Disney - Guest Safety In The Post 9/11 World

A look at Guest safety at Disney, what can be learned from 9/11?

Theme parks make a big part of their business out of scaring people with abandoned hotel elevator drops, high speed roller coasters, haunted houses and all manner of thrills and spills. But people feeling genuinely scared of going to a public place like a Theme Park is a major worry for people like Disney. One that they have worked hard to counter.

This last weeks news out of New York has brought terrorism in the United States to the forefront of peoples minds again. The public, Disney's paying Guests start to worry about their safety, spurred on by the media and I think it may be worth while looking at the lessons Disney learned from the past.

I must say at this point that there is nothing remarkable in this article, no procedure, practice or policy that is not already out there in the public domain.

The awareness of Theme Parks as potential targets for terrorists is never far for the public consciousness and as recently as December 11, 2008 Jason Garcia Staff Writer for the Orlando Sentinel was reporting that SeaWorld Orlando, one of Walt Disney World's closest competitors "could become a target for terrorists trying to obtain chemicals" this was according to a preliminary review of businesses, and other facilities across the United States by the federal government.

The next obvious question to ask is, does the Walt Disney Company really need to take precautions like this in order to keep its theme parks safe? After all it has no seats of Judaism, no airstrips and no chemical stores that I know of that rival SeaWorld's reserves

One answer to this may come from December of 1999 when U.S. Customs officials stopped a young Algerian who had crossed into the US from Canada. In 32-year-old Ahmed Ressam's car, US officials found ten 110-pound plastic bags of urea hidden in the tire well of his car. This common substance used in fertiliser can also be used to make explosives, a recipe much used by the IRA in Northern Ireland.

Inside the car, they also found two plastic bags other 'fertiliser' bomb ingredients and four small black boxes containing timers. From what I have read U.S. intelligence officials estimated that there were enough raw materials found to make four or more bombs.

Months later during the pre-trial phase details began to leak out about what Ressam's intentions had supposedly been. He had reservations for a hotel that was only five blocks from Seattle's Space Needle, it is now believed that this terrorist planned on bombing the Needle on New Year's Eve. 50,000 people were expected to be crowded around the Space Needle as part of that city's millennium celebration.

More worryingly Ressam reportedly had a back up plan in case the Space Needle hadn't been accessible that night. According to security officials familiar with the materials that were taken out of Ahmed's car Disneyland was supposedly one of those backup plans. A map of Southern California with a circle around the Anaheim theme park was one of the items that was found.

Another widely reported threat was to a non-US site, Tokyo Disneyland. On March 20, 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult released a canister of the highly toxic nerve gas Sarin in the Tokyo underground. Twelve people were killed and more than 5,500 injured. The group's next intended target was Disneyland. They planned to attack the Japanese resort on Easter Sunday, releasing Sarin during the fireworks when the crowd would be at its largest and most congested. These plans thankfully came to nothing thanks to Police action to remove the Aum Shinrikyo threat.

I'm let to believe that the FBI and the Tokyo authorities made a point of making Disney Company officials aware of the threats. More importantly, I think that the lessons learned may have been the reasons that the Mouse was so well prepared for the future.

Disney Theme Parks carry on just the same happy way most every day. It is steady, dependable and reassuring that the other worldliness of the Magic Kingdom is a break from the reality from reality. Disney works very hard to keep the magic alive, to suspend disbelief and keep the rest of the world firmly beyond the turnstiles. Every once in a while though something so massive occurs that its impact breaks through Disney's reality distortion field?

Disney always strikes me as a company that worked and planned for the best but also prepared for the worst. For example in the winter of 1992 Euro Disney as it then was, organised a night test of it's evacuation plans. These were reported in the company newspaper "En Coulise" (Back Stage), the photos were of happy, jolly Cast Members testing out the companies three main evacuation plans for its theme parks (Imaginatively known as plans A, B and C). The scenario they were testing that night was that "A commercial airliner has crashed on Main St. USA."

Nine years later and thousands of miles to the west the same plans were tested out with Guests.

September 11, 2001 At around half past two in the afternoon (Paris Time) word started filtering through to the senior Cast Members on the ground that something was amiss. I was a lead in the Ticketing team at the time and my manager asked if I remembered the A, B, C's ? Details of what was happening were sketchy. At first all we knew was that America had been attacked, nothing more.

