Anita Answer Reports on Hurricane Charley

My daughter and I just returned from our annual mother/daughter WDW trip. During our stay, Hurricane Charley blew through the area. Below is an account of our experiences:

Thursday morning: Charley was expected to make landfall somewhere on the west coast of FL. Best guess was the Tampa area (directly to the west of Orlando, about 75 miles away.) We received messages from the Saratoga Springs Resort staff to be prepared for anything. Having been through a few of these storms, I already was.

Thursday night, late: Another message from SSR staff to please take in our patio furniture and await further instructions. Parks will open at 8 and close at 1. Animal Kingdom, Downtown Disney and Typhoon Lagoon will not open. At this point, we expected some heavy rains from the edge of the dirty side of the storm as it passed to our west.

Friday morning: Another message updating us as to where the storm was, and reiterating that the parks would close at 1pm. We were told that a day would not be taken off our passes for Friday. We hit the bus for the MK, figuring the park would be empty.

Along Bonnet Creek Parkway, there was a huge line of RVs and campers being directed into the Port Orleans-Riverside parking lot by an Orange County deputy. The parking lot was already full of campers and RVs, and the line of them waiting to get in reached all the way down Bonnet Creek, and around the corner on Vista Blvd. to Fort Wilderness' exit, where another deputy was directing them out.

The Magic Kingdom was empty as predicted. We met up two of our friends, and walked down Main Street holding hands, arms outstretched just because we could. It was strange to see so few people in the Magic Kingdom on a Friday at 10:00 am when crowds would normally be pouring in.

Preparations for the storm had begun long before we got there. Merchandise and food carts that could not be moved were tied down with yellow straps. The glass sign on the Gallery had been covered on both sides with plywood and tied up toward the ceiling. The cigar store indian was missing. Swinging lanterns and signs were all being tied up out of harm's way, and some trees were being tied down. I can tell you definitively that Cinderella Castle does NOT have removeable turrets! We can put that myth to rest once and for all.

We were able to experience many rides and attractions before 11 am with no waits anywhere. We came out of Pirates to find the store stripped bare–no merchandise, no cash registers, nothing. Must have been looted by pirates! Across the way, the glass shop still had its wares displayed–hopefully they were easily removed later.

Around that time, we began hearing news that the storm had turned away from Tampa and was now headed our way. I found it interesting that only the local ABC station (WESH, channel 9) had predicted the real course early that morning, and everyone else missed it and was still reporting Tampa as the target until that moment. This storm caught so many people off guard. A lesson I learned early living on the Gulf Coast: If there is a hurricane in the general area, be prepared anyway even if the predicted path is not near you. Hurricanes have a mind of their own and turn on a dime.

At 11:30 am, we decided we'd better have a big, hot meal as we didn't know if we'd have electricity or water for the next few days. We literally walked in to Crystal Palace! I have never seen this place empty! It's usually jammed wall to wall with people, and the outside walkway is clogged with dozens of strollers. Not on this day. We had the place practically to ourselves and were allowed to eat both the breakfast and lunch items for the breakfast price. After lunch, we headed out for a few more rides before the park closed at 1:00 pm.

At 1:00 pm, everyone in the park walked in a calm and orderly fashion down Main Street and out of the park toward the buses, boats and monorails. None of the shops were open. Disney didn't want even one guest in the parks after 1:30 pm. The bus lines were huge, all except Saratoga Springs Resort, because there are only about 4 buildings open there. We walked right onto a waiting bus, and were the only two people standing during the ride back.

At 1:30 pm, we got off the bus at the Artists' Pallette and picked up a few items like bread, PB, ham and cheese, mustard, snacks and some sodas. We already had other things purchased earlier from Winn Dixie, but needed a few more non-perishables in case we lost electricity. We had plenty of bottled water on hand. I bought some AA batteries for my daughter's Gameboy plus a deck of cards to help ward off cabin fever.

At 2:15, we set off to walk to our room. As we walked past the pool, we noticed that all of the pool chairs and trash cans had been removed, and the Donald splash fountain was turned off. We could hear thunder in the distance, and see the long black bank of clouds of the first squall. My husband called just as we reached our building and it started to rain. I moved my car to the highest point in the parking lot and sent my daughter upstairs with the groceries. I talked with my husband for awhile as I didn't know how cell service would be from then on.

In the room, we found two flashlights and another phone message advising us to stay in our rooms after 3:00 pm, plus a printed list of information. Someone had come by and removed all the "Welcome Home" mats from in front of the doors.

By 2:45, it was pouring and the wind had picked up a little. Our studio was on the third floor and looked out over the lake toward Fulton's Crab House and the back of the Rock and Roll Beach Club. The part of the building we were in was about 20 feet from the lake's edge. We could tell from the flag over Fulton's the direction of the wind and how hard or gently the wind was blowing.

