By Ally O'Connor
Two weeks ago, Hurricane Irma ripped across both the Caribbean Islands and Florida
leaving massive devastation in her wake. News stations described the Category 5 hurricane as the strongest observed in the Atlantic Ocean in recorded history. Days before Irma emerged as an imminent threat, my family and I were enjoying a Caribbean cruise, completely unaware of the destruction about to ensue. After disembarking, we drove up the scenic coastline of Florida and checked into Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. We were thrilled to be spending a few days at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
As our vacation progressed and earlier flights filled, our understanding of the impending natural disaster grew. A Disney hotel concierge honestly explained that flight cancellations were an increasing likelihood in the Orlando area and recommended that we begin to prepare for the worst. Our flight was still listed as “on time,” so we felt somewhat optimistic. The Orlando International Airport had released a statement explaining that no flights would take off later than 5:00 pm on Saturday and our flight was scheduled for 3:15 pm. We hoped that we might just make it.
Unfortunately, our flight was cancelled on Thursday. Soon after this discovery, we raced down to the hotel lobby to extend our stay at the Wilderness Lodge. Disney’s treatment of guests during this time of tumult was nothing less than five stars. While many other families faced similar situations to ours, the Disney employees greeted us and all other guests with kindness and understanding. We were able to secure a room and were generously offered extremely reduced hotel rates.
Friday morning, we received a detailed pamphlet that explained the coming days’ safety precautions and activities. We filled the refrigerator with water and food, as instructed, and placed towels at the base of all windows. Guests were permitted to enjoy Disney parks until their 9:00 pm closure on Saturday and were instructed to promptly return to their resorts. The Disney Parks would be closed for the next two days—a historic sixth closure since the the park’s 1971 opening. The pamphlet also informed us that at 10:00 pm on Saturday, a complete lockdown would take place—no one would be allowed to exit the building until authorities had lifted the area’s curfew on Monday evening.
Saturday was a strange day. My parents and I spent the night wandering around a desolate Epcot park, paying close attention to the safety precautions all around—lamps had been tied to their posts and covered in plastic, windows had been boarded, and flags, tables, chairs, and flower pots had been removed. However, the evening felt as if it were any other Floridian night. The only indicator of impending danger was a warm wind sweeping through the air. By 10:00 pm, we were back in our room staring out the window, watching the calm before the storm.
Sunday morning, I awakened to light rain and mild wind. This was it? My family and I watched the news and discovered that the storm’s timing had slowed—the curfew had been changed to 7:00 pm, when the strong hurricane force winds would begin. We then sauntered down to the lobby to find food and were completely surprised. The entire room was filled with playful Disney characters and dancing children. One employee led a dance party, while others helped with crafts, puzzles, and games. Disney had also added a large projector screen on which
“Peter Pan” was airing. The company had clearly gone above and beyond to ensure that guests of all ages felt safe and content in the hotel.
When we made our way to the restaurant, we found an extensive and delicious buffet for a very low price. Disney clearly prioritized guest experience over its own bottom line during this situation. With two hours before curfew, we decided to walk to the other Disney hotels. To our pleasure, we found similar dance parties, crafts, and food. Disney had truly prepared and offered all it could to make a difficult situation a little easier.
When the hurricane force winds finally arrived, it was terrifying for about 8 hours. The constant hundred mile per hour winds shook and rattled the windows and roared through every tiny crack. The pounding rain pelted sideways and streamed in under the windows and sliding glass door, while leaks ran across the floor. Trees bowed and bent to one direction, so much so that many snapped or branches flew, loudly thudding on the drenched concrete. The wind blew, lightning struck and thunder resounded with such force that I saw about twenty transformers explode with a spark, the eerie blue-green light illuminating the ferocious storm clouds.
In the morning, light exposed the devastation. Sidewalks were covered in water, branches, entire trees, and mud. Parking lots were transformed into lakes with trees and branches lying on top of dented and smashed cars. Many of the once tied street lamps had crashed across the street, shattering their glass panels among the fallen tree branches. My heart ached for the people who called this state home.
A few days later, I boarded a plane and made it to Santa Clara in time for the start of the school year. To many, this experience was so much more than several difficult and inconvenient days. To them, this hurricane ravaged their homes, towns, and livelihoods. As I write this
review of Disney today, I remember the people of Florida, and those of the Caribbean islands, who continue to suffer due to this natural disaster and wish them all the best in their efforts to rebuild.
In regards to my experience with Disney, I am extremely impressed by this company that did everything they could to help their guests through a tumultuous few days. The men and women who worked worked tirelessly throughout the hotel kindly answered all questions from numerous worried guests, while trying to organize every detail of the two lockdown days, from activities and dances with characters to removing lounge chairs from balconies and pool patios. Further, the discounts and free snacks and beverages provided were exactly the right antidote for a large company to offer during this tense situation. Most importantly, Disney did what it does best in making children (and adults) smile even in the most difficult of times. Disney is truly a five star company to which I offer nothing but respect.