A terrible tragedy at Disney World more than seven years ago claimed the life of a tiny Guest, and since then, Disney has been diligent in taking steps to prevent the same thing from ever happening again.
Walt Disney made his first purchase of land in Central Florida on May 3, 1965. The first transaction included 8,380 acres previously owned by Florida State Senator Irlo Bronson, who sold the land for $120 per acre. Several more purchases of land were transacted, and when Walt had completed all of the transactions to purchase land near Orlando, Florida, he had amassed more than 27,000 acres on which Disney World would be constructed.
Walt was able to purchase the first tracts of land so inexpensively because a majority of them were covered in swampland. Decades later, it’s hard to believe that such a beautiful and magical resort actually sits atop thousands of acres of once-swampy, desolate land. But occasionally, there are reminders of the swampy origins of the land on which Disney World rests.
The Walt Disney (Water) World
Though much of the land purchased has since been developed, there are at least ten bodies of water across the 27,000 acres, including Seven Seas Lagoon, Bay Lake, World Showcase Lagoon, Crescent Lake, Echo Lake, Discovery River, Lake Buena Vista, Sassagoula River, Hourglass Lake, and Lago Dorado. And in Florida, bodies of water of varying sizes and depths can serve as homes to wildlife of different species, including snakes and alligators–whether manmade or naturally occurring.
A Terrible Tragedy
In mid-June 2016, a toddler named Lane Graves, who was visiting the Walt Disney World Resort from Elkhorn, Nebraska, with his family, was attacked by an alligator. He and several other children were standing in the ankle-deep waters of Seven Seas Lagoon at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, gathering water in buckets to use in making sandcastles. The children, along with their parents, had gathered outside the resort to watch Disney’s Zootopia on an outdoor movie screen—an experience offered to Guests at the Grand Floridian that evening.
The little boy’s father, who had accompanied his son to gather water from the lagoon, reportedly witnessed the attack and attempted to save his son but was unsuccessful. The tragedy rocked the Disney World fan community and immediately set into motion Disney’s commitment to ensuring that such a tragedy never takes place again.
Disney Found Lacking in the Official Investigation Into the Attack
A report from the Florida Wildlife Commission’s official investigation into the events of June 14, 2016, found that at the time of the incident, “no swimming” signs were, in fact, posted around Seven Seas Lagoon near Magic Kingdom, warning Guests that swimming in the manmade body of water is prohibited. The signs did not, however, warn Guests about the possible presence of alligators in the waters closest to Guest areas.
When asked by CNN what steps the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has taken to ensure that tourists are aware of these dangers, a spokeswoman for the Commission said that the agency “relies on private property owners to contact them about wildlife issues and referred questions related to making Guests aware of the threat of alligators to management at the Walt Disney World Resort.
The investigation report also stated that Orange County, Florida, where the tragedy took place, ranks fifth out of 67 counties in the number of unprovoked alligator bites. At the time the report was released, there had been 17 unprovoked attacks in the 66 years of record-keeping by the Commission. The unprovoked attack at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort in June 2016 was the first-ever fatal attack in the county.
Disney World Immediately Takes Steps to Prevent Another Attack
Immediately following the attack, Disney World implemented new procedures across all areas of the Disney-owned property and replaced the old “no swimming” signs with new signage that warns Guests of the potential dangers in the water found around the resort.
The new signs included details about the potential dangers found in and around Disney World bodies of water and read, “Danger: alligators and snakes in area. Stay away from the water. Do not feed the wildlife.” Additionally, fences and other barriers weren placed around areas on Disney’s property where Guest areas are located near the water. The new signage and barriers serve to bring greater awareness about the real dangers that exist around the resort, especially in areas near the water.
Disney further implemented new training for Cast Members that focuses on the dangers in and near Disney’s bodies of water and gives them information about the alligators and snakes that inhabit the area. The new training also teaches Cast Members about ways to help ensure the safety of Guests visiting Disney World with respect to alligator attacks and other dangers.
Disney Has Alligators Removed from the Resort Property
Though the initiatives Disney immediately took were important and necessary, they were only the first steps Disney World took as part of its commitment to doing everything possible to make sure that no other family would ever have to face the tragedy experienced by young Lane Graves’s family. A larger, more far-reaching effort was needed, and it would involve the arduous, dangerous, time-consuming, and expensive task of removing the very present danger itself–namely, alligators in the area.
Beginning almost immediately after the attack at the Grand Floridian Resort, trappers began removing gators found on Disney World property, thanks to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program or SNAP. According to the Commission, only 23 alligators were removed from Disney property between 2007 and 2015. Since the 2016 attack, however, an average of 45 gators per year have been removed.
Per the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there have been 453 incidents of alligators biting humans without provocation. Of those, 26 have resulted in human fatalities.
In 2016, 83 alligators were removed, followed by 57 in 2017, 33 in both 2018 and 2019, and 46 in 2020. Most of the 2020 removals were carried out during the months of March, April, May, and June 2020, during the Walt Disney World Resort’s closure in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The highest number of removals was clearly during the same year in which the attack occurred.
“In keeping with our strong commitment to safety, we continue to reinforce procedures related to reporting sightings and interactions with wildlife, and work closely with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove certain wildlife from our property in accordance with state regulations,” a Walt Disney World spokesperson said during an interview.
Under the SNAP program, if an alligator at least four feet in length is believed to pose a threat to people, pets, or property, the FWC issues a permit to a state-contracted alligator trapper, who then carries out the task of collecting the animal and removing it from the area. Some of the animals are taken to zoos or to animal exhibits, but rather than relocate the reptiles, the majority of them are euthanized since alligators often attempt to return to the location where they were captured.
Walt Disney World has been granted permission to have up to 500 alligators removed through 2023. Each removal must be reported to state authorities, per the agreement, and its size must also be noted.