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What was it like to be at Disneyland and/or Walt Disney World six years ago today?

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What was it like to be at Disneyland and/or Walt Disney World six years ago today?

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When people usually talk about what happened on 9/11, the focus (for obvious reasons) is on New York City, Washington D.C. and that field just outside of Shanksville, PA.

But -- that said -- it's also important to remember what happened immediately after those four planes crashed. That sudden surge of panic that swept across the country. All because people in the U.S. had no idea what was going to happen next.

In several of the books that have since been written about 9/11, it's noted that the Walt Disney Company quickly closed its stateside theme parks that day. Reportedly out of concern that the Disneyland and Walt Disney World resorts might also be on the terrorists' target list.

The Mouse (for very obvious reasons) has never officially commented on what actually happened in Anaheim & Orlando on 9/11. But back in March of 2006, I asked JHM readers to share their stories about what it was like to be at the parks on that day. And quite a few folks came forward with some pretty amazing tales of that time.

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) ... 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 (a) calm atmosphere. People were walking around not really knowing what to do. I commented to my wife that [here] we were at one [of] 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.

Mind you, in spite of the three hour time difference, things were just as surreal out at the Disneyland Resort. Whether you experienced that day from outside of the theme parks ...

(On the morning of 9/11, both Disneyland & Disney's California Adventure were) already closed when I drove out to the Anaheim Convention Center for a computer conference ([Which was] also postponed). There were a couple of cast members at the gates to answer questions. But most people responded to being told that (the theme parks were closed for the day) with "Oh, sure."

Or on the inside of a Disney hotel ...

I was staying at the Grand Californian the night of Sept. 10, 2001, and I can tell you the message the hotel sent to our voicemail the next morning *did* say the parks would be closed "due to the events that occurred in New York and Washington, DC this morning." I'd overslept (probably because Downtown Disney, which was just outside my window, was unusually quiet), and the voicemail had me frantic, wondering what had happened. I called the front desk and was told "They're bombing New York and Washington DC!" The hotel offered discounted rates to departing guests stranded in Southern California, but those of us who could pack up headed for home. At the time it seemed that the Disney theme parks might be the next target, since they have such a high profile. As I was checking out, I had the daylights scared out of me by a costumed Rafiki character who came up behind me and patted my shoulder -- probably not the cuddliest character to have roaming the halls during a tense morning!

Or backstage at the park ...

(Back in the Fall of 2001), I ... (had) ... a Backstage role (at Disneyland). I was fortunate enough to live close enough to the Resort to ride my bicycle to work each day (there are showers and locker rooms in the building I worked in).

Believe it or not, I rode my bicycle through the gate right before the first plane hit (I had no idea what was happening at the time). I showered and dressed for what I thought would be a normal day. When I got to my office, I went through the break room and found EVERYONE in the building watching the TV. Again, not knowing what was going on, I asked why people were not working. Someone in the room told me what had happened. I too, sat and watched the TV.

Soon after that, we received word that the Parks would not be opened at all that day and that we all would need to start calling Cast Members who were not already at work to stay home.

Several members of my staff were taken to the scheduling area to begin calling several hundred Cast Members. In the middle of that, the decision was made that we needed to do something for the Guests who were staying in on-site hotels (preferably Characters). Some folks were called back (I.E. Performers, technicians, drivers, etc.) to come in after all.

All was going OK (People were getting their jobs done; no one was freaking out), until about 8:50 a.m. At that point, an emergency call went out over the Park radios to evacuate every building in both Parks.

You see, there was a report that came in that airplanes were headed for the Resort at 9:00 a.m. too. I vividly remember RUNNING through the building with my boss searching every room, opening every door, and yelling to get OUT of the building NOW (Park Security was tied up in other locations and many officers were not yet at work).

At 8:59, my boss and I ran out of the building, satisfied that we were the last to leave. We joined the others in the pre-designated evacuation area to wait. And wait. And wait ...

I thought the clock was standing still ...

9:05 ...

9:10 ...

9:15 ...

Someone thought they heard a jet, but no one could see one ...

9:30 ...

Still waiting for the all-clear ...

At about 9:45 we were finally let back into the building to keep making calls.

Shortly after that, all of the management folks were called into a meeting at Lincoln Theatre to be briefed on what was going on.

My boss and I along with another manager went to the meeting. At that meeting, we were giving information verifying that the Parks would remain closed for the day. Everyone was briefed about Characters and Guests at the hotels. We were given additional security information that I should really not go into.

The meeting was very emotional. It may have been the first time for many of those people to realize that this was serious. This was not a drill or a test.

