Manhattan attorney, published author and Disney fan Larry Fine was visiting Disney World in 2017 when he nearly died.
Larry and his family had spent the day at Magic Kingdom. He ate, as many of us do on a Walt Disney World vacation, a bountiful all-you-care-to-enjoy breakfast with the family at Trail’s End restaurant, and the family had taken in a viewing of “The Muppets Present: Great Moments in American History” in Liberty Square.
Afterward, he and his family took a vote, and the consensus was clear; it was time to head back to their Disney Resort Hotel for a rest, despite his youngest daughter’s vote to stick it out in the parks. The plan was simple: they’d take a rest in their room at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, and then head back to Magic Kingdom to cash in on the elusive FastPass+ selections they had scored: one set for Space Mountain in Tomorrowland and the other for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Fantasyland. The break would be good for them.
And it’s probably why Larry’s alive today.
“If we’d stayed in the park, and were running around, I might not have noticed that my heart was attacking me,” Fine said.
Larry says if he had kept going in the park that day, that he might not have noticed the way his heart was behaving; he probably would have just chalked it up to too many dips on the roller coasters. But Larry’s problems weren’t because of the G-force of an attraction like Mission: SPACE or because of the 5-story drop at Splash Mountain, and that was becoming increasingly clear to him.
He and his wife left Magic Kingdom with their daughters and headed back to their resort hotel at Disney World, where Larry lay down in a pirate-themed bed at the Caribbean Beach Resort.
But after dozing off and on for more than an hour, he finally awakened his wife and told her that his heart wouldn’t stop racing, and his heartbeat was very irregular. They both knew something wasn’t quite right, so they told their daughters to go on back to Magic Kingdom, and after a quick trip to the emergency room near the Walt Disney World Resort, they’d all meet back up again.
And it’s a very good thing he did. The problem was immediately clear: Larry needed open-heart surgery, specifically a quadruple bypass, a very serious procedure that is performed so that blood flow to the heart improves. It takes place when four of the blood vessels to the heart are blocked. Larry says he had to ride in an ambulance to a downtown Orlando hospital campus, and that was extremely stressful for him.
“They were trying to decide whether they had to like run the sirens and call ahead to get me into surgery immediately,” Fine said. “And I was kind of freaking out.”
In the medical community, there’s a term for what Larry Fine experienced that day, but it’s not a fancy, hard-to-pronounce clinical term. It’s actually a slang term. A nurse caring for Larry that day told him he had “failed the Disney stress test.”
“He explained it was not uncommon for people to come in with heart issues who happened to have been in the park,” Fine explained during an interview. In a statement, Disney responded by saying that people have heart problems while enjoying vacations, and it happens all over the world–obviously not just at Disney Parks.
But Disney World does see a lot of vacationers and holiday merrymakers in a year’s time. In 2019, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States, the Walt Disney World Resort hosted most of the 75 million visitors that came to the Orlando area.
There’s no telling how many Guests “fail the Disney stress test,” but Larry Fine certainly isn’t the first Guest to suffer a heart problem during a Disney trip.
“Oh yeah, everybody [knows] that you’re going to eventually go to the parks for something like that because it happened all the time,” a former Orlando paramedic, Josh Granada, explained.
Public records show that the Orlando Fire Department and the Orange County Fire Department were called to the Universal Studios Orlando property and the Sea World and Sea World Aquatica properties close to 150 times in 2019. Arrivals to The Walt Disney World Resort aren’t included in those records, as Disney World has a separate department that services the parks–Reedy Creek.
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Granada says that when he served close to those theme parks, calls were often for individuals who had passed out, often because they were not used to walking so much in one day, and to make matters worse, they also weren’t drinking enough water, calling the combination a “recipe for disaster.”
The list of Incidents involving Guests and Cast members falling ill, experiencing heart attacks, or being injured at Walt Disney World is extensive. Over the years, there have been reports of accidents involving Disney World Transportation and the Disney World monorail. There have been reports of at least two minor children who lost their lives after being attacked by alligators on Disney property. And there have been reports of Cast members being injured or even killed while performing their duties.
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But the list includes a large number of heart-related incidents as well, many of which have taken place during or shortly after a ride. Not all of the incidents have resulted in deaths, but sadly, many of them have.
In 2005, a 30-year-old Guest died after riding a ride in the parks because of a heart condition. A similar scenario involving a 12-year-old Guest happened in 2006, and in 2007, a 51-year-old Guest experienced the same fate. And that’s just three examples. There are scores more, but each of the heart-related deaths at Disney World were related to pre-existing heart conditions, whether previously diagnosed or not yet diagnosed.
Much more recently, in December 2021, a Guest staying at Disney’s Bay Lake Tower passed away after experiencing a heart attack during her stay.
According to the most recent statistics, more than 30 million people in the U.S. have some kind of heart disease, whether they know it or not.
Dr. Gul Dadlani is Nemours Children’s Hospital’s Chief of Cardiology, and he is the former President of the Orlando Chapter of the American Heart Association. Dr. Dadlani says there are many factors that can account for so many individuals experiencing heart problems while on vacation–even on vacation at places like Disney World.
Dr. Dadlani mentions things like the stress of a vacation, a sudden increase in exercise (have you ever counted your steps on a Magic Kingdom day?), dehydration brought on by the Central Florida heat, and diets full of salt.
“These people are coming and visiting Central Florida,” he explains. “And they come with some inherent risk, and as their lifestyle changes when they arrive based on stress, exertion, diet, dehydration from the heat–all of those can play factors.”
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Dadlani says that many Guests who “fail the Disney stress test” do so because of a condition call atrial fibrillation, or A-fib for short. He says that sometimes Guests with A-fib forget to bring their medicine on vacation, which is risky enough. But then they often also drink alcohol, and doing so can cause a bout of A-fib, which is characterized by an irregular heartbeat.
But he does have some tips for Guests, which include staying hydrated, always remembering to pack necessary medications (and be sure to take them as prescribed) and listening to the body.
“If you have acute chest discomfort, discomfort in the upper body, shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, if we’re nauseous, lightheaded, and if we pass out, we need to seek attention immediately,” Dadlani said.
Larry Fine is glad he listened to his body, and that he got medical attention when he did. It is almost certainly what saved his life.
And he doesn’t blame Disney for his heart attack. In fact, he’s been back to the Most Magical Place on Earth several times since 2017, most recently for his daughter’s wedding, which took place at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Larry Fine/Credit: Fine Family