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Theme park cast member stories: The day it snowed at Disney World

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Published: December 7, 2009 at 10:57 AM

Even 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.

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.

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on December 7, 2009 at 11:16 AM
Excellent!

I have been down at Disney World when its been freezing, but no snow! Two years ago, I went down there to see Illinois play in the Outback Bowl (however, they got in the Rose Bowl, NU fans, stop laughing), but we went anyway. Good time, but we went to EPCOT/MK on Jan 2 and it was a cool 35 degrees the entire day. EPCOT was a good choice because I think its the most "indoor" park.

We also took a bit of a laugh at native Floridians thinking it was the end of the world. Then again, if a Hurricane came to Chicago, I would start freaking out!

Speaking of snow, Chicago got its first blanket of snow today!

From Gareth H on December 7, 2009 at 11:36 AM
I'd gladly settle for a bit of snow right now, feels freezing, but its only in the mid 60's, lol.
From 129.171.150.71 on December 7, 2009 at 11:48 AM
Great story today. Thanks for bringing back fond memories of that weekend.
From James Rao on December 7, 2009 at 12:24 PM
Just got back from a couple days at Silver Dollar City's Christmas Festival. Temperatures averaged about 30 degrees during the day and fell to the low 20's at night. And when the wind blew, it was bitterly cold. Still, that's why God made hot chocolate. =)

Nice story, Robert, thanks for sharing.

From 204.128.192.4 on December 7, 2009 at 5:30 PM
Hi Robert,

Thanks for the great story. I was working at Magic Kindgom back in 1989 when that winter storm blew through. I remember standing at front dock unload of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with the wind blowing so hard that it was practically forming whtiecaps on the Fantasyland lagoon. I was wearing every possible piece of clothing that Wardrobe could issue - I think they ultimately ran out of P-coats that day - but I was still chilled to the bone. I'd duck into the lead office between subs to try and keep warm. Some of the subs couldn't be put into service until the afternoon because the hatches had frozen shut overnight. In my 20-something years living in Florida, and I can't recall any days there as cold as those!

Todd

From Robert Niles on December 7, 2009 at 7:12 PM
Oh, the Magic Kingdom pea coats were the BEST! I did go with the long undershirt beneath my thin polyester TSI shirt, but with the pea coat, my body remained toasty all morning.

My hands, however... not so much. The fabric gloves they issued were warm enough, but impossible to wear while driving a TSI raft. You just couldn't keep a grip on the fiberglass tiller with those things. So I "steered with my rear" as much as possible, jamming my frozen hands into the pea coat pockets.

From 24.90.249.214 on December 7, 2009 at 8:04 PM
What year was that and why did the park not close that day. also how many times has this realy happend it disney history
From Erin B on December 7, 2009 at 8:34 PM
My family and I caught some of that rare, cold Florida weather on our last trip to Disney at about this time of the month, 6 years ago. We came from Ohio and were expecting to abandon our figid winter weather, but so much for that. On our second day there we had to buy piles of sweatshirts, hats, and gloves because we hadn't packed anything for 30-40 degree weather.
From s b on December 12, 2009 at 5:31 AM
Yes!!! I was at EPCOT that same day -- My husband and I (from the Northeast) did not pack any winter clothes and I was forced to scavenge the gift shops for gloves -- the only choice available was a pair of those HUGE white felt "cartoon character" gloves (I called them Goofy gloves, for obvious reasons). I remember seeing actual flakes of snow as we waited for the gates to open. We were practically newlyweds at the time and did not mind snuggling to stay warm! :)

I do remember that trip -- It was soooooooo cold!!!! Funny, though, because 2 days later on Christmas Day it was nearly 70 degrees!!!

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