Home » Here’s Everything That Happens When a Hurricane, Tornado or Earthquake Hits a Disney Park

    Here’s Everything That Happens When a Hurricane, Tornado or Earthquake Hits a Disney Park

    Disney parks and resorts are the happiest places on Earth, and when you are planning a vacation it’s hard to imagine that anything could possibly go wrong inside the so-called “Disney bubble”. However, even though Disney takes exhaustive measures to ensure that guests feel like they are transported as far away from the real world as possible during a visit to their parks and resorts, there’s one thing that even Disney can’t shield guests from: mother nature. 

    Though it can be easy to panic when a natural disaster happens on a Disney trip, guests can rest easy knowing that Disney parks are uniquely prepared to deal with a plethora of emergency situations. From earthquakes at Disneyland Resort in California and Tokyo Disneyland in Japan, to hurricanes at Walt Disney World and even severe thunderstorms that include lightning, hail and tornadoes, there are strategic plans in place at every single Disney park around the world that are designed to keep guests as safe as possible both during a natural disaster and while any cleanup that may need to occur is taking place. It may sound strange, but in many cases, a Disney park is actually the safest place you can be when conditions take a turn for the dangerous. 

    While this isn’t an exhaustive list of every disaster that Disney is prepared for, here are some of the most common threats Disney parks around the world face, and how cast members, emergency personnel and other specially trained staff work together to keep guests safe and as happy as possible, even in the face of what would otherwise be a very scary situation. 


    Image: Disney

    Parks affected: Disneyland Resort, Tokyo Disneyland 

    Both Disneyland Resort in California and Tokyo Disneyland have seen their fair share of earthquakes over the years. While these types of disasters can’t be predicted days in advance in the same way that other natural disasters (like hurricanes, tropical storms, etc.) can, Disney still has a stringent policy in place that helps to minimize damage and ensure guest safety in the event of an earthquake. No matter where an earthquake strikes, all cast members are trained to enact the following standard safety policies and procedure:

    The second a earthquake hits, all rides will be stopped. Most rides have an automatic shutdown trigger that will be set off by even the smallest tremor, but if that fails for some reason a cast member will e-stop the attraction the moment an earthquake is felt. No matter whether you are on It’s a Small World or Radiator Springs Racers, expect an abrupt stop the second any shaking starts. 

    Image: Anna Fox, Flickr (license)

    As soon as the attraction comes to a halt, safety lights will come on and guests will be advised via PA system that they will need to stay in their seats as it may not be safe to exit the attraction, especially if the earthquake is still going or there is damage. While its easy to feel panicked at the thought of being trapped on a ride, Disneyland officials will make every effort to come and get guests stuck on rides as quickly as possible once the shaking subsides.

    Guests who are waiting in an interior queue for an attraction will also be advised to stay in place until an “all clear” is given, and may be told to take cover in specific areas of the building (away from lose objects inside a gift shop, for instance). 

    Guests that are outside when an earthquake hits will be directed by cast members to the closest interior area near them. This could be an attraction, a restaurant, shop or even a backstage area. Seconds count during an earthquake, and cast members will be moving very quickly to get everyone secured as soon as possible. 

    Though guests may be tempted to leave interior areas after the initial shaking stops, cast members will ask them to continue to shelter in place. Not only is this because of the possibility of aftershocks, but also because emergency teams will be sweeping through the park, inspecting all structures and looking for potentially hazardous damage that could injure guests. Even if the earthquake is small, it is imperative for guests to wait for an “all clear” before leaving their shelter.

    Image: duchessoftea, Flickr (license)

    Outside the resort, Disneyland Resort and Tokyo Disneyland will close to new guests as soon as an earthquake occurs. However, the guests inside won’t be removed from the park. If there is little or no damage (as is often the case at Disneyland Resort in California) guests can simply follow cast member instructions, wait while safety checks are being performed and then enjoy the rest of their day at the park. Depending on the time and magnitude of the earthquake, the parks may start letting guests back into the resort, but if an earthquake happens before arrival time, even if it was a minor one, most guests will plan to visit the park another day. 

    Though most earthquakes pass quickly and don’t cause much damage, there was one notable exception in recent history. On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude shook Tokyo Disneyland, forcing the resort to cease operations mid-day. Although no visitors or cast members were injured (thanks largely to the safety policies above), there was massive property damage which prevented guests from leaving the resort, and 20,000 of the estimated 69,000 visitors at the resort that day had to spend the night inside the Tokyo Disneyland’s two theme parks due to the closure of Tokyo’s public transportation systems. As a result of the damage, Tokyo Disneyland remained closed for 10 days following the earthquake while rides and structures around the park were repaired. This was the longest disaster-related closure in the history of Disney parks. 

