Walt Disney World Versus the Hurricanesby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Mickey Mouse's first short cartoon in three-strip Technicolor was The Band Concert (1935) that had him conducting a community band on an outdoor stage where the performance is interrupted by what seems like a tornado of hurricane proportions. The band keeps performing even as it is swirled through the air.
Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was such a fan of the cartoon that he saw it six times in the theater and invited Walt Disney to his home in Italy to discuss it. The Band Concert won the Venice Film Festival Golden Medal (Best Animation 1935).
During the overhaul of Disney California Adventure, the "Orange Stinger" wave swinger ride was transformed into the "Silly Symphony Swings." As the new version of the attraction rises and falls, it features images of the cartoon's characters playing their musical instruments to the accompanying strains of the William Tell Overture as if caught in a whirlwind.
The cartoon was also inspirational in the creation of the Mickey's PhilharMagic attraction, where hurricane force winds transport Donald Duck into scenes from several popular Disney animated features.
For those of us who live in Orlando, Florida, and suffer each year from the increasing threats of hurricanes, it is not fun to be caught in the throes of unrelenting winds that have the force of ripping your house apart, shutting off all your power indefinitely and sound like a monster trying to pound its way into your living room. While it is only April, local news stations are already warning Florida residents to start putting together their hurricane kits for this year so the topic has been on my mind.
One of the reasons rarely discussed about why Walt Disney decided on selecting the Orlando area for Walt Disney World was that it was far enough up the coast and far enough inland that it would be reasonably safe from Florida's notorious hurricanes and their devastating effects. For much of its 50-year history that has been true for WDW, with a few notable exceptions but as we all know, significant things have changed in the usual climate profile in recent years putting Central Florida in the path of hurricanes.
Officially, hurricane season runs from June 1 to the end of November, with most of the activity happening in August through October.
One of the challenges is that hurricanes can change their paths or lessen in intensity without warning despite the best efforts of those predicting what they will do and where they will go. An incorrect forecast can literally kill thousands of people. An unnecessary evacuation might inadvertently put people in harm's way or convince them not to evacuate the next time.
It is necessary to make the maximum preparations and hope that they won't be needed for these unpredictable forces of nature that plague Florida along with tornadoes that can sometimes cause even more damage and are entirely unpredictable. In the past, there were instances when harsh weather including high winds and heavy rains because of hurricanes forced Walt Disney World to modify its hours and even close.
On August 31, 1985, the Walt Disney World resort closed as early as 5 p.m. because of Hurricane Elena. Roughly 10 years later, on August 2, 1995, Hurricane Erin resulted in a late opening at the theme parks. Everything opened at 11 a.m. although guests endured rain for the rest of the day.
Those two storms felled some trees on property and tossed some things around but there was no major damage or injuries. Structures like Cinderella Castle were built specifically to withstand massively high winds up to over 125 miles per hour. It is an urban myth that the tall turrets can be removed before a storm. Since they were installed separately, that myth arose that they could be extracted but once set in place, they were bolted into the existing structure so to be taken off would require huge towering cranes and several days, something extremely dangerous in high winds.
The very first time a hurricane was so severe that there were massive closures at Walt Disney World was the arrival of Hurricane Floyd, a category 4 storm, in September 1999. For the first time in its 28 year history, the theme parks and other attraction areas closed to the general public for over a full day since it was predicted the hurricane would directly strike the area.
This action to close everything was taken by Walt Disney World's Executive Emergency Operations Team (EEOT) under the supervision of then executive vice president of Walt Disney World Operations Lee Cockerell. Members of the team included representatives from Guest Operations Services, Security and Distribution Services, Public Affairs, Walt Disney World Communications Group, Emergency Preparedness, Legal, Global Engineering Services, and Facilities and Operations Services.
As Hurricane Floyd approached on Tuesday September 14, EEOT closed the Magic Kingdom and Epcot at 2 p.m. and Disney-MGM Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom and Downtown Disney area and water parks at 3 p.m.
Other nearby entertainment venues like Universal Studios and the then-new Islands of Adventure park closed completely for Tuesday and Wednesday, as did SeaWorld Orlando. Just like WDW, they were all expected to be operating normally on Thursday.
Guests who were staying in low-lying areas, like Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, and some buildings at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort and Disney's All-Star Resort were evacuated, because of the possibility of flooding, to Disney's Coronado Springs Resort and Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts. These resorts offered accommodations in the convention centers as well as some heavily discounted rooms. At the convention centers, movies were shown on big-screen televisions and cast members coordinated games and crafts.
