What it’s like to be a tourist during a hurricane in Orlando
By Helen Wright
If you follow us on social media, you’ll know that we were in Orlando during 2017’s Hurricane Irma. We received lots of questions on our Instagram Stories about our experience, mostly from those with a dream trip to Florida booked and who were worried the weather would ruin their holiday or worse, put them and their family in danger.
We stayed at both Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and Universal’s Sapphire Falls Resort during the storm (we had already booked to change hotels mid-stay, so moving was nothing to do with the weather). Below, I have put together a timeline of our experience as well as clearing up a few myths and concerns. This post is based on our personal experience of the hurricane in Orlando as a tourist and is not an attempt to make light of the unpredictable dangers of being in the path of a storm. If extreme weather is forecast to hit your holiday, you should always check with your airline, tour operator or hotel to ensure it is safe to travel to and stay at your destination.
WHAT IS A HURRICANE IN ORLANDO LIKE FOR TOURISTS?
Over the last few years it is common for me to be in Orlando during September and October for work and so I have experienced my fair share of Florida hurricane action. Not wishing to become the hurricane equivalent of the unsinkable Molly Brown, I have so far ‘survived’ Hurricane’s Charley, Ivan, Sandy (where I also caught the tail end in NYC), Wilma and Irene as well as countless tropical storms. It was only during Irma and Charley – which hit Florida’s west coast with 145mph winds and despite slowing considerably, still retained its hurricane status when it reached Orlando – the weather impacted my trip in any major way.
Prior to Hurricane Irma, I had been working in Orlando on a filming project with Universal Studios. The plan was for Simon and eight-month-old Finn to fly out from England and meet me after my shoot had finished for a family holiday in Florida.
As you can see from my photo above, in the days leading up to the (subsequently downgraded) Hurricane Irma hitting Florida, the weather in Orlando was amazing. Blue skies and weather so hot I had to reapply makeup every hour and no disturbance at all. We had been working really long days on the shoot with the Universal team who, of course, reside in Florida and other than the basic knowledge that a storm was forecast there was no mention of it at all.
It’s worth noting here that Orlando is a landlocked city and the closest coastline (Cocoa Beach) is 58 miles away. This means that even when a major hurricane is threatened, it is usually downgraded to a tropical storm or even simply, just a ‘storm’ by the time it reaches Orlando. News coverage in the USA can be dramatic at the best of times and during Irma, hyperbole had clearly reached the UK. During a break from filming and enjoying the perfect wind-free sunshine, I checked my phone only to find messages from ten or more people at home asking if I was okay.
Apparently, storms sell papers and while I was frivolously skipping around Universal Studios in my flip-flops, my family were at home stressing that I was about to get blown away like Dorothy Gale. ITV even contacted me to see if I could do a live transmission from one of the theme parks to show viewers what it was like. All of this seemed absurd when it was such a glorious day, but as these things often do, things escalated quickly and by the last day of our shoot, moody skies began to hang over Orlando like a red flag. Even though locals here remained relaxed, a few of our crew who live on the coast had to leave early to board up their windows and grab an overnight bag when an evacuation notice was issued for coastal communities.
keep calm and carry on
UK tourists to Orlando should not worry about being in danger when staying at a hotel during a hurricane. Resorts here are built to withstand category five hurricane winds. Most of the devastation caused after extreme weather in Florida takes place in mobile home communities or areas of poverty where residents do not live in permanent structures (brick buildings) and so therefore endure the full force of the storm. Popular tourist areas, Orlando of course being the top spot for holidaymakers, is actually a bolthole for locals living elsewhere in Florida. Universal’s Sapphire Falls, the hotel where I was currently staying, was full to capacity with the added Florida residents and we got to chat to lots of them about their experience. Of those we spoke to, 99% had migrated to Orlando for convenience rather than safety. Storms can knock out electricity and a few days in the humidity with no air con was a deal breaker. The hotel was buzzing and you could really feel the ‘pull together’ attitude in the air. The best part was that the hotel, which is pet friendly, had also welcomed lots of lovely dogs with their owners and the lobby and halls were like a mini Crufts!
OUR EXPERIENCE in orlando DURING HURRICANE IRMA
THE DAY BEFORE TOMORROW…
As it turned out, Irma was looking pretty menacing and so Orlando International Airport announced it would be closing at 5pm on Saturday and therefore not accepting any flights scheduled to arrive after this time. Simon and Finn were due to land at 4.30pm that day but there was still a risk of their flight being cancelled so Virgin Atlantic gave us the option of changing the flight to after the storm had passed. Not wanting to be stuck in Florida without my family, we made a slightly harebrained choice that Finn and Simon would fly out the day before the airport closed and ride out the storm with me – which turned out to be a great decision.
