Opened on October 1, 1971, Walt Disney World is the most visited vacation resort in the world. Reports estimate that over 52 million people visit Walt Disney World annually.
For me, growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida, just about two and half hours south of Orlando, I was one of the 52 million people that enjoyed spending birthdays, holidays, and vacations at Walt Disney World.
Just like so many families, my family always considered Walt Disney World a safe place, a whimsical land where bad things don’t occur.
Over the decades, Walt Disney World has succeeded in marketing itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth” and “The Most Magical Place on Earth.” Athletes, celebrities, lottery winners, anyone celebrating a victory when asked what they are doing next would immediately respond “I’m going to Disney World”.
Tragically, on Tuesday, June 14, 2016, at approximately 9:00 p.m. a giant shadow was cast on this whimsical land when toddler, Lane Graves, was attacked by an alligator at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa as he stood in the shallow waters of the Seven Seas Lagoon.
His father, Matt Graves, rushed into the water and fought with the alligator, however, the alligator retreated with Lane Graves into the murky water. It was not until 16 hours later that Lane Graves body was discovered fully intact just 15 yards from where he was initially attacked.
After this horrific tragedy, I discovered through my parents I too swam and played in the Seven Seas Lagoon many years ago. Not only did I swim in the lagoon, but in the evenings, Disney would set up a large movie screen and encourage guests to watch Disney movies while laying down and relaxing on the beach, just steps from the water’s edge. I believe until this incident movies continued to be played nightly on the beach for its guests.
In Orlando, Florida, Walt Disney World was mostly swamp land when development and construction began in the 1960’s. To build the Magic Kingdom, Disney made a big mound of dirt from what was scooped out to make the Seven Seas Lagoon, then built the Magic Kingdom.
The Seven Seas Lagoon is a man made 14 feet deep lake used for recreational purposes and to ferry guests to and from the Magic Kingdom. The Seven Seas Lagoon is surrounded by Disney’s Grand Floridian, Polynesian, and Contemporary Resorts. The lagoon, despite being man-made, is home to alligators, snakes and turtles. Even though the lagoon is man-made, Disney’s entire property is interconnected via canals complicating the task of keeping alligators out of its lakes.
Reports have indicated that Disney relocates alligators considered a nuisance, meaning they continually show up on the banks of waterways, don’t fear humans, or have done damage.
After this incident involving the Graves family, it has further been reported that Walt Disney World employees were so concerned that alligators would swim close to the shore of its resorts that employees alerted managers that certain areas should be fenced off. However, these concerns went unaddressed .
While Disney had signs which said “No swimming” in certain locations around the Seven Seas Lagoon, there were never any signs which alerted guests to alligators or anything else dangerous which may be in the lagoon.
What has Disney done wrong? At least one answer is its failure to warn.
In Florida, a landowner (Disney) must warn of known, concealed, dangerous conditions. This duty increases when the landowner’s knowledge of the condition is greater than that of the invitee.
Since this tragedy, it has been reported that over 240 alligators have been pulled from the Walt Disney World property in the past 10 years. This is a staggering number considering Walt Disney World did absolutely nothing to warn its guests about alligators, besides placing a sign around the Lagoon which said, “No swimming.” Importantly, a sign which says “No Swimming” does not in any way, shape, or form, put its guests on notice that a predator which has survived since the Jurassic Age is lurking in its lagoon.
While native Floridians may have an understanding that some Florida lakes are home to alligators, Walt Disney World should not assume that the millions of visitors from all over the world have this same knowledge or that there is any reason to be concerned that such dangers lurk beneath the surface of “the happiest place on earth”. It can be safely assumed that the Graves family from Elkhorn, Nebraska, did not know that alligators lived in the Seven Seas Lagoon.
In this specific scenario, Disney has known for years about the dangerous condition that alligators present and simply concealed this knowledge from its guests.
This horrific tragedy that the Graves family has had to endure could have been easily prevented had Walt Disney World warned its guests by notifying them that dangerous alligators live in the Lagoon.