Now that Hurricane Irma has passed, and everyone I know who was worried about folks in the path of the storm can let out a sigh of relief, I thought it might be fun to reminisce about the time, almost exactly one year ago, that I got stuck in Disney World because of Hurricane Matthew. This past Sunday and Monday were only the fifth and sixth days in the forty-six year history of Walt Disney World that the parks have been closed, and my dad and I were there on the fourth day, in October 2016.
We try to get down to Disney every fall for the Food and Wine Festival (we don’t like the wine, but we sure love the food). We go for only two full days, and we have our schedule down to a science—no wasted steps, no detours, we spend maybe an hour in the hotel room every day and then only use it to sleep. We hit the parks early and we don’t leave until Jiminy Cricket comes over the loudspeaker to kick everyone out.
My dad is in his 70’s and has survived open heart surgery, and he is immensely proud of the fact that he can dash around the Magic Kingdom at 2 in the morning when teenagers are hitting the wall.
So when we landed at the Orlando Airport on a Tuesday and saw this cloud heading right towards our plane, we were undaunted.
“No ominous clouds can stop us!” said Dad.
We landed just in time, because we weren’t even off the plane yet when the rain began. I noticed right away that the airport was not nearly as crowded as usual, and the bus to the hotel was maybe a quarter full.
The sky was dark grey and it was pounding rain as the bus pulled away. Being a Disney diehard, I immediately checked my favorite message boards, only to see that the top threads were not about the new rides or the Food and Wine Festival at all.
“Hey Dad?” I said. “Did you know there’s a hurricane watch for Orlando?”
“Get out,” said Dad. “I checked the weather every day! The forecast just said there’d be some thunderstorms!”
“There’s a Category 4 hurricane coming right for us,” I said. “People have been canceling their Disney trips all week. That’s why there’s no one on this bus. On the boards, they’re saying they might even close the parks.”
“Oh, they’d never do that,” scoffed Dad. “Walt was prepared for this. Hurricanes never make it as far as Orlando. The entire state could be underwater and the parks would still open on time.”
I always take a picture of the official Disney entrance sign, but I couldn’t see it through the pouring rain. This was not your usual Florida cloudburst.
“I hope I packed the ponchos,” I said.
“It’s not stopping us from getting on Soarin,'” muttered Dad.
We got to our hotel, and were relieved to see that the 91-year-old man who greets people in the lobby was a) still alive and b) still working. He tipped his hat to us, and we stopped to say hello. He didn’t seem worried about the weather, so neither were we.
The rain let up just as we entered the parks. It was the perfect set-up to a trip. The parks weren’t crowded at all, we made great time getting around, and we got Dole Whips.
“Hurricane or bust!” said Dad, eating half of mine.
We started flagging just a bit before Epcot closed for the night, so we went to Morocco and split a chocolate baklava. I had my doubts that the singular Disney baklava could be improved upon with chocolate, but the chocolate baklava was kind of like having a firework go off by your head, in a delicious way.
Dad said, “That baklava made me feel like I could walk to Disneyland.”
We only had eleven minutes until the park closed, but now that our feet were attached to rockets, we walked on waves of euphoria to Nemo.
We were totally alone on the ride—there were empty clamshells as far as the eye could see. Some cutesy hurricane-related signage in the aquarium area caught our eye. But surely this hurricane wouldn’t be a big deal, right? The dolphins were swimming around and the manatees were sleeping! They weren’t worried about this storm, and they live in the ocean!
Listening to the chatter of the crowd as we made our way through the exit, it was clear that people were already switching flights and telling family members from other parts of Florida not to make the drive to Disney. The message boards were ramping up—people were now fully freaking out about the Halloween parties on Thursday and Friday, while enterprising folks were grabbing all the dining reservations that had been popping up like crazy as people canceled their trips.
“Are you worried about this storm?” I said to Dad. He replied with a broad smile.
“It’s adventure time! Everybody’s going to be worried about us—this is cool!!”
Back at the room, we had a voicemail from the front desk informing us that normal operating hours were still in effect—for now—and that they were monitoring the hurricane situation and would keep us updated.
I turned on the local news to find a lot of wide-eyed weathercasters talking about this storm.
Dad stood in front of the TV and said, “Where was this thing yesterday?! This wasn’t on my weather report!! Whoosh whoosh whoosh!!”
