Sunday, 19 June 2016

Ensuring Your Own Safety at Walt Disney World

In the past weeks, the city of Orlando has suffered a string of horrific tragedies, the last of which was the drowning of Lane Graves by a wild alligator in the Seven Seas Lagoon. This terrible event has raised a lot of questions about the limits of personal and corporate negligence, liability, and how Americans are taught – or not taught – to respect wild nature.

For the family, what has happened has happened, and there is no need to berate or hector them. They are no doubt punishing themselves far more harshly than the howling mobs of the Internet could, and will have to live forever with the choices they made leading up to the tragedy. What I hope with this article is to offer safety tips for readers who have never been to Walt Disney World, or have but never gave these issues much thought.

Disney can only take so much responsibility for safety on their property. There are many contingencies that they simply cannot have any control over. Tourists anywhere must also take active responsibility for their own safety.

There are three simple tips by which guests can ensure their own safety and the safety of their families: obey warnings, use common sense, and take due diligence.

Obey Warnings

Much of the discussion in the wake of the tragedy was whether or not Disney took necessary precautions in warning guests about dangerous wildlife. The responses to this discussion shed a tremendous amount of light on how people at large will, knowingly or unknowingly, ignore posted warnings.

The fact is that Disney does have warning signs all over their properties advising guests not to swim in the lagoons and waterways. For one reason or another, many guests seem either not to notice them, or think that these signs do not apply to them.

Some have tried to excuse it on technicalities: that “no swimming” does not mean “no wading” or that these signs did not explicitly warn of alligators. Both of these are tacit admissions that these guests do not feel that the signs apply to them. A “no swimming” sign should be sufficient to advise people that there is a reason to stay out of the water, if they follow the whole spirit and intent of the warning. Not heeding it can only bring harm to yourselves and your families.

Reports say that Disney is in the process of adding explicit alligator warnings and building fences on the water’s edge. That is good… perhaps even overdue… but all the warnings in the world do not stop people who are intent on not obeying them.

Working in the museums, zoos, and heritage field, I see this all the time. People touch things (and animals) right in front of signs saying “do not touch.” They take photos with the “no photos” sign in the picture. They climb over top “no climbing” signs. They wait until you've turned your back to go back to doing the thing you just explicitly told them not to do. They endanger themselves at every possible opportunity, laugh if they do not get hurt and try to hold other people responsible if they do.

I've seen this play out around the world. Not a week goes by, it seems, that there isn't an incident in Yellowstone National Park in which someone is fined for breaking a rule, has damaged an irreplaceable piece of heritage, been injured or gotten themselves or an animal killed because they recklessly, flagrantly disobeyed the plethora of warnings provided by signs, rangers, interpretive centres, guidebooks, and every other available medium in every common language. In a museum in Paris, Ashley and I witnessed a person climb over a barricade to manhandle a 400 year old artifact. One of the most astonishing incidents in my career was at a previous workplace, when a man walked up to a 200 year old birchbark canoe and, right in front of the sign saying not to touch, rapped his knuckles on the side. “Just testing its strength,” he chuckled to my astonished coworker and I. 

Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest and most active thermal basin in Yellowstone.
A man recently went off the boardwalk, despite warnings,
fell into a thermal pool, and was liquefied by the intense heat.
Warnings are there for you. Please take notice of them. Look for them. Please obey them in spirit and intent as well as in letter. They are there to protect you and to protect things from you. If you do not heed them, you’re not outsmarting anybody. Alligators don't care that you're "technically" not swimming.

Use Common Sense

In lieu of warnings, common sense needs to be used. Tourists anywhere, let alone Walt Disney World, need to be aware of their surroundings, assess the safety of a situation, and look out for their own health and wellbeing.