    A seismograph of the Japanese earthquake that shook Tokyo Disneyland
    Image: P.K. , Flickr (license)

    Though nothing this severe has happened at Disneyland Resort in California, the resort is well prepared in case “The Big One” strikes. Disneyland has not one but two emergency operations centers outfitted with monitors, communications and specially-trained staff. The first is located inside Disneyland park off of Main Street and is the primary command post if something goes wrong. The secondary emergency operations center is located outside the park at Company D, the cast member store in Anaheim. Though these facilities have only been used sparingly over the years, preparations like this ensure that if a major earthquake like the one in Japan ever happens in Anaheim, the park will be as prepared as they can be to deal with the fallout. 

    Tropical storms and hurricanes

    Image: Chad Sparkes, Flickr (license) 

    Parks affected: Walt Disney World

    Although Walt Disney World is home to the most attended theme parks in the world, it has also been the target of the most natural disasters, with the resort making it through more than two dozen hurricanes and tropical storms over the course of its 40 year history. As a result, the resort is one of the most well-prepared places in the country, with proven strategies for dealing with tropical storms and hurricanes. In fact in 2009, the resort earned the Storm Ready designation from the NOAA, meaning it is one of only a few dozen locations recognized by the federal government as one of the safest places to be in the United States when a hurricane strikes.

    One of the conditions of the resort’s Storm Ready status is a continuously staffed disaster relief center. Though guests will never see this facility (it is hidden away on the west side of Walt Disney World, far from view) this location is staffed 365 days a year, with trained professionals ready to spring into action the moment an emergency situation arises. 

    When the possibility of a storm is first indicated, staff at this post will continuously monitor weather reports and keeping a close eye on any movement of a tropical storm or hurricane. While the command center is always staffed, additional experts are brought in when a hurricane is projected to hit central Florida, even if the track is uncertain or there are several days before a potential situation could become imminent. During this initial “watch” preparation phase additional employees are put on alert, and emergency protocols and procedures are reviewed. 

    Image: NOAA

    As any Floridian will tell you, hurricanes can be quite volatile and tracking models change almost hourly as a storm approaches land. However, if a hurricane or tropical storm is projected to hit within 72 hours, Disney switches from “watch” mode into “prepare” mode, with all personnel functioning as if the storm will indeed hit. One of the first things Disney will do at the beginning of this period is issue advisories to guests projected to arrive during the hurricane, offering refunds and allowing those affected to make other arrangements. Supplies will continue to be beefed up during this time, and command posts will be staffed to take care of guests still at the resort. 

    Though most of these preparations are behind the scenes, if a storm begins closing in and models show it hitting Walt Disney World within 48 hours, that is when guests will begin noticing some big changes around the resort. All loose items around the parks and hotels, including trash bins, tables, chairs and anything else not firmly attached to the ground are pulled out and stored in a secure location. Anything that is loose but attached to a building (like a hanging sign or banner) will be tied down. Emergency personnel from the command posts will supervise the preparations process, with multiple safety checks happening every hour to ensure that everything is being secured on schedule. 

    During this critical period, the theme parks may stay open, but attractions where extensive preparations are being made will be closed. The park-wide PA system will also be used to keep guests informed about the progress of the storm and about changing conditions. If you are in a park when a storm is getting ready to hit, be aware that conditions can change rapidly and a park-wide evacuation could happen at any moment. 

    Image: Mike Durkin, Flickr (license)

    If the storm does not change course and is expected to hit within 24 hours, guests will be advised about what to do when the storm is imminent. If it is a small tropical depression or Category 1 hurricane, some parks may stay open with only some attractions operational. You can see some interesting video footage of a parade that was performed during tropical storm Fay below:

    However, if the storm is more serious, the parks will all close and guests will be advised to shelter in place their resort. Disaster command posts will dispatch supplies and personnel as necessary to each hotel to ensure that safety procedures are being followed and all hotels have adequate supplies (which may include bottled water, food, etc.) Medical teams will also be on hand to respond to any injuries or medical issues that arise during the storm.  

    Though the situation is not ideal, in the past Walt Disney World has been known to at least try and keep guests’ spirits up during a hurricane by offering free sandwich buffets, indoor movie festivals and even some character meet and greets at various hotels during a storm. You can check out a video below that features footage shot while a family was sheltering at Walt Disney World during Hurricane Charlie. 

    Though guests are normally safe in common areas and in their hotel rooms, if winds exceed a certain amount or a tornado is spotted in the area, guests may be moves to secure interior areas (like ballrooms) until the immediate threat has passed.

    Image: CKramer, Flickr (license)

    Once the storm is over, Disney will assess the damage to their parks and then reopen them as they are able. Though there may be some property damage, the biggest problem that Walt Disney World has historically had after hurricanes are downed trees. Once again the disaster relief team will spring into action, clearing debris as quickly as possible so the resort can fully recover and return to full operations.