The next morning, I woke up to a frantic but cheerful voicemail from A about staying safe and having fun, but mostly staying safe.
On the TV, the governor of Florida said, “We have to prepare for a direct hit.”
There was a very nervous-looking bride in a wedding dress in the hotel lobby.
At this point, the entire county was still under a hurricane watch. The message board posts from people in the know were overwhelmingly in favor of the parks being closed on Thursday. Guests in the Fort Wilderness cabins and camping sites were already being asked to evacuate to other resorts.
I went for a stroll around the lobby, and took note of the liquor cabinet in the sundry shop—definitely the first place the mob would head once we were trapped in the hotel.
The sky was cloudy with no blue in sight. Stella reassured me via text that the best place to be in a hurricane was Disney, “although actually you just need to get to the secret tunnels. That’s the best spot.”
Dad and I figured that if everything would be shut down the next day, we had to hit the parks like there was literally no tomorrow.
The Monorail to Epcot was mostly empty. I sat next to a guy checking out flights to Guam on his iPad.
There was no wait for Mission: Space.
“Does Mars get hurricanes?” I asked.
“Not having an atmosphere keeps things simple,” said Dad. “It’s like San Diego. Clear today, clear tomorrow. It would be hard to be a weatherman on Mars.”
I always put my phone in airplane mode on rides to save the battery, and the moment I switched it off, I got an emergency National Weather Service alert.
I showed it to Dad, and he said, “Oh, I don’t have that app.”
“Yes, you do,” I said. His phone said the exact same thing.
“Whose idea was it to come during a hurricane?!” said Dad.
It was still a beautiful sunny day, and the park was nearly empty, but despite the impending hurricane and Epcot being severely underpopulated, the wait for the Frozen ride was still 70 minutes. Go figure.
“The storm will clear everyone out…or it’ll blow everyone out,” said Dad.
On the bus back from MGM, I caught up on the message boards—the new rumor was that the parks would close at 2 pm on Thursday, but there was no official word yet.
Guests at Fort Wilderness were now being ordered, not asked, to evacuate to other resorts and move all RVs to the Magic Kingdom parking lot—because, you know, an RV in a hurricane is like a missile. No big deal!!
The official Disney World site now had an alert on the front page: “Walt Disney World Resort is currently operating under normal conditions as we continue to monitor Hurricane Matthew. Recent forecasts indicate that there could be rain and wind in the Central Florida area as early as Thursday evening. Please continue to monitor news outlets for the latest weather information.”
Disney never breaks the bubble for real news! This was getting serious.
The Weather Channel site had many, many red exclamation marks and breaking news alerts for the Orlando area. The hurricane warning came with “Current threat to life and property: high.”
The hotel had dark clouds looming above it, but the piano player was running through all the Disney hits in the lobby, kids were running around, the day was still young.
“I’m pretty pumped up,” said Dad. “I want to get texts like ‘Are you all right?’”
One Disney cruise had been canceled and the other was being postponed by a day, since the ship itself would be stuck at sea until the storm passed. All passengers affected were going to have to be put up at the resorts, on top of everyone being evacuated from Fort Wilderness and all of the guests who wouldn’t be able to fly out during the storm.
We also found out that guests at Fort Wilderness were being told that they needed to move now while they were guaranteed a room—or “they could end up on a cot in one of the Disney ballrooms.”
“Disney Cruise Line isn’t getting our room,” said Dad. “They can sleep in the engine room.”
We headed back to the bus stop around 5, with the skies still clear above us, but there was some thunder in the distance.
The skies were still clear, but exactly two minutes later, a bus that looked like it had driven through a typhoon pulled up, and everyone getting off was drenched whether they were in ponchos or not.
Dad whispered, “Did you bring the ponchos?”
“Oh no . . .” I said.
“That’s okay,” said Dad. “Ponchos are for suckers.”
We were the only people entering Animal Kingdom, but people were leaving in droves—most of them wearing ponchos, all totally drenched.
“What happened here?” I said.
We got everything done that we wanted to do and ate all the things we wanted to eat and before we knew it the park was closing in twelve minutes. We’d already bought Mom some of those fancy soaps that everyone loves, but we needed souvenirs for the rest of the folks back home, so we loaded up on cookies decorated to look like tigers and zebras.
My dad thanked the cashier in Korean. She beamed and asked how he knew the language.
