Disney World and Hurricanes
Hurricane Matthew
Track of Hurricane Matthew, 4–9 October 2016

Hurricane Matthew hit the Caribbean and southeastern US from 4 to 9 October 2016. It killed over a thousand people in Haiti and dozens elsewhere.

Matthew was a category 4 hurricane as it headed towards central Florida on 6 October. There were extensive preparations throughout Florida, but there was less damage than expected, since the storm weakened to category 3 and then 2 as its center travelled just off the east coast of Florida.

There was extensive damage on the east coast of Florida, and some damage in Orlando, but hardly anything at Disney World, which is just a few miles to the southwest of Orlando and a mile or two northwest of the town of Kissimmee. The images below show how this happened. They are weather radar snapshots from a video by Justin Scarred, a Disneyland fan from California who happened to be visiting Disney World during the hurricane.

The hurricane passed through the area during the early hours of 7 October. Justin relates how Disney World was closed early the previous afternoon and remained closed the following day. He says he was required to leave his accomodations at Fort Wilderness, a Disney campground, and relocate to Pop Century Resort, a hotel on Disney property. He took these pictures during his night at Pop Century.

Justin said he was surprised at how relatively mild the weather was at the hotel, and from the weather radar, he noticed how the heavy weather seemed to be skirting Disney. At one point (20:40) he remarks, “God must be a Disney World fan!”

Weather radar around Disney World during Hurricane Irma

These images were taken at various times during the period of a few hours as the hurricane passed Orlando. Disney World is marked by a purple circle on each map. Notice how Disney World stayed in a tight, quiet band the whole time, with much more violent weather just a few miles to the east and west.

Hurricane Irma
Track of Hurricane Irma, 30 August – 16 September 2017

A year after Hurricane Matthew, Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean and southeastern US from 6 to 12 September 2017. It killed hundreds of people, mostly in the Caribbean.

After hitting much of the Caribbean as a category 5 hurricane, Irma made its first landfall in southwest Florida as a category 4, then weakened to a category 1 and made a second landfall on the west coast of central Florida and travelled north up the Florida peninsula.

As a category 5 in the eastern Caribbean, Irma caused catastrophic damage. In Florida, it caused over 80 deaths and much property damage. Over 4 million homes and businesses in Florida lost power. In Orange County, which includes most of Disney World, 1 out of every 150 homes was damaged.

Disney World closed on 10 and 11 September as Irma passed through the area. This was only the sixth time in its history that Disney World has closed. Unlike much of the surrounding area, Disney World did not lose power. Most of the damage on Disney property was downed trees and branches. Guests who were staying in Disney hotels were entertained and fed by Disney staff in the hotels.

Forecast tracks of Hurricane Irma

Disney World is marked by a green dot in the maps below. You can see how the forecast for Irma at first indicated that it would most likely go up through central Florida, right over Disney World, but later forecasts shifted the most likely path westward, away from Disney World.

8 September at 11:00
10 September at 20:00

Weather radar around Disney World during Hurricane Irma

The images below show how Disney World managed to avoid major destruction. Disney World is marked by a purple circle on each map. As with Hurricane Matthew, Hurricane Irma’s heavy weather largely skirted Disney World. You can see that at times, mild patches opened up over Disney World when heavier weather surrounded the property.

10 September at 12:25
10 September at 19:26
10 September at 23:21
11 September at 2:06
Other disasters

Hurricanes Matthew and Irma are only hurricanes so far to affect Disney World since 2005. No hurricanes affected Disney World from 2006 to 2015. In 2004, Hurricane Charley went right over Disney World on the night of 13–14 August, with sustained wind speeds of about 85 miles per hour. Charley had previously been a category 4 hurricane, but by the time it reached Disney World, it was category 1.

Even this storm did a minumim amount of damage. Almost all damage was to trees and signs. Disney World closed for half a day ahead of the storm. Disney crews worked through the night after the storm had passed, and amazingly enough, the parks opened as usual the next day, while many non-Disney properties in the area remained closed or crippled for several days.

The worst disaster to hit a Disney property was a magnitude 9.0 earthquake to hit Tokyo Disneyland in March 2011. This is the same earthquake that created the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant north of Tokyo. It was the strongest earthquake in Japan’s history. Throughout Japan, the quake caused 15,000 deaths and 6,000 injuries, with an additional 2,000 people missing. Tokyo Disneyland was closed for over a month, but no guests or employees were killed or even injured. Over a third of the guests spent at least one night at the resort because Tokyo’s public transportation systems were shut down.

How Disney prepares for disasters

Disney’s primary defense against disasters is prevention. For example:

  • Structures at Disney World surpass Florida’s already stringent building codes and are built to withstand 150 mile-per-hour winds.
  • One of the criteria in selecting the site of the original Disneyland in California was that it be earthquake resistant: it sits on deep rock away from known fault lines.

The next line of defense is contingency planning. Every large Disney property has an inconspicuous but continuously staffed Emergency Operations Center. Among other things, this center continuously monitors weather patterns for severe weather. In the case of a hurricane (or typhoon for Disney’s Asian properties), this center directs operations through several phases, which include personnel briefing, tie-down of vulnerable equipment, guest notifications, closing of attractions, etc. In cases for which advance warning is not available, such as a tornado or earthquake, Disney has three levels of evacuation. Disney’s emergency operations are generally well regarded by government emergency agencies.