By 3:30, the rain had stopped and the sun was peeking through. An hour or so later, the second line of squalls came through. My daughter watched tv and napped. I switched channels to the local ABC station to keep an eye on where the storm was and to find out what time it was due to hit us.

Around 5:30 pm, a friend at Old Key West called to say that another friend of ours had made it out on the last fllight to leave MCO and had gotten home safely. They took off at 2:58; MCO closed at 3:00.

A Saratoga Springs CM came by, knocked on our door to make sure we understood what was going on, and to make sure our patio furniture was in. She gave us another sheet of instructions (nothing I didn't already know) and headed off into the storm to make sure other guests were prepared for the storm. I dozed, watched tv, talked to several people via cell and land line, played solitaire and read.

Around 6, it began to rain steadily and blow a bit more. The ABC weatherman said the storm would hit WDW with full force at 8:16 pm.

8:10 pm: The storm hit us with full force. The ABC guy was only off by 6 minutes! The wind began blowing parallel to our room, which was protected on the left side by a short wall separating our patio from the 1 bedroom next door. All of the lights at Downtown Disney were on. It was surreal to catch glimpses of all the neon through the increasingly driving rain and wind. The rain blew in sheets across the lake, not unlike snow across a frozen lake. The windows rattled a little, but otherwise we couldn't feel anything of the force of the storm outside.

At 9:00-ish, the eye passed over and things got calmer.

At 10:00 pm, the winds shifted and started blowing in the other direction. This was on our unprotected side. We were in the end unit in the building, but there was a stairwell between us and the outer wall. Our patio on that side was partially open, and the hall outside also had open windows on the sides. We heard a crash in the hall, but didn't investigate. We watched Brother Bear and Finding Nemo on TV. Disney had closed-circuit looped feeds of their movies on their usual WDW channels (What's Happening Today, Radio Disney, etc.) The lights flickered once. We ate some sandwiches, snacked on pretzels and chips and drank sodas. At some point I peeked out through the curtains (During storms, it's always wise to keep the curtains drawn to slow down breaking glass.) and someone was down on the lawn below flying a kite in the storm. Darwin's Law at work…

By midnight, the storm had passed. I looked into the hallway to see what the earlier crash was. The cover to the fire alarm box had fallen off. There were leaves and sticks and a little water in the hall, but nothing major. Down the hall and around the corner toward the other side of the building, there was much more water and debris in the halls, but once again, nothing major. We tried to look outside from our patio to assess any damage, but we couldn't see much in the dim light. The Kite Boy was walking around with his friends. I called my husband to tell him the storm had passed, and we went to bed.

Saturday morning: We awoke to a phone message that the parks would open very late, and no buses would be running until late afternoon. Animal Kingdom, the golf courses and waterparks would not open at all. We were advised to drive to the parks if we had a car, so we did. We were also advised that housekeeping services would be minimal. Another message came in while I was listening to the first one, with updates on park hours, closings, etc. telling us that the parks would open at 9:00 am.

We went to Epcot. All along the drive, there was debris all over the road and trees down everywhere. If any fell across the road, they had already been moved to the side. Maintenance must have been out at midnight the night before clearing stuff away! I saw Old Key West desk CM's out with the maintenance people clearing debris off Disney Vacation Club Way. In the woods and on the golf courses, lots of tall pines were down. The Treehouses' road was totally impassable. At Saratoga Springs, many new plantings had been tipped over, with their root balls still intact.

At the EC turnstiles, Annual Passes and my pass from yesterday were not working, so they overrode the ATS and let us in anyway. Fast Pass was sort of working in some places, not that we really needed it.

Epcot was fairly empty. No monorail service until very late that day. A few buses were already running. Inside the park, Spaceship Earth was closed, but we couldn't determine if it was due to damage or lack of personnel. (We rode it on Monday and didn't detect any damage.) Many CM's could not report for work, so many of the restaurants were opening late or not at all. Cell service was pretty spotty by that time. I could see that I had messages, but I couldn't retrieve them or get a call out until about 3 pm, and even then it was hit-or-miss. I tried to talk with Deb when she called, but we kept cutting in and out, so we gave up.

There were many trees down in the park, one perilously close to the satellite dish area behind Mouse Gear, and others inside and outside the park. Oddly, right under where a tree had fallen, there were plants that still had their blossoms. We didn't see any structural damage at all. (On Sunday, we found that the trees around Sorcerer Mickey outside the Brown Derby at MGM had all been knocked down. The mermaid statue from Splash had been snapped off as well.) A few odd things were not working, like the electronic tip board, and the onboard videos on TT, plus any Priority Seating had to be made in person at the restaurant. All character breakfasts had been cancelled for the day, and the Guest Relations office was swamped with people trying to reschedule. All Hoop de Doo shows at Fort Wilderness were cancelled until further notice.

