WASHINGTON — Fans of the Armed Forces Recreation Centers, or AFRCs, can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that because the crown jewels of the military’s morale, welfare and recreation, or MWR, programs are completely self-supporting, they’re unaffected by defense budget cuts and undergoing capital improvements.
The AFRCs have served as centerpieces of the MWR program since the post-World War II era. They were initially established after the war in confiscated German facilities to provide recreational getaways for U.S. forces, Debbie Martin, the Army’s chief of hospitality programs, told American Forces Press Service.
Today, the Army operates four AFRCs around the world for all the military services: the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort, in Garmisch, Germany; the Hale Koa Hotel, in Honolulu; Shades of Green, on the grounds of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.; and Dragon Hill Lodge, in Seoul, South Korea.
The facilities serve military members and their Families, military retirees, and Department of Defense, or DoD, civilian employees. Last year alone, 1.7 million guests visited an AFRC, Martin reported.
Make no mistake about it; the AFRCs aren’t simply military-run hotels like those found on many installations, she emphasized. They’re luxury resorts that cater exclusively to military and DoD leisure travelers and their Families.
Edelweiss, opened in 2004, is a world-class resort smack in the middle of the Bavarian Alps and Germany’s premier ski and summer sports scene. The Hale Koa, on Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach, offers an open door to paradise, complete with tropical gardens, pools and regular luaus. Shades of Green, the only AFRC in the continental United States, gives service members and families immediate access to the wonders of Disney World. The Dragon Hill offers an upscale escape in the Land of the Morning Calm, all steps from the excitement and intrigue of downtown Seoul.
All feature exclusive accommodations and fitness facilities, restaurants, lounges and activity desks that can keep guests running from morning to night when they’re not simply kicking back and enjoying their surroundings.
“We look for the ‘Wow’ factor, as do most resorts,” Martin said. “We want the military community, not only today, but into the future, to arrive at any one of these resorts and say, ‘Wow. This is what the nation does for me and gives me the opportunity to be involved in.’”
For many AFRC guests, the initial attraction is the price. Unlike civilian resorts that must turn a profit to stay in business, AFRCs charge only what they need to cover operating expenses and facility improvements, Martin said. Not a penny of the direct funding comes from appropriated funds, so the facilities are largely sheltered from the budget cuts impacting the DoD.
Room rates are based on a sliding scale according to rank, with the most-junior guests paying the least: $64 a night for a single room at the Dragon Hill; $79 at the Hale Koa; $86 at the Edelweiss; and $95 for a 450-square-foot room that sleeps six at Shades of Green.
For higher-ranking guests, the same rooms go for more, and larger rooms are available at higher prices at some of the facilities to accommodate larger parties.
“The value for your dollar goes much farther at the AFRCs than it would in any resort that would be comparable,” Martin said.
That’s kept occupancy rates steady, typically at 90 percent or higher at the Hale Koa, Shades of Green and Dragon Hill facilities, she reported. The Edelweiss resort has experienced a recent drop, she said, reflecting force-structure changes in Europe but making it easier than ever before for guests to get a reservation.
While prices may draw guests to the AFRCs, Martin said the quality of the accommodations and services provided continue to bring them back. Each resort offers everything service members might expect to find in a luxury resort: swimming pools, gardens, dining choices ranging from fast food to haute cuisine and access to a plethora of entertainment options.
Each facility also has a post exchange on site, a godsend, many guests say, that saves them a bundle when they’re vacationing.
“AFRCS offer a blend of the military culture and a resort environment that military members find very, very appealing, not just in terms of price, but also because of the atmosphere,” Martin said.
An ambitious recapitalization program is helping to ensure that atmosphere remains for years to come, she said. Shades of Green, for example, opened its expanded post exchange this spring. A major renovation is underway on one of its pools, featuring a “zero entry” ramp to meet the needs of guests in wheelchairs or with other physical limitations. Another pool, known as the “Mickey Pool,” will be upgraded within the next year to 15 months to add new child-friendly features, Martin said.
Meanwhile, officials are considering a major renovation of the resort’s original wing, which includes about half of its 583 rooms, Martin said.
The Hale Koa, which recently completed a $60-plus million facelift on its Ilima Tower, is in the conceptual stages for a similar effort on its original Maile Tower, she said. Once that’s completed, all 817 guest rooms at the largest of the AFRC resorts will have a new face.
“The idea is that you refresh things before they become worn out in the eye of the users,” Martin said. “We want to make sure our guests are greeted with something they view as current and fresh — and that gives them the overall feeling, ‘I am in a resort, and I am being pampered.’”
Pampering, after all, is what the AFRCs are all about, she said. They offer an opportunity for military members and their Families to relax, unwind and reconnect. The benefit, she said, is that they return to their homes and duty stations refreshed and ready to take on whatever challenges the military presents them.
Martin said there’s little that makes her feel more satisfied than seeing a military parent and child spend quality time together at an AFRC.
“It is those innocent moments, those special moments that make a lasting impression,” she said, not just on the child, but on the parent who will carry those memories to the next deployment.
“That is what we do,” Martin said. “We help strengthen that bond that allows folks to get through the things that we as a nation ask them to get through.”
For more information about the AFRCs or to make a reservation, contact the Armed Forces Recreation Center website.