LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Shortly before visitors arriving at Walt Disney World caught their first glimpse of Cinderella Castle last week, their parking lot tram passed several marked Orange County Sheriff patrol cars.
As excited park goers stood in line to buy tickets, a pair of Orange County deputies with guns on their belts paced back and forth, surveying the crowds.
Once patrons reached the Magic Kingdom's entrance, even more uniformed deputies looked on as Disney security guards inspected bags and randomly selected visitors to walk through metal detectors.
Disney officials have not disclosed how many sheriff deputies patrol the 40 square mile entertainment complex each day, and the company did not respond to any questions about law enforcement activities on its property.
But financial records obtained by News 6 suggest an unprecedented expansion of that outside police force is now underway.
Record Spending on Law Enforcement
Three months after a gunman murdered 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, the special taxing district that provides government services to Disney's property approved a record-setting budget for hiring off-duty Orange County sheriff's deputies.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District has allocated $5.6 million to pay for off-duty deputies throughout the fiscal year that began October 1st.
That new budget nearly quadruples the $1.5 million the Disney-controlled government allocated for off-duty deputies annually from 2011 through 2015.
In addition to hiring deputies who want to earn extra pay during their personal time, Reedy Creek has a separate $8.1 million contract with the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
That agreement ensures that additional deputies are always available to investigate tourist-related crimes, write speeding tickets and provide support to Disney’s civilian security officers.
Reedy Creek's $13.7 million total budget for outside law enforcement services has grown by more than 50% since 2015 and is nearly double the $7 million it allocated for deputies in 2014, records show. Those services are funded by landowners within the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, of which Disney is by far the largest taxpayer.
Under the new budget, Reedy Creek will pay the Orange County Sheriff's Office approximately the same as the City of Winter Park spends on its entire police department.
Off-Duty Officer Responded to Pulse Nightclub Attack
Walt Disney World officials have not indicated whether the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub played a role in the decision to increase the budget for off-duty deputies.
That incident demonstrated how armed off-duty law enforcement officers can potentially become the first line of defense in a terrorist attack.
[For more information on News 6 coverage of the Pulse nightclub attack, click here.]
Orlando police officer Adam Gruler was working an off-duty shift at Pulse on June 12 when he heard gunshots near the club’s entrance.
Gruler exchanged fire with Omar Mateen before the attacker disappeared into the building, according to police.
Realizing he was outgunned, Gruler immediately called for backup, police said.
Two fellow officers arrived within minutes and cornered Mateen in a restroom, investigators reported.
The FBI has not indicated that Mateen was planning attacks at other Central Florida locations, but the gunman reportedly visited local tourist attractions in the months prior to the Pulse massacre.
“We know that Mateen scoped parts of Disney World,” U.S. Congressman John Mica told News 6.
Disney Hires Additional Deputies
Reedy Creek is not the only entity that hires law enforcement to patrol the Disney property. The Walt Disney Company independently arranges and pays for even more off-duty Orange County deputies to assist its team of security officers.
The company has not disclosed how much it plans to spend on those extra deputies in the coming year.
[To read more on the Reedy Creek budgets, click here.]
Disney and Reedy Creek pay $40 per hour for each deputy, according to the sheriff’s office. That’s $10 more than the $30 minimum hourly rate required by the deputies’ union contract.
All organizations that hire off-duty deputies must also pay an additional $5 per hour fee to the sheriff’s office to cover the costs of county-owned equipment such as patrol cars, uniforms and weapons.
A sheriff’s office spokesman did not respond to questions inquiring whether or not the higher pay offered at Disney makes it more challenging for other businesses in Orange County, such as nightclubs, shopping centers and homeowners associations, to hire off-duty deputies.
Deputies are not required to work off-duty shifts and are free to choose which businesses employ them based on the pay offered, according to the sheriff’s office.
Disney officials have not explained why the company voluntarily compensates deputies more than the required minimum rate.
The hourly rate that Disney and Reedy Creek pay for off-duty deputies has not changed since the last fiscal year, sheriff’s officials confirmed. But each year, the cost of Reedy Creek’s separate contract with the law enforcement agency increases.
Under the agreement, Reedy Creek officials paid the sheriff’s office $7.5 million in 2015.
In exchange, the agency assigned 36 deputies, seven detectives and 20 supervisors and administrative staff to the Disney property.
Eight of those deputies were originally added to patrol the newly-expanded Disney Springs shopping area on bicycles, records show.
The contract also covers the cost of equipment, such as patrol cars outfitted with speed detectors.
This year, four more sheriff’s supervisors have been moved to Disney under the agreement, at an additional $742,000 cost to Reedy Creek.
Those supervisors often work out of a $2.5 million substation located near Disney Springs that Reedy Creek built specifically for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office last year.
Theme Parks Take Precautions
The increased spending on outside law enforcement follows other measures that local theme parks have taken in the past year to improve security and make guests feel more comfortable congregating among large crowds of people.
On December 16, 2015, a little more than a month after terrorists launched a series of deadly attacks in Paris, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin warning that “terrorist-inspired individuals and homegrown violent extremists may be encouraged, or inspired to target public events or places."
The following morning, Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld simultaneously began using handheld and walk-through metal detectors to screen guests.
That same day, Disney announced it had stopped selling toy guns on its property and would prohibit visitors older than 14 from wearing costumes in the parks.
Over the summer, Universal Orlando expanded the security checkpoint outside its CityWalk entertainment complex.
Security guards now screen visitors’ bags with airport-style x-ray machines.
In 2015, Universal spent about $1.7 million on off-duty police officers, Orlando Police Department records show.
Spending on officers from January through September 2016 is up nearly 14 percent compared to the same nine-month period the previous year. The company did not disclose its budget for off-duty police in the coming year.
“Our first priority will always be the safety of our guests and our team members,” said Universal Orlando spokesman Tom Schroder. “We have a strong partnership with the Orlando Police Department and we are grateful for the role its officers play in helping us to stay safe, but we are not going to discuss the specifics of our security plans, or procedures.”
Sheriff Concerned About Future Attacks
Local authorities have repeatedly assured the public that they are unaware of any specific terrorist threats against the Orlando area or its attractions. But some are concerned that the Pulse massacre could inspire others seeking to cause harm.
“We have now been probed, which makes us more of a target,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told a Congressional committee this summer. “One credible attack in Central Florida to a theme park will be disastrous for our economy.”
Demings praises his agency’s relationships with local tourist attractions.
He and other local leaders have publicly expressed satisfaction with the entertainment companies’ security protocols.
“Disney, Universal, all our major theme parks, they’re not the problem,” Congressman Mica told News 6.
“They have excellent security, the best protections for their guests.”
Mica is more concerned that terrorists might try to attack a less high profile location in Central Florida.
“They’re looking for soft targets. They found one in Pulse. We can’t let that happen again,” Mica said.
Visitors Support Law Enforcement Presence
While some Walt Disney World visitors question whether deputies and other security personnel would be able to stop someone intent on causing harm, others appreciate seeing armed deputies outside and inside the theme parks.
“I feel safer with them around,” said Suzanne Norton, who expressed some concern about visiting crowded theme parks following recent terror attacks. “I would rather walk into a place knowing I’m safe than being worried about something happening.”
Leanne Magestro, who was visiting from North Carolina, is uncertain whether law enforcement’s show of force at Disney provides real security, or simply the perception of security. But she believes the cost is warranted.
“I think that maybe it can make people feel a little bit more comfortable, and maybe make someone think twice before they do something silly,” she said.
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