How to stay safe in a theme park: Respect the local wildlife

June 15, 2016, 10:16 AM · We've long worked to educate visitors about staying safe in theme parks. While the most dangerous part of a theme park visit remains getting to and from the park itself, your time inside a theme park resort is not entirely risk free. But with a little common sense and some knowledge, the odds are overwhelming that you'll suffer no physical harm while visiting a park or its surrounding resort.

But as we saw last night at Walt Disney World, accidents happen. For those who haven't yet heard the news, an alligator attacked a two-year-old boy who was playing at the edge of the water of the Seven Seas Lagoon, next to Disney's Grand Floridian Resort. The boy's father went into the water to try to wrestle the child from the gator, but failed. The search continues this morning for the boy's body. (Update: The boy's body has been recovered and identified. See link above.)

The family who lost their child last night was from Nebraska. I've lived in Omaha and in Orlando and never once did I think that anything potentially fatal was lurking under the surface of any pond, lake, or stream in Nebraska. But Florida is different. Most people who live in Central Florida understand you just ought to assume that any body of water large enough to hold a gator actually has a gator in it. Yet visitors from up north don't know that. Disney posts signs around the Seven Seas Lagoon prohibiting swimming in the lake, but the warning signs don't mention gators or wildlife. Visitors who assume the warning is just Disney's attempt to escape liability for drownings due so at grave risk they don't know they're taking.

So to our list of theme park safety tips, let's add this: Respect the local wildlife.

Step one toward doing that is acknowledging that you don't know about the local wildlife. Don't assume that the woods, water, fields, beach, or desert in the place you are visiting are the same as yours at home. Vacation destinations can help by posting warning signs or distributing information at check-in about the local wildlife and the risks associated with them. I just returned from a visit to Yellowstone National Park, and believe me, the park officials there were aggressive in warning people about the wildlife in the park. Travelers need hosts in all other vacation destinations with local wildlife to be just as aggressive about informing their guests, too.

This isn't just for the protection of visitors. A week before my visit to Yellowstone, a clueless family loaded a baby bison into the back of their car because they feared it was getting too cold. Rangers eventually had to put down the bison calf after its herd rejected it.

Respecting wildlife means understanding that these animals are wild. They are not pets and should not be treated as domesticated animals. So keep your distance. Do not approach or try to interact with the animals. If a wild animal approaches you, you need to know the correct response to avoid provoking the animal to attack, then as best you can, try to move away to give the animal the space it deserves. Remember that federal law protects many species of wild animals and prohibits contact with them.

Respecting wildlife also means that you should never attempt to feed them. It sickened me to read in the Orlando Sentinel's report that some Disney guests have been feeding the wild alligators o property. This is beyond stupid. Feeding animals conditions them to seek contact with human beings, with potentially disastrous results.

Feeding wild alligators is against the law in Florida [PDF link]. We'd love to see Disney start backing this up by ejecting and permanently banning from its property any guests found to be feeding alligators on Walt Disney World property, as well.

Last night's tragedy exposed that too few visitors to Central Florida know the risks associated with local wildlife. It's not the fault of this family, who have suffered an unimaginable loss. No one told them.

So we're telling you now. Spread the word. For your safety — as well as the safety of wild animals — respect the local wildlife in all of your travels.

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Replies (19)

June 15, 2016 at 10:25 AM · Not feeding local wildlife includes not feeding ducks and birds in the parks!
June 15, 2016 at 10:50 AM · The first time my wife and I visited Disney, during the planning stages, we emailed Orlando tourism to get information about the area. We knew about the parks but we wanted to know what else there was to do and we received a lot of information back from them. The main book about visiting the Orlando area went into great detail about the various types of animals you may encounter and how to avoid any unpleasant results.

The other thing that has always stuck with me and applies to any place that you visit is the following bit of advice.

There are places in the town or city that you live in that
you wouldn't visit after dark, why would go to those areas
in a strange city.

I never took this to be an indication that Orlando had "dangerous" areas of town, all communities do but that you need to be aware and enjoy yourself.

