Theme park cast member stories: The day it snowed at Disney World
Written by Robert NilesEven in December, the weather in Central Florida remains pleasant most days. But once a decade or so, a nasty cold front penetrates the state, freezing orange trees, tourists and even residents.
Published: December 7, 2009 at 10:57 AM
The morning of December 23, 1989 brought one of those fronts. With the forecast calling for temperatures to fall into the 30s that day, I put aside my Florida pride and hauled my "Northwestern" winter coat from the back of the hall closet. (That was the heavy winter coat I had worn as a student at Northwestern, just north of Chicago.) Good that I did, too. Watching other opening-shift cast members shiver in their jean jackets and sweatshirts that morning made me glad that I could put aside that I now lived in Florida, at least for this day, and dress like someone should for near-freezing temperatures.
My shift that day was to open at Tom Sawyer Island. We didn't expect much of a crowd on that Saturday, two days before Christmas. Most folks coming down for the holidays would be traveling that day, making it a tough day at the airport, but not at Walt Disney World. (Certainly no local would be fool enough to come out in this weather.)
A freeze doesn't come to Central Florida the way it arrives up north. There's no weeks-long gradual cooling into the 30s and 20s, turning the leaves and pulling warmth from the ground. Arctic air blows sharply into Florida, shrouding the still-warm waters and soil. So the Rivers of America surrounding Tom Sawyer Island weren't cooled to near-freezing temperatures. They remained in their winter upper-60s.
So what happens when you drop a blanket of Yankee winter air on top of warm Florida water?
You get fog. Lots and lots of dense fog.
Actually, the morning's fog wasn't too bad when I arrived. In fact, I could drive the Aunt Polly's crew over to the island on the raft without hassle. No, you couldn't see to the Country Bear Jamboree from the middle of the river, like you could on a clear day, but you could see from the dock on one bank to the other, which was all you really needed.
So we opened the island to a small cluster of shivering guests, stuffed into the winter coats that they also hadn't expected to be wearing in Florida. Everyone wore their shoulders around their ears that morning.
And then temperature kept dropping, down through the 30s on their way to the day's low in the mid-20s. The fog thickened. As I docked on the mainland side after my second or third crossing, I heard the riverboat's whistle. I turned to signal the riverboat clear... and couldn't see it. Nor could I see across the river to the island dock.
Lake Buena Vista, we've got a problem.
My lead called a supervisor to let them know we were going down, and learned that we weren't the only ones making the same call. Big Thunder Mountain couldn't open at all since the ride's trains kept speeding over the frozen track. The fog enveloping Tom Sawyer Island had also covered the Seven Seas Lagoon, taking down the ferryboats and forcing all guests to access the Magic Kingdom via monorail. The Jungle Cruise was down, too. As was People Mover, Dumbo and just about every other outdoor ride in the park.
But we still had about a dozen guests on the island. So the riverboat would have to dock while I ferried over a security guard to help the rest of the TSI crew clear the island. Frankly, they seemed happy to go. Half of them already had gathered on the dock for the return trip. The rest we found huddled in one of the caves, trying to stay warm.
No one stepped up to relive me of driving duties. (Gee, I wonder why?) So I got to sail blind through the muck on that final trip back to the mainland. Cocky raft drivers say that they can make the trip with their eyes closed. I got to prove it, in effect.
When we arrived, two of my friends from other attractions were waiting for me. With half the rides in the park closed, leads were giving any CM who wanted one an early release. Rather than spend the day shivering at the entrance to the TSI queue, letting people who didn't care know that they couldn't visit an island they could no longer see, I took one too.
We decided we'd go play in the park, but some place inside. So we chose the Land pavilion at Epcot, which, we would later discover, had become the most popular destination in all of Walt Disney World that day, with crowds thicker than the TSI fog.
On my over to the tunnels to change clothes and clock out, I felt something fly into my eye. I blinked, instinctually, and my brought my hand to my eye to wipe away whatever it was. But I felt the offending speck melt to water instead. Standing in the middle of Frontierland, I looked to the sky and saw... snowflakes.
It was snowing... at Walt Disney World.
For more stories about working at Walt Disney World, please visit Robert's Disney World cast member stories archive.
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