After the meeting, we joined other Cast Members at the Inn Between (I.E. he Cast Cafeteria behind Main Street U.S.A.) for lunch. Other managers were actually doing the cooking and serving. Mickey paid for lunch.

I remember walking back to my office down Main Street U.S.A. It was the middle of the day. Main Street was completely empty. The BGM (I.E. Background music) had been turned off. It was by far the strangest sight I remember seeing.

One more thing I remember: When I got back to my office, I had no sooner sat down than we got another emergency call to come to the warehouse immediately. At the same time, the fire alarm started to go off. It seems that a forklift driver -- trying to get a pallet of something that was needed -- hit and sheared off a fire sprinkler. The warehouse was flooded. The fire department was able to get the water off, and we spent the next couple of hours cleaning up.

At the end of that, my boss sent us home to be with our families. I climbed on my bike and rode out the gate for the last time (Personal vehicles were no longer allowed Backstage after that).

As to what it was like to work at the Disney theme parks immediately after 9/11, I'll let an old Jungle Cruise captain have the final word:

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.

Portions of today's story were originally posted on JHM as part of two features that ran on March 8th & 10th of 2006. Again, I want to offer my thanks to all those readers who came forward to share their memories about what it was like to be on property back on 9/11.

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  • Great article Jim.

    As a New Yorker, 9/11 obviously is a very....I don't even know how to describe it.

    Anyway, it's interesting to read what happened in the parks on that day.

  • Neal G. says he and his wife left AK at around 11:30 and didn't hear an announcement. What time did the parks close? By 9AM, the country knew it was under attack, so it seems odd that AK wouldn't be closed until then or that cast members wouldn't notice stray guests an hour or two after evacuation.

  • That was one great article.  Truly moving...

  • Oldie but a goodie...thanks for posting these again.

  • Today's the sixth anniversary, of course, and even after six years I still get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about it. I have images of the second tower hit, the fires, the buildings...

  • I almost cried...

  • But what was it like at Disneyland and Disney World on September 11, 2001? [Jim Hill]...

  • Let us remember not only those who sacrificed and served on September 11, but also the everyday workers who - in a time of extreme emotional pain - pitched in to stay on the job and help others.  We should also be thankful that Disney and other organizations had disaster plans in place ahead of time so they could respond quickly and in an organized fashion when tragedy hit.    

  • It has to be said that if an annoncement had been put in place it proabaly would have caused uber ciaos.  I mean can you imagine if parents were ridding Dumbo all happy go lucky then all of the sudden a cast member makes an annoncement along the lines of "we have just learned that america is under attack by terriosts and the Magic Kingdom will now close, please exit in an orderly fashion."  I mean I for one would not be exiting in a orderly fashion I'd be grabbin my kid and running, so basically what I'm saying here is that the idea of only telling people what happended if they asked was a smart one....

  • Simply moving article.  I'm most impressed with those who had to deny thier emotions, suck it up, and do thier job for the sake of others.  Tear jerking.  Thanks Jim Hill for posting this.

  • Counterinsurgency success in Haswa Bill Roggio at Combat Outpost Corregidor, Baghdad Province. 6 decades later, World War II gunner gets another mission in a B-17 Louis Correia had just completed his 26th mission in a B-17. Some time has passed since

  • Great article. I was only 6 when it happened, so I don't really remember the day, nor did I really understand what happened. But now that I understand what really happened on that day, it is absolutely horrible. Thank you for putting this article here.

  • My eyes started tearing up! I could not imagine being a cast member and trying to stay calm. I was 8 when this happened and I can remember our teacher telling us what happened. Of course none of us really knew what happened. Some of the kids parents came and got them from school. The rest of us just sat there and watched the news the rest of the day. All of the teachers were running around the hallways and then fter school we werent alowed to leave unless our parent came and got us. Now that i fully understand what happend i get choked up whenever i see pictures or videos from 9/11

  • I've always been curious if Disneyland was one of the target spots on the West Coast.  You can see the park as you are flying into the Orange County Airport so it would have been very easy to do.  I worked in the large building backstage (in back of Toon Town) TDA- Team Disney Anaheim.  When I got to work that morning people were in the break room watching the live events.  I was given a list of the Cast Members in my department & was told to contact them and tell them not to come to work.  I was a bit irritated that I could not just take the list with me and use my cell phone so I could get out of the building as quickly as possible.  I assumed that the Matterhorn would be a good target and the building I worked in was bright yellow on one side- 4 floors and I've been told it was the length of 3 football fields.  I hope that some day, I will find out for certain if it was a target because I feel like my life wasn't too important to management since they would not allow me to leave the building until I completed calling my list.  I would have been more than happy to do get in my car and drive a few miles, pull over and contact my coworkers on my cell phone.

  • tl;dr

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