Shannon Sullivan was surprised, then angry.
Not two months after 2-year-old Lane Graves was dragged into a lake by an alligator at a Disney resort and killed, she found herself face-to-face with a sign that made her deeply uncomfortable.
The Disney College Program bills itself as a “life-changing,” “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. Sullivan knew that she might lose her summer internship if she spoke out about this sign, but she couldn’t hold her tongue. She was willing to risk her spot in the program, one she quickly lost after she posted a photo of the sign to Twitter.
Her reaction was understandable. The sign, printed in red, green and blue ink, asked employees to deny that Disney knew of any alligators on its grounds because “we do not want our Guests to be afraid.”
In green ink, it offered the “appropriate response” for an employee to give when asked if there were any alligators at Disney — “Not that we know of, but if we see one, we will call Pest Management to have it removed.”
The sign read, in full:
If a Guest asks if we have gators in the water around Tom Sawyer’s Island (or any bodies of water), the correct and appropriate response is, “Not that we know of, but if we see one, we will call Pest Management to have it removed.” Please do not say we have seen them before. We do not want our Guests to be afraid while walking around Frontierland [part of Disney’s Magic Kingdom]. As a reminder, this is a serious matter. Please do not make jokes with our guests about this.
“At this point, it became my morals and my integrity and what I believe in,” Sullivan told the Orlando Sentinel. “I thought if I lose my job because of that, it’s worth it to me.”
Sullivan thought the world should know, both about potential threats and about the company asking her and her colleagues to deny them. What if there was another Lane Graves? She thought of her 2-year-old brother. What if something horrible befell him, and someone could have said something? She didn’t want to be responsible.
“I was very offended by it and I was pretty vocal about it,” she said. “I think you need to be telling people to be cautious, letting them know this could happen.”
So she told the world in the way a young person can — by posting a photograph of the sign to Twitter. Quickly, it began circulating on the social media platform.
Last Thursday, a manager with the program brought the tweet to Sullivan’s attention and told her that her time as a Disney intern was over. She was escorted from the Magic Kingdom.
Her tryst with unemployment didn’t last long, though. That night, the Orlando Sentinel reached out to Disney with questions about the termination. The next morning, Magic Kingdom Vice President Dan Cockerell visited Sullivan himself to offer her internship back, which she accepted.
Disney removed the offending sign, claiming it was never authorized, the Associated Press reported.
An anonymous source familiar with the Magic Kingdom told People that managers often make their own signs with various instructions for employees, not all of which are sanctioned by the company.
“The managers can and do make their own signs to put up there,” the source told People. “They’re announcement signs, and those are everywhere. ‘Please remember to check with your manager before leaving. Don’t park your car in that lot tomorrow because it’s being paved.’ Stuff like that.”
These managers aren’t allowed to put these signs up in public spaces. Meanwhile, employees are not allowed to photograph the park’s private areas.
“They’re really strict about that,” the source told People. “People get in trouble about what they post on social media all the time. It’s actually a pretty common issue that HR has to take care of. I’m not at all surprised that they fired her, because that’s what they do.”
At the time of Graves’s death, there were no signs warning visitors of dangerous animals. Three days after Graves’s death, the Walt Disney World Resort installed signs along the beachfront of its resorts that warn guests of alligators and snakes.
“We are installing signage and temporary barriers at our resort beach locations and are working on permanent, long-term solutions at our beaches,” Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said in a statement. “We continue to evaluate processes and procedures for our entire property.”