–Don McCann, WDW Radio Guest Writer
Look, I’m not a superstitious person. But last Friday the 13th, I was legitimately spooked for a bit by a seemingly strange occurrence taking place in my resort villa.
On Friday, May 13, my family and I returned to our one-bedroom villa at Disney’s Old Key West Resort. All three members of our party walked in together and stood in the living room portion of the villa when I became aware of the sound of running water in the bathroom down the hall. Everyone in the party was accounted for and had been gone from the room for at least the last hour. Was someone else in our room? I crept into the bathroom, carefully pushing open the door, to find the shower running. Not a full stream, but a very steady flow that well exceeded what I would consider a trickle.
I walked back to the kitchen. “Why is our shower running?” I asked. All I got was alarmed looks from the rest of the group. I then immediately returned to the bathroom to find the shower now off. Had I imagined it? No. The shower floor was unmistakably wet. It clearly had been running just a moment earlier.
Finding the situation interesting enough to warrant sharing, I posted immediately to a DVC Facebook group I frequent. Over the next couple of days, more than 370 individuals reacted to or commented on my post. And while I posted the suggestion of a shower-ghost in jest, and many commenters made jokes about a spook from the Haunted Mansion having followed me home, I noticed a surprising number of folks who left serious-sounding comments along the lines of, “I shouldn’t have read this,” “I’d relocate, seriously,” or “I won’t be sleeping now.” Several others related some of their own stories of strange occurrences they chalked up to spiritual encounters – passed relatives who “travel” with them on vacations, or similar unexplained occurrences such as mysteriously running water or portraits on the wall made suddenly askew.
And while I’m fairly certain that what I experienced was simply a plumbing anomaly rather than a haunting by a hygiene-minded ghosty, it was fun and a little eye-opening to delve into the widespread beliefs and superstitions regarding unsettled spirits even in the modern age. Science, record-keeping, information-sharing, and ease of access to an ever-broadening body of universal knowledge have allowed us as an intelligent species to whittle away many of the unexplained phenomena of generations past. However, what becomes of us – or more specifically our souls – once our bodies have failed and returned to nature continues to fascinate us as a people. It doesn’t seem to matter where in the world or what specific demographic you examine, folklore, urban legends, and regional ghost stories about restless spirits will certainly abound.
Now, let’s get to the informational part of this article. It’s a pretty well-known fact that Disney resorts and theme parks have an uncanny knack for attention to detail in their theming, and you’ve likely heard it before that you’ll learn plenty of real-world knowledge, history, traditions, folklore, and artistry by simply opening an eye to the subtle details in the theming and storytelling of these locations.
Disney’s Old Key West Resort is one of the best examples of this, with a fictional backstory and made-up characters that are no doubt the creation of Walt Disney Imagineering, but which cleverly pay homage to an impressive collection of real-life history, events, people, and stories. That story and the real-life facts behind it explore and lean heavily on the history and lifestyle of coastal Florida in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From Henry Flagler’s development of Florida tourism and its early transportation infrastructure; the Florida Keys’ intriguing history of shipwreck salvage as a primary source of local economy; the importance of the sea turtle export on the region; some of the famous names and faces that spent time in turn-of-the century Key West; to the prevalence of prohibition-era rumrunning… it’s all there.
This resort is chock-full of fantastic detail and learning opportunities that can inspire the curious amongst us to learn simply by wondering “why is this here?” or “what does that mean?” or “what is the significance of that?”
And as it turns out, this attention to real-life detail extends all the way to the realm of regional ghost stories as well. Case in point, have you ever heard of a haint?
A haint, which you may recognize as a derivation of the word “haunt,” is a type of ghost or spirit. The belief in haints appears to have origins in the coastal Carolina lowlands and barrier islands and spread throughout the southeastern United States to include – you probably guessed it! – Florida.
Now what exactly these haints were after seems to vary a bit by region and/or motivation, with some stories suggesting haints sought to sap your life energy from you as you slept, leaving you exhausted when you woke, to others that warned that naughty children would be harmed or taken from their homes. How to contend with and protect oneself and their families from these malicious spirits also seemed to vary, with some suggesting that haints could be easily distracted by plastering newspapers onto the walls of the home or leaving out jars of sand or salt out to occupy the restless spooks’ time reading or counting grains instead of going about their evil deeds.
But one of the more common beliefs was that while haints might enter the home through open doors, windows or small spaces such as keyholes, they were incapable of moving across water. Some variations of this belief specifically state that seawater was the deterrent, which helps explain why these beliefs predominantly circulated amongst coastal dwellers. But while it wasn’t practical to have engineered a literal moat comprised of seawater surrounding every home, church or business, these same spirits who could be so easily sidetracked apparently also be tricked into thinking they needed to cross a small body of water to enter a home. This belief led to the widespread popularity of a certain blue or blue-green paint color, referred to as “haint blue.”
Haint blue can be found throughout the American southeast, and the trend has caught on and extended to regions well outside of the southern states as well. It’s a bright, cheerful color that is fairly reminiscent of a clear blue sky, sometimes with a bit of green to give it a bit more of an aqua or sea foam appearance. A common place to find it was on porches, doorways and window shutters, but even if your home or building’s existing color didn’t lend itself well to a blue porch or doorway, it was often sneakily added to the underside of the porch overhang or the eaves over the windows. Many an older building especially, regardless of color, can be found to have the underside of its porch or entranceway painted this pale color, whether out of superstition or just because it’s a fun trend that has spanned generations.
As you might be starting to guess by now, Disney’s Old Key West Resort is no exception to that southern coastal social trend of the late-1800s, which fits quite well with its turn-of-the-century coastal Florida theming and storyline. The entryway to nearly every public space, from the Hospitality House and Olivia’s Café, to Good’s Food To Go or the Conch Flats Community Hall, has this pale blue incorporated into its overhead ceiling design. The guest villas themselves, regardless of the color of the building’s exterior, has that same haint blue hue painted over the doorway to every villa, both at the main point of entry as well as over top of the patio or balcony, safeguarding your room’s back door. And if you’re concerned about creepy creeps making their way into your villa through the bedroom or living room windows, you can rest easy knowing that the eaves overhanging every window, as well as the undersides of every stairwell, are all coated in that same spook-duping water-mimicking anti-haint paint.
One of perhaps the more entertaining and better-known stories contained within the Old Key West Resort is the origin of the name of the tiny bar that can be found in the Turtle Krawl area in the heart of Conch Flats town center. The Gurgling Suitcase is a fun, clever name that harkens back to the prohibition era when the smuggling of contraband alcohol through the Florida Keys was so common that the U.S. government starting stationing customs officials on the docks to inspect the baggage of arriving travelers. The humorous signage depicts a grinning, fleeing tourist with both suitcase and beverage in hand. The style of his hat, flying off his head as he races away, suggests a likely arrival from the island nation of Cuba, a mere 90 miles away from the real Key West by boat or floatplane, and well beyond the reaches of U.S. government officials’ ability to enforce such a ban.
I implore you, the next time you saunter on up to the Gurgling Suitcase and prepare to take part in a little mid-vacation imbibement, take a moment to note the color of the doors on either side of the entrance, as well as the color of the ceiling overhead as you enter. Then, take one more look at that suitcase on the signpost, the one gripped by that running tourist. Is it maybe possible that something other than a U.S. Customs agent might be cause for these “spirits” to flee the scene? Hmm?