“I was stationed in Korea the ’60s,” he said.
The cashier smiled warmly and said, “I was born around then, but I was adopted from an orphanage in Korea and grew up here.”
“Oh wow, what orphanage were you in?” said Dad. “I delivered supplies to all the big ones.”
I hid behind a pillar.
We strolled out of the park at closing time and I caught up on the news on the bus to Magic Kingdom. At this point, the water parks were closing Thursday and Friday, but there was no official word on the parks—although at this point, with the storm on its way, everyone was just waiting for the official word on what the closing time would be.
(Side note: this is pretty much exactly how it went down before Hurricane Irma. The water parks were closed, the campgrounds were evacuated, the cruises were canceled, but the official word on closing the parks came down as the storm was approaching).
Dad declared, “I want to be evacuated from a park. We’ve never been walked off a ride. I want to send Mom a text that says, ‘Getting evacuated from Magic Kingdom.’”
At Magic Kingdom, we did not leave anything on the table—we each got Galactic Hero (the maximum score) on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin (which took six individual rides to accomplish) and then rode the Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train at 1 in the morning.
I said, “The hurricane is 14 hours from landfall, but we’re going out Galactic Heroes.”
Dad said, “We’ll stop the hurricane!! We’ll save everybody!!”
“We’ll save everybody and we’ll get better treatment when we’re in shelter in place!!”
We were so hyped up that at the end of the Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train when you see the robot of the Wicked Witch, Dad yelled, “The witch looked right at me! Leave Snow White alone!”
We strolled out through the castle, and the park was as deserted as we’ve ever seen it—virtually no one on Main Street or in the hub. We took our time ambling to the exit—stopping to look at the windows in the Emporium—since we still didn’t know for sure if we’d be able to go to any parks the next day.
We returned to our hotel room at 1:55 in the morning, still hyper. We made a tentative plan to try Animal Kingdom in the morning, then take the bus straight to Epcot to close out strong at Yakitori, and maybe even Soarin’ or Frozen. But if that didn’t work out, we were happy with what we’d accomplished.
Dad said, “No pun intended, but this is a windfall.”
On Thursday morning, the skies were cloudy but a little foreboding, and the message boards were calling it: the official park closure would now be 5 or 6 pm, with everything closed all day on Friday. Our flight home was Friday morning, so we’d lucked out.
The latest hurricane warning said that peak winds would reach 55-70 mph with gusts of 85 mph, and possibly up to 110 mph. “Current threat to life and property: extreme. Aggressively prepare for the potential of devastating to catastrophic wind impacts.”
President Obama had declared a state of emergency in Florida, and the governor of Florida had announced, “This storm will kill you,” which was being repeated by every media outlet.
On the brighter side, the app said that the wait times for Toy Story Mania and Soarin’ were only 15 minutes.
There were two weddings scheduled for our hotel that day—now those people were probably stressed out. We headed to the bus stop, ready to seize the day!!
Fortunately, we had to sit and wait for the bus, and while browsing the rapid news updates, I saw a tweet that the airport was ceasing all operations through Saturday.
“Uh, Dad? The airport’s closing.”
We quickly rebounded to the front desk and the cast member there was awesome. We got on a list to stay an extra night in our same hotel, switched our flight to Saturday instead of Friday, and we were back on our way.
“We’re staying out until they kick us out,” I said, and we high-fived.
A sent me strict instructions to fill the bathtub with water. My most diehard of Disney friends, who is a real adult with a house and a child and everything, texted me, “Be safe, take pics, and take advantage of being first in every line! That’s what I would do!”
Meanwhile, my parents made their priorities abundantly clear in this text exchange.
I got a panicked voicemail from one of my friends who has honestly never called me before, asking if we were okay. She even said on the message, “I know you don’t like getting voicemails, but I was just worried because the news looks terrifying.”
Our plan was to close out in Epcot, at Yakitori, our favorite spot to eat in all of Disney World, but we were running low on time. Fortunately, I know the Disney transportation system like normal people know actual useful information like, I don’t know, medical terms. I figured out which bus to take that would get us within speed-walking distance of the Japan pavilion the fastest.
“We’re playing this like a violin,” said Dad, as the clouds began rolling in. By the time we got off the bus, it was pouring so hard we couldn’t see in front of us.
I texted Stella while we waited in the bus shelter.
“The parks are closing in 3 hours and we can’t move,” I said.