At about the same time the Walt Disney Company announced that it would be closing it's theme parks in the US. Given the time difference between Disneyland and Disney World California hadn't really opened for the day as all this was unfolding. I understand that only a handful of Guests in the Parks for the "Magic Mornings" so when the decision was made in Burbank to close the parks for the day it wasn't really all that big a deal to quickly escort those Guests out. At the Walt Disney World Resort, and largely due to the time difference coast to coast there were thousands of Guests in the Theme Parks when the call came down to close.

At 11 a.m. the P.A. came on in all four theme parks. An announcement was made along the lines that a national tragedy has occurred in New York City and that, as a direct result of this and because of the Walt Disney Company's concern for the safety of its Guests, the Florida theme parks would be closing that day by noon. As with all such announcements it closed out with one final instruction for the Guests. - "Please follow the directions of the nearest Cast Member."

Within minutes Cast Members were doing what Disney calls an accelerated close. Filter people out of the attractions, close the boutiques, and working from the outermost edges of the parks to the middle, Guests were filtered to the central areas and out through the main gates - a well rehearsed plan, basically the same as at the end of any normal day, just a little faster.

Most Guests left the parks quickly & quietly. They recognised that something truly significant must have happened. They were anxious to get to their hotels, to find out what was really going on. A Cast Member Quoted on Mouseplanet made the point at the time that while Disney may have been prepared the American Public was not. "It's strange, but European guests were quite understanding of the reasons for our evacuation. Of course, they have dealt with terrorist attacks within their own countries from time to time. It was the Americans that complained the loudest, wanting compensation for their loss of touring time." Let us not forget that this is perhaps understandable, details were not yet clear as to what was still unfolding.

When noon arrived, all the Guests had been safely escorted out of the four WDW theme parks. The Cast Members who were there that day spoke later a weird sense of professional satisfaction. They had actually been able put there own concerns aside and do what Disney had trained them to do. Which was without undo fuss or panic quickly clear out the perceived danger of it's parks.

Despite the above television report Disneyland Paris didn't close early that day. I spent the remaining shift that day re-briefing all the Cast Members on duty on the A, B, and C evacuation plans for the Magic Kingdom.

My strongest memory of that afternoon was a young German Cast Member. I had finished her basic training only days before and when I told her group that we might, what ever happened, face a huge challenge that afternoon she broke down in tears. Looking back I cannot remember ever seeing anyone else ever look so scared as she did that day. The true testament to her though is that within half an hour she was back on the turnstiles helping Guests. I was so proud of her that afternoon.

The "accelerated close" used at WDW that day is only the first of the evacuation plans - "Plan A." as you might say.

"Plan B" - the Backstage Plan - Applies to situations where the normal routes out of the parks are blocked or impassable. Say a fire on Main St, under these circumstances, Cast Members direct Guests to the best possible route to quickly get out of that theme park. So that might be through the Parade route for example or via the access roads that run around the parks.

"Plan C" - Seeking Cover - This is not strictly an evacuation plan in itself, but possibly it would lead onto plans A or B. In this Cast Members would then lead Guests to the nearest shelter. This is probably best thought of a response to dangerous weather conditions.

Since the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., America's Department of Homeland Security officials have warned that Disney's parks could provide an 'inviting' target for terrorists. Disney routinely declines to discuss the steps it has taken to increase security at its parks, some measures have become public. For example, in the recent past the company persuaded Congress to close the airspace over Disney World to low-flying aircraft.

As well as planning for what may happen Disney have also taken physical preventative measures. Everyone has seen the uniformed Security Cast Members outside the Ticketing turnstiles, what is less often seen is that Walt Disney World for one has installed high-security, anti-terrorist barricades similar to those protecting the Whitehouse. These hydraulically powered steel barricades block the service entrances to the resort's four theme parks and were apparently designed to stop a truck bomb traveling 70 miles per hour.

Disney is famous for the visible, tangible quality of it's customer care, and while inside the Parks the only real sign of a post 9/11 world is the change in the Jungle Skippers spiel (no one mentions the plane crash any more) beyond that surface of Guest care there is a whole other layer of Guest safety. Firstly, don't think the uniformed Security Cast Members are just for show as one Guest who 'forgot' she was armed found our recently. If, as it does, Disney hires former NASA engineers to look at the safety of its roller coasters who do they hire to look after their security? I'll tell you now I have met a few of these guys and they are as good as you can find.

All this to say I believe that whilst there are no absolutes in the world, no guarantees I don't think traveling to a Disney Resort is any more or less dangerous than staying at home.. I would have no issue today taking my toddler to the parks today or any other day for that matter.