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9/11 at Walt Disney World: First Person Accounts

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9/11 at Walt Disney World: First Person Accounts

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Be careful what you ask for.

Last Thursday, as part of my "Disney theme park emergency plan is simple as A, B, C" article, I asked that JHM readers who were actually at Walt Disney World when 9/11 happened to come forward & share their stories. And -- boy -- did you guys respond.

I literally got dozens of e-mails from WDW cast members & guests. Some of whom wanted to correct the mistakes that I made in my original article (It turns out that it was NOT Michael Eisner who announced that the parks would be closing that day. Nor did this announcement mention a "national tragedy" that had occurred in New York City and Washington D.C. So my apologies for getting that part of last Thursday's story wrong). While still others just want to share their memories of what it was like to be visiting at and/or working in the theme parks on that fateful day.

What follows is an article where I've tried to cobble together out of a number of the stories that JHM readers sent me and/or gave me permission to use. To give you sort of a broad overview of what it must have been like to be at WDW as the tragic events of 9/11 were unfolding.

WDWCASTMEMBER remembers the day starting out something like this:

I (was) getting trained on 2 major attractions (at the Magic Kingdom) when my manager told both me and my trainer what had just happened in NY. We quickly went to the nearest Cast Member Break Room and I managed to see the second plane hitting the tower "live." The room was packed with all sorts of managers and I remember very vividly the (very surprised) reaction on their faces when the ABC reporter said:

"This just in: (The Walt Disney Company) has just announced that (it) will be closing (its) theme parks worldwide."

And literally less than a minute after the reporter said that, their beepers started going off like crazy and they walked out of the break room.

About 5 - 10 minutes after that incident, they notified cast members of what we were going to do.

First we shut down all the attractions and restaurants and merchandise shops to get the guests out in the street. We were strictly forbidden from telling them what was the real reason why we decided to close the park. Which caused some confusion; and maybe even some irate guests at times. But it avoided (quite effectively) the cause for panic from our guests. They even gave us a simple spiel to tell them in case they had questions.

Michael, a Frontierland cast member who was in the park that morning, confirms this part of WDWCASTMEMBER'S story:

We were told not to tell the guests what had happened unless they asked us. I remember one guest asking me and -- after I told them -- they just stood there blank faced and didn't move for a bit.

(By the way), the announcement that was made (in the theme parks that morning) was NOT (made) by Michael Eisner and it did NOT mention anything about what had happened or why the parks were closing. It simply stated that " ... Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Magic Kingdom is now closed. Please follow the direction of the nearest Cast Member."

Continuing with WDWCASTMEMBER's account of that morning:

Once the guests were forced to the streets of the park because all the rides were closed, all the cast members were instructed to hold hands and basically form a human wall and gently (without touching any one) walk towards the hub of the park and eventually towards Main Street. That way we could basically force the guests out of the park. Disney Security obviously followed each human wall and made sure no one got past it.

That "human wall procedure" was done at all 4 parks, by the way. And guests were given complimentary tickets at the turnstiles as they left the park.

Mind you, Kelly had a somewhat different take on what happened at the Magic Kingdom that morning. But -- then again -- she wasn't a cast member. But just a typical tourist trying to enjoy a day at that theme park with her family.

On 9/11, I was eating breakfast at Tony's with my family (and 6 months pregnant to boot). We were sitting in the front where all of the windows were, and I noticed many CMs in business attire with headsets walking throughout the park. It was the last full day of our (WDW) vacation. We had originally planned to fly (out) that day, but I (had) talked my husband into (staying) another day.

Our waiter was a young man from the midwest, and his accent was thick (At least to this New Yawker). All of the staff were talking and he came over to us and said what I thought was "The trade centers IN Washington were hit with planes." We were confused, finished our meal and went to take our daughter on Dumbo and the Carousel. I tried to call my Dad back home, since he always has FOX news on. And when (my cell) kept saying "All circuits were busy," I knew something was up.

My Aunt works at MGM as Security. So I knew that WDW was considered a prime terrorist target. So I said to my husband, Matt: "We need to get out of the Magic Kingdom. This could be hit next."

We tried to get over to MGM to my aunt (I figured she would know the whole story). But on the bus ride over, just as we got to MGM, the bus driver told us about the Towers, Washington and the possiblity of PA. She explained (that we) were going back to the TTC and (that we should all) take the appropriate route to our hotels/cars and evacuate. I have never heard a WDW bus so quiet. I was close to tears.

Neal G. -- who was over at Disney's Animal Kingdom that morning -- now shares his experience:

My wife and I were at WDW on September 11, 2001.

We were actually having breakfast at the Rainforest Cafe at the Animal Kingdom when the planes crashed, but had no idea anything happened. After breakfast we went into the park and after about 2 1/2 hours decided to leave (it's about 11:30 a.m. now). Until I read your article today I never knew that an announcement had been made. We never heard it.

It didn't seem like an unusual amount of people were leaving (Animal Kingdom). But at the next stop, Blizzard Beach we noticed hundreds of people leaving. I asked someone that got on the bus what was going on, and he informed us about what had happened in New York. We were in absolute shock. We went back to the Yacht Club where we were staying and just watched TV in disbelief.

