A storm approaching from the west Wednesday evening quickly spun up and triggered a tornado warning that included all four Disney theme parks as well as SeaWorld.
The storm first triggered a severe thunderstorm warning at 5:13 PM, when National Weather Service radar indicated a storm capable of producing 60 MPH winds in the Four Corners area. If you’re not familiar with the local area, Four Corners is the intersection of Lake, Orange, Osceola, and Polk Counties, generally in the area of the intersection of US Highways 192 and 27.
Five minutes later, at 5:18 PM, National Weather Service meteorologists saw signs of rotation over the town of Bay Lake, which covers almost all of Disney property (not to be confused with the actual waterway Bay Lake behind Disney’s Contemporary Resort). They issued a tornado warning, and included this unsettling statement:
This dangerous storm will be near… Sea World, Hunters Creek and Wet N Wild Water Park around 530 PM EDT. Orlando around 540 PM EDT. Other locations impacted by this tornadic thunderstorm include Magic Kingdom.Source: NWS
And as you can imagine, having one of the world’s largest tourist destinations in the crosshairs of a potential tornado triggered a series of emergency actions in all of the theme parks. Disney has a fully-functional Emergency Operations Center, subscribes to professional forecasting services, and is in regular communications with the National Weather Service in times of bad weather.
Twitter was filled with reports of people taking shelter throughout portions of Walt Disney World. One Twitter user reported that they were sheltering in Hall of Presidents. Another was inside a store at Disney Springs. Severe Weather can trigger what Disney refers to as a PLAN C response, which corresponds with Take Cover. In extreme cases, Cast Members may even take Guests down to the Utilidors (the famed “tunnels” underneath Magic Kingdom) to seek shelter. However we haven’t seen any signs that this step was taken in this case. Disney is none-too-keen on sending Guests backstage unless absolutely necessary, but will do so if needed. Safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency, in that order… Safety over Show.
Over at Animal Kingdom Lodge, Twitter user @boardcot took this video from his room:
The impact wasn’t limited just to the parks and resorts. Disney has at least five major office buildings in Celebration, which was also in the warning. A Disney Vacation Club Cast Member reported on social media that they had to disconnect calls at Member Services and take shelter in the innermost rooms of their headquarters on Celebration Boulevard. While we don’t know for sure what the procedure is now, at one point Member Services’ severe weather plan included having managers use bullhorns to notify Cast Members of the emergency, at which point the phone advisors would read a scripted emergency spiel that’s taped to each phone… disconnect their current call… then close the blinds on nearby windows (yes, really) before heading to designated windowless rooms near the center of the building. Beyond DVC, a Twitter user reported that their call to Disney’s Magical Express had to be disconnected as well so that the Cast Member on the phone could take shelter. And a social media post by a Disney Cruise Line Cast Member indicated that they were taking shelter in the stairwells of their building at Celebration Place.
By 5:37 PM, the signs of rotation had weakened to the point that the NWS decided to let the warning expire. So far, we’ve seen no reports of damage on Disney or Sea World property. There was a measured wind gust of 43 MPH at Orlando Executive Airport, and a tree fell on SunRail tracks in Kissimmee.
We haven’t been able to find any reports on social media from anyone in SeaWorld when the storm hit – if you were there, let us know in the comments. Meanwhile, up the road at Universal, we found at least one poor soul on Twitter who said they had waited 5+ hours to ride the new Hagrid attraction, only to have it close down as a result of the storm just before they got on.