ORLANDO, Fla. — As visitors to Disney’s new Star Wars land in Orlando oohed and ahhed at the full-size Millennium Falcon and too-real-for-TSA soda cans, they worried about a real-life threat bearing down on the Florida coast.
Orlando park visitors have been debating Hurricane Dorian since Wednesday. That’s when Deb Koma, who’s visiting Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Hollywood Studios for her birthday, arrived.
Koma, former editor of AllEars.net, a Disney travel fan site, decided to follow her Orlando Lyft driver’s advice to go home early. She switched her return plane ticket home to Northern Virginia from Monday to Saturday.
Koma says Disney visitors fall into two camps: People like her, who want to get out of town now, and the “wait and see” people who have been through hurricanes before. (Those visitors may be in luck as a Saturday morning forecast indicated the storm would be unlikely to make landfall in Florida after all).
She hasn’t seen Disney cast members, as employees are called, preparing to shut the park down. “I talked to my hotel cast members last night, and they have not been told yet if they will be required to be part of a ‘ride out’ team” staying at the parks.”
‘Ride-out’ teams at hotels and parks
Disney’s Orlando parks were operating under normal conditions as of 5 p.m. Friday local time, but Disney is canceling weekend sporting events and closing Disney’s Blizzard Beach water park on Sunday, the company said in a statement.
“We are closely monitoring the path of the projected weather, as nothing is more important than the safety of our guests and Cast Members,” the company said.
“We are also contacting guests with current and upcoming reservations at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, Copper Creek Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, Treehouse Villas at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa and the Bungalows at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort to plan for anticipated weather impacts.”
Disney does have procedures in place for situations such as these — including getting staffers to stay at the hotels and parks to protect guests and animals in an emergency.
These ride-out teams are “responsible for the safety of guests staying at any resort hotels and ensuring the parks are properly prepared,” said Taylor Strickland, owner and publisher of the Orlando Informer, which reports on the area’s theme parks.
Sea World’s Orlando park has already announced that they’ll likely be moving some land animals to inside locations on Monday or Tuesday depending on the storm’s movement, and their animal caregivers will stay to ride out the storm.
At Universal Orlando, Strickland notes that set pieces have already been placed throughout the park for the September 6 kick-off to their annual Halloween Horror Nights — and those will need to be stored if the storm hits.
Orlando parks rarely close
It’s rare that the parks close. Disney has only closed its Orlando theme parks a handful of times since its initial opening in 1971, mostly for weather related reasons.
It closed for the first time in response to Hurricane Floyd in September 1999, and it also closed for the day shortly after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. More recent closures were in response to Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.
While Disney’s hurricane policy offers refunds to customers who purchased tickets through Disney, it doesn’t cover third-party purchases with airlines, hotels and car rentals.
There could be extra entertainment
“None of the parks have announced any major closures as of yet, and they tend to wait to do so,” Strickland said. “They do not want to end up being closed on a bright and sunny day, but obviously the top priority is the safety of employees and guests.”
His advice: If they can, people who are already in Orlando should remain flexible.
“If you’re staying at a Universal Orlando or Disney World hotel, they will likely try to add some extra entertainment when the parks close,” he said. “While it may not be visiting Hogsmeade or Galaxy’s Edge, I think if guests keep an open mind, they can still have fun at the hotels and all while — most importantly — remaining safe.”
All visitors should also pay close attention to weather coverage and ultimately make an informed decision about their safety.
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