While there were signs advising people not to swim in the lagoon, the absence of signage warning of the threat of alligators at the beachfront has drawn criticism from legal experts, among others, who say Disney could be held liable for the child’s death. Although most Floridians know that alligators live in nearly every freshwater body in the state, experts told The Washington Post it would be reasonable to argue that vacationers coming from somewhere like Nebraska wouldn’t share the same knowledge.
The boy, Lane Graves, his parents Matt and Melissa Graves, and a 4-year-old sister had been at Disney World for three days, guests at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, when they decided to spend Tuesday night relaxing on a narrow patch of beach outside the hotel.
On its website, Disney encourages guests at the Grand Floridian to “bask on the white-sand beach” that abuts the Seven Seas Lagoon.
At around 9 p.m., the toddler walked to the water’s edge and reportedly waded about a foot out into the murky water, authorities said. The boy was snatched by the gator’s jaws and dragged deeper into the lagoon, said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.
The boy’s father, Matt Graves, told authorities that he rushed toward the water after his son, attempting to pry open the alligator’s jaws. Graves, who a family friend told Inside Edition was a state championship wrestler, was unable to retrieve his son.
Sixteen hours later, authorities found the boy’s body “completely intact,” Demings said at a press conference Wednesday, about six feet beneath the surface of the massive, man-made lagoon that stretches out between the Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park and four of its resort hotels. His body wasn’t far from where the tragedy first unfolded.
An autopsy Thursday determined the child died from drowning and traumatic injuries, reported the Associated Press.
Law enforcement and wildlife officials have said repeatedly since Tuesday that they work diligently with Disney to remove nuisance alligators from waterways inside the park. Disney told the Associated Press that they have a relocation policy for gators considered to be a threat. Those under four feet long are moved to conservation areas, the company told the AP, and larger gators are removed by state-licensed trappers.
But some have called Disney’s wildlife education efforts into question.
In a phone interview Thursday, Kadie Whalen, of Wynnewood, Pa., told the AP that her children nearly met the same fate as Lane Graves four years ago when her family vacationed at Walt Disney World. Her three young kids and niece were playing on another Disney resort beach at the water’s edge, with buckets and shovels provided by Disney employees, when the eyes of a 7-foot alligator peered above the surface, just feet away from the oblivious children.
Whalen screamed, she told the AP, and everyone scattered. Per their policy, trappers came and captured the alligator from the lake outside the Caribbean Beach Resort, Whalen said, but when she complained to the front desk and wrote Disney a letter, she never heard back.
Her concern was that the company knew how prevalent alligators are in their waterways, yet fails to educate guests on the dangers of their presence.
“It never crossed our minds at Disney World that we would have to worry about a predator eating our children,” Whalen told the AP. “We don’t have alligators in Pennsylvania.”
The Graves, from the Omaha area, have not spoken publicly since the attack Tuesday night, asking for privacy in this trying time. Its unclear if the parents knew of the dangers alligators pose in Florida’s waterways. They released a statement praising law enforcement efforts to rescue, then recover their son.
“Words cannot describe the shock and grief our family is experiencing over the loss of our son,” the Graves family said in a statement, reported ABC News. “To all of the local authorities and staff who worked tirelessly these past 24 hours, we express our deepest gratitude.”
(This post has been updated.)