The tragic death this week of a 2-year-old Nebraska boy who was dragged by an alligator into a lagoon outside a Disney hotel prompted an obvious question: Had anything like this ever happened before at the Florida resort?
Authorities investigating the fatal attack said they could not recall another alligator attack in the more than four decades that Disney World has operated in Central Florida.
But it turns out that in 1986, an 8-year-old boy visiting from New Hampshire suffered serious injuries when he was attacked by a gator at Disney World’s Fort Wilderness, a themed camping resort not far from the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa where Tuesday’s attack occurred. He had been playing nearby when he wandered away to watch ducks at a nearby pond. The gator exploded from the water and grabbed his left leg.
The boy, Paul Santamaria, was fortunate to survive the attack. He is now a grown man living in New Hampshire.
In the video above, he recounted to Boston station WFXT this week how the scars from it remain — some physical, some mental. Santamaria told the station that he was hospitalized for a week with lacerations on his leg. Doctors even removed an alligator tooth from inside his thigh.
Santamaria said that the attack haunted him for years and that for a long time, he didn’t like to sleep alone or go near water. He said the wrenching death this week of 2-year-old Lane Graves brought back memories of his own harrowing experience.
An account of the attack that ran in the Orlando Sentinel on Oct. 12, 1986 said the third-grader, who had been playing tether ball with a companion before wandering away, never saw the 7-foot-4-inch female alligator lurking beneath the water’s surface.
“We’re very fortunate it wasn’t worse,” said Santamaria’s mother, Roberta, told the newspaper at the time, as her son was recovering at Orlando Regional Medical Center.
She recounted how the boy’s older sister ran and grabbed him by the armpits, trying to pull him from the reptile, while his older brother began hitting the gator until it released its hold.
A Disney spokesman told the Sentinel at the time that as far as he was aware, it was the first such attack on the property.
“We have a program for moving them out when they are in an area where guests are,” he said, “but obviously we didn’t move enough.”
This post has been updated.