As Hurricane Dorian slowly approaches the southeastern coast of the United States, one question that is being asked about Florida’s storm preparation is the status of Walt Disney World and the surrounding amusement parks. Orlando is located in central Florida, so it doesn’t possess the same hurricane risk as the state’s coastal cities (Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa). When Disney and Universal close, it’s big news because they never close. Some of the busiest days for these parks are Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter, which are when most other businesses are closed.
As of this writing (10am, September 3), Disney World is planning on closing at 3 pm this afternoon and the rest of the week is still undecided. Universal is staying open all day today (except Volcano Bay, which will be closed), and other parks (SeaWorld, LegoLand) are closed all day. Orlando International Airport (where most visitors enter because of Magical Express access) is already closed in anticipation of the storm. The storm’s track is uncertain and slowly changing, so the lack of consensus among the parks makes sense.
Why is this information newsworthy? Disney has only closed its American parks a few times in the past, and not all because of weather. There have been times when the company has decided that the general mood dictates park closure, or often, general sense of safety. It is important to note that when the parks close, the resort hotels do not. Many Florida residents evacuated themselves to Disney hotels during Irma because the hotels are well constructed and would provide electricity and food throughout the storm (not a bad plan, quite honestly). This list also lists only the full closures of the park for full days, not early closures due to events or rain.
The topic of Disney closures certainly is an overlap of two of my main research topics: Disney and disasters. Maybe there is more to be taken from this…
[Note: The parks have been operating continuously for a long time, and this list of closings is impressive for how short it is. Opening Days: Disneyland Park (July 17, 1955); Walt Disney World / Magic Kingdom (October 1, 1971); Epcot (October 1, 1982); MGM Studios / Hollywood Studios (May 1, 1989); Animal Kingdom (April 22, 1998); California Adventure (February 8, 2001).]
- Kennedy Assassination (November 1963, Disneyland): Following the Kennedy Assassination, the nation was in a state of mourning, and it seemed only appropriate to close the park.
- Anti-Vietnam demonstration (August 6, 1970, Disneyland): Until today, I had never heard this story, and I don’t know why. It’s amazing. Members of the Youth International Party (Yippies) invaded Disneyland on August 6, 1970, raising their flag over City Hall on Main Street U.S.A. and taking over Tom Sawyer Island. A former cast member who was there the day of the take-over wrote an excellent article for LA Magazine about the incident here. Enjoy.
- Winter Storm (December 16, 1987, Disneyland): It’s southern California…winter storms are outside the norm. Some mountain valleys got several inches of snow, and if it wasn’t snowing, it was raining, cold, and very windy. Here is an LA Times article about the storm that explains it better than a lady from Pennsylvania would.
- Northridge Earthquake (January 17, 1994, Disneyland): The Northridge Earthquake hit at around 4:30am on Monday, January 17, 1994, which was fortunately also the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Many Angelenos were still asleep and not on the roads when the 6.7 M quake struck. Many institutions around Los Angeles were closed to check for structural issues, including Disneyland and many movie and television studios. The park was largely unaffected, and opened as normal the next day.
- September 11 Attacks (September 11, 2001, all parks): The parks opened as normal on September 11 (most open around 8am or 9am depending on their Magic Hours schedules), but after the attacks progressed, there were fears that the parks could also be targets. The cast members at all 4 Florida parks evacuated guests in thirty minutes, and the California parks had not yet opened. The parks opened again on September 12 to small crowds, almost all resort guests (rather than locals or those staying off-property).
- Hurricane Floyd (September 15, 1999, Walt Disney World): Hurricane Dorian reminds me a lot of Floyd, as the category 4 storm hit the Bahamas, then ran parallel to the Atlantic coast of the United States, scaring the entire eastern seaboard. It was one of the largest evacuations in American history. The storm did not directly hit Florida, and this event marked the first time that WDW closed for weather. (This storm has personal significance because it was also the first time I had time off from school because of a hurricane. Half of the neighborhood lost power, and we had a big party to eat all the food that was going to go bad in people’s freezers.)
- Hurricane Charley (August 13, 2004, Walt Disney World): Hurricane Charley would mark only the second time the park would close unexpectedly for weather, but the 2004 season had a lot in store for the Orlando area. This category 4 storm was the first of four to hit Florida that season, and only Ivan did not force the closure of Walt Disney World. Charley approached the state from the Gulf side, but because of Orlando’s central location, it can be at risk either way.
- Hurricane Frances (September 4 & 5, 2004, Walt Disney World): 2004 was an active Atlantic hurricane season, and Frances emerged only weeks after the destructive Hurricane Charley also hit parts of Florida. Frances crossed the state, which caused the closure of the parks. Frances also peaked at category 4, and it caused the largest evacuation in Florida state history.
- Hurricane Jeanne (September 26, 2004, Walt Disney World): Jeanne was the third hurricane in a little over a month to cause WDW to close. This storm was not as strong as the others at a category 3, but it caused more deaths throughout its storm path. Determining the damage from the storm was difficult because of the storms that preceded it.
- Hurricane Matthew (October 6 & 7, 2016, Walt Disney World): Matthew was one of the most powerful storms to approach Florida, peaking at a category 5 with sustained winds of 165 mph. The storm ultimately did not make landfall in Florida, but caused extensive damage along the coast. The parks closed at 5pm on October 6, and they reopened on October 8.
- Hurricane Irma (September 10 & 11, 2017, Walt Disney World): Irma was another category 5 (sustained winds: 180 mph!) storm to hit Florida, and this one hit the state directly and crossed over the state and finally dissolved over Missouri. There are numerous videos on YouTube of guests riding out the storm at the parks (or residents of Orlando dealing with the storm), which show the direct impact on the WDW resort.
One observation I made about this list of closings is that all of the Hurricane closures have occurred in the last 20 years. While there were certainly tropical storms between 1971 and 1999, hurricanes have become more consistently intense in the last thirty years, and there is something of a cycle that forms every 20-30 years. This latter concept is still a theory, but certain time periods in the Atlantic basin are far busier than others and a pattern can be observed. Hopefully Dorian spares the United States, and we are certainly thinking of our Bahamian neighbors, who are still being affected by this slow moving monster.
– The Lady Americanist.