As visitors at Disney's Magic Kingdom stood in the theme park counting down to 2015, they likely had no idea a consumer drone was secretly hovering above them, capturing unauthorized aerial video of the New Year's Eve fireworks display.
Footage of that pyrotechnics show, including flaming embers zooming past the unmanned aircraft, was posted on YouTube by a user with the screen name "YOUR FLYING CAMERA" who claimed to be a 16-year-old vacationing from Canada.
In other videos, the teen's drone flies over Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom, looks down upon swimmers at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon water park, peeks into the construction zone where workers are building the new Avatar attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom, and soars over the top of the 14 story Contemporary Resort hotel.
The teen also took his drone for a flight above Universal Orlando, operating it from a secluded sidewalk near the Hard Rock hotel. In the videos, the drone appears to buzz less than 100 feet over the heads of visitors at Universal CityWalk. It then shoots up over the entry arch of Universal Studios theme park and hovers above the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket roller coaster.
"It's beautiful," said Guy Haggard, who was impressed by the unique video footage.
But the aviation attorney also thinks the drone could pose a safety risk to people on the ground if it were to fall from the sky. And, based on the teen's YouTube videos, Haggard believes some of the drone flights are illegal and may violate Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.
"All drones are 'aircraft' and subject to FAA regulation," said Haggard.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress established a no-fly zone over a portion of Disney's property in 2003. The FAA classifies it as "national defense airspace." The Temporary Flight Restriction, or TFR, covers a radius of three nautical miles from the Contemporary Resort and prohibits aircraft from flying there below 3000 feet.
The TFR includes the Magic Kingdom, parts of Epcot, and several nearby hotels. Critics of the TFR have suggested the restrictions primarily deter aircraft from towing advertising banners above the theme park.
In October 2014, Disney's TFR was updated to specifically prohibit "unmanned and remote controlled aircraft." Violators who intentionally enter the restricted airspace can be fined and sentenced to prison for up to a year.
In a Facebook chat, a person claiming to be the teen who posted the drone videos on YouTube told Local 6 he was unaware of Disney's airspace restrictions at the time of his flight.
"Now I know," wrote the anonymous YouTube user, who said he received the DJI Phantom quadcopter drone as a gift over the holidays. That is the same type of radio controlled aircraft that recently crashed on the lawn of the White House, which is also covered by FAA flight restrictions.
There are no federal airspace restrictions over Universal Orlando's resort. However, Haggard believes the teen could have potentially been charged with trespassing for flying his drone above the company's property without permission.
"As a private property owner, you have the right to that column of air over your property," said Haggard, who indicated airspace below 500 feet is generally considered to belong to the landowner. The FAA requires most traditional aircraft to fly above 500 feet in public airspace.
Had the drone climbed too high, the attorney believes it could have posed another safety risk.
"The flight path for Orlando Executive Airport on runway 7 is directly over Universal," said Haggard.
When Local 6 contacted the drone operator for comment, he immediately removed his videos from YouTube. During the two weeks the drone footage was visible online, the videos received several comments from fellow YouTube users.
"Love your work. But I think you could get in trouble," warned one YouTube viewer.
"Yes, I know I can," replied the teen.
Representatives with Disney and Universal did not immediately file a complaint about the drone with the FAA, according to an agency spokeswoman.
Although the drone operator removed the videos from YouTube before federal authorities could determine whether an investigation was warranted, the FAA could still look into the drone, which the agency calls an Unmanned Aircraft System, or UAS.
"(The FAA) occasionally discovers such operations through the news media or posting on internet sites," states the agency's website. "When the FAA discovers UAS operations in violation of the FAA's regulations, the agency has a number of enforcement tools available to address these operations, including a verbal warning, a warning letter, and legal enforcement action."
As consumer drones become less expensive, more people might be tempted to capture beautiful aerial images of Central Florida's iconic theme parks. But the companies currently provide visitors with very little information about whether drones are allowed.
Walt Disney World's website specifically mentions that skateboards, folding chairs, and large tripods are prohibited inside the parks, but it does not address drones and other model aircraft. However, the website indicates Disney may prohibit "other items that we determine may be harmful or disruptive."
If a Disney employee sees a drone, they are instructed to notify security, which will report it to the FAA, according to a company spokeswoman.
Likewise, Universal Orlando forbids unmanned aircraft, which could potentially be deployed from public roads surrounding the resort.
"We prohibit guests from using drones in our park due to strong safety concerns," said Universal Orlando spokesman Tom Schroder. "Any unauthorized drone observed over our park will be reported to the FAA and local law enforcement, regardless of its point of origin or operation."
Although drone footage above SeaWorld has not been shared publicly, animal rights activists have recently circulated a video showing a drone flying over the killer whale tank at the Miami Seaquarium.
"The potential threat to guests, particularly those on (roller coasters) like Manta and Kraken, is obvious," said SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs. "But we are also concerned about the effect drones may have on our animals."
The National Park Service recently posted notices on its websites informing visitors that unmanned aircraft are prohibited at all park facilities. The ban, which took effect in June, was prompted by park visitors disturbing animals with drones, crashing them into the Grand Canyon, and reportedly landing one on Abraham Lincoln's bust at Mount Rushmore.
"Some people just want to get really cool pictures while on vacation," said Bobby Watts. "The concern is with people just not using their heads."
Watts is a model aircraft enthusiast who flies, builds, and sells radio controlled helicopters and drones through his company Encore RC.
"I think that most of us who do the radio controlled hobby, we really want to do the right thing," said Watts. "We really do."
For Watts, that meant joining a model aircraft club like the Orlando Radio Controlled Helicopter Society, which was co-founded 26 years ago by Carey Shurley.
"Being around a club and being around the rules, you start to understand, 'Hey look, I'm responsible for this thing. What happens with it is on me'," said Shurley.
Those rules include maintaining visual contact with the model aircraft, preferably with a spotter, and flying below 400 feet. Club members are also required to protect people and property on the ground while avoiding airports and other restricted airspace.
"One of my biggest gripes with (drones) is, don't fly it over other people," said Watts. "I jump up and down in my chair when I see these things floating above a crowd at a concert."
The Orlando Radio Controlled Helicopter Society flies their aircraft in a large field in Ocoee, not far from Lake Apopka. A 12-foot tall safety net separates the airfield from a spectator viewing area. "The models aren't going to go through this," said Shurley.
The local club is sanctioned by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a nonprofit organization that sets guidelines on how hobbyists should fly model aircraft like drones. The FAA relies on those community-based safety guidelines when determining whether drone operators have acted in an unsafe or reckless manner.
The AMA, along with several other unmanned aircraft organizations, recently teamed up with the FAA to launch the "Know Before You Fly" campaign. Using a website, informational videos, and other materials, the group is hoping to educate drone operators how to fly safely and legally.
"Don't fly it above theme parks," warns Watts. "Just use some common sense."
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