Heather, hope and a hurricane named Ian

November 2022

“Oh no. Not again.”

These were my words as I checked the weather report Friday morning. We were flying out to Disney for a much-needed holiday with daughter Brynn, her partner Basil and our two grandchildren, Leo (3) and Luna (1). The holiday had been in the works for over a year, but now, the first growls of Tropical Depression 9.

Florida is no stranger to hurricanes, (the same way Thunder Bay knows its way around a snowstorm,) and Walt Disney World has been called a fortress for many reasons. In fact, it’s only closed 7 times in 51 years because of hurricanes, so that’s a pretty good average, all things considered. It had to be coincidence that the last time I was there in Sept 2017, we were chased out by Hurricane Irma. It had to be coincidence that this depression, now tropical storm, was also picking up the same letter ‘I’ for Ian. Surely, the law of averages was on my side. Surely, lightning couldn’t strike twice.

We arrived on Sun., Sept. 25 and had a lovely day in the parks. The sun was shining, the weather was warm. No one was panicked. In fact, no one even mentioned the storm gathering to the Caribbean. Orlando is an inland, and Disney resorts among the safest in the state. Still, there was an unspoken sense that our time was short, and all people, guests and cast members (Disney’s word for staff) alike, were busy making the best of it.

The rains picked up on Tuesday evening as I rushed out of Epcot to get in one last ride on a banshee at the Animal Kingdom. Again, everyone was happy in their ponchos and crocs. I had been chronicling the savanna from our balcony, so when I arrived back at 7:30 that evening, I noticed the animals were gone and the clouds above were moving in opposite directions. Then, later that night, everything went silent.

Time to hunker down.

Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday morning, laying waste to Fort Meyers on the Gulf Coast. But that goes to show the sheer span of the bands that were already howling 150 miles away. The resorts locked down, with sandbags along bases of windows built to withstand bullets. But Disney’s brand is magic – the Happiest Place on Earth, it’s said – and this is where the cast and crew of WDW shone like a second star to the right. That morning, Eduardo of the front desk brought Toby, his puppet giraffe, to greet folks as they wandered nervously about the lobby. The resort gift shop, Johari Treasures, was stocked with food, with meal kits sold at cost. Activities were scheduled in the lobby and in the community rooms, including free snack bags for all the kids. Arcade games were also free, and live music filled the African-inspired resort to keep spirits high.

And then came the characters.

Turk is a cheeky young gorilla from Disney’s animated Tarzan. She was a frequent visitor, along with Russell and Dug the dog from Pixar’s UP. They not only hung out at the front desk, they hung out in the halls. They hung out in the community room. They hung out in the arcade. Anywhere they could find children 0-90 years old, there they would be, hugging, high-fiving, encouraging without words but with animated, larger-than-life smiles. Even 3-year-old Leo got into the act, staying in his Spiderman pjs on Wednesday and his Sherriff Woody (Toy Story) pjs the next. Without exception, everyone who saw him commented that they now felt safer with Spiderman or Sherriff Woody on site. Make believe is the best kind of magic.

Wednesday evening was grim, with furious clouds and a wind that whistled unnaturally through the trees. I still videotaped the storm but didn’t dare go out on the balcony. The winds were too strong, and for two days we stayed inside, making blanket forts with the grandkids, watching movies on the TVs (Disney, of course!) and charting the storm’s progress as it chewed its way across the state. 1-year-old Luna learned to walk in those 2 days. Leo learned about giraffes and zebras. Still, it was confining, and we lost wifi for stretches at a time. We depended on cast members for information and began to know these remarkable souls who volunteered to work during a hurricane so that guests could be safe.

Mary from Puerto Rico and Hayley from Michigan. Ted from California and Victor from Guatemala. They, and countless others across the parks and resorts, are the Hurricane Ride-Out Crew, living on site for 72 hours to ensure the safety of guests and the integrity of the properties. They volunteer for these rare occasions and are specifically trained in disaster management. While Disney has its own power station and water treatment plant, the organization is prepared for anything, and the cast members can accommodate any challenge.

Friday morning, the sun was out, palm fronds littered the grassland and a few branches had broken from the Sand Live Oak trees in the plain. The zoologist’s jeep road was flooded, but antelope lazily grazed the savanna and overall, the savanna was perfectly fine. In fact, the animals seemed frisky, happy to be out of their safe pens and back to the freedom of the fields.

“Nan!” I heard nearby. I turned to see Leo pointing at three giraffes, mere meters away from his balcony, watching him as they munched their leaves. That’s all a part of the magic, I suppose. Part of the make believe. But the hope and the humanity we encountered in a hurricane was very real and, ultimately, the holiday was a success regardless of park days lost. Not because of Ian, but because of Eduardo and Toby, Mary and Hayley, Victor and Russell and Ted.

Oh yes, can’t forget Mickey…

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

Visit her website at www.hleightondickson.com

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