Gatorlando

castle

The photo above, from today’s USA Today, shows you just how close the Grand Floridian Resort is to the Magic Kingdom.

The beach at the Grand Floridian, of course, is the site where an alligator snatched a two-year old from his father’s hand while the family walked just inside the waterline.

monorail
USA Today

The attack occurred roughly forty or so minutes after sunset, and the gator pulled the child under after briefly tussling with the frantic father.

You’ve probably already absorbed all of this from cable or online news sources, so I won’t rehash any more of it.  So I’ll say something unexpected:

Statistically, this should have happened long ago.

I do not think this is Disney’s fault.  Signs were placed along the hotel’s beach warning guests not to enter the water.  You have to ask yourself why those signs are there.  It’s a man-made lake; there are no riptides or undercurrents; and not much of a danger.  Unless there’s something in the water.

This editorial in the New York Daily News gets a lot of things wrong.  Writer Shaun King, an admitted Disney World fan and frequent guest, along with his family, to Disney’s forty-square mile property admits that they had never once thought there would be dangerous alligators anywhere on Disney property.  How could there be?  This is Disney, for god’s sake!  Nothing bad ever happens here!  (Really?  Read this, this, and this.)  And then, to find five alligators in the lake?  That’s simply horrendous!

I can’t speak for the powers-that-be at Disney World, but after working at a major theme park and by studying Disney Parks for four decades, I can make some educated guesses about the signage along the beach.  First, they want you safe, so they clearly tell you that you shouldn’t go in the water.  Second, they don’t want to scare the bejesus out of you, so they don’t even whisper the word alligator to anyone.  They want you to keep coming back,  and frequently; not too scared to never come back.  This is PR basics.

The big secret is that there is no secret at all.  Alligators were already on the Florida swampland that Walt bought up in the mid-’60s, and they’re still there now–and they’re plentiful.

final map
ABC News Online

In summer of 1986, I watched from the deck of the Empress Lilly (at the then Walt Disney World Village) as tourists threw bread from their dinner tables at a three-foot long gator waiting to be fed.

Shortly before Christmas in 1991, I took the monorail from the Grand Floridian to go Christmas shopping for my wife in the Magic Kingdom.  The monorail track can be seen starting right above the upper right corner of the Grand Floridian box in the map above, leading to the station almost directly below the D in Walt Disney World.  See that star you passed on the way?  I placed that on the map.  I was standing in the monorail and happened to look down through the window.  That man-made canal is where Disney docks the Electrical Water Pageant, and that star is where I saw a gator basking in the shallows along the shore, its tail curled in a black question mark.

My wife and I both saw a gator in 1992, when Disney’s Coronado Resort first opened.  As annual passholders we were invited to tour the property, and an employee warned us away from a shallow pool only feet away from us in the grass.  “It’s a gator,” he said.  “We’ve already called to have it removed.”  All we could see were the ridges of its eyes just above the surface.  We crept around it.

On the road that guests drive to get to Fort Wilderness, there used to be a guardhouse less than a quarter mile past the camping resort.  It was customary back then to have the doors open on each side of the guardhouse so the guard could wave to the drivers as they passed by.  One night, an employee told us, the overnight guard heard a noise close beside him, and a gator stood in the road, hissing at him.  He exited through the other side of the guardhouse, and when the gator followed him–and entered the guardhouse–the guard slammed the door shut, then ran around and shut the other door, trapping the gator inside.

Consider this: Remember, the land area of Walt Disney World currently stretches (they sold some land a few years back) about 40 square miles.  To get a grasp of how big that is, look at it this way: It’s the size of the city of San Francisco.  There simply is no way Disney or anybody could build resorts and theme parks on top of forty square miles of Florida swampland, the natural habitat of Alligator mississippiensis, and get rid of gators entirely.  Florida is known for these monsters, so I find it naive that anyone would not expect that, even though they may not see any, alligators are always somewhere close by in the mid-Florida scrublands.  I mean, are visitors to the Serengeti shocked that there are lions roaming wild?  Hell, the Everglades still has panthers, not to mention a host of non-native Burmese pythons breeding out of control.  The wild is alive, and Florida is ground zero for the unexpected.

I don’t blame Disney, and I don’t blame the parents, either.  What happened is the clash between nature and civilization.  The gator did only what it would naturally do (even though they rarely attack humans); and who could fault a family, walking along a man-made beach on a lovely night, for not going in the water, but merely wading at the edges?

No matter.  A boy is dead and a family is broken.  Lawsuits will be filed, I have no doubt.  Money will be passed and settlements made.  Then corporate lawyers will order more signs, more fences, and perhaps even walls built around the resorts to insure that this never happens again.

It was bound to happen eventually.  I just don’t know why it didn’t happen sooner.

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