Virgin Atlantic were extremely helpful throughout and genuinely seemed to be doing everything they could to help and advise guests. I kept an eye on the app, which seemed to be updated regularly and Simon spoke with them on the phone to rearrange the booking. Given the circumstances it was an almost stress-free experience. Plus, because most (normal) people likely moved to a flight after the storm, Simon also had the added perk of a near-empty plane which, when traveling with an infant, was a result! They arrived with no problems and no delays and together we all checked into Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge at the Walt Disney World resort.
By now, all the major theme parks had announced they would be closing for the duration of the storm, which was scheduled to last two days. Our hotel had also warned us that a compulsory curfew had been put in place for the whole county after 6pm and so we would not be able to leave the hotel after this time. Due to this, the Walt Disney World parks would be closing at 5pm with no fireworks. The weather, although a little grey, was actually still very pleasant and the humidity had reduced somewhat. We decided to pack our waterproofs and go and explore the Disney parks anyway – no time like the present!
Up bright and early we were able to do both Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom during the opening hours and we had a great time! There were a few periods of heavy rain but that wasn’t going to hold us back. We discovered that the attractions don’t often close because of rainfall, only if lightning is detected in an eight-mile radius, and so we were able to ride everything we wanted to. The best thing of all was that the parks weren’t busy at all and some areas felt like we had them all to ourselves!
It goes without saying that Disney cast members remained cheerful throughout and there were plenty of them around, armed with useful information about the storm progress, when the last resort transportation would be leaving and safety tips. Unless you have children particularly tuned into the weather, I would be surprised if their Disney experience is affected by an impending storm and it might even have been improved if the shorter lines meant they could go on Space Mountain a few more times.
Back at the hotel and safely bunked in long before the curfew we were suddenly faced with the prospect that we weren’t going to be able to leave for a few days, which was slightly weird. Luckily for us, Animal Kingdom Lodge is one of Disney’s deluxe hotels and so we had plenty of space to roam around and the resort had prepared events, games and other extras to keep everyone entertained.
The huge lobby doubled up as a great games space and there was a DJ and hula hooping competition going on when we got back. The lodge had also prepared a schedule of events to last for the curfew including colouring competitions, quizzes, educational sessions and surprise visits from some familiar characters. In a way, we were actually lucky to be staying during the storm as I found out that the characters don’t often visit the hotel properties (so you only usually see them in the parks) and I am not really a person that would queue up to get a photo so it meant Finn got to meet Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Donald and the Chipmunks, which was brilliant.
KEEPING FED AND WATERED
Room service was not operating during the storm period and there were also a few changes to the restaurant options too. Our hotel usually has two sit-down options, Jiko – a fine-dining restaurant and Boma which is the more family-friendly buffet option. During the storm period, both restaurants merged to provide more seating for guests unable to leave the resort and eat elsewhere. The usual (and award-winning) menu at Jiko was not being served and the buffet was the only option. From information I was given at Sapphire Falls, the Universal Resort Hotels were also not serving from the main menu at restaurants and offering a buffet or takeout option instead so this is clearly the strategy and it does make sense. I was disappointed as I was really looking forward to eating at Jiko but having said that, the breakfast, lunch and dinner at Boma was fantastic so I can’t complain too much. The lobby bar was also serving discounted cocktails which was a nice touch and all-in-all the general atmosphere in the hotel had an almost party-feel about it.
IN FOR THE NIGHT
Naively, I hadn’t realised the outside areas of the hotel would also be included in the curfew and so not only were we not able to leave the hotel premises once the curfew was in force, but that also meant all the fun outdoor areas at Animal Kingdom Lodge were also off-limits, including the pools. Since they don’t have an indoor pool, it did mean that swimming was off the agenda for a few days. I noticed that outside items that could possibly be blown away, such as chairs, trash cans and plant pots were being removed by staff or tied down. Access to some areas that usually require walking outdoors were made available with a makeshift route in the ‘backstage’ staff area which was dotted with staff members to make sure you didn’t get lost. We used this to access the arcade for something to do and in a generous move the hotel had programmed all the video games to be played free of charge which was brilliant. The big and little kids were thrilled.
