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Mike Scopa

Charley, the Mouse, and Me: Part 1

Hurricane interrupts visit to Walt Disney World

Friday, September 3, 2004
by Mike Scopa, staff writer

As this article was being prepared, yet another hurricane, Frances, has its sights on Florida. The images of Hurricane Charley will last with me forever. I cannot imagine what a second hurricane just a few weeks later would mean to all those who are still picking up the pieces from Charley. All of us at MousePlanet are praying for those in the path of Hurricane Frances, and would like our readers to send prayers and pixie dust their way as they brace for this storm.

In a bit of a rescheduling from our planned session for this week, I thought I've give everyone a recap regarding Hurricane Charley while the memories and images are fresh in my mind. Hopefully I can give you a sense of what it was like at the Happiest Place on Earth with a tropical depression bearing down on you.

Thursday, August 12th

11:20 a.m.

Our plane touches down. It's a very uneventful flight; the kind you always wish for when going on vacation. We find Orlando to be bright and sunny… much unexpected. We thought we would be landing in a very overcast sky.

It seems like it takes ages to secure the rental car. I was hoping to get to the counter before I'd miss things like lunch, Halloween, and the Presidential election. It takes approximately 60 minutes before I finally turn on the ignition to make our trek to Walt Disney World.

Along the way, the unofficial Orlando Chamber of Commerce—known as a Central Florida thunderstorm—greets us. This one turns the highway into a car wash. It forces me to turn off and wait until the deluge subsides before heading on to the Pop Century Resort.

1:15 p.m.

While checking in at Pop Century, we are told that Hurricane Charley had caused a cancellation of Friday night's E-Ride event, but that there was some hope that the event would be offered Monday night. Cool.

We bring our stuff to the room and head off to Disney's Animal Kingdom. We planned to hit it for a few hours, close that park, eat at the Rainforest Café, and then head over and close the Magic Kingdom. We do all of the above.

Friday, August 13th

12:10 a.m.

We return to Pop Century and tune in to the Weather Channel. I am tired, but do catch something about Charley not behaving according to the predicted track the computer models had forecast for him. I knew Charley would impact my vacation, but little did I know how much.

I set the alarm for 5:30… that's right—Breakfast with the Mouse at Chef Mickey in the Contemporary Resort in the morning—and then fall asleep with the television on.

3:47 a.m.

Someone in the adjacent room who has decided to take a shower awakens me. Wow, he must have a real early Priority Seating at Chef Mick's. I try to get back to sleep. It's a struggle, but I manage.

5:30 a.m.

The alarm goes off. We get up and shower. I check all the batteries for the cameras and we take off around 6:30 for our 7 a.m. Priority Seating at Chef Mick's. We try to catch the news and the weather, but just grab bits and pieces. It did sound like Charley was heading a bit closer, although I had no idea just how close he would come.

When we open the door, my wife, Carol, says, “Hey it's still night time!” It's pre-dawn… also pre-Charley.

We drive over to the Contemporary and are among the first to be seated for breakfast.

7:00 a.m.

Our waitress comes over, and the first thing she tells us is that Disney's Animal Kingdom, Downtown Disney, and Typhoon Lagoon are closed until further notice. Blizzard Beach and all other theme parks are open until 1 p.m.

This causes us to change our plans. Instead of going to any of the parks, we decide to do a little shopping after breakfast.

8:35 a.m.

We finish our breakfast and along the way, have photo opportunities with the Fab Five (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto) and Chip and Dale. I will remember Dale roaming from table to table and sitting down and banging for service… pretty amusing.

We check out the shops in the Concourse level of the Contemporary Resort and the pins area, and take a couple of shots of the Magic Kingdom from the north side of the hotel. I also check that mural for the legendary five-legged goat. We then make our way out to the parking lot. It's now after dawn, but we cannot see the sun. It's overcast… kind of grey… but still a bit hot and sticky.

9:20 a.m.

We pull out of the parking lot and start towards our first location. When we arrive at the Lake Buena Vista Premium Outlet Stores, we find that the stores are open, but a lot of their windows are taped up in anticipation for Charley. This also included the Disney Character Premier Store.

The store is pretty crowded. This was expected because Downtown Disney was closed. We find a few bargains and then head back to the car.


