ORLANDO, Fla. – On Sept. 11, 2001, Brian Avery was an accident investigator at SeaWorld Orlando and watching the news in a conference room when footage of the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center flashed across the screen.
Shortly afterward, SeaWorld leaders made the unprecedented decision to close the park. Guests visiting SeaWorld, as well as Disney World and Universal, “left quietly” as the parks were evacuated smoothly within an hour of the attacks, according to an Orlando Sentinel article.
In the days that followed, Avery took part in discussions on new security protocols and procedures at the resort.
“Essentially it boiled down to this: everyone was a suspect moving forward, and that whether you were a staff member, a patron (or) a vendor that was delivering products to the property, we were going to check you,” he said.
Immediately following the attacks, SeaWorld mandated employee and guest bag checks and began conducting searches of all vehicles coming onto the property, even including employee golf carts, Avery said.
The company realized that theme parks, like stadiums and other places where lots of people gather, could be potential targets for an attack and so it also bolstered its security department, installed additional surveillance cameras, and got another police K-9 to monitor the property, he said.
“No stone was left unturned after that day,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience, and I think people realized it was a necessary one in order to make the environment as safe as possible so that we could continue operation. ... There was a lot of uncertainty, and there was fear, but we realized we had a job to do.”
For many theme parks, the terror attacks on America that day highlighted the need for tighter security as officials realized that large venues could become targets for terrorism.
And in the 20 years since, other attacks and events — including the Pulse shooting and the COVID-19 pandemic — have prompted the parks to constantly update their security protocols in a changing landscape.
Security evolves over 20 years
Many of the basic security upgrades at Orlando’s theme parks after 9/11 have remained today, but resorts have adjusted as new threats and technologies emerged.
In the months after the attacks, Disney, Universal and SeaWorld searches of guest bags were so intensive that they included removing batteries and tapes from video cameras to ensure they were not weapons in disguise.
At Disney and Universal, off-duty officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Orlando Police Department supervised bag searches outside the gates while private security patrolled inside. After hours, officers would bring bomb-sniffing dogs into the parks.
Disney also installed gates capable of withstanding vehicle rammings at employee and vendor entrances and, with the help of federal authorities, established a no-fly zone over its parks. The company briefly used metal detectors in 2004 before they returned in late 2015 as all area theme parks began using the technology following deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
The 2015 attacks sparked other security changes at area parks during an active holiday season. All three resorts enhanced their security; at Disney, police dogs again patrolled the property. Disney also stopped selling toy guns and banned guests 14 and older from wearing costumes at the resort.
In January 2016, Disney and Universal representatives confirmed the companies hired additional security employees but declined to provide details on the security expansion at the time.
The shooting at Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando brought new concerns months later.
Omar Mateen, the shooter who killed 49 people and wounded dozens more early on June 12, was at Disney Springs and near Epcot just hours before the shooting, court records showed. Authorities said the shooter’s wife told them her husband contemplated attacking Disney Springs and during her trial prosecutors argued he planned to conceal his gun in a stroller and bring it into the shopping district.
Additional security cameras were added to Disney Springs following the shooting, though at the time Disney said their installation had been planned for months prior.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought security to the forefront of park operations once again, said Avery, now a lecturer at the University of Florida and a managing member at Event Safety & Security Services. Before, where security personnel might just be “going through the motions” in performing bag checks, COVID made personnel aware of potential lapses, he said.
Security technologies have also advanced because of the pandemic, including touchless systems used to scan bags and take guests’ temperatures.
Temperature screenings became standard as parks reopened, and visitors lined up to have their foreheads scanned for nearly a year until parks began phasing out the practice in May.
Disney also upgraded its security checkpoint technology in summer 2020 with walk-through weapons detectors that scan guests using an artificial intelligence system. Disney also instituted bag checks at Disney Springs’ entrances in 2020.
The exact technologies and strategies used at parks largely remain trade secrets. Representatives for Disney, Universal and SeaWorld all declined to discuss specifics of their parks’ security measures for this story.
Local law enforcement also works alongside area theme parks to keep the properties secure. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office has a dedicated sector to monitor Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, which encompass Disney property, and works with Disney and SeaWorld security. The Orlando Police Department helps monitor Universal.
For theme park companies, not talking about their security measures is a security decision itself, Avery said.
“We’re close-lipped in this industry about our security protocols, with good reason,” Avery said. “You don’t want these protocols, and the exact measures we’re taking, to be leaked to the public because then they can test the vulnerabilities of it.”
Guest security and comfort
Security often works so seamlessly behind the scenes that guests don’t notice it, said Jim Seay, president of Premier Rides and former chair of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions’ Global Safety Committee.
The events of 9/11 made theme park security more visible. Bringing metal detecting technologies to theme parks was “a very big deal,” because it could hurt the fantasy experience, Seay said.
“You have this intense aspect of security laid on top of you when you enter the park, and it starts the day at a point where you’re only focused on security as a guest,” he said.
Technological advancements make screening less intrusive and inconvenient for guests, said Todd McGhee, co-founder of Protecting the Homeland Innovations. Now, security can screen multiple people at once, lessening the time visitors spend in line and in close proximity with each other.
Innovations such as high-frequency radio wave systems and facial and biometric scanners can provide better security at a fraction of the time, Avery said, and theme park companies are consistently looking toward emerging technologies that can handle large crowds safely and efficiently.
Theme parks also are sharing more security information on a global level to be better prepared to respond to emerging threats.
McGhee helped develop a mass notification system called the IAAPA Security Advisory Program. It debuted in 2017 to alert IAAPA members about global and regional safety and security events.
“Oftentimes the expression (is), ‘Not if, but when,’” he said. “And I think that what I’ve seen is that the theme park industry is open-minded to see what happens within aviation, or mass transit, and then self-reflect: ‘If that happened here, are we prepared for the response?’ ... In a post-9/11 world, we just can’t look at a specific incident in a specific industry.”
Theme parks bear the responsibility of keeping guest safety at the forefront, but visitors can help keep themselves safe by reporting suspicious activity they see at the parks, Avery, McGhee and Seay said.
“It’s supposed to be a lifetime memory to come to a theme park or an amusement park, and that should be (guests’) focus, because the professionals are spending their time to make sure that they’re in a safe environment,” Seay said.