Hurricane Irma and Disney – What Really Happened
Hurricane Irma will unfortunately go down as history as one of the worst weather events on record. It disrupted the lives of countless people in several countries and led some tragic circumstances. At Walt Disney World, park guests were braced for the worst but thankfully spared the brunt of the hurricane.
While photos and videos of park damage quickly went viral on social media, most guests left the parks feeling lucky about their circumstances. Disney cast members felt the same. While the parks suffered incidents such as flooding at Epcot, damage to the Be Our Guest restaurant’s exterior, and some harm to the area around Cinderella Castle, the impact of Hurricane Irma was nowhere near what it could have been.
During their stays, Disney vacationers suffered some strange highs and lows. On the one hand, a few lucky folks had Kristen Bell sing to them. She also played Bingo with the elderly and basically stated her case for canonization.
In fact, kindness was on display throughout the Most Magical Place on Earth. Blaze Pizza at Disney Springs offered free pies to first responders. Bob Iger, the CEO of The Walt Disney Company, announced a $2.5 million donation for Hurricane Irma aid. Then, he added that cast members would get paid for the days when they weren’t able to work due to inclement weather. Simply stated, people who love Disney had more reason than ever to do so in the wake of a tragic event. Still, it wasn’t all Dole Whips and Mouse Ears.
A few people were thoughtful enough to share their experiences at the parks and resorts during Hurricane Irma. What follows are a handful of anecdotes and comments about the situation as well as some third party recaps of how Disney responded to trying circumstances. MickeyBlog thanks all of the people kind enough to chronicle these difficult times. Please note that Disney politely asked people not to take several pictures and videos that showed the damage in order to maintain the magic of their theme parks. As such, we are honoring their wishes by describing the situation rather than letting pictures tell thousands of words.
Something that everyone agreed was true was that Disney took the best possible care of guests onsite at Walt Disney World. They bent over backwards to guarantee that people had rooms, going so far as to add multiple days to resort stays and even upgrading if needed to keep people safe. The hotel staff leveraged the last-minute cancellations of other guests to accommodate the needs of those who either couldn’t or wouldn’t change their plans.
Another note that most people mentioned was that Hurricane Irma could have been so much worse in Orlando. The storm thankfully lost momentum before it reached the coast of Florida and headed inland. As such, cast members were extremely prepared for a worst-case scenario that never took place. This bit of good fortune meant that everyone avoided disaster, and Disney had more resources than they needed.
Keeping all of this in mind, here are a few great changes hotel management made to keep guests entertained as a hurricane pressed down on them. Disney’s hotel cable service introduced a Disney movie channel specifically for storm guests. A couple of respondents indicated that they stayed in their rooms and watched Disney movies as a way to push away the boredom. The hotel lobbies also screened Disney feature films as group activities. People staying at the resorts headed down to the lobby after dinner and watched films like Aladdin as they shared this unique group experience with fellow Disney lovers.
On a different note, Disney’s cable service kept all guests in the loop about the hurricane and its fallout. Channel 3 offered notifications throughout the two days. Unlike the programming that ordinarily airs on this channel, it was also updated frequently. Anyone who missed these broadcasts could still find any needed information in the lobby. Cast members worked tirelessly to keep people aware of the situation. Giant signs were scattered throughout the resorts as well.
What a Deal at Boma!
As for the meals, Disney did a much better job this time than in 2016. You may recall an outcry about price-gouging when the company charged $12-$15 for food that was really just a combination of snacks rather than a satisfactory lunch/dinner. To their credit, resort managers learned from their mistake.
Ready to Go meals were available for $6 each, a much better deal. These packages included options like subs, burgers, and nuggets plus bags of chips, cookies, granola bars, and fruits. People staying on the Disney Dining Plan didn’t have to pay for their meals. They were DDP-eligible, too, a nice touch.
Impressively, Disney managed to keep several high-profile restaurants open as well. Guests at Animal Kingdom Lodge were thrilled to discover that Boma was serving meals. Better yet, the cost was only $20 per person, a massive discount from the regular prices at this buffet service. Chef Mickey’s provided similar value with a $16 buffet. The only catch was that it wasn’t a character meal. As you’ll see, Mickey and friends were busy elsewhere.
Disney resorts with several restaurants onsite generally kept one or two open while closing the rest. For example, Beach Club Resort closed Beaches & Cream and the Captain’s Grille along with Hurricane Hanna’s, the awkwardly named pool restaurant by Stormalong Bay. The hotel kept Cape May Café open, although it maintained its regular operating hours, meaning it was closed for lunch. More importantly, Beach Club Marketplace offered either hot food or to-go boxes from 6 a.m. until midnight both days.
