle.

And if orders from Uncle Sam disrupt travel plans, there's no charge for a cancellation.

* * *

Of course, Shades of Green offers its guests more than just lower prices. It also provides an environment in which everyone has a common link, a sort of military outpost within the fantasy world of Disney.

"It's like being at home," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Alex Scott, 36, as his wife, four children and mother-in-law waited to buy discount Disney tickets.

Scott, stationed in Kansas, travels constantly, training active duty troops and National Guard members as they prepare to leave for combat.

"Anywhere I travel, I'm hoping and wishing there's a place like this," he said. "You're more comfortable; you're more at ease. Everyone around you is just like you.

"You can talk to people and kind of relate. Everyone is in the same boat. There's something to be said (for that)."

There's a lot to be said for that, according to the resort's director of sales and marketing, Charles Fitzgerald, an Army veteran wounded during two tours in Vietnam.

"When I came back, there wasn't anything (like this). It took time just for me to get used to my wife again," he said. But at Shades of Green, "we try to take away the war thoughts and all that. It gives families time to bond."

The place seems a relief even for some of the full-time employees, none of whom are on active duty, but many of whom have military backgrounds.

Hector Gomez has given 24 years of service to the Army and in October returned from six months of service in Kuwait and Iraq, where he lost a friend to an insurgent's grenade.

Now he's back at Shades of Green, working in the security department deep in the bowels of the hotel. Asked how his current job compares to working in a combat zone, he smiled.

"I like this one," he said, tugging at his Hawaiian shirt.

* * *

It's a typical day at Shades of Green, and the buses come and go, dropping off tourists who walk past the toy soldiers that guard the door to the spacious lobby.

Inside, flames flicker inside the fireplace, Christmas trees still glitter with decorations and holiday music drifts softly up and down the hallways.

Children run past in bathing suits. A man in an Operation Iraqi Freedom T-shirt checks in at the front desk.

From his corner office, general manager Jim McCrindle can look out over the tidy grounds. He believes in this place and its purpose. Because while many of its guests will return to normal office jobs or continue their retirement, others will leave for far-flung corners of the globe and face enemies eager to kill them.

For a few brief days, at least, McCrindle hopes to make their lives a little easier.

"We're serving those who serve," he says, repeating the resort's motto. "That's what it's all about."

For more information about the resort, visit www.shadesofgreen.org

[Last modified January 1, 2005, 00:31:06]


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