As Florida residents anxiously prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Ian, it has been announced that theme parks across Central Florida and Tampa – including Walt Disney World. Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens – are closing their gates due to the storm’s path.
The Walt Disney World Resort’s four theme parks and two water parks will be closed on Wednesday, September 28, and Thursday, September 29. Disney Springs will be closed on Wednesday with a decision for Thursday to be announced later. At least some of the hotels in the Lake Buena Vista Resort will continue to be open to accommodate Guests who are staying during Hurricane Ian.
The news came after Orlando International Airport (MCO) announced it will also be closed due to Hurricane Ian from 10:30 am Wednesday.
With Disney World closing its doors for Ian, we take a look back at all the times the Most Magical Place on Earth has closed unexpectedly – and it might be more than you think!
Most of the instances come from weather, with Orlando experiencing many hurricane and tropical storm warnings in its history. Interestingly, however, Walt Disney World is considered to be one of the safest places to be in the United States when a hurricane strikes by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2009, they certified Disney World with the “Storm Ready” designation, which means the Orlando Resort is prepared to handle any storm that would hit the area.
Given how often major named storms like Hurricane Ian strike Florida, it’s fascinating that Disney World went nearly 28 years without an unscheduled closure due to weather. After opening in October 1971, the Resort’s long streak ended in September 1999 thanks to Hurricane Floyd.
Disney closed Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios (MGM Studios at the time), and the recently opened Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney Springs (then Downtown Disney), and the water parks early in the afternoon of September 14, 1999.
Guests who were staying in low-lying areas like Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, and some buildings at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort and Disney’s All-Star Resort were evacuated to Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort and Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts because of the possibility of flooding. These resorts offered accommodations in the convention centers, as well as some heavily discounted rooms. At the convention centers, movies were shown on big-screen televisions, and Cast Members coordinated activities.
At the time, the company announced that they would be closed on the following day as well. However, after Hurricane Floyd’s path made an unexpected change in direction, Disney opened Animal Kingdom and the Disney Springs area on September 15.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
Both Walt Disney World and Disneyland would have unplanned closures just under two years after Hurricane Floyd due to the September 11th attacks of 2001. After the tragic attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, there were military fears that Disney World could be the next target.
The morning of September 11, 2001, was uneventful at Walt Disney World, with Guests already inside the Magic Kingdom theme park at 8:46 a.m. when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Initially deemed an accident, when the second jet hit at 9:03 a.m., the United States realized it was under attack.
Without informing Guests what had happened unless they specifically asked, Cast Members formed “human walls” to gently push Guests out of each of the theme parks. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and other characters were sent to the Resort Hotels, while Cast Members helped Guests who, with no flights running, were stuck in Orlando. Disney provided each Guest with a complimentary ticket as they exited, and the Parks remained closed until September 12. When they reopened, though, Guests were met with many changes to security.
Disney introduced bag screening tables outside Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme parks. These early checks were supervised by Orange County Sheriff’s deputies, who also appeared in uniform both outside and inside the Parks. Furthermore, with the help of federal authorities, a no-fly zone was established over the Parks. Tourism, and theme park security, had changed forever.
HURRICANES CHARLEY, FRANCES, AND JEANNE
2004 was a busy year for the weather in Florida. Walt Disney World was hit with three major weather-related closures in that year’s hurricane season, all within two months of each other!
The first closure of the Walt Disney World theme parks came on August 13, 2004, when Category 4 Hurricane Charley hit, the strongest hurricane to hit southwest Florida in recorded history.
Less than a month later, Hurricane Frances forced the closure of the four Parks on both September 4 and September 5. Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon reopened on September 6, while Disney-MGM Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Blizzard Beach remained shut until the following day. On September 26, another storm, Hurricane Jeanne, topped off a crazy year of weather with a further closure of the Lake Buena Vista Parks.
On October 24, 2005, Walt Disney World closed its gates due to Hurricane Wilma. All four theme parks closed for the morning only, and Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Downtown Disney reopened at 1 pm. The two water parks, golf courses, and Disney-MGM Studios remained closed, with the entire Walt Disney World Resort reopening the next day.
It would be a long time before Walt Disney World saw another unexpected shutdown. Hurricane Matthew forced Disney to close the Parks 11 years later on October 6, 2016, and the four Parks remained closed on October 7.
The following year, in September 2017, Walt Disney World was once again forced to close due to Hurricane Irma. The Parks and Disney Springs were all closed by 9 pm on September 9 and remained closed for the following two days.
Hurricane Irma hit the Disney World area as a Category 2 hurricane with minimum sustained winds of 96mph. Although Disney avoided extensive damage from the storm, it didn’t escape totally unscathed. Multiple trees were down around the Resort, including around Cinderella Castle, there was flooding in EPCOT, and railings and street lamps at some of the Resort Hotels. Jungle Cruise was down for about a week due to backstage damage, while a transformer exploded outside of Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
On September 3, 2019, Disney World closed the Parks early due to the forecast for Hurricane Dorian. That afternoon, the storm changed its path further away from Central Florida, which led to the Parks reopening on a normal schedule the following day.
Of course, the most recent and well-known closure of the Walt Disney World Resort came due to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
On March 12, 2020, Disney announced the temporary closure of Disney World, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris due to the coronavirus outbreak. Shanghai Disneyland closed on January 25, 2020, and Hong Kong Disneyland closed on January 26. Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom closed at the end of the day on March 15, 2020, and didn’t reopen until July 11, 2020 – the longest period of closure seen at the Orlando Resort since it opened. Disneyland in California reopened much later on April 30, 2021.
Up until then, the longest closure for either Disney World or Disneyland was Disney World’s closure for three days in 2004 for Hurricane Frances.
Now, we can only sit and wait for what Hurricane Ian will bring to Florida. As usual, we will be sure to keep Disney Tips readers updated as we learn more about the impact of Hurricane Ian on the Walt Disney World Resort and its surrounding areas. Please stay safe!