Brian Avery was a SeaWorld Orlando accident investigator watching the news in a conference room on Sept. 11, 2001, when images of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center came across the screen.
SeaWorld executives made the extraordinary decision to close the park shortly after. According to an Orlando Sentinel report, guests at SeaWorld, Disney World, and Universal “left peacefully” as the parks were evacuated efficiently within an hour of the assaults.
Avery took part in conversations about new security measures and procedures at the resort in the days that followed.
“Essentially it boiled down to this: everyone was a suspect moving forward, and that whether you were a staff member, a patron [or] a vendor that was delivering products to the property, we were going to check you,” he said.
Following the attacks, SeaWorld instituted staff and guest bag inspections, as well as scans of all cars entering the park, including personnel golf carts, according to Avery.
The firm understood that theme parks, like stadiums and other large gathering places, could be targets for an attack, so it beefed up its security staff, put more video cameras, and hired another police K-9 to patrol the grounds, he added.
“No stone was left unturned after that day,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience, and I think people realized it was a necessary one in order to make the environment as safe as possible so that we could continue operation. … There was a lot of uncertainty, and there was fear, but we realized we had a job to do.”
The terror attacks on America that day emphasized the need for greater security at numerous theme parks, as officials understood that huge venues might become terrorist targets.
Other assaults and incidents, including as the Pulse nightclub tragedy and the COVID-19 pandemic, have pushed the parks to continuously upgrade their security procedures in a changing world in the 20 years afterwards.
Over the course of 20 years, security changes.
Many of the fundamental security enhancements made at Orlando’s theme parks after 9/11 have remained in place today, but resorts have had to adapt as new threats and technology have arisen.
In the months following the assaults, Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld conducted extensive examinations of guest luggage, including removing batteries and tapes from video cameras to ensure they were not disguised weapons.
Off-duty personnel from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Orlando Police Department oversaw bag inspections outside the gates of Disney and Universal, while private security monitored the premises. Officers would bring bomb-sniffing dogs into the parks after hours.
Disney also erected vehicle-ramming-resistant barriers at employee and vendor entrances and established a no-fly zone over its parks with the aid of federal authorities. After fatal attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., the firm briefly deployed metal detectors in 2004 before reintroducing them in late 2015 when all region theme parks adopted the equipment.
During a busy Christmas season, the 2015 assaults prompted further security adjustments at local parks. All three resorts beefed up security, with police dogs patrolling the grounds at Disney once more. In addition, Disney has stopped selling toy guns and has made it illegal for visitors aged 14 and up to dress up in costumes at the resort.
Representatives from Disney and Universal acknowledged the businesses recruited extra security personnel in January 2016, but declined to give information on the security increase at the time.
Months after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando, fresh worries arose.
According to court documents, Omar Mateen, the shooter who murdered 49 people and injured scores more early on June 12, was in Disney Springs and near Epcot just hours before the attack. Authorities said the shooter’s wife informed them her husband planned to target Disney Springs, and prosecutors said he planned to hide his pistol in a pram and carry it into the retail center during her trial.
Following the incident, more security cameras were installed at Disney Springs, but Disney stated at the time that their installation had been planned for months.
According to Avery, who is now a lecturer at the University of Florida and a managing member of Event Safety & Security Services, the COVID-19 epidemic drove security back to the center of park operations. COVID used to make security officers aware of possible failures when they were merely “going through the motions” when doing bag inspections, he claimed.
Because of the epidemic, security technology has progressed as well, including touchless systems for scanning luggage and taking guests’ temperatures.
As parks reopened, temperature checks became normal, and tourists queued for over a year to have their foreheads scanned, until the practice was phased out in May.
In summer 2020, Disney will also improve its security checkpoint equipment with walk-through weapons detectors that use an artificial intelligence system to assess passengers. In 2020, Disney will also implement bag inspections at the Disney Springs gates.
The specific technology and tactics employed in theme parks are usually kept under wraps. For this article, Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld representatives all declined to share specifics of their parks’ security procedures.
To keep the properties secure, local law enforcement collaborates with surrounding theme parks. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office has a specialized sector that works with Disney and SeaWorld security to monitor Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, which surround Disney property. The Orlando Police Department assists with the surveillance of Universal.
According to Avery, not communicating about security measures is a security choice in and of itself for theme park operators.
“We’re close-lipped in this industry about our security protocols, with good reason,” Avery said. “You don’t want these protocols, and the exact measures we’re taking, to be leaked to the public because then they can test the vulnerabilities of it.”
Security and comfort for guests
According to Jim Seay, president of Premier Rides and past chair of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions’ Global Safety Committee, security frequently operates so quietly behind the scenes that patrons are unaware.
The events of September 11th raised the profile of theme park security. Bringing metal detecting technology to theme parks was a “huge problem,” according to Seay, because it may detract from the fantasy experience.
“When you enter the park, you have this intense aspect of security put on top of you, and it starts the day with you being solely focused on security as a guest,” he added.
According to Todd McGhee, co-founder of Protecting the Homeland Innovations, technological improvements make screening less invasive and inconvenient for travelers. Security may now check numerous persons at the same time, reducing the amount of time tourists spend in line and in close proximity to one another.
High-frequency radio wave systems and facial and biometric scanners, for example, may provide greater security in a fraction of the time, according to Avery, and theme park firms are constantly seeking for developing technology that can securely and efficiently handle huge crowds.
In order to be better prepared to respond to emerging threats, theme parks are now exchanging more security information on a worldwide scale.
McGhee assisted in the creation of the IAAPA Security Advisory Program, which is a mass notification system. It was launched in 2017 to keep IAAPA members informed about global and regional safety and security issues.
“Oftentimes the expression [is], ‘Not if, but when,’” he said. “And I think that what I’ve seen is that the theme park industry is open-minded to see what happens within aviation, or mass transit, and then self-reflect: ‘If that happened here, are we prepared for the response?’ … In a post-9/11 world, we just can’t look at a specific incident in a specific industry.”
Guest safety is the responsibility of theme parks, but visitors may assist keep themselves safe by reporting suspicious activities they notice at the parks, according to Avery, McGhee, and Seay.
“It’s supposed to be a lifetime memory to come to a theme park or an amusement park, and that should be [guests’] focus, because the professionals are spending their time to make sure that they’re in a safe environment,” Seay said.
Sid Philips is a father of two and a loving husband. He currently resides in Pennsylvania and has been a fan of Disney since his parents took him there in 1980! Sid has visited multiple Disney parks around the world and loves each one!
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