When people usually talk about what happened on 9/11, the focus (for obvious reasons) is on New York City, Washington D.C. and that field just outside of Shanksville, PA.
But -- that said -- it's also important to remember what happened immediately after those four planes crashed. That sudden surge of panic that swept across the country. All because people in the U.S. had no idea what was going to happen next.
In several of the books that have since been written about 9/11, it's noted that the Walt Disney Company quickly closed its stateside theme parks that day. Reportedly out of concern that the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts might also be on the terrorists' target list.
The Mouse (for very obvious reasons) has never officially commented on what actually happened in Anaheim & Orlando on September 11, 2001. But over the past 10 years, I've managed to talk with a number of Cast Members & Guests who were either working for or staying at Walt Disney World that day. And these folks have some pretty memorable stories to tell.
As 9/11/01 was just getting underway, a veteran WDW Cast Member recalled that he was ...
... getting trained on 2 major attractions at the Magic Kingdom when my manager told both me and my trainer what had just happened in NY. We quickly went to the nearest Cast Member Break Room and I managed to see the second plane hitting the tower "live." The room was packed with all sorts of managers and I remember very vividly the very surprised reaction on their faces when the ABC reporter said:
"This just in: The Walt Disney Company has just announced that it will be closing its theme parks worldwide."
And literally less than a minute after the reporter said that, their beepers started going off like crazy and they walked out of the break room.
About 5 - 10 minutes after that incident, they notified cast members of what we were going to do.
First we shut down all the attractions and restaurants and merchandise shops to get the guests out in the street. We were strictly forbidden from telling them the real reason that we had decided to close the park. Which caused some confusion; and maybe even some irate guests at times. But it avoided quite effectively the cause for panic from our guests. They even gave us a simple spiel to tell them in case they had questions.
Michael, a Frontierland cast member who was in the park that morning, confirms this part of the story:
We were told not to tell the guests what had happened unless they asked us. I remember one guest asking me and -- after I told them -- they just stood there blank faced and didn't move for a bit.
By the way, the announcement that was made (over the public address system in the theme parks that morning did NOT mention anything about what had happened or why the parks were closing. It simply stated that " ... Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Magic Kingdom is now closed. Please follow the direction of the nearest Cast Member."
Continuing with that veteran Disney World Cast Member's account of the morning of 9/11:
Once the guests were forced to the streets of the park because all the rides were closed, all the cast members were instructed to hold hands and basically form a human wall and gently (without touching anyone) walk towards the hub of the park and eventually towards Main Street. That way we could basically force the guests out of the park. Disney Security obviously followed each human wall and made sure no one got past it.
That "human wall procedure" was done at all 4 WDW parks, by the way. And guests were given complimentary tickets at the turnstiles as they left the parks.
Mind you, Kelly has a somewhat different take on what happened at the Magic Kingdom that morning. But -- then again -- she wasn't a Cast Member. But just your typical tourist trying to enjoy a day at that theme park with her family.
On 9/11, I was eating breakfast at Tony's Town Square Café with my family (and 6 months pregnant to boot). We were sitting in the front where all of the windows were, and I noticed many CMs in business attire with headsets walking throughout the park.
Our waiter was a young man from the midwest, and his accent was thick (At least to this New Yawker). All of the staff were talking and he came over to us and said what I thought was "The trade centers IN Washington were hit with planes." We were confused, finished our meal and went to take our daughter on Dumbo and the Carousel. I tried to call my Dad back home, since he always has FOX news on. And when my cell kept saying "All circuits were busy," I knew something was up.
My Aunt works at Disney MGM theme park in Security. So I knew that WDW was considered a prime terrorist target. So I said to my husband, Matt: "We need to get out of the Magic Kingdom. This could be hit next."
We tried to get over to MGM to my Aunt (I figured she would know the whole story). But on the bus ride over, just as we got to MGM, the bus driver told us about the Towers, Washington and the possibility of PA. She explained that we were going back to the TTC and that we should all take the appropriate route to our hotels/cars and evacuate. I have never heard a WDW bus so quiet. I was close to tears.
The US government then moved quickly to secure the airspace over this potential terrorism target. Neal G - a Guest who was then staying at Disney's Yacht Club - recalls how bizarre it was to discover a military presence at the Mouse House. Looking out their hotel window that afternoon and observing that ...
... at one point a gunship flew overhead so closely that my wife could clearly see someone manning one of the machine guns. It looked like the plane flew in from MGM Studios and then went right out over EPCOT.
The resorts tried to do everything they could that night. They kept the pools open until midnight and they had characters roaming all around the BoardWalk area. The Cast Members were doing the best they could to help and try to keep a calm atmosphere. People were walking around not really knowing what to do. I commented to my wife that here we were at one of the happiest places on earth, yet it was a strange, sad and terrible feeling.
The next morning, we went to the Magic Kingdom, where security tables had been set up overnight.
Those security tables weren't the only changes that had to be made at WDW's theme parks in the wake of 9/11. As this Cast Member who worked at the Magic Kingdom's Jungle Cruise ride explained:
The next morning I returned to work at this Adventureland attraction, I discovered that we had a major problem. Our fun-loving, wise-cracking spiel usually included the downed airplane just before the hippos. The usual line goes: "It's plane to see how I landed this job. I took a crash course!"
Obviously, any airplane crash jokes were now completely inappropriate. Some skippers tried to distract their crews in this area of the attraction with other jokes. Others -- such as myself -- had a brief moment of silence. Suffice to say, none of us will ever view that show scene the same way again.
In the days that followed, during and after all commercial airline had been grounded, an occasional jet would streak across the sky over the Magic Kingdom. Everything, everyone would stop and watch that airplane silhouette as they held their breath.
The hardest part of it all was staying so darn happy. Everyone - CMs and Guests- felt dead inside. Yet it was the CMs who had to work 8+ hour shifts "making the magic" to distract everyone from the heavy shadow of the 9/11 attacks.
Portions of today's story were originally posted on JimHillMedia.com as part of two features that ran on March 8 & 10, 2006. I want to thank those folks who came forward to share their memories about what it was like to be at Walt Disney World on September 11, 2001.
Jim Hill is an award-winning entertainment writer who lives in New Boston, N.H. Over the past 30 years, he has interviewed hundreds of veterans of the animation and themed entertainment industry and written extensively about The Walt Disney Company. For more of his musings on movies, TV shows, books and theme parks, please check out his blog, jimhillmedia.com.