They hunkered down in Disney World for Hurricane Ian – this is what it was like

The vacation centre became a vital sanctuary for thousands as the powerful storm swept through Florida, Bevan Hurley writes

Friday 30 September 2022 13:18 BST
Disney character Big Al entertains children during Hurricane Ian shut in
Disney character Big Al entertains children during Hurricane Ian shut in (Orlando Sentinel)

As Hurricane Ian barrelled down on central Florida on Wednesday night, guests at Disney World tucked into all-you-can-eat buffets while staff in Country Bear outfits entertained children.

The resort’s four theme parks closed on Wednesday, but in the 32 hotels that sit on the 27,000 acre theme park near Orlando, Disney staff went to every effort to keep the magic alive.

Ian roared ashore with winds of 150mph in Lee County on Wednesday afternoon, 145 miles away from the Magic Kingdom but leaving a track of destruction and ruin as it churned northeast across the state.

And while it weakened to a tropical storm as it made its way across Florida it dumped record rainfall in some parts of the Orlando area as guests waited out the bad weather.

“There’s really no better place to be in a hurricane than at Disney because you’re truly insulated from the outside world,” Steve Boutet, who is on a nine-day vacation from Scarborough, Maine, told The Independent.

Mr Boutet, an innkeeper, is staying at the Wilderness Lodge, near Magic Kingdom, and said there was barely any sign that a hurricane has passed through.

There was minimal damage in his part of the park, with just a few fallen trees. The buzz of chainsaws and woodchippers on Thursday afternoon meant that Disney’s clean up operation was already underway.

He dined at Wilderness Lodge’s popular Whispering Canyon Cafe on Wednesday night, and said the normal $35-$60 fee for bottomless platters had been reduced to just $15.

That hurricane discount was due to guests being unable to leave the resort for their own safety.

At about 9pm Wednesday, Disney asked all guests to remain in their rooms for the rest of the evening.

On Thursday afternoon, the hotel lobby was full of guests watching Disney movies.

“I saw kids all lined up with grass skirts on, they were playing with the Country Bears. There’s a lot of activities going on. Anybody who wants to be entertained is being entertained.”

Disney character Big Al entertains children during Hurricane Ian shut in
Disney character Big Al entertains children during Hurricane Ian shut in (Orlando Sentinel)
Steve Boutet has been hunkering down at Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge during Hurricane Ian
Steve Boutet has been hunkering down at Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge during Hurricane Ian (Courtesy of Steve Boutet)

Mr Boutet said the theme park had relaxed its no pet policy to allow guests to bring their cats and dogs to ride out the storm.

He has a daughter living in St Petersburg, Florida, but had been unable to book her a room at Disney World as it was completely full.

“You can’t get anywhere else as there’s no Disney transport since they shut everything down on Tuesday night. Here’s hoping we can get back to the parks.”

While confined to his hotel, he had been glued to news coverage of the hurricane.

“It’s so awful what’s going on elsewhere, I feel terrible.”

Disney World became a safe haven for tens of thousands of guests as Hurricane Ian wrought havoc on large swathes of the state.

Among them were locals like Jaison Davis, 32, who lives near Orlando and decided to book into Disney World when he realised the storm was headed his way.

He was able to get one of the last room’s available, thanks to his family being in the ambassador programme, and drove 15 minutes to the Magic Kingdom to check in on Wednesday night.

“You could tell it was going to get crazy,” he told The Independent.

“I was very blessed and thankful to have a place to retreat to.”

Mr Davis posted a series of videos to his Twitter account JaiHawkFly as the storm hit on Wednesday night, showing the ferocity of the winds and rain.

“It was flooding a lot, the water was settling in places,” he said. “But there was no danger of the power going out.”

Mr Davis, who moved to Florida last year from Pennsylvania, said he would carry the experience with him for the rest of his life.

“I’m going to go to Disney next time there’s a natural disaster. I guess I’m a real Floridian now.”

A video posted to Twitter by At the Double Tree by Hilton hotel near Universal Studios, vehicles were trapped in about a foot of water on Thursday morning.

In a statement released on its website on Thursday, Disney World said it planned to reopen theme park operations from Friday.

“While the theme parks and many operating areas remain closed to guests today, we anticipate weather conditions to improve his evening.”

Earlier in the week, Disney World had dismantled spires of Cinderella Castle in preparation for Hurricane Ian.

While Disney was pulling out all the stops for its guests, a theme park consultant told Florida Politics a two-day closure would cost the company $60m to $75m in lost earnings.

There were also reports on social media of guests who were due to check out on Thursday becoming stranded after they were unable to rebook their rooms.

“Disney is not accommodating (Disney Vacation Club) points renters during hurricane,” wrote Reddit user Lianaseviltwin.

“Our checkout day was today, but airport/resort/parks closed... so we’re stuck.”

On Thursday Disney announced that Disney World would re-open on Friday, although it had not confirmed the hours of operation.

“We thank our first responders and community leaders for their courageous efforts in preparing for and managing the storm’s impact. To our cast members in Florida and in South Carolina, thank you for selflessly taking care of our guests,” the resort said in a statement.

The theme park is of course no stranger to dealing with the hurricanes that historically impact the state around this time of the year.

The company shut down its operations for several days during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and for Hurricane Charley in 2004 it was closed for one day but storm damage kept some attractions closed for longer. The park was also closed for a day in 2004 for both Hurricane Frances and Hurricane Jeanne.

In 2016 the park closed down for several days for Hurricane Matthew, and in 2017 was closed for two days for Hurricane Irma.

In 2019 the park was closed briefly for Hurricane Dorian, but when the storm changed path it was quickly reopened the following day, while EPCOT remained open throughout.

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