Chefs from Epcot were reassigned to the resorts to help with the feeding of guests. At all WDW resorts, guests were given a 50 percent discount at all restaurants and the convention areas offered large buffets at low prices.
When Floyd curved away from its predicted path, on September 15, EEOT approved the reopening of DAK at noon for resort guests only and Downtown Disney at 4 p.m.
Early Wednesday morning, Vice President of DAK and Animal Programs Bob Lamb had phoned the EEOT that, based on recommendations from DAK's Hurricane Core Team, the park was capable of handling guests disappointed that their Disney vacation had been interrupted. Every attraction and show ran that day for guests with additional staffing by cross-utilization cast members.
There was a ride-out crew of 28 Transportation cast members, but with the unexpected opening of DAK, many more were needed to transport the thousands of guests wanting to escape their confinement in the resorts. Some drivers found up to 500 guests waiting at one resort bus stop. At Disney's All-Star Resort, 1,800 guests stood in queues waiting for buses.
Many Bus Operations cast members answered requests to come in to work, even though they were dealing with damages at their own homes. Some showed up without being called, knowing that people would be needed to help. Those dedicated cast members had also driven equipment and hurricane supplies such as sandbags across the property before the storm struck.
During this time, the EEOT stayed in close communication with eight other command centers located in each of the theme parks and resorts, Sports & Recreation, Downtown Disney and the Disney Cruise Line.
The Disney Cruise Line modified its itineraries to maintain distance from the storm. On the September 12 sailing, the Disney Wonder visited Key West, and guests on the Disney Magic on the September 13 sailing visited Cozumel, Mexico. Castaway Cay suffered some erosion damage but for the most part, survived better than its exposure to later hurricanes.
Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort and Disney's Vero Beach Resort evacuated guests to inland areas. Cast members working those resorts cleared debris and cleaned rooms. Vero reopened on September 16 and Hilton Head on September 18.
A toy company was holding its convention at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa during Hurricane Floyd. According to Eyes and Ears' September 23, 1999 edition, "Conventioneers were so impressed with the way the resort's cast members handled the emergency that they donated all the toys they had to the families of the cast members who were staying at the resort on ride-out crews."
Walt Disney World decided to pay cast members two days early that week, on Tuesday, so that they would have access to cash if they needed it during the potential emergency.
Floyd was the first time WDW had to directly deal with a hurricane and although everything survived quite well, WDW strengthened its cast policies and procedures as well as building codes to increase resistance to high intensity winds. Nearly a decade later, those changes paid off.
In 2004, WDW closed for hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne. It opened immediately after each one passed and didn't file a single insurance claim. There were no injuries reported and only minor landscaping and light structural damage like downed street lights, signs and other things.
Hurricane Charley closed all four Walt Disney World parks at 1 p.m. on August 13, 2004, and reopened late the next afternoon. Because of the animals, DAK never opened at all on that day. Again damage, primarily from winds and rain, was minimal including some uprooted trees. In December 2004, CEO Michael Eisner told the cast at a town hall meeting at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort, "I've met people who were here during the hurricane [Charley], had guests who have written me and said they'd like to make a reservation at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa during the next hurricane. They were never treated so well and never had such a good time."
On September 4, 2004, Hurricane Frances struck and disrupted operation. Magic Kingdom and Epcot closed its gates on September 4 and 5. Disney MGM Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom and Blizzard Beach remained closed on September 6.
Hurricane Jeanne closed everything again on September 26, 2004. Fortunately Hurricane Ivan that was whirling around at the same time and which was charted to impact WDW veered away.
On October 24, 2005, the parks, water parks, Downtown Disney and Disney's Wide World of Sports closed for a day because of Hurricane Wilma as a precaution even though the storm was expected to pass about 100 miles south of Walt Disney World property. Again, the fear was of high winds and heavy rain.
Hurricane Matthew closed WDW early on October 6, 2016 and it remained closed on October 7.
Hurricane Irma hit the Disney World area on September 10, 2017, as a Category 2 hurricane with minimum sustained winds of 96 mph. All Disney World theme parks, as well as the water parks and Disney Springs, were closed in the evening of September 9 and remained closed both September 10 and 11.
Although Disney avoided extensive damage from the storm, it did suffer a lot of fallen trees, like a tree falling on Jambo House at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. The Jungle Cruise had enough damage that it did not re-open until September 21.
In 2019, WDW closed September 3 in anticipation of Hurricane Dorian that, at the last minute, swerved away up the coast so just about everything re-opened the next day around 10 a.m. However, because of the devastation to the Bahamas, the Walt Disney Company donated a $1 million to non-profit relief agencies for recovery efforts.
