Florida pilots know the rule well — you better steer clear of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, or else. It has been a no-fly zone for over a decade – a luxury afforded to none of the other 400 theme parks in the United States, and a point of contention lingering over “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
But now Disney is asking the government for an exemption to the no-fly restrictions so that it can launch flocks of drones over Disney World and Disneyland, a move that has resurfaced frustrations and a debate in the aviation world over the merits of the no-fly zone.
“It was controversial that [Disney was] able to get those put in place in the first instance,” said Enrico Schaefer, a lawyer handling drone litigation at Traverse Legal. “Now for them to come back to ask for the exemption to fly within these areas that are restricted, it just seems like salt in the wounds to a lot of other folks in the aviation community.”
Critics say Disney used its lobbying muscle in Washington to block aerial advertisers under the guise of national security concerns after the 9/11 terror attacks. It was a win for Disney, which is no longer troubled with planes towing banners over the Magic Kingdom. Now Cinderella Castle and Tom Sawyer Island have the same kind of protections reserved for the White House and U.S. Capitol.
Disney, which has previously said that air restrictions over large gatherings enhance public safety, declined to comment for this story.
Aerial advertisers, however, argue the no-fly zones aren’t even effective at stopping terrorists. They say a rogue pilot could make a dash from the edge of the zones and crash in the restricted space before anyone intervenes.
“We’re not going to start bombing or crashing into the stadiums. They made it a safety issue when all it is, is the TV networks don’t want the signs and banners giving free advertising,” said Remy Colin, the owner of Aerial Messages, an advertising firm based in Florida.
While Disney wants to be exempt from the no-fly zone, it also wants the federal government to bend its rules for how businesses use drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed drone rules only allow daytime flights. And a pilot can only control a single drone at a time. Disney is asking to fly drones during its evening fireworks show, and to have a team of between two and four employees monitoring up to 50 automated drones.
It argues in its filing to the government that flying the drones is safe because they weigh 10 pounds or less, go no faster than 7 mph and will operate in a small space at least 100 feet from where guests will be standing. The drones would emit light as part of entertainment at Disney’s parks.
As drone technology emerges, businesses such as Disney are exploring ways to incorporate the flying machines and enhance what they offer customers.
“The technology is certainly exciting, but the regulatory process is atrocious,” said Marc Scribner, research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Justifying the flight restrictions over Disney parks has always been laughable and was always a product of undue favoritism.”
Some aviation experts point out that if Disney wants to fly drones, then it may not be able to have its cake and eat it too.
“The better course for Disney would be to remove the [temporary flight restrictions] and be like any other American company that has to allow flight over their operations unless there is a special reason why that shouldn’t occur,” Schaefer said.
An FAA spokesman said the Disney case is related to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when temporary flight restrictions were issued over all major professional and collegiate sporting events, as well as major open-air assemblies of people. The agency points to laws Congress later passed as making the restrictions permanent. The laws the FAA cites, however, do not specifically mention theme parks.
The agency said the restrictions are for major open-air assemblies and sporting events based on the sheer size and number of people. Yet other theme parks draw large crowds too and don’t enjoy such flight restrictions.
Of the restrictions dating from 9/11, Disney’s no-fly zones are especially restrictive. While the no-fly zones affecting high-level sporting events are generally only in effect during game times, Disney’s restrictions are in effect even when the park is closed and no crowds are present.
Whether Disney will be able to loosen these restrictions is up in the air. Some who have watched Disney’s savvy maneuverings in 2003 think they’ll get what they want, once again.
“I would be surprised if they don’t get the exemption because of the past history with all the politics and the stuff they do,” said Jim Miller, the owner of Air America, an aerial advertiser that works mostly around Detroit and protested the no-fly zones back in 2003. “Big money wins over the hard-working individuals.”