9/11 at Walt Disney World: A day that changed tourism forever

Impacts of 9/11 on what is now called “The Most Magical Place on Earth” are profound

Remembering September 1th, 2001 20 Years Later (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

BAY LAKE, Fla.Since kicking off our “50 Days of 50 Years” series on Aug. 12, nearly all of our pieces have featured an over-the-top array of colorful images, photos and artwork from my archives. This one will be different.

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, started uneventfully at Walt Disney World. At 8:46 a.m. when the first jet slammed into the World Trade Center, guests were already inside the Magic Kingdom and were starting to funnel into the other three theme parks. For the first few minutes, the crash in New York appeared to be an accident, a naïve notion dispelled the instant the second jet hit at 9:03 a.m. America was under attack.

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Not long after, word funneled in about the crash into the Pentagon and Flight 93′s downing in Pennsylvania as passengers fought back. Earlier this week, News 6 Investigates’ Merris Badcock beautifully told the story of why Flight 93′s terrorists were short-handed, thanks to a true hero working at Orlando International Airport.

Disneyland and its brand new sister park “California Adventure” never opened that day. In the chaos of that morning, Disney executives were facing the unknown and even before the FAA ruled all planes must land and the airspace cleared coast to coast, they announced on ABC all Disney parks worldwide would close.

Less than five minutes later, that word filtered up to area and attraction leads, security and all other cast members. For the first time in memory in Florida, a parks-wide announcement abruptly broke through the area music that helps cast a spell each day: “Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, Walt Disney World is now closed. Please follow the instructions of cast members and move to the nearest exit.” It was only the second time a national emergency shut down Disney parks. The first was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, long before Walt had even started scouting land in Central Florida.

How unprecedented was the closure? For its first 28 years, Walt Disney World never closed its gates for a full day, though the Magic Kingdom and Epcot did close several hours early for Hurricane Elena on Aug. 31, 1985. Hurricane Floyd closed the theme parks and water parks early on Sept. 14, 1999. Sept. 11, 2001, was only the third such event.

Still, when the emergency was declared, detailed procedures were in place to clear the parks. Cast members were told to form “human walls” to link hands and systematically sweep and empty parks full of guests all at once. Most guests were not told why.

My dear friends, Steve and Beth Shorten, were on vacation from New Jersey that fateful day, staying at the Wilderness Lodge for their fifth wedding anniversary. In a 2013 remembrance on her blog, Beth wrote in part: “I had managed to secure us a spot as the ‘Flag Family’ ... so on September 11th, we were up early. We needed to be in the lobby and ready to go by 7:30.” A cast member took them up some stairs to the roof of the resort. Beth adds: “The view was incredible. It was a beautiful morning. Steve was the one who raised the first flag, the American Flag. We then raised the state flag, the WDW park flag and the two flags that were for the hotel. I snapped as many photos as I could.”

Steve & Beth Shorten, atop the Wilderness Lodge on September 11, 2001., shortly before the terror attacks i (Steve & Beth Shorten, used by permission)

They were in the Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square when the park was closed somewhat aware of the plane crashes but not the implications of what was to come. That came when a parkwide announcement called on cast members to carry out “Emergency Plan A.” Beth added, “There were cast members lining the streets and some of them were not in ‘costume’ but must have been from the corporate office as they were wearing suits (something you don’t see on Main Street, USA). We took a boat back to our hotel. It was a long process, but orderly. With all the parks shut down for the day... we spent the day at our hotel. We watched the news in disbelief, as the rest of the nation did, It is understandable that I don’t recall much else of our vacation.”

Of the evacuation itself, a Frontierland cast member named Michael told The HuffPost back in 2011: ”We were told not to tell the guests what had happened unless they asked us. I remember one guest asking me and — after I told them — they just stood there blank faced and didn’t move for a bit.”

Disney and its cast members (not to mention SeaWorld and Universal) should be commended for how they handled that day and what came next. To help keep children occupied and not terrorized, Mickey, Donald, Tigger and the rest were scrambled out to all of the resort hotels. Front desk and reservations cast members patiently found ways to extend stays of guests who, with no flights, had nowhere else to go. Resort restaurants all had to ramp up on a dime to cope with huge crowds at meal times when most guests typically eat out in the theme parks.

I have heard over and over from both guests staying and cast members working on those days praising how well Disney made the most of a truly horrific situation.

Walt Disney World Resort Security Cast Members Jack Cooper (left) and Branland Vaughn (right) hold “thank you” signs for medical workers while standing in front of Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The castle shines with a hopeful blue light through April 7, 2020, in honor of World Health Day, and Cooper and Vaughn’s signs represent the gratitude all Walt Disney World Resort Cast Members have for the medical community during these challenging times. (Disney) (Disney)

Sept. 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 rammings at backstage entrances.