    Severe thunderstorms

    Image: Amy Kellogg , Flickr (license)

    Parks affected: Walt Disney World

    While a little thunderstorm may not sound like a big deal, in Florida, especially during the summertime, a little rain can turn into a dangerous storm very rapidly, especially as high-speed winds, hail, lightning, and even tornados can develop in minutes. Even though Walt Disney World has a long-term plan in place for severe weather brought on by a hurricane, dangerous thunderstorms can form in only a few hours, giving the resort precious little time to prepare.

    When severe weather is first spotted on radar, all operations Cast Members are put on alert. Though Walt Disney World has never closed a park during a severe thunderstorm, there are several emergency protocols in place should the weather take a turn for the dangerous.

    One of the most immediate concerns is lightning. Lighting bolts are not uncommon in Florida, and even though they are scary, they aren’t immediately dangerous. However, if lightning gets within a certain radius of guest areas, Disney will shut down all outdoor rides and entertainment, including shows, meet and greets and nightly fireworks. Ferryboat service may also be suspended. Though monorails typically run through severe weather, a scary incident occurred in 2014 when lightning struck a monorail causing an emergency stop. No one was hurt and everyone was safely evacuated following the incident. 

    Image: Christian Lambert, Flickr (license)

    Though lightning is a fairly common byproduct of a severe thunderstorm at Walt Disney World, in rare circumstances  tornados may appear as well. If a tornado warning spotted near a theme park, Cast Members will direct all guests outside to head indoors. Most interior queues and stores are equipped to handle high winds, and Cast Members will direct guests away from windows.  Guests will then shelter in place until an all-clear signal is given.

    If a tornado is reported near a hotel, an alarm will sound and all guests will be asked to head to the bottom floor of the resort and will be gathered in a secure, interior room (usually a conference center or ballroom). Once the danger has cleared, guests will be allowed to return to their rooms.

    Image: Christian Lambert, Flickr (license) 

     Hail can also be a concern during a severe thunderstorm. If conditions are favorable for hail development, cast members will urge guests to move into interior areas until the danger passes. Though you might not think that hail is very serious, a strike on the head can cause a concussion, so its best to exercise caution. 

    Finally, flooding can also occur during a severe thunderstorm. Though there haven’t been any situations where floods have been responsible for a lot of damage at Walt Disney World, localized flooding can close attractions in low-lying areas. Adventureland in the Magic Kingdom is one area that is particularly susceptible to flooding during severe weather, with this area occasionally roped off until the water drains. 

    As with all other emergencies, Disney will keep guests informed of all operational changes that happen during a thunderstorm. Luckily, most thunderstorms are brief and will pass in only a few hours. 

    What to do if an emergency happens on your vacation

    Image: Christian Lambert, Flickr (license)

    Though it’s unlikely, emergencies can happen at any time (even during a Disney vacation) and it’s important to know what to do if a natural disaster happens while you are visiting a Disney park. 

    Follow all Cast Member directions: This may seem like common sense, but when you are in the middle of an emergency situation it can be difficult not to give in to your instinctual “flight” response, especially when dealing with an immediate threat like an Earthquake or severe thunderstorm. However, even though your first instinct may be to head for the hills, it is imperative that you follow all instructions and not try and circumvent the situation, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Even if you’re right at the end of a ride like The Seas With Finding Nemo and could walk right out, if a cast member tells you to stay in your ride vehicle until further notice, make sure you follow the instructions, even if you aren’t entirely sure what’s happening or why you’re being asked to stay. 

    Keep your party together: Again, this may seem like common sense, but especially when the threat isn’t immediate, traveling parties may be tempted to split up. For instance, even though the Magic Kingdom may be open 24 hours before a hurricane is projected to hit, it’s probably not a good idea to make plans for half of your party to go to Adventureland while the other half goes to Fantasyland. If an emergency evacuation is called, you don’t want to be scrambling around looking for your family members instead of exiting the park calmly. 

    Keep calm: Ans speaking of calm, it may be difficult to keep a level head while the earth is shaking or the wind is howling, but try your best not to panic so you can pay attention to following instructions and staying safe. Guests can take comfort knowing that Disney parks and resorts are some of the safest places in the world during a natural disaster, and if they are able to stay calm and use common sense they’ll make it through whatever mother nature throws at them during a Disney vacation. 

    Image: Andrew Evans, Flickr (license)

    While no one wants to have their day at Disney dampened by a natural disaster, Disney has taken exhaustive measures to ensure guest safety throughout these emergency situations. Have you ever been at a Disney park during a natural disaster? Share your stories below!