by Mike Scopa, staff writer
Hurricane Charley came a-knockin' on Orlando Friday, August 13 with winds up to 105mph. What would the guests and the cast members wake up to when they woke up the next morning? In this session, we pick up my recollection from the point from where I fell asleep in my room at Pop Century Resort as Hurricane Charley's winds finally began to subside.
I happened to awaken and find the light flashing on the phone. It was the resort telling us that the storm was over and that the staff will be working through the night to evaluate the damage. They said that we could leave our room but asked that we stay at the resort. It was obvious that some clean-up was taking place throughout the night.
The theme park operations were not defined at this point, but they were hoping to let us know as soon as possible about if and when the parks would open that day.
A fallen tree in the Pop Century Resort parking lot. Photo by Mike Scopa.
I took a stroll outside. The comparison was uncanny. What had been a torrential rain storm/hurricane a few hours before was now a beautiful mid-summer Florida night.
I went back to sleep wondering what the morning would bring.
I got up to turn on the TV, and there was another flashing light on the phone. It was the resort staff announcing that all the parks except the Animal Kingdom were open for business. We were encouraged to use our own vehicles instead of using Disney Transportation, as there would be limited service.
Carol and I quickly showered and got dressed, then took a quick stroll around the resort. For the most part it fared well, although we saw at least a dozen trees that had been uprooted or had ended up in a horizontal state.
We left for the Magic Kingdom. Along the way to the toll plaza, I counted at least 34 uprooted trees. There may have been more. The roadways had been cleared but there were obvious things that needed attention. Signs were twisted, trees and limbs were snapped, and there were some pole lamps that were leaning a bit much.
When we parked our car at the Magic Kingdom's parking lot we were told that the trams were not running. We had to walk to the Ticket and Transportation Center. Also, the monorail was not running. Apparently they were doing some tests on the monorail support beams to make sure that Charley did not weaken them and that all the electrical power was working properly.
We took the ferry over to the park entrance.
We entered the park and things looked fine. We went over to Tony's and tried to get a Priority Seating request for lunch. We were told that Tony's would not be open for lunch and possibly not dinner. When I asked why, the cast member said she was not at liberty to tell me.
We went to the Plaza and asked the same question. They, too, were closed. When I asked why, the cast member said that they expected the park to be working with a skeleton crew because some of the cast members had post-hurricane issues and needed to address their property and family needs. Thus only the Crystal Palace for now seemed to be open. We made a Priority Seating request there for lunch.
Recently planted trees are easy pickings for a hurricane. Photo by Mike Scopa.
Apparently there was no damage to any of the structures in the theme park, but some trees were not so lucky. The tree on the corner to Adventureland was uprooted and some trees around the castle moat were down.
The grounds, however, were immaculate; a tribute to the crew who worked through the night to make sure that the guests saw their beloved theme park in spotless condition.
None of the Fastpass attractions were using Fastpass, but the crowds were low so Fastpass weren't necessary.
As we walked around the park we noticed other Charley calling cards A tall tree leaning at Sir Mickey's shop, some of the decorations down at the teacups, but other than that and a few trees leaning here and there, it seemed that the park fared well.
Although the train was not running that day, a few days later when we took the train around the park, we saw extended damage to the trees. This was apparent between the Frontierland and Toontown stations and even moreso just before you arrived at Main Street. We are talking huge trees with large sections felled by Charley.
I was told by one of the cast members who works the train that a considerable number of trees had fallen around the tracks during the storm.
The reduction in available staffing was obvious. At the Crystal Palace we noticed upper-lever supervisors performing tasks otherwise handled by costumed cast members. This also included the cooking. Carol and I noticed that there was a lot of "mentoring" going on in the cooking area; obviously the staff was being supplemented by supervisors.
The lines were long in Crystal Palace for lunch because there was an obvious learning curve involved.
Later on in the day when returned to Pop Century, we had more flashing messages telling us that housekeeping services would be limited, and they apologized for any inconvenience. Huh? Our beds were made and the room was cleaned.
We saw guests checking out and not sure about delays at Orlando International Airport, and it was generally quite a crazy day for a lot of people.
Here are some other notable results from hurricane Charley.
It appears that all the animals made it through without any harm. There were some reports that the Expedition Everest construction may have suffered a setback, as the storm made it necessary for them to inspect the whole structure. Charley may have impacted some portions.
One cast member told me that the number of trees that were down made the Disney folks concerned because there was the fear that the safety of animals, guests and cast members was compromised.
The Animal Kingdom was shut down for at least two days (the day of the hurricane and the day afterwards). Some cast members had mentioned that there was much debate over whether to open the Animal Kingdom the day after, but the way Animal Kingdom was built, it required a lot of inspection.
The number of fallen trees at Animal Kingdom will keep the park closed for an extra day. Photo by Mike Scopa.
Not only did they have to clear all the walkways, but they also had to make sure there were no leaning trees or dangling limbs that could fall and harm guests. We saw some trees held up by ropes.
Also of concern were the animal areas. Remember that the park was built so that it appeared that the animals were living together when in fact there were barriers separating the predators from the prey. Before the animals were let out of their pens, their areas had to be inspected to protect them and the guests. They wouldn't want a fallen tree to provide access for a predator to either an animal or a guest.