Staff at the Disney Character Premier Store prepare for Hurricane Charley by taping up the store windows. Photo by Mike Scopa.

10:15 a.m.

This was my first trip to this shopping center, so I spend a few minutes trying to figure out the shortest route to our next stop, Belz Factory Outlet World. Finally, we're on our way. I want to get there before 11, and it isn't looking good.

10:45 a.m.

The traffic is much thicker than I could have ever imagined. We soon hit a stall-and-crawl kind of situation. Where are all these cars coming from, and where are they going?

Carol flips on the radio and we find quite a few stations are simulcasting on television with warnings about Charley. I'm thinking that it's a bit of overkill… until we hear that Charley has made a bit of a right turn and is heading straight for Orlando… and us.

Obviously some businesses have decided either not to open today or to let their employees out early. Either way, all of them are on the roads and keeping me company.

Emergency response officials are on the radio giving everyone some guidance as to what to expect. I listen to the radio so intently I don't pay attention to the time.

Some of what I hear:

“The power will be turned off in Tampa at 12 p.m.” The reasoning here is to minimize the possibility of someone getting electrocuted from grounded wires that had been ripped off their home by Charley. The plan is to turn the power off and after the storm to check out sections and gradually bring back the power. It makes sense.

We hear businesses and school closings. It seems like all of Central Florida are shutting down around midday. I begin to wonder if Belz is open at all.

11:30 a.m.

Now the weatherman is saying that Charley has hit land, and is now classified as a class 3 hurricane. All I know is that such a number means something about the winds.

There are constant reminders about shelters for people to go to for people who live in coastal or mobile homes. All of a sudden I'm starting to take this storm real seriously and hoping the traffic will start to move.

11:45 a.m.

The traffic continues to move slowly, and we continue to listen to the radio.

The officials are now telling people to let them know immediately if they need assistance… especially the elderly or those who need power for medical equipment.

They then mention that once the winds surpass 45 mph, all emergency personnel would take cover—they were letting everyone know that if they dialed 911 after those winds got up to that speed that there may not be an answer. Now I'm getting a bit nervous.

12:05 p.m.

Nothing is moving on the streets. I then hear something on the radio that makes the hairs on the back of my head stand on end. Apparently a funnel cloud or two has been spotted in the southwestern tip of Orlando… sort of where we're heading.

Carol and I decide that Belz can wait for another day. As soon as I can, I turn around and head straight back to Pop Century.


Pleasure Island is closed. Not an oft-seen sign. Photo by Mike Scopa.

12:30 p.m.

When I arrive at the resort, I park as far away as possible from any tree or light pole. Just before turning off the car radio, we hear the announcer mention to watch out for mini-funnel clouds or tornados. I was happy where I was.

We enter our room and flip on the TV. It's all-Charley, all the time. The approach towards this storm makes what I am used to regarding our Nor'easter snowstorms in New England pale in comparison.

It seemed that every station had a picture-in-picture display with Doppler radar in the upper left while the rest of the screen had an official giving advice, telephone numbers, and warnings about what was going to happen.

They sound continuous warnings about the power going out and the officials plead to those who are dependent on electrical medical equipment to head for the special-needs shelters that are equipped with generators.

They also announce that Lynx, the Orlando downtown bus service, would shut down by 3 p.m.

We think it best to go to the food court and have some lunch as soon as possible. It's pretty crowded at the food court, as the guests are now coming back to the resort and getting ready for a long Florida night.

After a quick lunch, we head back to our room. We're staying in the '50s section of Pop Century, so we're fairly close to the Food Court. But we're also on the first floor…. not sure it that's good or not, but we have no choice.

1:45 p.m.

No sooner do we get into the room when there is a knock on the door. We're handed a letter from the resort. The letter warns us about the impending visit from Hurricane Charley and give us some guidelines to help us ride out the storm. Some of the important points were:

  • Keep away from the windows
  • Keep connecting room doors unlocked
  • Do not double lock the door
  • Keep blinds and drapes closed and furniture in the room.
  • Do not leave the room until notified.

The letter also tells us that they would run continuous showings of Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and Brother Bear on the internal resort channels.

To their credit, the Pop Century staff let us know how serious this bit of weather was to be, and wanted to make sure they did everything to keep their guests safe, comfortable, and entertained.