“Oh snap! Quick, get to Japan!” said Stella.
We made a break for it and motored to the park entrance, where a cast member just waved us in, while another was wrapping the covered-up Magic Band scanners in plastic and tape.
The entertainment machine was still rolling at full speed—the drummers were still playing at the big pagoda in Japan. With the giant dark clouds rolling in, it felt very epic. One crew was wrapping up all the glass lampposts in plastic and another crew was taking down the little Food and Wine banners from each one.
We sat down to a well-earned lunch at Yakitori. Nothing, not wind or rain or a Category 4 hurricane, will keep us from Yakitori. As we left, Dad said “Arigato!!” to all the ladies working at Yakitori like he was going off to war. They chirped “Arigato!” and bowed.
With two hours to go, we got a last Dole Whip for the road. The sky was getting really dark and dramatic and the park was pretty much empty. The pin stations and snack kiosks were already shut down. Soarin’ still had a 15 minute wait time. We got on in 7 minutes.
With only 45 minutes to go, we went into the big gift shop, which was a madhouse—people were buying board games, decks of cards, and puzzles in anticipation of being stuck in their rooms all day. I got a Figment pillow for my cat (that’s another story).
There was a service dog in the shop wearing a poncho, and when the service dogs are wearing ponchos, it’s time to go.
On the way out, Dad said, “Now is where it gets interesting.”
I checked the hourly weather forecast—nine hours were marked with red exclamation marks of doom.
When we got back to the room, all the porch furniture was inside. Our voicemail had a message asking that we not leave our hotel rooms on Friday, and that we had until 8 pm to purchase boxed meals from the hotel restaurant—which would be the only food we’d have on Friday.
Stella said, “OMG—you better hoard some snacks tonight, man. All the Diet Cokes you can fit.”
The rain wasn’t letting up and the sky was getting really ominous.
Dad looked out the window and said, “Holy crap. The workers are running. That’s not good.”
Mom texted us that one of our good family friends had just called her to ask if we were okay. Dad was thrilled: “Our second concerned caller!”
The line for the hotel gift shop was all the way to the end of the store—lots of people buying water, energy bars, and maybe even some liquid courage.
“We’re going to be pretty bored tomorrow,” I said.
Dad said, “It’ll be like a day at sea! Hopefully not literally.”
We headed to the hotel restaurant to get our box lunches (really bag lunches). All of the outdoor furniture was being brought inside, and there were sandbags neatly piled up by every door. Disney does not play around.
The line was huge—people were buying the bag lunches, big boxes of pizzas and shopping bags full of burgers and fries to get them through the next day.
We got two bag lunches for the low, low price of $12.99 each, thinking that one bag each would be enough for the whole day. Most people were buying a bag for breakfast, lunch and dinner for each person in their party.
The cashier was an older lady from Vietnam, who probably found it hilarious that all these white people were freaking out and hoarding food for one day in a nice hotel.
Back at the room, we examined our haul—we each got a bag of Lays potato chips, a frozen Uncrustable, a Twix bar, a small container of yogurt, the tiniest chicken sandwich ever seen outside of a dollhouse, and a banana.
Dad said, very seriously, “At this point, no one knows that we bought those Animal Kingdom cookies as their gifts. If we ate them, no one would have to know.”
We came up with a tentative plan to split the bag lunches and the cookies over the course of the day. We were optimistic that at least some kind of breakfast service would be up in the morning—otherwise so much food would go to waste. But after that? The cookies wouldn’t stand a chance.
Dad said, “Those soaps we got for Mom almost look like food . . .”
We got another voicemail inviting us to “a night of crafts and activities” in the lobby and informing us that Disney movies would be playing all day Friday on the hotel TVs.
Dad started playing YouTube videos of the Penn State marching band at full blast. We were ready for battle.
In the evening, I took a stroll around the hotel. At this point, we assumed we’d have to stay in our rooms all day Friday, and would not be allowed to roam around the hotel until the worst of the storm had passed, however long that took. The gift shop was packed to the actual gills with people buying toys and games and coloring books like they were about to be outlawed. I observed a bride in a full wedding gown taking a swig of something (can’t blame her!) and a little girl going to the restaurant in a Darth Vader costume, complete with light saber. That kid was ready for action.
If shit really went down, I made a mental note to follow her.