Because of the experience of previous hurricanes and fearing the worse, WDW cast members and security staff in both the resorts and the theme parks tied down signs, landscaping elements and lighting fixtures. Anything that could become a projectile in a high velocity wind was removed or secured. Signs advised guests to stay indoors, and doors were secured with heavy zip ties to prevent access to outdoor areas. Outside the parks, battalions of utility trucks were in place, waiting to restore power if needed.
In general, WDW has a five phase procedure for hurricanes.
- In Phase Five, WDW monitors the possible storm, reviews the current plans, confirms personnel and resource availability and prepares the WDW Emergency Operations Center for activation.
- In Phase Four with the storm less than two days away, final checklists are prepared, discussions of possible shut down of long lead operations and no starting of extended operations. Limited activation of WDW Emergency Operations Center is instituted.
- In Phase Three with the storm arriving in the next twenty-four hours, concerted efforts are made to clean up things, tie them down or move them inside. Ride-out personnel are notified and confirmed. WDW Emergency Operations Center and command centers fully activated.
- In Phase Two with the storm arriving shortly, all parks, water parks and Downtown Disney close. Resort guests notified and when necessary relocated. Complete all clean up and tie down. Personnel not in ride-out crew released as soon as possible.
- In Phase One, the storm has arrived so everything is shut down and people take shelter.
After the storm, there is a review and situation reports to determine business resumption and recovery needs.
Tourist attendance usually drops within the five days post-major storm. New arrivals may cancel or delay their trip, but tourists already in resort may be forced to stay longer until travel options like airplanes are back up and operating. Locals tend to visit in higher rates after a major storm when they know that crowds will be lighter.
In fact in 2009, the Walt Disney World Resort earned the Storm Ready designation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), meaning it is actually one of the safest places in the United States to be when a hurricane strikes.
All of those hurricanes inspired a short-lived attraction at Epcot where guests could experience several hurricanes daily.
Opening in October 2009, StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes in Innoventions East was a 4-D weather simulator experience with rain, hail, lightning, falling power lines and pine trees, shingles ripped off a garage roof and even a flying toilet. In a small room, holding 20 guests and lasting 15 minutes, guests experienced what it was like in a home during a major hurricane.
After the show, under the guidance of a host, the guests were asked questions and were then given the option to make different choices from landscaping to architecture…whether Southern magnolias were better to plant in sand than pine trees, if doors that open out are better than doors that open in and if duct tape on windows really make a difference.
Then the experience was re-run with those new choices incorporated to see if they made a significant difference. It was announced the exhibit would only run for three years, but was so popular that it was extended and finally closed in September 2016.
The exhibit was sponsored by FLASH, which stood for the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. It was formerly the Florida Alliance for Safe Homes, which explains the "L" in the acronym. Organizations involved with FLASH include insurance companies; manufacturers of building products that relate to disaster resistance (Simpson Strong-Tie, G-P Dens-Shield, etc.); product retailers like Home Depot; state agencies; the National Weather Service; FEMA; a few builders of disaster-resistant homes, such as Mercedes Homes; and the Salvation Army.
"We hope that guests walk away with a higher level of understanding on how to think about preparation to the next level for the protection of ourselves, our families and our community at large to ensure that on these rare occasions we can protect ourselves and recover," said Jim MacPhee who was the vice president of Epcot when the exhibit opened
It took seven years to conceptualize and complete the 3,000 square foot StormStruck exhibit. Imagineer Joe Tankersley led the creation, direction and design of StormStruck.
"Doing that in a small space is a challenge, but we thought that raised the level of what we were doing here," Tankersley said. "Our goal with all our Innoventions experiences is first of all to entertain people – we never forget that. We want to give them information they don't have, to enlighten them and finally to empower them."
President George W. Bush wrote in a letter read at the opening celebration, "this interactive attraction is an opportunity for people to experience the relentless winds and heavy rains of a hurricane in a safe setting. StormStruck also will help visitors to learn about the latest weather technology and inform them how to better prepare for these devastating storms.
"By encouraging Americans to be better prepared for emergencies and educating them about the danger of storms, you are helping to keep our nation safe."
The exhibit was especially interesting for Florida guests who lived on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of Florida and was a bit surprising and curious for those guests who were unfamiliar with the hurricane experience.
I personally survived all of the storms in the last 20 years discussed in this article with minimal damage and flooding and I would prefer not to have to write another column this year about hurricanes in Orlando. While some people envy the warm, sunny weather the area enjoys during the winter season, the trade-off is the fear and uncertainly of hurricanes.