June 15, 2016 at 10:56 AM · It's not only the gators. There are poisonous spiders. Due to heavy spraying in the parks and the grounds of hotels it's not comment to meet them but renting a vacation home or going onto a nature trail you really need to watch out. Last one is snakes. Most snakes native to Florida are mostly harmless. But there are I think about 3 wo aren't. Two of them are rattle snakes and they make a noise when they see you (we had one outside out home once on the sidewalk). Then there are bears, racoons and sharks in the sea. As is said, keep your distance, be respectful and never ever feed animals. When going to sea go where a lifeguard is and watch the flag. Ask him/her what it means when the flag changes and act on it.
The gator that is probably feeded doesn't know any difference from a human or food. If yu done that you probably a responsible for killing the kid and the gater (they always take the gator down in this situation and it's sad for both of them).
June 15, 2016 at 11:03 AM · Not warning about alligators is a mistake. I heard via TMZ that other resorts warn about alligator in their ponds and lagoons. Still, that family waded in the lagoon that has a "no swimming" sign. Not the smartest thing to do. Disney made those lagoons too enticing to visit. They are largely man made so why did they have a beach-like shore line. Instead, they need to have metal fencing and barriers to keep people out. Curious, do they have alligators in Animal Kingdom's River of Light lagoon?
June 15, 2016 at 11:12 AM · This is definitely a situation where every party involved (the family, Disney, us as outside observers/fans/reporters/etc) can all look back with the benefit of hindsight to see where things went wrong.

Disney should definitely make people aware of dangerous wildlife even though, as I understand it, they try very hard to keep the gators out of guest areas. The family should not have allowed a two-year-old to play in water where signs prohibited it. Disney should have also probably expected this to happen when they hosted "movie night on the beach" - knowing full well how guests let their guards down and always assume safety at Disney World. Personally, when visiting our condo in the Tampa area, I am always mindful of keeping away from the edge of the ponds and lakes in our development, especially when walking at dusk/night because of alligators and even snakes. But that having been said, I never actually considered that the "no swimming" signs on the Seven Seas Lagoon were in part due to wildlife and not, as you said, just a way to avoid liability for accidental drownings.

Everyone is somewhat at fault and really no one is at fault at all. Policies will need to change now and it's just so incredibly tragic that a child had to lose his life to open our eyes to what needs to be done.

June 15, 2016 at 12:18 PM · I'm from uk , I've been going to Disney since 1989 , I've traveled on monorail from park to park n I've seen gators in the canals but I would have thought at the very least at these resorts they should put signs to say not just no swimming but alligators possibly in water , or fences or something .
June 15, 2016 at 12:51 PM · The press conference held by the sheriff and wildlife folks was, frankly, interesting. One reporter wanted to know why Disney didn't build a fence to keep gators out. Another wanted to know why Disney didn't catch all of the gators and then keep them from returning.

To the saga, add that it was after 9pm - letting children wade or do anything in the water when dark is not a good idea.

In addition to the risk of the gators and snakes, there is the problem of N. Fowleri, a "brain-eating" amoeba found in warm untreated fresh water in Florida and some other states. If someone manages to get it up their nose (which little kids are more likely to do than adults), you are in deep trouble - less than 5% of the folks who get infected survive.

And if you think warning folks really makes a difference, our community here in FL has lots of signs warning people to stay away from gators. We still have people trying to get close so they can take a photo. Every so often, there are news stories about peoples pets being eaten while playing along the shore of ponds. People bring their grandkids down to the lake to (illegally) feed gators. Others insist in sticking hands into ponds to try to find golf balls, having been told to never ever do that.

When I lived in Juneau, tourists would actually chase bears to try to get a picture hugging the bear. Locals referred to this as the "Disneyland North Syndrome" - folks become convinced that because tourists come and because they have seem movies making wild creatures look so cute and adorable, they can treat them like pets.

June 15, 2016 at 1:56 PM · How often does Disney remove alligators from resort lakes?