We spent the entire day at Epcot,and had a very late dinner at Teppanyaki with a family who had come from Tampa to escape the storm. They were laughing about perhaps this wasn't the best idea they ever had.

After dinner, Epcot was closed, so we decided to go to Ghirardelli at Downtown Disney. We parked outside our building at Saratoga Springs, and started down a path through the woods toward the main path by the lake. I had my small flashlight in my daypack, so we picked our way through the debris by the dim light of the flashlight. The deeper we got into the woods the worse it got. Soon we were climbing over toppled trees and laughing so hard we were crying. Guess you had to be there to understand why it was so funny. The best part was that after we finally got to the main path, we discovered our trek had only saved us about 20 feet, which made us laugh even harder. As one of my friends said, it's always an adventure when we get together!

When we got back to our room at midnight, I found my door propped open by that metal flap thing housekeeping uses to hold it open! It had been like that for I don't know how many hours, since we had been gone since early morning! Luckily, nothing was missing and no one was in the room. When I walked into the bathroom later, I immediately figured out what had happened. The fresh towels (which included a dirty pool towel!) had been hung haphazardly on the racks with the washcloths unceremoniously draped over them. (What? No towel animals?? Just kidding!) Obviously, someone not on the housekeeping staff had been placed on towel and trash duty and had propped the door open and then forgotten to close it. I was pretty mad, though. Guest safety is supposed to be their number 1 priority. I called the front desk, who apologized profusely. I insisted that the duty manager be informed. I don't know if he/she ever was.

Sunday: Nothing much out of the ordinary, although Wishes started late and then had a false start. It started again 15 minutes later with no Tink. I'm not sure if this was storm-related or not. All day I talked to CMs who had damaged homes, and one who lived in an RV. The RV park was destroyed, but her RV was fine. Go figure! I also talked to a woman from Charlotte Cty. on the monorail. She and her husband had come up on vacation earlier in the week. Her house was destroyed–good thing she was in Orlando or…yikes…! She was in fairly good spirits, but seemed somewhat shell-shocked. It really put things in perspective for me and made me realize how insulated we were on Disney property.

By Sunday, there was no gas to be had in the area. A friend found some at the Car Care Center late Sunday night. I tried calling Southwest Airlines for a status report on my flights on Monday, but they couldn't tell me anything. The agent advised me to check in online and print my boarding passes before I left for the airport. We had coincidentally run into a friend of ours from up north, and he had been trying to get home on Southwest since Friday. After 3 fruitless trips to MCO and back, he finally secured a confirmation for Tuesday. In light of that news, I put myself on a waiting list for a Saratoga Springs room for Monday night in case we couldn't get home on Monday. The CM sounded doubtful that we'd get a room, but on Monday morning they called back and said they had a room if we needed it. I can't help but wonder if the open door incident had moved us to the top of the list.

On Monday morning, I went to the Yacht Club business center to check us in on-line. (10 dollars for 15 minutes and a dollar a page to print? Yowza!) I printed our boarding passes, and figured that was the best I could do.

Meanwhile, the gas lines at the Hess station on Epcot Resorts Blvd. were a mile long. We went to Epcot for a few hours and went back to the gas station later in the afternoon, when the lines were much shorter. I filled up the rental car's tank and we went to the Magic Kingdom. Another storm began blowing in at 6:30, so we started for the airport. Lights were out all down 417, though I didn't see much damage. All the apartments and houses had their windows open. There were a few signs bent down, and the intersection of 417 and Boggy Creek was perilous without stoplights. Instead of treating it like a four-way stop, cars on Boggy Creek were barrelling right through the intersection without stopping. I'm glad it wasn't dark!

When we went to turn in our car, the Dollar computers were still down. They had to do everything manually and bill us later. They were waiving the gas fill-up rule and they couldn't give anyone cars because they had no gas. Some lucky person got my car with a full tank.

Upstairs, the ID check line was very long, I guess due to a personnel shortage. Only one person was checking. Another came along and the line moved much more quickly. Our flight was about 30 minutes late leaving and we got home at midnight with no problems.

Under the circumstances, Disney CM's did an incredible job of keeping order and keeping us informed and safe. They had a plan and they carried it out. We never lost power or water, so we were a lot more forturnate than most people in the area. Getting the roads cleared and the parks open in under nine hours must have been an Herculean task. I have nothing but praise for all the CMs who stayed on storm duty and helped keep us all safe and secure, and those that had clean up duty after the storm passed. If I ever have to endure another tropical storm or hurricane, I'd do it again at Walt Disney World in a heartbeat.