The morning of September 11, 2001, started off uneventfully at Walt Disney World, with guests already inside the Magic Kingdom and starting to make their way into the other three theme parks.
Little did they know that the world was about to change.
At 8:46 a.m., the first jet slammed into the World Trade Center. Initially, it appeared to be an accident, but this naive notion was shattered at 9:03 a.m. when the second jet struck. It became clear that America was under attack.
Soon after, news about the crash into the Pentagon and the downing of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania reached Disneyland and its brand new sister park, “California Adventure.” The parks never opened that day. In the midst of the chaos, Disney executives faced the unknown. Even before the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandated that all planes land and cleared the airspace coast to coast, the execs made the decision to close all Disney parks worldwide, which was announced on ABC.
The word spread rapidly to attraction leads, security, and all other cast members. In Florida, a parks-wide announcement broke through the area:
“Due to unforeseen circumstances the Magic Kingdom is now closing.”
Marking only the second time a national emergency had forced Disney parks to shut down. The first was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, which occurred long before Walt had even begun to scout land in Central Florida.
The closure of Walt Disney World was unprecedented. For its first 28 years, the park had never closed its gates for a full day, although the Magic Kingdom and Epcot did close several hours early for Hurricane Elena on August 31, 1985. Hurricane Floyd also forced an early closure of the theme parks and water parks on September 14, 1999. September 11, 2001, became only the third such event.
However, when the emergency was declared, detailed procedures were in place to evacuate the parks. Cast members were instructed to form “human walls,” linking hands and systematically sweeping and emptying the parks filled with guests. Most guests were not informed about the reason for the evacuation.
Reflecting on the evacuation, a Frontierland cast member named Michael shared his experience:
“We were told not to reveal what had happened unless guests asked us. I remember one guest asking me, and after I explained, they stood there with a blank face, temporarily stunned.”
On September 12, 2001, the parks reopened but the world and Disney World had changed forever. Overnight, makeshift bag screening tables were set up outside each theme park (this also was the case at SeaWorld and Universal). These initial days of screenings were much longer, slower and more thorough than what guests encounter today.
Many people were asked to remove batteries from electronics to verify they were what they appeared to be. These early checks were supervised by Orange County Sheriff’s deputies, who also appeared in uniform outside and inside the parks. That was all but unheard of just the day before.
Disney and all Florida theme parks have had to adapt to the very real possibility of being potential terror targets, something reinforced immensely by details of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting. Bag checks are just the tip of the iceberg of how intense the focus on safety and security has become. In addition to much larger staff, added K-9 patrols, bomb-sniffing dogs and the like, Disney installed gates capable of withstanding vehicle ramming at backstage entrances.
Disney and its remarkable cast members deserve commendation for their exceptional handling of that day and its aftermath. To ensure children remained occupied and untroubled, beloved characters like Mickey, Minnie, and Donald, were quickly dispatched to all resort hotels.
The front desk staff graciously extended the status of guests who had nowhere else to go due to flight cancellations. Resort restaurants swiftly adapted to accommodate the influx of guests during meal times, which is typically when most guests dine in the theme parks.
Through collaboration with federal authorities, a no-fly zone was promptly established over the parks, maintaining stringent restrictions to this day, particularly above and in close proximity to the Magic Kingdom.
Abandoned Disney World Resort
Disney’s Pop Century Resort in Walt Disney World was intended to feature two sections: The Classic Years (1950-1999) and The Legendary Years (1900-1949). Unfortunately, due to the September 11th attacks and subsequent decline in tourism, only the first half was completed. Across the lake, The Legendary Years resort remained unfinished and abandoned.
For years, the derelict structure stood unused, yet visible from certain areas of the property, notably from The Classic Years section of the resort. Even today, remnants of this incomplete project linger, serving as small reminders that Pop Century is only half complete.
One such reminder is the Generation Gap Bridge, connecting both resorts to the Skyliner. Originally named to symbolize the bridge’s purpose of uniting Pop Century’s two halves, the name remains as a final easter egg.
I highly encourage you to experience the remarkable and patriotic Flag Retreat Ceremony. Dating back 50 years in Florida and even earlier in California, this cherished Disney tradition takes place daily at 5 p.m., honoring a chosen veteran as a Disney Magic Maker. This extraordinary event has captivated guests since 1971 and pays tribute to a deserving veteran every day.
Over the years, Disney and its counterparts have streamlined and enhanced the security measures, resulting in a more seamless and enjoyable experience for guests. This proved invaluable when temperature screenings were introduced in 2020 as part of the park’s reopening efforts amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, Disney has implemented cutting-edge scanners at its parks and Disney Springs, rendering most manual bag checks obsolete.
The events following the attacks on September 11, 2001, forever altered the landscape and history of Walt Disney World, serving as a poignant reminder of the resilience and unity that emerged during those challenging times. We will never forget. 🇺🇸