My Disney Top 5 - Tips for Weathering a Hurricane at Walt Disney Worldby Chris Barry, contributing writer
I had a completely different article planned for this Friday's Top 5 and then Hurricane Matthew began to rear its ugly head in the Caribbean. As an old surfer it's a bit of a habit to keep eyes and ears peeled to the tropics for storms in the hope that they charge up through the Atlantic and send waves towards the south shore of Long Island, while hopefully not causing damage and catastrophe. That does happen quite often. Many big storms stay out there churning away sending the surf our way and fortunately keep a safe distance from land. Surfers remember the names of those storms when no one else does because they bring the surf but don't bring the devastation. Of course, the opposite is also true. The ones that everyone remembers plow into land and wreak their havoc and as of right now, it looks like we will be dealing with some degree of a storm this week on the east coast of the United States.
As I write this article Governor Rick Scott has, in fact, declared a State of Emergency in Florida and has activated the National Guard as all eyes are on Hurricane Matthew's track up the eastern seaboard as it leaves the Caribbean.
If you're a big Disney fan and you hear the words "hurricane" and "Florida" in the same sentence, chances are your thoughts turn to Walt Disney World. Orlando is well enough inland and certainly gets spared the brunt of most big coastal storms. However that doesn't make our favorite tourist destination completely immune. It's still in Florida, which is after all a peninsula surrounded by warm water, and hurricanes do love warm water. While many of us have no doubt donned Mickey ponchos during those brief, sometimes intense summer downpours, not many of us have been through an actual hurricane in the most magical place on Earth. That's because in its 45 years of operation, only a handful of hurricanes have actually affected the resort. The one that I happened to be there for, Hurricane Charley in 2004, was the most direct hit and had the most impact on both the resort and the surrounding areas.
We were in the midst of a blissful ten-day vacation when Charley came to visit. My wife and I and our then 5-year-old daughter were enjoying a stay at Disney's Port Orleans French Quarter resort, only our second family Disney vacation. We knew there was a storm out there but we were booked and it looked like we were going to be able to travel in and out in complete safety. We figured we might have to deal with some inclement weather while we were there but we really didn't think twice about the possibility of Charley turning east and tearing across Central Florida so we went on with our plans. It turned out to be quite an experience.
With Matthew possibly headed toward Florida this week, I thought I would offer some firsthand advice about what to expect if a hurricane ends up visiting you while you're visiting Mickey. Let's take a look at my Top 5 tips for weathering a hurricane at Walt Disney World.
5 – Expect to be inconvenienced
One doesn't expect Walt Disney World to actually close, and that's because technically it never fully closes. With over 20 resorts on property, there's always someone there. As a matter of fact there are always thousands of people there. If a major storm is headed towards Walt Disney World, the parks will indeed close. The waterparks will close. Disney Springs will close. That's right, Disney will close their gift shops when they absolutely have to.
Everything shut down at 1:00 pm that day in 2004. We were having a great morning at Magic Kingdom and it was hard to believe just what was coming as we walked out through the turnstiles. It looked like a pretty decent day. Maybe it was a little overcast but anytime you get a break from the blaring August sun down there it's considered somewhat of a blessing, sometimes in disguise.
Realize that the parks are closed and everyone who's staying at your resort will be there at the same time. That's not something they typically plan for and it's not something you typically see at Walt Disney World. Consider that our resort, French Quarter, has about 1,000 rooms. On an average day, most of those room's occupants are off riding Space Mountain and watching parades. Now, imagine them all coming back to the resort at once.
I saw a lot of people getting heated about long lines at the food court when we returned that day and actually giving the cast members a hard time. These people are working to get you food when they probably should be home stocking up their own refrigerators and cupboards. Plus, the news had been talking about this all week long. Hit the food court the night before instead of the day of and you won't be waiting in a long line as the storm is bearing down on you. And even if you do wait until the last minute, realize that every single person you're in contact with is inconvenienced to many degrees just the same as you are.
4 – Stock up on some snacks and water, but don't go crazy
As we arrived back at our hotel that day after and came into Port Orleans Square, the main building of the resort, we saw quite a sight. People were preparing for the apocalypse. What was that guy going to do with five full size pizzas in his French Quarter room? There's no oven. There's no microwave. He couldn't fit them in his room fridge. I'm all in for cold pizza, but day old room temperature pizza? I hate to quote this song but, it has to be said, "The sun will come out… tomorrow."
You should have seen the poor cast member that emerged from the back with a huge case of granola bars. He was obviously instructed to hand them out for free to guests. It was like all the food had already disappeared after a week. They mobbed this poor guy and a small handful of people snapped up everything he had.
Be practical. Get what you think you'll need, and then get a few extra things. Make sure you get water and some treats to keep the kids happy, but realize you will be able to get food at Disney the next day and the day after that, trust me. They're a well-stocked organization. They're prepared to feed thousands, if not tens of thousands of people on a daily basis.
