Inside the Walt Disney World resort most of the public can't stay in

Amid all the great Walt Disney World resorts is one off-limits to most WDW guests! Just why is Shades of Green the most exclusive WDW resort?
Invictus Games Orlando 2016 - Behind The Scenes
Invictus Games Orlando 2016 - Behind The Scenes / Chris Jackson/GettyImages

Walt Disney World is packed with some of the best resort hotels imaginable. From the deluxe spots to the value resorts, there’s something for everyone there, and some places are better because they’re not as busy as the big resorts.

Yet in the middle of it all is a unique anomaly: A Disney resort that’s not really Disney even though it’s on the property and offers many of the same perks. It’s also because most guests can’t qualify to attend there, making it feel more intimate and special. 

Shades of Green.

It has a fascinating history and changes, a lovely charm, and it’s interesting to see how this older Disney resort can also be the most exclusive of any WDW property.

The history of Shades of Green

When WDW opened in 1971, there were plans for more resort hotels, like one based on Italy or a lavish Middle East-influenced one. Those never came to be but one that opened in December of 1973 was the Golf Resort. As the name implied, it was meant to be for those who relished in Disney World’s gorgolf courses. 

It’s sometimes overlooked how WDW has some fantastic golfing with world-class PGA-worthy courses. So, building a resort for them and catering to that audience made sense. That it only had 151 rooms made it the smallest of Disney resorts and just one restaurant, the Magnolia (later Trophy) Room, which housed some musical acts.

It didn’t take long for Disney to realize the golf-going crowd wasn’t as large as they expected. The fact the resort was off the monorail path and had less attention than the Contemporary or Polynesian meant that, at best, it had about 70% occupancy. So in 1986, it was renamed the Disney Inn and given a makeover.

Adding 150 additional rooms, the new resort took a rustic feel influenced by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The restaurant was transformed into the Garden Gallery, pushing more American family food with the Diamond Mine snack bar and the Sand Trap poolside bar. It had an arcade, two pools and yes, golf was still a major focus. 

Despite the low cost for the time compared to other resorts, the Disney Inn was still too small and had low occupancy, with Disney often seeming to forget it even existed. Which was why they were more open to a major change. 

The transformation into Shades of Green

In the early 1990s, with the end of the Gulf War, the U.S Department of Defense was looking into new ways to help former and current servicemen enjoy vacations. A location by the biggest vacation spot in the U.S. was logical. 

So, it was a win-win proposition: Disney could offload this low-ranking resort to the military for a fee, and the DOD got a nice Disney World resort for servicemen. Thus, in 1996, the resort was formally renamed Shades of Green, a fun way to honor both the military and the original golf theme. 

This has led to the key rule: The only people who can stay at the resort are active or former members of the U.S. armed forces and their families. That includes anyone from medal winners to wounded veterans. Thus, the resort has the same benefits of most WDW locations but can’t be accessed by the public. 

What Shades of Green offers today

It’s almost a shame regular guests can’t stay there as the resort has a lot to offer. A 2002 expansion has upgraded it to 586 rooms, all rather comfortable and many outfitted for guests with special needs such as wounded veterans. Interestingly, there can be a ranking of rooms based on military ranks so a major would qualify for a bigger space than a private.

The Garden Gallery remains the main dining spot but is now joined by some great places like the full-service Mangino’s, the Evergreen sports pub, the fast-service Express Cafe, and the On the Greens Grill located by the golf courses. There are still two pools, one a nice spot for adults, while kids can love the Millpond Pool, shaped like Mickey Mouse with a waterslide. There’s also a fitness center, spa, two tennis courts and halls for meeting and banquets.

The mood is interesting as it still has the Golf Resort influences with areas that look like clubhouses overseeing the greens. There are fun walkways over rivers with the open spaces adding more appeal. It doesn’t push a military theme as still the Disney influence that makes it shine. It’s also logical that soldiers won’t want to be reminded of their tours of duty and get away from it all. Thus, guests can enjoy golfing, a day at the parks or just settling back to take in the peaceful aura around them.

Because of the exclusive clientele, it lacks the hustle and bustle of other parks, almost feeling more out of the way than it really is. It does offer bus transport to the major parks and areas of WDW, although there are a few changes. You can’t charge items or food to your room or take part in the Disney Dining Plan. Aside from that, it fits right in with the rest of the Disney World resorts.

Thus, Shades of Green has a strange place in Orlando as the resort is located on Disney grounds with access to the parks, Disney merchandise, the Disney feel…yet it’s not really owned by Disney. It’s a wonderful spot for our servicemen and women to enjoy a Disney vacation and still appeals to golfers and a showcase for how even the non-official Disney resorts still retain the Disney magic.