To avoid an onslaught of people rushing for supplies, cast members created a tiered system at the various food courts and other places serving meals. People had to wait their turn before entering the service area. Several guests remarked on the orderly nature of the process, although the same complaint came up more than once.
People commented that most of these places closed between 5 and 6 p.m. the night before the storm arrived. Disney understandably wanted to give cast members the opportunity to get somewhere safe, but guests found the limited hours inconvenient at times. What they failed to understand was that this part of Florida was under a curfew during the hurricane.
With so many people stuck at their hotels, Disney brought their beloved characters to the guests. For example, Mickey and Minnie Mouse usually wear their safari outfits at Tusker House. During Hurricane Irma, they showed up at Animal Kingdom Lodge to entertain demoralized Disney fans.
Another spectacular turns of events was a rare road show appearance of the Country Bears. They had a character meeting at Wilderness Lodge. Earlier this year, Disney started a meet-and-greet for them at Frontierland in Magic Kingdom, and I guess they decided to mosey over to a nearby hotel to entertain kids and fans of obscure country music from the 1960s.
Basically, characters were out in force everywhere. Chip and Dale visited Port Orleans, while Woody and Jessie showed up at Art of Animation. At All-Star Movies, Goofy and his son, Max, posed for pictures in front of the Hollywood movie set backdrop.
As scary as the hurricane was, it also afforded guests a rare opportunity for unique character meetings at the resorts. Sure, you might have a picture of the Country Bears, but do you have one where they’re delivering ketchup at Whispering Canyon? That’s the type of thing that was only possible when Disney took care of its guests during Hurricane Irma.
The resorts also hosted interactive events such as trivia contents and other games. This largely solved the unavoidable problem at the resorts. Plenty of unhappy children had dreamt of spending several days at Magic Kingdom. Instead, they were stuck at a boring hotel, and the weather outside was scary. Plenty of crying was reported, and some folks witnessed a few truly epic meltdowns. Then again, guests would have seen that at Magic Kingdom, too.
Man’s Best Friend in Need
Furry friends were also welcome at the Disney resorts during the hurricane. You may not know this, but many central Florida residents book rooms at Disney hotels when inclement weather is nearby. They do this because Disney has better safety measures in place than most homes in the area. This behavior causes a problem as nobody is going to leave their pets behind during a hurricane.
Disney made the kind gesture of waiving its regular resort rules. They warmly welcomed pets. Here were the guidelines from their press release:
- “Pets must be kept on a leash at all times.
- Be sure to use designated Service Animal Relief Areas. Animals are welcome to use any open outdoor area for relief as long as the owner picks up after the animal and leaves the area clean.
- Pets are not allowed in restaurants, lounges, pools, spas or merchandise areas unless they are service animals.
- For the safety of our Cast, please do not leave pets unattended in the room. If necessary, please hang the Privacy Please sign outside your door. Please keep in mind, Housekeeping will be unable to service your room.”
By all accounts, pet owners acted responsibly in cleaning up after their furry friends. Disney also kept Best Friends Pet Care open during the hurricane. If they hadn’t, a lot of travelers from outside of Florida would have had a real problem.
Why Did People Stay?
I sent out a questionnaire to several out-of-state guests who stayed at Walt Disney World during the hurricane. One of the things I wondered was why people chose to stay rather than go home and avoid the inclement weather. Virtually everyone made the same comment. By the time they’d arrived in Orlando, the situation had escalated. Once there, attempts to get a flight out of the city were doomed to fail. Almost every flight was fully booked, and the airlines had a massive waiting list of people with few open spots. So, anyone already in Orlando was stuck. As for people who willingly flew in, well, everyone has a daredevil streak, right?
How Safe Did They Feel?
Out of the entire situation, this is the truly astonishing part. While one person remarked that they’d had a terrible experience with Disney Cruise Line prior to arriving at a Walt Disney World resort, everyone agreed on one point.
They could hear wind crashing against the windows, they could see trees and debris straining under the weight of the weather, they noticed a few leaks in the window cracks and sliding doors, and they worried about flooding until the storm had passed. Despite all of these valid, terrifying concerns, no one I interviewed felt true fear.
Disney cast members were so professional that they earned the full faith and trust of their guests. As out-of-towners sat in the proverbial eye of the hurricane, they believed in the safety of Disney. It’s an amazing credit to each and every professional who worked those days.
In fact, the reply I received from several people exemplifies how impeccably Disney handled a seemingly impossible situation. “I can’t wait to go back,” was the prevailing thought from guests. If you ever wonder why Disney dominates the theme park landscape, there’s your answer. No matter how trying the circumstances are, cast members always find a way to make magic.