Was the alligator-removal budget cut when Disney cut the parks' budgets?

June 15, 2016 at 6:26 PM · I agree that most people who live in areas without alligators don't know that night time is a higher risk time and don't know how common it is to have alligators in any body of water in Florida. Disney definitely tried to keep everyone safe by posting the no swimming sign, but in the future I think they should tell people to stay away from the shoreline at night. True, some people won't listen, but at least help out parents who may not know what level of risk is associated with that activity. Feeding alligators is terrible. Honestly, I never would have thought anyone would do that. I wish people would listen to warning signs not to do that, but if they are not going to then the animals will continue to be attracted to that area which increases the risk level so it's good to spread awareness about water/animal safety in Florida. -Thanks Robert!
June 15, 2016 at 7:42 PM · For those asking why Disney doesn't remove the gators, it is my understanding that their wildlife control team does relocate the animals but they come back. Gators practically have a homing beacon for where they want to be and will return over and over again. NASA has to remove them from launch pads out at Cape Canaveral as well. The Disney lake are connected through a series of canals but even it they weren't, gators can and do move on land as well.
June 15, 2016 at 9:39 PM · It is unfortunate, but people do what they want to do. People ignore warnings, rules, laws and such. It is the "how dare anybody tell me what to do" mentality.
June 16, 2016 at 3:08 AM · I have to disagree with some of the above comments. I have come to Florida on a number of holidays from Ireland. While I would be aware of the possibility of a gator in any of the ponds and swamps near any of the roads and highways, that would not have been my view at a Disney Resort. Manmade sandy beach leading down to the water I would of presumed this to be a safe recreational area with an obvious danger that the water is deep hence the sign. The sign should of warned people of the danger not just to do with swimming. I don't for example have a "how dare anybody tell me what to do" mentality. Love florida and very much respect the rules it is my favourite place to be. My heart goes out to the poor unfortunate child and his parents at this very sad time.
June 16, 2016 at 7:40 AM · My thoughts go out to the family as well. I am curious if the child was truly in the water. It would not be the first time in Florida that a gator has actually came out if the water and grabbed someone. Leaving here in Florida for over 30 years, I have heard of it happening a couple of times.
June 16, 2016 at 2:25 PM · Just another note about the brain-eating amoeba, it thrives in the warm mud along the shore. That was the place the boy was playing. I am fairly sure the family knew nothing about that either.
June 16, 2016 at 2:25 PM · Just another note about the brain-eating amoeba, it thrives in the warm mud along the shore. That was the place the boy was playing. I am fairly sure the family knew nothing about that either.
June 16, 2016 at 2:25 PM · Just another note about the brain-eating amoeba, it thrives in the warm mud along the shore. That was the place the boy was playing. I am fairly sure the family knew nothing about that either.
June 16, 2016 at 8:51 PM · This is so sad. I can't imagine what they went through. The reality was 9:15 PM and it wouldn't have mattered what any sign said, as in dim lighting a warning couldn't be read very well...and it's a body of water...that COULD have wildlife in it. I hate it for the family, but you can't blame Disney for it. Could they warn better? Yes. BUT, do they have to put warnings everywhere? There are common sense issues (no offense to the family) and a lake in Florida, at dusk, is assumed to be a bad idea to even dip a toe in.
June 17, 2016 at 6:00 AM · Firstly my sympathies go out to the family who lost their son. We are from the UK and have in the past stayed at the Beach Club. My young daughter splashed in the water on the beach at the edge of Crescent Lake. This was at night whilst toasting smores and watching movies on the beach at a Disney organised event. I thought the No Swimming signs meant No SWIMMING. Never realised how much danger my daughter might have been in. Surely Disney should put up clearer warning signs for people who do not live in Florida and should also stop holding organised events down by the lake.
June 17, 2016 at 3:38 PM · Lawyers will have a field day with Disney. This alligator attack was reasonably forseeable. Disney needs to focus more on the safety and welfare of their guests and cast members, and less on Wall Street's quarterly demands.

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