We start to play the waiting game. I'm restless and walk outside. People are still straggling in and looking for parking spots. To my surprise, I see several guests go out to the parking lot and drive off. They seemed pretty happy. I thought they seemed pretty foolish.

2:45 p.m.

It begins to sprinkle. There is a slight breeze but nothing that would move a windsock. I return to the room where Carol has one of the local stations on the TV. We are being told of the plans to remove power from certain areas by Florida Power and Light.

All these warnings make me curious… waiting… waiting for Charley.

We walk around the resort because the rain has let up and it is clear. We talk with our next-door neighbors from Minnesota and a few other guests. The resort guests are returning to wait out the storm.

We wait and wait and wait.

4:00 p.m.

I start jotting down notes about the day. I wonder if I would have enough to recap all that is happening. I shouldn't have wondered.

The skies gradually darken and the rain slowly becomes steady, but nothing is out of the unusual. I still cannot imagine this is a hurricane.

Slowly and steadily, the skies grow dark… so dark that the parking lot lights come on. The weather is about to go downhill faster than your favorite log on Splash Mountain.

The winds are really picking up. As I glance out the window, I watch some of the younger saplings yield to the winds while the older trees play the part of the immovable object to the irresistible force.

5:30 p.m.

The winds subside and the rain has stopped… it was getting light outside. Was it over? No. I suspect that it's either a calm pocket, or we are in the center of Charley's eye. As I leave my room and walk around, I see other guests doing the same… probably thinking the same as me… although my guess is that the Midwesterners aren't familiar with the eyes of hurricanes.

This period of calmness lasts for at least 90 minutes. We spend the time walking around and then watching the TV for reports as to what to expect, and what Charley has wrought to the southwest portion of the state. It's apparent that it would be morning before we find out the total impact of Charley's visit.




Over the course of about 45 minutes, Hurricane Charley turns day to night. Photo by Mike Scopa.

 

7:30 p.m.

Round 2 has arrived. And it makes Round 1 seem like a sun shower. The winds pick up and day turns into night. The rain is coming down in water walls and those aforementioned trees are being forced to see things Charley's way.

I try to videotape some of this storm from just outside the room, but Carol quickly points out that there is a danger of the wind tossing something my way. I was ready to brush off that warning when I notice that trees close to our room are suddenly horizontal, and those tacky 45rpm records and transistor radio decorations attached to the railings of the building are shaking. That, plus being blown back into the room, convinces me that it's best to stay in the room, for who knows where or when some projectile with my name on it could end up introducing itself to my skull.

This period of wind and rain and some thunder lasts for a few hours. At one point, the wind actually blows the rain through the door jam openings. Now, that's a good trick.

The full brunt of the storm seems to take place between 8:30 and 9:30, and I cannot keep my eyes off the outside and marvel at Mother Nature's force.

By 10 p.m. the winds begin to subside and the rains let up ever so slightly. It's still quite a rainstorm but it's apparent that Charley has left the building.

We continue to watch television and soon fall asleep with our clothes on. We had never changed because we always had a small voice in the back of our heads saying, “What if they tell you to evacuate the building?”

So as Charley's wind and rain sweep off to the Northeast, we are swept off to sleep wondering what the morning would bring.

Next Time

Now that the sound and fury of Hurricane Charley has come and gone, what awaited us in the morning? Join me for Part 2 and see how the Walt Disney World fared and what the days ahead meant for me and the resort.

Author's Note

Hurricane Charley brought hardship to many. 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.


Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Mike here.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

Mike brings his experience to MousePlanet in a series of lessons to help you with all the phases of planning a WDW trip.

Mike pays special attention to all the details that ensure your family has the best possible time at the Happiest Place on Earth.

You can contact Mike here.

OTHER LINKS

Here are trip reports that Mike has written that are part of MousePlanet's archives:

Michael Scopa -- August 1999 -- Walt Disney World (CSR)

Michael J. Scopa -- July 1997 -- Walt Disney World (WL/CBR)

Mike Scopa -- July 1994 -- Walt Disney World (WL / CBR)

Also, don't miss Lani Teshima's column, “The Trip Planner” for more travel planning information.

Get the latest info about the resort at “Park Update: Walt Disney World.”

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