Disney Closes Its Parks for Irma, But Opens Its Hotels

The Wilderness Lodge welcomed displaced guests (and pets) during Hurricane Irma

Samantha McNesby

They began arriving slowly by Saturday morning, hauling luggage, souvenirs and even pets. Hurricane Irma displaced not only locals living in the southern portions of Florida, but thousands of vacation travelers as well. At Disney World, a unique emergency planning process took over as Irma barreled across the Atlantic and the park's resorts prepared to not only keep visitors safe, but to preserve as much of the Pixie Dust as possible for the guests who chose to ride out the storm on site. Here’s how one Magic Kingdom area Disney Deluxe Resort worked to keep guests safe and happy as the storm bore down.

Safety Preparations in Place

With Irma due to arrive on Monday, preparations at the Wilderness Lodge became more intense as the weekend progressed. Saturday afternoon saw the secure closure of all exterior public balconies and the removal of all balcony furniture from guest rooms. Pools closed for the duration of the storm, as did the onsite child care center and other amenities. Security and maintenance teams were visible on all floors and outdoors, posting signs and closing off areas that are typically open to guests.

In the hotel, workers began to secure outdoor fixtures, removing anything that could become a hazard and securely tying down everything else. A battalion of utility vehicles arrived at the theme parks and resorts in anticipation of damage. Boats that normally run to and from the theme parks were secured by Saturday evening; even the large ferries can’t withstand wind gusts of over 20 miles per hour, according to one Disney boat captain. Resort pools closed at 5pm, and by sundown, the water in Bay Lake was as choppy as the ocean.

Stay or Go? Families Face Tough Decisions

As soon as Hurricane Irma began to bear down on Florida, the Disney team began to take steps towards securing both resort and theme park properties, while guests faced some tough decisions. As early as Wednesday, Wilderness Lodge guests began visiting the concierge stand, requesting assistance with flights out or asking to extend departure dates. Those with travel insurance had the option of a reset or do-over, while the rest were offered a few options:

  • Leave early and receive a refund for the remaining nights of your stay; resort guests would receive a refund from the resort, tickets would be refunded separately, according to the concierge staff.
  • Stay as originally booked, if your trip happened to outlast the storm
  • Extend your stay; Disney was offering a 40% room discount to those who were already on site and who wished to stay to ride out the storm.

Those who were onsite faced the dilemma of spending additional money to stay or leaving early and joining thousands of drivers heading north along the heavily congested interstate.

A quick tour of the lobby revealed that many families chose to cut trips short and head home early. Some came from as far as the UK and were hoping to depart in advance of the scheduled airport closures on Saturday evening. Of the nine families observed in the lobby, only one group planned to depart on their scheduled date; the rest are leaving early because of Hurricane Irma.

Displaced Travelers and Pets Find a Home at the Lodge

At the Wilderness Lodge, the team got ready to greet guests from a diverse group of Disney owned properties from more heavily impacted areas in Florida. The resort stopped taking new reservations on Wednesday, according to hotel management, to make room for displaced travelers from other properties.

Disney Cruise line guests arrived via bus, while on-site cabin and Vero Beach guests relocated via van or car to the deluxe resort to ride out the storm. They aren’t alone; by Saturday evening, a small dog is safely ensconced in a cushy armchair in the Old Faithful Club lounge, a German Shepherd surveys the lobby and two protesting cats are being led to the elevator on sparkly pink leashes. Disney does not typically admit pets; but an inbound hurricane means these fluffy critters are able to ride out the storm in the comfort of a deluxe resort.

Disney Magic in the Face of Irma

A quick tour of the Lodge reveals that business is not as usual; the team that is on duty as of Saturday evening will be riding out the storm with guests and displaced travelers. Keeping those guests safe is a priority here, but the true challenge may be entertainment — how do you keep thousands of visitors safe, fed and secure and still keep the Disney Magic alive?

All Disney World Theme Parks are closed until Tuesday, September 12th; guests staying at the resorts will need to shelter in place once the storm arrives. The team at the Wilderness Lodge has already gotten down to business, providing a mix of old fashioned fun and games, movies and character visits to delight visitors and turn a destroyed vacation into a memorable event.

The Country Bears (of Jamboree fame) made an appearance in the lobby, delighting a small crowd of kids and even a few teens and signing autographs for the group. Resort staff promised more character appearances and experiences as the weekend progresses.

A host of fun lobby activities kept guests occupied and in the Disney spirit, despite the park closings. Super-sized Jenga games in the lobby, board games for kids and families and a library of Disney movies began to appear as early as Saturday evening, two full days before the storm’s arrival. Since the pool closed at 5 p.m. and will remain closed for the duration, the lifeguard and recreation team set up camp in the lobby to entertain kids and even a few young at heart adults.

Loose bands of unrelated kids are already scattered around the seating areas, playing Battleship, Connect 4 and other old fashioned games, while electronic devices lay abandoned on nearby tables. Teens of all ages roam the lobby, forming fast friendships and sharing social media handles with new found peers.

Fine and Casual Dining Offer Plenty of Options

Onsite restaurants continue to provide meals, but according to hotel staff, could convert to buffet-style or grab and go style locations for the busy weekend. While the hotel can accommodate many guests, those guests are not generally in residence at the same time.  Still, Disney larders are full and staffers don’t anticipate any difficulty in meeting not only demand but dining preferences of guests who elected to stay on site.

A tragedy for vacationers, or a magical memory? For guests at the Wilderness Lodge, Hurricane Irma will be a memory maker to talk about for years to come, thanks in large part to the dedication and efforts of the onsite staff.