At one point a gunship flew overhead so closely that my wife could clearly see someone manning one of the machine guns (It looked like the plane flew in from MGM Studios and then went right out over EPCOT).

The resorts tried to do everything they could that night. They kept the pools open until midnight and they had characters roaming all around the Boardwalk area. The cast members were doing the best they could to help and try to keep calm atmosphere. People were walking around not really knowing what to do. I commented to my wife that we were at one the happiest places on earth, yet it was a strange, sad and terrible feeling.

The next day (Wednesday) we went to National Car Rental desk at the WDW Dolphin to try and rent a car since we had flown out of Logan (Yes, we are from the Boston area. And boy did we get looks from people when we told them, and comments like "Oh, you are from Boston") and knew the likelihood of our Saturday flight getting out was remote. National was a mob scene, and they could not get us a car until Friday.

We then went to the Magic Kingdom, where security tables had been set up overnight. It was at these tables that they had set up to check bags before you entered any of the Parks where it finally really hit you. Especially since they were not there the day before.

The next 2 days were tough to get through, even being at the parks. It was such a subdued, almost surreal atmosphere.

Mind you, Ian G. (Who was over visiting Epcot with his brother that morning) had a somewhat different take on what happened on 9/11:

I was actually in EPCOT on 9/11. To be more specific, I was on Spaceship Earth - the ride devoted to the rapid change in communication and how we can instantly connect with each other. Well, it's true, I guess!

As we exited the ride (It must have been around 11, but I forget) a mass of people were calmly all going in the direction of the exit. We didn't think anything of it until we saw the tip board in Future World and saw that all the rides were closed. I figured for that to happen there either needed to be a power outage, a hurricane or a bomb. A cast member casually walked up to us and honestly told us that "2 planes had crashed into a building in New York and the Pentagon."

And that was it. We just left the park. It was such a strange thing to think about. Surely (that cast member who talked with us) was exaggerating!

Exiting the park was calm and orderly. People still seemed to be in a good mood. No one was crying or panicking or anything like that. If anything, I think everyone was anxious to go back to their rooms and turn on the news.

On the monorail back to the Poly, people (including me) were talking, nearly joking actually, about (how) the president (must have been) killed. We figured (that was what it) must have been. Otherwise why the fuss? There was no way anyone could have imagined what was really occuring.

At one point on the ride back to our hotel, I actually blurted out that "I bet there's like a huge hole in the building with smoke coming out...whoa!" And people literally chuckled because it was just so unfathomable that it could really be that way.

I gotta say that WDW handled it really well. It was so calm there that it was hard to assume the worst had happened. It wasn't until we were back at the Poly & turned on the news that the sense of panic and fear really hit.

WDW was by far the best place to be that day, the cast members were great.

That's a WDW vacation I'll never forget.

As for how it was at the Disney theme parks in the days after 9/11, I'll let an old Jungle Cruise captain pick up the tale:

Your 9/11 piece struck a cord with me, because I was there at the MK on Sept 11, 2001. I was a CP working as a Jungle Cruise Skipper, and had gone into the park early with friends to "play" before our afternoon shifts. Imagine our disbelief and horror as we watched this all unfold with a handful of other CMs on the small TV in the Main Street breakroom. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. A very painful day, but the folks in costume were able to pull it together and go assist the evac with those trademark Disney smiles.

The next morning I returned to work, we discovered a major problem. Our fun-loving, wise-cracking spiel usually included the downed airplane just before the hippos. The usual line goes: "It's plane to see how I landed this job. I took a crash course!"

Obviously, any airplane crash jokes were now completely inappropriate. Some skippers tried to distract their crews (in this area of the attraction) with other jokes. Others -- such as myself -- had a brief moment of silence. Suffice to say, none of us will ever view that show scene the same way again.

In the days that followed, during and after all commercial airline had been grounded, an occassional jet would streak across the sky over the Magic Kingdom. Everything, everyone would stop and watch that airplane silhouette (as they held their) breath.

The hardest part of it all was staying so darn happy. Everyone - CMs and Guests- felt dead inside. Yet it was the CMs who had to work 8+ hour shifts "making the magic" to distract everyone from the heavy shadow of the 9/11 attacks. And then the cut-hours and layoffs that followed... You could not imagine a quieter, more depressed breakroom.

It's not a happy memory, but you were looking for a first hand account. I honestly can't recall a PA announcement (in the theme park on 9/11). I was not in costume yet. So I was probably gone by that point to be home with my fellow CPs who were all from NY and NJ.

Anyway ... That's a brief overview of what it was like to be at Walt Disney World as 9/11 was unfolding. My thanks to all those JHM readers who wrote in this past week to share their stories.

Now, if you want to know what it was like to be out at Disneyland while 9/11 was happening, come back on Friday. When I'll share a story that I'm sure will shock you.

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  • <i>On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, JHM readers share their stories about what it was like to be vacationing at and/or working in Anaheim & Orlando as this tragedy unfolded</i>
  • I would love to hear about the Disney Cruise Lines on 9/11.  Can you imagine the helplessness they felt at sea? How did the castmembers break the news?  Was there a panic onboard ship?  I have always wondered about how Disney reacted on that day and how they got everyone out of the parks, so thanks

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