3 – Toys and games are a godsend back in the room
Luckily Jasmine and Aladdin were in the lobby greeting guests. My daughter was pretty ecstatic about that fact for sure. This enabled me to slip into Jackson Square Gifts and Desires, the hotel's gift shop, to buy a few surprise items to hold onto for the inevitable boredom that would set in once we were sequestered in our room for hours upon hours. The parks closed at 1 p.m. and the pools followed shortly. After that, it was time in the room and then more time in the room.
A few things saved our day that afternoon and evening. Disney turned one of their in-room TV channels into a classic animated film marathon channel. The other lifesavers were the purchases I made at the shop. One was a Disney Princess fashion sketch book that had several different activities built in that was right up our daughter's alley. The other was Haunted Mansion Clue, which appealed to Mom and Dad as well as our little one. Both were time consuming and both were actually fun way to pass the time. I sprinkled in a couple of other small trinkets and toys as well to surprise her. Was it spoiling her? Absolutely. Was it worth every penny considering we were getting robbed of family fun time in the parks? Yes indeed. It was even more worth it for Mom and Dad's sanity after six to seven hours in the room.
2 – Do what you're told
I have to say, Disney was on top of this storm. We kept getting messages on our room phones with weather updates, timelines, and safety tips. Diane and I had been living on Long Island for some time and had dealt with our share of hurricanes and nor'easters so we pretty much knew what to expect. However, a family I spoke to on the bus ride back to French Quarter that day said to me, "We're from Ohio. Do you know what a hurricane's like, because we have no idea." They needed Disney's rules and guidelines in order to feel safe.
Even though it's well inland, it's still Florida. Storms happen and Disney knows best how to deal with them and how to deal with their guests. Stay inside when you're told to stay inside. Stay away from the pools. Keep those nice heavy drapes closed when the wind is howling. This isn't part of the show, it's a potential natural disaster.
1 – Don't panic. You're in good hands.
I can't emphasize just how much I felt taken care of during our Hurricane Charley experience at Walt Disney World. The staff and the cast made us feel safe and cared for every step of the way. All things considered, if you're going to get stuck in a storm, Disney is the place to get stuck. In 2009 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) designated the Walt Disney World Resort as a Storm Ready destination. The place was built with hurricanes and storms in mind and management has an extensive plan and protocol in place to deal with such an occurrence.
My cousin lives in the Orlando area. Once Charley hit, his home, office, wife's office and both kid's separate schools were shutdown and without power. He knew we were at Disney so he booked a room at Animal Kingdom Lodge and came to stay on property where we never lost power. Walt Disney World quite literally weathered the storm and was just about fully functional the next day. We did see lots of uprooted trees and downed branches. The bigger problem seemed to be a lack of staff that was unfortunately dealing with different levels of devastation at home, but all things considered, Disney was functioning quite well.
If there could be an upside to being there for Hurricane Charley it would have to be the lack of crowds. People stayed away. The locals stayed away for sure and with the airports closed a lot of people didn't arrive. I hate to say that we prospered at some other guests expense, but we did manage to snag one of the most coveted dining reservations due to cancellations. We struck up a conversation with a woman on the bus ride home to French Quarter the next day and she said she had walked right up to the counter at Cinderella's Royal Table and got a walk-in for her and her daughter because so many people were no shows. We did just that the next morning and next thing you know, my little princess was eating breakfast with all of her favorite princesses inside Cinderella Castle. It's still the only time we ever got to dine there.
I realize that by the time this article gets published, Hurricane Matthew could have completely changed course and not hit the coast of Florida at all. If anything, it looks like Walt Disney World might get a real intense, thorough and prolonged soaking. Hopefully that is the case and hopefully Matthew's damage won't be significant.
Still, I get glued to the Weather Channel when a storm like this is out there and I couldn't help but keep thinking about our Charley trip. I'll never forget leaving the Magic Kingdom that afternoon. We stayed until the very last minute and I'll always remember how everything was strapped down and how the cast members were all standing there waving goodbye to us, many of them wearing those big Mickey hands like they do when you arrive on Main Street in the morning. I'm sure all of them would have to leave the relative "safety" of the resort and literally brave the storm when they went home. And yet, they still smiled and waved at us and made us feel safe and happy.
I'll never forget how excited Samantha was when she realized that Jasmine and Aladdin made the trip over to our hotel. It was like they came just to see her. That's the beauty of being five years old at Disney. Diane and I both remember looking over in amazement at her sound asleep in her bed that night while the door and the windows of our third floor French Quarter room were rattling so loudly, we couldn't fall asleep. The tranquility of our little one on one side of us and the ferocity of the elements on the other was quite a disparate thing to witness.
The biggest thing I took away from our Disney Charley experience was just how resilient the resort was. We never lost power. I never felt like I was in danger. We always felt taken care of and the very next day we were on a bus to Epcot for some much needed fun in the parks. Charley gave us all he had and it was a lot, but it wasn't enough to stop the magic.
So, if you ever find yourself in the unenviable position of having to hunker down at Walt Disney World for a hurricane, or maybe you're hunkering down right now for Hurricane Matthew, think back to this list and my experiences with Charley. You can brave the storm just like we did and, hopefully still come out safe and sound.
If any of you were there with me during Charley or any of the other times Walt Disney World experienced a big storm, I'd love to hear your tales.