Disney on 9/11

Today is a very somber day in American, and in many ways, world History, as today marks 17 years since the horrific, awful terrorist attacks, attacks that took down New York City’s World Trade Center towers 1 and 2, that blew up a wall of the Pentagon in Washington DC and resulted in the crash of a jet plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, not to mention the thousands dead.

And while the human story is the main focus of this historical event, it’s important to remember that there were businesses nation wide that had to make quick decisions about their day. Some smaller businesses, especially those far removed from New York, DC and other metro areas, were able to make the choice to open or close pretty quickly, larger companies had to decide what to do.  Such was the decisions of The Walt Disney Company on September 11, 2001.

Disneyland in Anaheim had it a little easier, as they had not opened for the day at that point. With the first attacks happening before 8a EST time, it was barely 5a on the West Coast.  There were 1000s of guests staying in Disney resorts on property, however, so food and beverage areas remained open providing guests with food at no charge. To give guests something, the AMC theater in the Downtown Disney area remained opened as well, showing free films to guests. This was only the 2nd time in Disneyland’s history that they would close their gates for a day;  the first time was the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963.

Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, had already opened it’s theme parks, however. As news trickled out to Cast Members that first, a major incident had happened at the World Trade Center, and then that a 2nd plane had flown into the other tower (thereby cementing the belief that this was a terrorist attack), the instructions were to get guests out of the parks.  Was Disney World a target? A rumor had been floated through parts of the media later that day that WDW was, but it was never verified. At the time, however, safety was the most important issue when it came to it’s guests.

In each area of the parks, Cast Members began to lock arms and hold hands, thereby forming a human wall that would sweep the park and began to move people towards the front gates of each park, while never touching a single guest. CMs were instructed to not say anything unless guests asked directly, and by mid-morning, people were beginning to hear something going on.  The announcement in the Magic Kingdom came over the speakers loud and clear: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Magic Kingdom is now closed. Please follow the direction of the nearest Cast Member.”

All guests were given complimentary passes as they left the turnstiles. Once back at the resort, many people stayed glued to their TVs, but Disney brought out entertainers, characters and food in the resorts to keep people as happy as could be expected.

Keep in mind, this was 2001… many people had no cell phones, and hardly anyone had a “smart” phone or device, so news wasn’t so readily available, added to the fact that so many rumors were flying around about what was happening, and what was to come. It’s hard to put your mind in that spot, since the news is just an app-click away from any device you may have in your pocket.

Security then follows the Cast Member “wall” to make sure no one remains, and it takes less than 30 minutes to empty every park.

The following day, September 12th, all Disney Parks re-open as usual, but the decision had been made to increase security measures. Inspections of all backpacks, purses and so on are now longer and more frequent.  The FAA then placed a flight restriction over Disney World, extending out three miles from Cinderella’s castle, and up to 3,000 feet.  The atmosphere was heavy in the parks for a day or two after, as even Jungle Cruise skippers stopped making “plane” jokes as they passed by the “downed plane”, for a while after 9/11.

There is also an article here from Jim Hill Media that gives some first hand accounts of that day at Disney from CMs and guests.

(story information taken from various articles and experiences read about. if there is a mistake, I will make the correction immediately.)