Goofy and Pluto came to visit us in the lobby. They were dancing with the kids and posing for pictures, and between the kids yelling and the parents complaining about the bag lunches, the noise in the hotel was reaching “medium cacophony” level, and there was nowhere to go to get away. We were now a captive audience to whatever Disney—and Matthew—had in store for us.
“If they bring out Mickey, then we’ll know things are bad,” I said.
Dad agreed, “If Mickey comes out, we’re all gonna die.”
We settled in our room to watch TV, but all of the networks were running non-stop weather coverage, which on a scale from 1 to 10 was at “Prepare to meet thy doom.” Reporters were claiming that the storm would be historically catastrophic, with devastation in Florida at the same level as Hurricane Katrina.
Dad said, “Historically catastrophic? WTF?”
It’s a very weird thing to hear your 75-year-old father say “WTF?” It’s equally weird to turn on CNN and see that the top story is the place where you’re currently sitting on a bed in pajamas eating a Rice Krispie treat in the shape of a Mickey Mouse head.
It’s also very weird to hear Anderson Cooper say, “This could be the storm of the century,” while pointing to a map of where you are, while a death toll scrolls across the bottom of the screen, followed by “Disney parks close for the 4th time in 45 years.”
Both my sister and A were convinced that at any moment they would turn on CNN and see our hotel in a pile of rubble. I reassured them that we would be fine, that Disney is the best place to be in a hurricane, but I have to admit I was getting a little nervous.
“A wants us to fill the bathtub with water,” I told Dad.
“And do what?” he said.
“I guess drink it?”
Dad scoffed, “We have three Diet Cokes.”
On the local news, an average Floridian with a ponytail and no shirt explained to a reporter how he was tying his boat to some palm trees.
He said, “I been here long enough, I ain’t worried about it.”
Then the reporter said “You’re not going to talk Dave out of staying, Dave’s going to do what Dave’s going to do.”
“I think Dave’s going to die!” said Dad.
The final storm prediction for Orlando: tropical storm winds starting at 11 pm, hurricane winds from 5 am to 11 am, and then tropical storm winds until 10 pm.
“Wake me up if you hear the wind,” said Dad, as I fell asleep. “I don’t want to miss it.”
On Friday morning, we woke up to the news that the storm had weakened and changed course, and was now a Category 3, but not expected to affect Orlando with more than tropical storm level winds.
Kids were already running and screaming in the hallway, so I knew it was safe to leave our room.
“I’m still in emergency position!! If the wind really picks up I’ll just pull the covers over my head,” said Dad.
We got a voicemail saying that one of the hotel restaurants had a limited breakfast buffet, and we were free to roam around the hotel as long as it was safe. Much preferable to being stuck in the room all day. The cast members were leading games and crafts in the lobby, I got a hug from Pluto, even the gift shop was open.
Stella, of course, had her priorities straight.
It was windy and rainy outside, but by the afternoon it was safe to go out. My dad called it “hold onto your hat wind” and pretended to blow away while holding onto a railing, Mary Poppins-style, so I could take a video to send to everyone back home.
It was strange to see Cinderella’s Castle and Spaceship Earth from the room and automatically think, “Some lucky person is just getting on Buzz Lightyear or Soarin’ . . . wait, there’s no one in the parks.”
I spent the day walking around, playing Disney games on my phone (I’m loyal, what can I say?) and watching 101 Dalmatians (love it) Tron: Legacy (such a good soundtrack, such a blahtastic plot), and all of Beauty and the Beast (best Disney movie ever). Usually on our trips, we don’t even turn on the TV once, and it’s been a long time since we hung out in a room long enough to watch an entire movie (or two).
Eating cold pizza on a bed during “Be Our Guest” is not a bad way to spend a afternoon.
In the evening, Dad talked to a cast member who said he’d been working for 30 hours straight, and they weren’t the only one. They really came through for us and judging from what people have reported from Irma, the cast members once again went above and beyond to keep everyone comfortable and safe. They even led a dance party in the lobby to close out the night.
We hit all the gift shops, packed up, and called it a night—saluting to “Double galactic hero and a hurricane!”
The next day, the skies and roads were really clear, and there was no sign that there’d just been a hurricane except for some big puddles and the occasional downed tree branch. As we left the hotel, we saw that the 91-year-old greeter was back to work. He hadn’t missed a beat, and he tipped his hat to me as we got on the bus.