In some ways it was a shame that we had chosen this particular hotel for our stay as part of the appeal is that Animal Kingdom Lodge surrounds a savannah with animals ranging from giraffe to zebra, wildebeest, ostrich and gazelles wandering by your window. We weren’t able to explore the resort to take a look at the animals but luckily we were still able to spot some from our balcony. Animal experts at the lodge said that most of the animals are left to roam free during a storm because they do not respond well to being impounded and are naturally instinctual at taking cover from bad weather. The giraffe, however, are taken inside by handlers for their protection. The downside was the weather had now become very drizzly and visibility wasn’t very good. Outside, the wind had also really started to pick up. Irma was definitely on her way.
In our room, we had been given an information fact sheet about evacuation areas, procedures and instructions in the event of an emergency and there was a dedicated TV channel with updated information and news related to our specific hotel. In addition to this, there was also a channel showing back-to-back Disney films so I’m sure more than a few families were curled up watching The Lion King. We had also been left with extra towels and a bag of supplies containing a torch, bottles of water, extra toilet paper, additional cosmetics and bin bags. Prior to bunking up for the night, we had stocked up on necessary parent supplies (wine, crisps, sweets and sandwiches) and baby items (nappies, baby food, wipes and medicine) – just in case.
By this point, Irma had been downgraded to a tropical storm but winds of 70mph were still predicted to blow through Orlando and the eye of the storm was due to hit at 2am. As two parents with an eight-month-old, that was way past our bedtime but I couldn’t resist staying up to see what the storm would be like.
In the most anticlimactic way possible, I’m pleased to say there was absolutely nothing to report. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. I’m not sure if the speed of the storm had declined massively or Disney had built Animal Kingdom Lodge with super-strength, non-shakable soundproof glass doors but I couldn’t hear anything. Not a thing. We had been told not to open the patio or use the balcony during the storm so I couldn’t open up to see but from inside our room we may as well have been as far as away from the storm as our family in the UK, because there wasn’t so much as a whistle to be heard inside.
THE MORNING AFTER
And then she was gone. I couldn’t believe how calm the weather was out on the balcony the morning after Irma had passed through. The sky was still grey but the sun was shining with only a hint of wind in the air. With all the anticipation leading up to the storm it almost felt like it hadn’t even happened at all.
Heading down to the lobby, operation Irma was still in force with more Disney characters in reception to delight the children and staff at the main entrance handing out updated information and answering questions about the curfew, parks reopening and other guest queries. I mentioned before about how, as a tourist in Orlando, it is unlikely that you would be harmed in a hurricane but following the rules is the number one priority. Restrictions and curfews aren’t given out unnecessarily; they are to protect guests, staff and reduce the pressure on the emergency services.
In the afternoon the outside space of the hotel was reopened to guests and we saw a tree had been uprooted and blown against guest rooms and balconies. The damage was very minimal and no one was hurt but I was suddenly thankful I hadn’t broken the rules and decided to open our balcony doors for a peek. I may not have been able to hear the wind, but it was there! Other minor damage involved some stray palm braches and a scattering of leaves and gravel. The place needed a bit of a clean up but was otherwise in tact and standing proud.
A positive experience
If you are headed to Orlando under the threat of a storm, my overriding advice would be to tell you not to worry. A few days of tricky weather is unlikely to spoil your holiday and you may end up with a few cheeky perks, as we did. Preparation is the key thing and despite the ‘hurricane’ warnings often being overdramatic, it doesn’t hurt to set yourself up with things you might need. We treated it a bit like camping – a few snacks, drinks and basic food to eat if we were trapped inside and toys, books and games to keep Finn busy.
Staying in a holiday villa may be a little more stressful (without the 24-hour hotel front desk on hand) but respectable companies will leave you safety advice and recommendations and may come over to board up any glass windows for your protection. During Charley, we were staying in a holiday home and we were given lots of information and told to sleep away from the windows, eventually making a makeshift camp in the living room. We had nothing to worry about and it ended up being a lot of fun. Luckily, we bought some board games from Target to keep us busy as our home did lose power (including air con) for two days and we weren’t allowed to leave due to the curfew. As a family, it was fun and a unique experience we’d never have had otherwise. If you’ve got a holiday planned don’t be put off by the news coverage, think of it like when they warn of insane snow and you step outside to a single snowflake on the mat. First, make sure it’s safe to travel and then embrace it.
Our hurricane experience at Animal Kingdom Lodge was definitely a positive one. I felt the staff and management did everything they could to ensure our safety while remembering many of their guests (probably most of them) were on a holiday of a lifetime. Real efforts were made to make everyone’s stay as enjoyable as possible and I was really impressed. By 4pm on day three, the pools had reopened and it was business as usual for the hotel. By 6pm the curfew had been lifted and we were free to go – we didn’t of course, we headed back to the bar for a celebratory cocktail!
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Cover pic: Joe Penniston
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