Tourists flocked to Central Florida on Thursday for an intergalactic experience: the grand opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World. But they may be in for some atmospheric action as well.
Hurricane Dorian continued on its path toward the Southeast United States the same day, with landfall possible in Florida by Tuesday afternoon. The latest National Hurricane Center forecast predicts the storm could grow to a major Category 4 hurricane by the time it reaches land, though it’s still not clear exactly where that will happen.
“It couldn’t come at a worse time,” says Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services. “It’s the perfect storm, literally: It’s Galaxy’s Edge, it’s the holiday, and it’s just horrible.”
Speigel, who is based in Cincinnati, planned to visit the park for its public opening this week. But Wednesday, with an eye on the storm’s track, he changed the trip to visit it next week. But others were so concerned about missing out on opening weekend that they rescheduled their trips to beat Dorian to Florida. Greg Antonelle, chief brand officer at Disney-focused travel agency MickeyTravels, said some of his clients scrambled to get ahead of cancellations.
“Their fear is that their flight gets canceled on Sunday,” he says. “They’re not concerned about coming here or being here, they’re actually concerned about not being here on time, so they’re moving their trips up.”
On Thursday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that some dedicated fans — from Florida and out of state — lined up at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at 3:30 a.m. and were allowed into the park at 4:45 a.m., ahead of the official 6 a.m. doors. The attraction reached capacity, the paper reported.
Disney and other Orlando-area theme parks, which are far inland from the East Coast of Florida, have not announced any closings, but late Friday, Orlando International Airport said it would halt commercial flight operations at 2 a.m. Monday “out of an abundance of caution.”
In an email Thursday, Universal Orlando Resort spokeswoman Alyson Lundell said officials were watching the weather forecasts closely.
“At this time our park operations and hours are continuing as normal,” she wrote. “We have plans and procedures for serious weather that are time-proven, and we will continue to make operating decisions as we learn more.”
Disney did not immediately respond to questions about hurricane plans, but shutting down would not be unprecedented. Parks closed for two days during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and for Hurricane Matthew the year before. Visitors still were able to stay at hotels on the resort complex, where many hotels offered games, activities and character appearances.
Kurt Schmidt, owner of the Disney news and fan site Inside the Magic, said the feeling about the weather from visitors inside the park was fairly laid-back — especially when the forecast still predicted a Category 3 storm.
“They handled it so well in the past, it’s almost like this is where people want to be if they’re not going to evacuate Florida,” he says. Schmidt, who was at Hollywood Studios for opening day and earlier previews, was planning to head back to his home in New Mexico on Friday.
Antonelle, of the travel agency, was at the opening Thursday and said none of his clients who were visiting had called off their visits.
“They’re all excited,” he says. “Worst-case scenario, the park might be closed for a day if it comes to that. Disney’s always good about cleaning up, and safety is number one.”
For those who wanted to change their plans, airlines were allowing travelers to change their tickets to Orlando and other Florida destinations without penalty Thursday. Disney’s policies say that if the National Hurricane Center issues a hurricane warning for the Orlando area within a week of a traveler’s scheduled arrival date, they can reschedule or cancel a hotel package or most room reservations without fees. There was no hurricane warning in effect in Florida on Thursday, though the governor declared a state of emergency.
And the National Hurricane Center warned that even areas that don’t ultimately have to deal with a hurricane could be in for nasty weather soon.
“Regardless of the exact track of Dorian, heavy rains are expected to occur over portions of the Bahamas, Florida and elsewhere in the southeastern United States this weekend and into the middle of next week,” an advisory said.
Ady Milman, a professor at the University of Central Florida who coordinates the theme-park curriculum for the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, said he suspected the storm threat could put a dent in the crowds at the attraction’s opening weekend.
“I think in a way, it will alleviate the crowds,” he says.
But Speigel, the theme-park consultant from Cincinnati, said he expects that many out-of-towners will still brave the elements.
“These are people who are there who had these tickets booked a long time ago,” he says. “They had it on their calendar, and come hell or high water — which is probably going to happen — they’re going to be there.”