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Theme park cast member stories: The lightning capital of America

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Published: October 12, 2009 at 10:25 AM

Lightning pummels Central Florida. The stretch from Tampa to Orlando is America's Lightning Capital, with more than 90 thunderstorms a year, on average, and more than 15 strikes per square kilometer. (Here's a map showing how much more lightning Florida gets than rest of the nation.) Tampa named its pro hockey team after it. And it shuts down many theme park attractions most days during the summer.

I've been nearly hit by lightning twice in my life, and both incidents happened in Central Florida. The most recent was on an AirTran flight from Orlando to Atlanta, where the plane was hit not too long after takeoff. It was a 7 am flight, and I was dozing, but a loud crack and blinding flash brought me to full consciousness. All I remember seeing was the red of my eyelids, which squeezed shut with the flash.

The first happened years ago, when I was working a shift on Tom Sawyer's Island in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Fortunately, this time I'd gotten my raft in dock before the rain hit. (That wasn't always the case.) And I was waiting with the guests who'd sought shelter in the TSI waiting area.

The roof over the wait area slopes down beyond it, covering a bit of the TSI dock. That's where I waited, on the east side of the dock, toward what we called "Duck Island." That was a small island, barely large enough for a couple trees, but it was inconveniently located - we had to push the bow of the raft away from the mainland dock every time we cast off, in order to avoid running aground on it. And while the island was small, the trees on it at the time were not. I worked at TSI before Disney built Splash Mountain, so the trees of Duck Island were then the tallest point between Pecos Bill and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

I was chatting with another TSI host and a few guests, who were waiting inside the queue. For some reason, I turned toward Duck Island, and felt every hair on my arms rise. Sportcasters abuse the phrase "there's electricity in the air," but if you've ever literally felt that, the memory of that sensation never will leave you.

My brain had no time to process what was happening before the crushing blast. It's funny, but looking back upon the strike, you feel like you anticipated it. That's because your brain sends out the command to "Get down: NOW!" before it passes along to your consciousness the news of the incoming crack and flash which elicited that command.

So there I was, curled up in a ball under the queue rail on the TSI dock, before I knew what had almost hit me.

A charcoal smell hit my nose, forcing open my eyes. The guests we'd been speaking with were on their knees, and the ones behind them stood, faces frozen, staring toward Duck Island. A child cried. I looked toward the island, and saw a tree's arm, severed to the ground, bridging the water between the island and the dock's exit pathway. The cooling rain returned. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged.

Save the tree, of course, whose fallen branches maintenance crews soon cleared.

Please share your personal lightning stories in the comments. And check out the archive of theme park cast member stories.

Readers' Opinions

From 209.12.74.122 on October 12, 2009 at 10:47 AM
As all of my comments will remain (truly) anonymous: I was working at a park when a guest was struck by lightening in the parking lot several years ago. Unfortunately in this instance, the incident was fatal.

Not long after I first started in the industry, I also saw lightening strike a creek outside the park lines, but only about 50 yards from several water attractions. It was definitely one of those times where you felt it in the hair, hair tingling, and the radio on my hip making some strange noises.

Between both of these experiences, I take lightening in the area very seriously.

From Paula Werne on October 12, 2009 at 11:01 AM
Can I tell a story about our owner/president?

It was back in the mid-'90s, just a year or so after The Raven wooden roller coaster premiered. Will Koch was back on the track, adjusting the on-ride camera shortly before opening.

It was one of those out-of-nowhere lightning strikes. The thunder was simultaneous. BOOM! Folks at the front gate hit the ground; it was that loud.

Right before the strike, Will was calling someone on the 2-way. I'm embarrassed to admit no one immediately thought to check on him. Oops.

Best we could tell later on, the strike hit a tree next to the track and traveled along the circuit, knocking Will to the ground.

I won't say he had smoke coming out of his ears, but he was a bit bruised and his 2-way was toast.

Once we knew Will was okay, the puns and teasing began (and continue to this day). His striking personality ... you get the picture.

Does Will now have super-human powers, since he was sort of struck by lightning? Well...we just set a new seasonal attendance record. In this economy, that news is a bit, um, electrifying. :0)

Paula Werne
Holiday World

From Tom Faraci on October 12, 2009 at 11:02 AM
Never been hit by lightning, but earlier this season at Cedar Point I was working during what was probably the worst storm of the summer. Once it got really bad, word started spreading that a tornado had been sighted over the lake near Maverick, and a ride operator came and got us from the caricature stand I was working at and we hid under the Magnum. The tornado never made it to land, but it was a pretty intense evening regardless.

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