How to stay safe on your theme park vacation

November 6, 2019, 4:43 PM · Promoting safety long has been an important part of our mission here at Theme Park Insider. Back when I worked at Walt Disney World, the number one of the "Four Keys" the company taught me at orientation was "safety." So we've been publishing articles promoting safe conduct in the parks for nearly 20 years here on Theme Park Insider.

But staying safe on rides is just one part of staying safe on vacation. What about protecting yourself from crime? A recently released study suggests that the area immediately around theme parks can be some of the most crime-ridden in a city.

The study — by researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Central Florida, and Monash University — appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and focuses on the Universal Orlando Resort. The researchers picked Universal because Orlando is the nation's largest theme park market and Universal is the only major park resort inside the jurisdiction of the Orlando Police Department, which made data collection easier. (Disney and SeaWorld are located outside the Orlando PD's territory.)

If you want to read the study for yourself, the Orlando Weekly has posted a copy. The gist of it is that researchers found higher crime rates in census blocks within one mile of Universal Orlando than in other parts of the city, with crime clustered near the resort.

On one hand, this is "firm grasp on the obvious" territory. Of course there's going to be more crime wherever there are more people. Using crime rates can help account for that, but since tourists are not counted as residents when figuring those rates, areas with large numbers of visitors at any given moment in time are always going to have the highest crime rates. (The study also found higher rates near stadiums and commercial centers downtown, for example.)

But on the other hand, the seemingly obvious doesn't always prove to be true, so it's worth testing — and re-testing — those assumptions. This report is especially spicy for long-time observers since Orlando news publications long have been giving Universal heat for claiming tax deductions intended for businesses in "high crime" areas. This study suggests that Universal was right all along to do that.

Of course, the study also suggests that Universal is the reason why there's crime in the area, so... there's that, too.

Tracking crime statistics always will be controversial because there's an inherent observer effect problem in recording crime. Police tend to target the efforts in high-crime areas, but one of the reasons why such areas are "high crime" is because that's where the police are targeting their enforcement efforts. It's the "tree falling in the forest" all over again. If a cop isn't present to see a crime, and no one else bothers to report it, did it really happen?

While such questions make for an interesting philosophical discussion, let's get back to more practical matters. How do you keep a crime from happening to you when you are on vacation?

We have five suggestions:

1. Don't fall for the local scam. Most of us do well in avoiding common scams when we're at home or work. But popular vacation destinations often have local scams you probably don't have your guard up against. In Orlando, the local hustle is the pizza delivery scam, which we've been warning against for years. Airbnb scams are becoming more popular as well.

2. Secure your valuables. Pickpockets aren't a huge thing in Orlando, but thefts happen. Minimize the valuables you carry in public. Put your wallet in a front pocket or use a purse with a thick strap that can't be cut easily, then carry it across your body. Keep your waist pouch in front of you, and not along your backside. Don't store valuables in the outside pockets of your backpack, where people standing behind you easily can get at them. In your room, keep valuables hidden inside your luggage or stored inside the in-room safe, if they fit. Crooks sometimes cruise hotel hallways while housekeepers are preparing rooms. When a housekeeper's back is turned in the bathroom, it only takes a thief a moment to snatch a laptop, camera, or purse left carelessly on a desk in plain sight of the hallway.

3. Don't drink and drive. With rideshare services available pretty much everywhere these days, there's no excuse. Cops love to target tourist areas to nail clueless visitors with DUIs. And avoiding other drivers who have been drinking is why I prefer visiting resorts where driving around isn't needed at all. See you on the water taxi!

4. Don't try to buy anything illegal. Drug crimes and underage drinking citations inflate crime stats in any tourist location. People who would never think of blundering into an unfamiliar neighborhood near their homes and asking strangers to sell them stuff that's not allowed do that all the time on vacation. And they get busted as a result. Again, don't be an idiot.

5. Practice conflict avoidance. Theme parks pack thousands of people into tight spaces. Feeling the pressure of getting the most from scarce time with family and friends, coupled with the expense and physical challenges of the trip, many people snap. When others around snap back in turn, fights result.

Don't cut queues or insult other guests, even playfully. But don't take it upon yourself to enforce park rules or any other rules you might feel the people around you should obey. Forgive and move away from others who bother you. Don't take the bait. If you feel troubled or endangered, find park employees to help.

All evidence shows that theme parks are safe destinations, especially when you take care to help keep yourself safe. The odds of you becoming a crime victim remain long, even in the most crime-affected parts of Orlando. In fact, the people most at risk tourist areas are the people who live and work there — not the people visiting. That's because wage theft is the most common property crime in America, not robbery.

So use your head, don't act foolishly, and be nice to others. What works to keep you safe every other week of the year will work to keep you safe on vacation as well.

Replies (4)

November 6, 2019 at 6:13 PM

All great advice. When I was a Disneyland cast member, they always said "All of the Four Keys (safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency) were equally important, but then they'd say "but there's a reason they're in that order."

November 6, 2019 at 6:37 PM

As an Orlando person i'll list out some more local scams:
-Toll roads
-Timeshares/"Vacation Clubs" and their presentations
-Shady discount ticket sellers
-Hotels that advertise free shuttles to Disney Parks (many of them will buy access to one bus spot on Disney property at some random place, drop you off there, and say take Disney transportation to the park you actually want to go). They advertise the "free shuttle" to get you to book knowing full well after day one you will probably opt for an uber.
-192...I can elaborate on this if you want me to but i'd rather not get into it lol.

And stay far far away from the Walmart's on 535, Sand Lake Road, 192 (next to Disney) unless you want to have extreme anxiety. I guarantee it's worth the extra drive to go to a local's Walmart or go to Target.

November 6, 2019 at 6:42 PM

@the__man -- on my very first trip to Walt Disney World (which was 20 years ago in 1999), I stayed at an "off-property" motel, they advertised a free shuttle to the parks. What they did not disclose was that (a) they required you to sit through an hour-long "time-share" presentation before you could board the bus, (b) you literally had to sit through it EVERY DAY you went to the parks, and (c) the last bus from the park back to the motel left at exactly closing time (the one day I said "screw it I want to see this" and stayed in Epcot for Illuminations: Reflections of Earth at Epcot, I had to catch a cab back and just pay the extra cost for doing so).

Every time since then I've spent more to stay on property than I would pay off-property -- but factoring in the extra time and cost of time-share sales pitches and shuttles that don't run on reasonable schedules, I'm better off on property. While I'll stay off-property at Disneyland, Walt Disney World makes the extra cost well worth it. At least I can avoid DVC kiosks if I'm not interested.

November 8, 2019 at 4:14 PM

>>-Hotels that advertise free shuttles to Disney Parks (many of them will buy access to one bus spot on Disney property at some random place, drop you off there, and say take Disney transportation to the park you actually want to go). They advertise the "free shuttle" to get you to book knowing full well after day one you will probably opt for an uber.

You forgot the part where they will say it needs a "ticket" you have to get in the morning, there's no ticket really but they use that as an opportunity to try to get you into a timeshare presentation.

Timeshare is a scam, don't do it. That goes double if you're in a foriegn country and unfamiliar with local consumer/purchaser protection laws - chances are the ones you're familiar with don't exist, and may not have local equivalents. (I work for a consumer advice organisation in the UK, and we did have one of these walk into our office from Florida...)

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