Common sense should tell a person that getting close to a wild animal that is 7 feet tall, 2,000 pounds, powerful enough to flip an SUV on its side, and making aggressive gestures is not a good idea, but every year… practically every month… unthinking visitors to Yellowstone National Park are injured by buffalo. When we visited Yellowstone, I commiserated with a ranger whose job it was to follow the herds of elk around Mammoth Hot Springs… Not to manage the herd, but to manage the tourists who did not clue in that a 5 foot tall, 730 lbs animal with spikes growing out of its head was something to stay away from. At Glacier National Park in Montana, I had the misfortune of witnessing, from a distance, a crowd of people make a complete circle around a clearly distressed bighorn sheep, or what Americans nickname a “ram” because of what it does. Recently, in Argentina, an infant dolphin died because tourists passed it around for selfies. Common sense should have told the visitor to the museum in Paris that it was difficult to get at a 400 year old artifact because they were not supposed to. Common sense should have also told the visitor in my personal anecdote that “testing the strength” of a 200 year old birchbark canoe could have been a disaster if it didn’t pass the test.

The waterways of Walt Disney World are untreated Florida swamp water. Common sense dictates that alligators are probably the least of the health and safety risks involved. When we went to Walt Disney World for our honeymoon, Ashley noted that she would not have touched that water with a 10 foot pole. 

The view from our room at Port Orleans - French Quarter. Excellent alligator habitat.
You may be on vacation, but your common sense should not be. You don’t have to live in a constant state of fear, but neither should you endanger yourself and your family with carelessness and recklessness. Remember to use common sense and make good judgments. 

Take Due Diligence

In sympathy with the family of Lane Graves, many commentators have said that it never would have occurred to them that there would be a risk from alligators in Florida... Florida, whose football team is named after the animal, an animal only found in the southern United States, which is Florida's official state reptile. It sounds perverse to say it now, but when we went to Walt Disney World, I hoped I would see an alligator. 

We did eventually, on an excursion to the central Florida everglades,
from the safety of an airboat with an experienced guide.
“Due diligence,” as I mean it here, is to do proper research. When traveling, one should always take time to look up any health and safety warnings as well as information about weather and climate, wildlife, crime, diseases, and anything else that may impact your travels. Disney can do their best to create a safe environment, but they cannot do everything. You must be aware of the risks, and you must do your research to become aware. 

It does not take very much research to find out that Walt Disney World did, once, allow swimming in the Seven Seas Lagoon. There was even a water park – River Country – on its shores. But in 1980, an 11 year old boy swimming in River Country died from an infection caused by the amoeba Naegleria fowleri in the lake water. Concerns over waterborne diseases led the government of Florida to institute a law banning the use of unchlorinated, natural water sources for water sports facilities, which in turn closed down River Country and caused Disney to ban swimming in the lake.

This is the reason why the “no swimming” signs exist, and verifies what a common sense assessment of the Seven Seas Lagoon’s water quality would suggest.

Courts will undoubtedly determine Disney’s full degree of liability in the tragic death of Lane Graves. For the rest of us, Disney cannot keep us safe despite ourselves. By following these simple tips – obey warnings, use common sense, take due diligence (O.U.T.) – you can ensure your own safety and avoid a similar tragedy befalling your own family.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with relying on common sense is that it can only be as good as your overall familiarity with a situation, and if you're traveling on vacation, that's entirely up for grabs. You might say this calls for more attention to the "due diligence" part, but you can only research aspects of a location that it occurs to you to research. Would you read up on the local wildlife if you were going to Paris? Probably not. Would you then be at fault if you were attacked by, I don't know, sewer rats? Arguably, but it would be a pretty outlandish occurrence. Being attacked by a wild alligator on the grounds of a luxury hotel - even in Florida - would strike most people as equally outlandish.

    I do think Disney is partially at fault here for not being more specific about the hazards on their property. Maybe to you, "No Swimming" implies "Keep Away From the Water Altogether," but objectively, it's ambiguous. In any case, I find it's always better to let people know the reasons for your rules than to just hand them down and expect perfect compliance. There will always be people who flout rules, but not everyone has the same reasons for doing so. I know plenty of people who are more likely to disobey if a rule seems in any way arbitrary to them. At least with the new signs warning specifically of alligators (and snakes), those people will smarten up.