Panic in Disney Springs: How the Stampede Happened

December 27, 2015, 10:26 PM · An argument on Christmas night led to a stampede across Disney Springs at the Walt Disney World Resort. Hundreds of visitors were caught in the rush, which began at Bongos Cuban Cafe on the former Downtown Disney West Side and eventually led desperate guests seeking escape to break into a construction zone next to Morimoto Asia.

During the stampede, Twitter lit up with reports of gunshots at Disney Springs. But that turned out to be just the rumor that prompted hundreds to start running across the shopping and dining district. There were no gunshots — simply an argument, that turned into a fistfight, that inspired a panic.

We've written quite a bit over the years about how to stay safe in a theme park, but "what to do in a stampede" is a new one for us. Two people were hurt during the incident, though it's not clear if the stampede was the direct cause of the minor injuries. (See update below for reports of more injuries.) But panic can kill, as most gruesomely illustrated by the deaths of hundreds in stampedes during hajj pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia.

On Friday night in Disney Springs, a 70-year-old man took a swing at a restaurant manager after having to wait a long time for his food, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Workers tackled the man and Orange County Sheriff's deputies later arrested him. But that's not what caused the panic. That happened when other diners in the restaurant made a bad assumption about the fracas in the balcony above them.

Perhaps the pop of wine glasses falling from a overturned table onto the floor sounded like gunshots. Or perhaps someone just saw the fight and assumed the worst. However it went down, some diners chose to flee before knowing exactly what was happening. Somewhere along the line, someone yelled something about gunshots and within seconds, the rumor launched across Disney Springs — as well as on social media. (For what it is worth, we saw the reports from Disney Springs visitors on Twitter but chose not to repeat any of them until we could verify the story.)

The Sentinel quoted witnesses who thought they heard gunshots... in the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe. Another person posted on Reddit that they were overtaken by the mob outside Morimoto Asia (that's quite a distance from Bongos, if you're not familiar with Disney Springs). That person wrote that their family escaped the surging crowd through the nearby construction zone.

In a perfect world, people would not allow sensational news stories to rile them up to the point where a smashed glass or fistfight would lead them to assume a mass attack. But, clearly, we don't live in that perfect world.

So what should you do if all heck breaks loose and someone triggers a mass panic attack when you are visiting a theme park or other crowded place? Here is some advice on what to do in case of a stampede: Start with a preemptive approach and always note the nearest exits and escape paths whenever you enter a crowded place, whether it be inside or outside.

Don't fight the crowd if it overtakes you, but go with it as best you can. Keep your arms up next to your chest to protect it. As the crowd surges in waves, try to move diagonally through the crowd during the lulls between waves. (Theme park power walk skills might help here.) Move toward escape paths, but stay away from walls and barricades you could be crushed against.

Finally, if you fall, try to spring up quickly. Pull up those who fall around you. If you can't get up, protect your head with your arms, and curl up on your side to protect your chest with your legs.

Don't let any of this frighten you. That's one way stampedes happen — when frightened people panic. Do what you can to make this that perfect world. Ignore the terror threats and the hype on the news, and remember that the odds are overwhelming that you are the greatest threat to your safety. Follow our safety tips and don't panic if a conflict breaks out near you.

As some guy in an Epcot attraction once said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Update: A reader on Twitter reports that there were more injuries during the incident:

Replies (13)

December 27, 2015 at 11:41 PM · This was a truly fantastic explanation of what happened. I hope everyone shares and tweets this everywhere. It is the best written account of what most likely occurred that I have seen. Well done Robert.
December 28, 2015 at 7:35 AM · If the manager and 70 year old patron would have simply joined Disney Fight club, none of this so called stampede would have occurred..

Or maybe even ThunderDone - two men enter, one man leaves.

December 28, 2015 at 10:53 AM · Terrorists have no need to fear a ban on certain races or regions entering the USA. They simply have to plant the IDEA of terrorism in the minds of the population and that population will seemingly do the rest for them....
December 28, 2015 at 11:14 AM · FDR is in the MAGIC KINGDOM's Hall of Presidents, not EPCOT.
December 28, 2015 at 12:42 PM · @ David Brown

That sounds a lot like an old Twilight Zone Episode where a neighborhood is instilled with fear that the ones among them is an alien. We can learn alot from that episode. they've alread won when we start instantly panicking at the slightest notion of terrorism.

December 28, 2015 at 12:44 PM · Hope this one incident does not lead to unnecessary procedures put into place, I read some comments on another site which were totally unnecessary and made more of this the it appears happened, you would have liked to think a man of his years would be more mature about the situation.
December 28, 2015 at 1:55 PM · Anon, FDR gets a speech in Epcot's American Adventure. He just nods in the HoP.
December 29, 2015 at 5:30 PM · Y'know, coincidentally enough, in my English class, we've just finished with Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and learning about the Salem witch trials. We learned how community hysteria and paranoia can make people do the most irrational things. We also learned how hysteria has still in recent years inspired many events similar to Salem. Including the mistreatment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the whole fear of terrorism going on now. And everything that's been going on lately in the theme park industry...installing metal detectors at the front gate...this mass panic over a simple fistfight...Seems to me like America is once again becoming fertile ground for a witch hunt. I just hope this whole thing blows over before people start listening to fear instead of reason and innocent people start getting accused for things they'd never do.
December 29, 2015 at 9:52 PM · I was at Disney Springs Christmas night outside the gelato store with my fiance. We heard people yelling and running in all directions. Not knowing if we were in danger or not I turned to run towards the building and tripped on a chair getting hurt. I am guessing there were many injuries such as myself that were not reported. We did not see any security the whole time it took us to get to our exit to get to our car. I had to stop to rest as I injured myself and was shaking from the experience. In that moment you don't know what is happening but think something is when you hear people screaming and running. On our way out someone came up to us a distance from where we were at the time of the people running and yelling asking if we knew what happened. We did not know. There wasn't anyone around to calm the people. I do not understand why there wasn't any private security in different locations that could have helped stop the people panicing and running.
December 30, 2015 at 12:14 AM · I was there that night with my two children at the lego store, a woman entered screaming a men had a gun and was shooting. That created an stamped at that location. I can't believe someone would yell such a thing without proof. I'm still very upset at that. It ruined that night of our vacation.
December 30, 2015 at 7:36 PM · Wow, I can't believe someone did that. But I'm not surprised.
January 1, 2016 at 1:10 PM · My fears have come true, it's happened, Disney and the sheriffs office announce they are to start putting police on horseback in the area, I hope the man concerned feels proud of his actions and what it has meant to others as we now have to watch out for horses with our little ones running around. Well down sir your a star.
January 2, 2016 at 9:16 AM · Jim Hill and Len Testa did a great podcast on this.

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