Photo: Jonathan Michael Salazar

With the help of federal authorities, a no-fly zone was established over its parks. To this day, restrictions are especially tight over and near the Magic Kingdom even for our own Sky 6 news helicopter.

As the years (and now decades) have passed, Disney and the others have managed to make so much of the security measures more seamless and easy, and guests have grown more used to them, which helped immensely when temperature screenings were added in 2020 for reopenings amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, Disney has rolled out extremely high-tech scanners at its parks and Disney Springs that make most manual bag checks obsolete. You can read much more about the security changes and challenges in an excellent article posted on ClickOrlando.com.

At Magic Kingdom on Saturday, scant attention was overtly paid to the 20th anniversary of the attacks unless you knew where and when to look.

The Flag Retreat Ceremony has been held daily since 1971 in the Magic Kingdom, and honors a veteran of the day. (Disney)

Where: The U.S. flag pole in Town Square of Main Street, USA. When: At 5 p.m. on Saturday and every day, the Flag Retreat Ceremony honors a veteran, naming them Disney Magic Makers. For Sept. 11, 2021, Disney chose Rob Vickers of Gulf Breeze, Florida. Vickers first served our nation in the U.S. Marines. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he rejoined active duty as a military police officer in the U.S. Air Force until a medical discharge in 2010.

Rob Vickers of Gulf Breeze, Florida was serving in the Army National Guard on September 11th, 2001 and was a first responder at Ground Zero. Prior, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps and after served in the U.S. Air Force, retiring after a total of 14 years of military service. (Disney)

A third-generation veteran, after that retirement, Vickers and a friend started Emerald Coast Wounded Warriors, advocating for and assisting wounded veterans and their families. Many of the warriors Vickers champions for have received free homes, service dogs, emergency mental health care, financial aid, and spaces to safely interact with one another – a critical need for veterans living in isolation during the pandemic.

Rob Vickers of Gulf Breeze, Florida was the veteran of the day on September 11th, 2021 for the Flag Retreat Ceremony at The Magic Kingdom. He served our nation for 14 years in the Marines, Air Force and US Army National Reserve. (Disney)

He is especially pleased when he can help fellow 9/11 first responders. You see, Vickers had joined The Army National Guard in 2000 and happened to be in New York City, traveling with a church group in September 2001. He has pictures from the top of the World Trade Center’s South Tower taken Sept. 8. On Sept. 12, he arrived at Ground Zero and spent 28 days there telling the Pensacola News Journal he experienced the best and worst of humanity.

Before Saturday’s ceremony, Vickers told the Disney Parks Blog that “helping others is very therapeutic for me,”

Rob Vickers of Gulf Breeze, Florida was the veteran of the day on September 11th, 2021 for the Flag Retreat Ceremony at The Magic Kingdom. He served our nation for 14 years in the Marines, Air Force and US Army National Reserve. (Disney)

I highly recommend taking the time to witness the Flag Retreat. It’s a patriotic Disney tradition dating back all 50 years in Florida and much earlier in California.

In a 2017 Disney Parks YouTube video, a Disney security guard described it as “kind of a 30 minute window of Veterans Day, on a daily basis, I go out and my goal is to find one person and make a difference to that one person to have that unforgettable moment. The flag ceremony is about the veteran each day so that they have the acknowledgement from us. We just want to show our appreciation. We do recognize the sacrifices you made. We do respect the sacrifice made. (We) select the veteran of the day, take down the flag folded up, and then the veteran would then carry it off the street. We just get to spend a 30 minute window with somebody who has served in the military.... We want to make sure that that individual on that particular day has the best experience they can possibly.”

The Flag Retreat Ceremony has been held daily since 1971 in the Magic Kingdom, and honors a veteran of the day. (Disney)
The Flag Retreat Ceremony has been held daily since 1971 in the Magic Kingdom, and honors a veteran of the day. (Disney)
The Flag Retreat Ceremony has been held daily since 1971 in the Magic Kingdom, and honors a veteran of the day. (Disney)

If we look, every day we can see how Sept. 11 has changed the nation, tourism and Walt Disney World forever. Of those millions of lives, I can’t help but wonder about two: a bride and groom.

On Sept. 11, 2017, Beth Shorten recalled as she and her husband were making their way down from the roof of The Wilderness Lodge: “I noticed a small area, I believe on the 4th floor that was obviously going to be used for a small wedding ceremony and/or reception... I never saw any members of the wedding party, but it was such a picture perfect day and it was Disney so I was sure it would be a beautiful and memorable wedding.” Beth adds that as the day unfolded, “The thoughts of an impending wedding faded from my mind. But I remember it every year, even as my own anniversary is just days away. I wonder about the bride and groom. I wonder what their wedding day was really like.”

Disney 50

To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.

We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.

Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!

About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.