Labor Day weekend, 2017. My family and I were one week from the Walt Disney World vacation we had been planning for a full year. All day Sunday and Monday, my phone was blowing up with text messages from concerned friends and family – Hurricane Irma was gaining strength and on a trajectory to arrive in Florida. After some serious discussion and explorations of our options, my husband and I decided to put off making our decision about whether or not to travel on Thursday.
In the event of a hurricane watch or warning for Orange County, the policy of Walt Disney World according to their website is that guests may reschedule or cancel without penalty. Of course, any dining reservations or special ticketed events that Walt Disney World cancels will be refunded as well (but you will want to check with them if you are unable to attend, but the event still happens). Policies may vary. In my experience the Cast Members were very helpful and friendly in accommodating us.
By Thursday, the situation had not improved. Irma had strengthened and was acting unpredictably but still headed toward Florida. Walt Disney World had announced their intention to close for Sunday and Monday. The Orlando airport was closing at 4PM on Saturday, the day our flight was scheduled to arrive at [11:30] AM. Chad and I had reviewed the options available to us for rescheduling, and all the pros and cons to our choices. We decided to go. While this may not be the right choice for every family, we were confident that we would be safe in Walt Disney World, and we were willing to give our vacation a shot. The point of our vacation was to spend time together, which we could do even if the parks weren’t open.
The only change we made was that rather than flying in on Saturday morning, we flew in Friday evening. We spent a night in a hotel near the airport and took a shuttle back to catch Disney’s Magical Express early Saturday morning. Upon our arrival at Disney’s BoardWalk Inn and Villas Resort, we checked our luggage with Bell Services and headed out to Magic Kingdom Park.
It was eerily quiet in the park that day. The Space Mountain launch area was completely empty at [11:00] AM. Walkways were not crowded, and there were no waits. We were able to experience a number of attractions and character greetings in a short amount of time. The weather was pleasant, clear and breezy. We had dinner reservations at 1900 Park Fare that evening, and we were one of only six tables in the restaurant with guests. By the time we’d been there 10 minutes, we had met all the characters and were ready to get our food. We were completely done in less than 45 minutes. It was time to head back to the hotel and hunker down to weather the storm. Our room had been equipped with a flashlight in case of power loss, and there were sandbags at the bottom of exterior doors, but no other visible preparation was noticed.
Because the governor of Florida had declared a state of emergency, hotels (including those at Walt Disney World) were required to allow pets. Evacuees from all over the state poured into the resort Saturday and Sunday, many with four-legged friends in tow. It was a rather strange experience, but I was glad that people were able to bring their beloved pets with them as they fled to safety. Being among the evacuees was an eye-opening experience. People bonded over discussions of where they were from (and later, how their property had fared through the storm). There was an acceptance and kindness throughout the crowd that was even greater than usual.
Since everything was closed for 2 days, I was curious what the food plan was. An inquiry at the front desk answered that for me – three meals a day would be served in the Conference Center. There was a full buffet offering or boxed meal options. The buffet would use one table service credit from the Disney Dining Plan and the box meals would use one quick service. However, we opted to pay for the meals we ate out of pocket, because the pricing was incredibly reasonable – $15 for an adult buffet and $8 for a child. There were bartenders from the Abracadabar staff tending the bar with themed cocktails at each meal as well.
In addition to the meals, the Conference Center hosted a Family Activity Center with crafts, video games, board games, movies and toys. You could also rent movies to take to your room, if it had a DVD player. There was a special channel showing back-to-back, commercial free Disney movies for all different ages around the clock. All of the activities were free of charge. Chip and Dale rotated with Pluto and Goofy every half hour, and because of the small crowds they were able to interact with guests more than usual – playing Legos, video games and other things with the kids.
The SideShow Games arcade was open and set to free play. There were also circus shows and workshops throughout the day, run by street performers who usually populate the BoardWalk area. Resort activity staff held trivia contests, puppy parades and other games at various times, which everyone was invited to play. Due to my consumption of WDW Radio content, I was killing it at the trivia games!
The worst of the storm passed over Walt Disney World in the wee hours of Monday morning. Other than the flapping of the awning outside our window, I was not aware of the storm. Gibbs slept through the whole thing. We did not lose power, television service, internet, or cell phone service. Messages updating us about daily schedules and services were left on our room phone every few hours. After the sun rose on Monday, we could see downed trees and uprooted bushes from our balcony. That was the bulk of the damage we saw around property in the days following the storm. Disney’s Animal Kingdom had the worst damage we saw, because there are so many plants there. On Tuesday, the entire park smelled like freshly cut grass from all the plant damage.
Evacuees began checking out in droves on Monday evening and Tuesday morning, with people anxious to check on their homes. I was glad to hear that many of them escaped serious damage, although lots of people lost parts of roofs or had trees fall on their houses. There was a definite lull in resort population and park attendance through the rest of the week, but we were able to get back to the parks on Tuesday and continue our vacation.
I need to give a special shout out to the Cast Members. The rideout team in the resort worked from [4:00] AM to [10:00] PM to take care of guests. They stayed in the resort, away from their homes and families, yet they were unfailingly cheerful and kind to everyone. We were taken care of in the loving, attentive manner that one would expect from Disney, but with an extra dash of magical care for those who had left their homes in danger’s path, or those whose vacations were disrupted by nature. They truly went above and beyond in making sure every guest was cared for to the best of their ability.
I can’t say that flying to a destination expecting a hurricane is something that would work for everyone, and the seriousness of what Florida residents went through should not be overlooked. However in a situation where Disney had no control over the elements, they absolutely went the extra mile to make sure that we all had a very magical time. If you’re ever trapped in Walt Disney World during a natural disaster, just know that you will be as safe as they can possibly keep you.
(Photos from the author’s personal collection.)
To learn more about Alyson and read her recent posts for WDW Radio, visit her author page by clicking the link on her name at the top of this post.