This was tedious and long work and it took two days before the Animal Kingdom was somewhat back to normal. Guests visiting the park could see Charley's work, especially across from the wide-open Expedition Everest construction project.
From what I saw, the only damage suffered around Epcot was outside along the right side of the parking lot. There were about a dozen or so trees that were uprooted. Within the park there were no apparent problems, or at least no visible signs.
Plenty of fallen tree around the Epcot parking lot. Photo by Mike Scopa.
On our first visit after Charley, we saw uprooted trees near the security check. We also noticed that two trees to the left of the Brown Derby Restaurant entrance had fallen and were partially removed. Those trees had to be cut, and will eventually be replaced. All attractions fared well.
All other portions of the park looked unscathed.
Minimal damage is to be found at MGM, just a couple more fallen trees. Photo by Mike Scopa.
Unfortunately, we were told a few cast members who work in Mama Melrose lost their homes to Charley. We would never know just how many cast members were affected by this storm.
The only notable damage in Downtown Disney was the roof of Cirque du Soleil, which was partially torn from the high winds.
Downtown Orlando was slowly coming back to life. There were still some areas without power, as all power lines in certain sectors had to be secure before the power was restored. Thus there were long lines at some gas stations while others remained deserted. Orlando had a curfew prohibiting anyone from downtown between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Officially, the winds from Charley had been clocked at 105mph in Orlando.
All intersections were to be treated as four way stops; no fun.
We drove around the southern portion of International Drive near Sea World and saw homes with trees on their roofs and gas stations with their roofs torn off.
Hundreds of thousands of homes in the southern Florida area were without power 169,000 in the Orange County alone.
The few days following Charley showed little let up as far as impact. The parks continued to be short staffed. This was noticeable by the lack of costumed cast members who were working the parks, and also the few if any attractions that were using the Fastpass option. That would have required at least two more cast members per attraction, a luxury they could not afford.
Some parades, like the Motorcars parade in MGM and the Share a Dream Come True parade in the Magic Kingdom were missing some "minor" characters like Princess Leia and Cruella, possibly cast members who needed to be elsewhere.
There was never a problem with food supply in any of the restaurants in the WDW resorts or the theme parks. I had a conversation with Dee, the head chef at the Pop Century Resort food court, and complimented her on the resort's stocking of food for the guests. She sort of winked and said, "Phew!" when thinking about how it would have been had they had not stocked up before Charley came.
We left WDW nine days after Charley's visit. While driving to the airport, we saw a few schools without roofs, many uprooted trees, and small communities that seemed to have spotty damage. Some houses had trees on them and others had no damage. Charley was fickle.
We did not see any major damage when we got to the airport. When the plane was preparing to take off, however, we did notice some remnants of damage in some spots.
One thing for sure, I always felt safe during the storm. One of the most memorable aspects of this experience was that I always got the impression that the cast members at our resort did not take anything for granted and assumed that it was their responsibility to keep the guests informed regarding weather conditions. I was grateful for all the messages they provided us during and after the storm. The day after the hurricane was amazing. There were some areas of the roads that were completely littered with debris from the storm. However when we arrived at the park, save for one tree that was uprooted, you would have never known there a storm had blown through 12 hours earlier.
The efforts of the WDW staff tried to make the effects of Hurricane Charley appear seamless to their guests, and too many timesyes too many timestheir apologies for any inconveniences to their guests found me shaking my head at their customer service.
At times I have been critical of some aspect of WDW and I can predict that will happen in the future. However, I will always defend the WDW Resort regarding their approach to making their guests feel comfortable and safe even when faced with natural disasters that puts them to the test.
By the way, we used express checkout and on the day we left, we found our bill on our doorknob. There was some sort of a notation on the bill. Apparently as a result of Hurricane Charley, they felt that they short-serviced us on housekeeping. That was far from the truth. In fact, for days after the storm our housekeepers would not even take the tip we would leave for them each day.
Anyway, they had refunded part of my room bill for "lack of housekeeping services." I never noticed my bed not made, or the room not cleaned, or lack of fresh towels in the bathroom. It was just yet another gesture on the part of this resort, and maybe the entire WDW Resort to make sure we know they care.
They certainly do.
Not only is it the happiest place on Earth but I am now convinced that the WDW resort may also be the safest place on Earth.
Oh yeahthe rest of my trip, things I saw, things I did... things you should know.
Hurricane Charley brought hardship to many and Walt Disney World cast members were among those hit hard by this storm. Walt Disney World has created a cast member Hurricane Relief Fund and has put in $50,000 to start the fund.
If you would like to repay the Walt Disney World cast members for making your visit to WDW magical and help them recover from hurricane Charley you may donate to this fund by sending your check to:
Vista Federal Credit Union
Attn: Cast Member Hurricane Relief Fund
13705 International Drive
South Orlando, FL 32821
If you prefer you may also donate to the American Red Cross for the Hurricane Charley Disaster Relief Fund.
(Send an email to Mike Scopa)
Mike Scopa first visited Walt Disney World almost 30 years ago. Planning a trip was simple back in the 1970s, with only the Magic Kingdom and a few Disney-owned resorts in Orlando.
Over the past 11 years, Mike has been perfecting his WDW trip-planning skills as he has hosted chats and bulletin boards about Disney for a Fortune 100 company.