Alligator is Not a Four Letter Word
By now, you’ve likely heard of the heartbreaking death of a child who was attacked by an alligator at Walt Disney World ad nauseam. If you somehow haven’t, here are the details. I’m not going to rehash them. The death of that young child is incredibly tragic.
It should go without saying (but probably does need to be said as I’m sure someone will misconstrue this article) that my heart goes out to the family. What happened on the beach of the Grand Floridian is awful and heartbreaking. I cannot begin to fathom the pain the parents must be feeling, especially as they are unduly scrutinized and second-guessed in the aftermath of losing a child.
With that said, I see the aftermath and reaction to this tragedy as fear winning the day over logic and common sense. This presents a problem that goes far beyond alligator attacks, with troubling responses from the media and guests. Beyond that, there’s the reaction from Disney itself as it adds fencing, closes beaches, modifies marina policies, and removes all references to alligators in attractions. I view these subsequent measures and public outcry as very concerning and worthy of discussion.
Responses similar to this are something I’ve noticed quite a bit in the travel realm in the last few years as overreactions to various world events that result in people changing their behavior and entities changing policies. For example, friends and family often inquire as to whether I have any concerns about visiting X or Y destination because “they wouldn’t go there after hearing [insert world event example].” My answer is always the same: safety never crosses my mind. While terrorism is certainly awful and grisly, the fact is that it’s a highly improbable way to die.
My response is often met with some bewilderment, as if I’m reckless for not giving these dangers serious consideration. My view is the opposite: that it would be irresponsible to worry about something so unlikely. While thinking with one’s ‘heart’ is innately human and there’s no way around that, to the greatest extent possible, I try to not let emotion cloud logic. You’re more likely to die of heart disease–by orders of magnitude–than all of the improbable causes of death people tend to fear more combined.
On the scale of heart disease to lightning strikes, alligator deaths are beyond even lightning, with a total of 24 reported United States fatalities since 1928 (until 2010) due to alligators. That’s only .06 attacks per 100,000 people per year, and the vast majority of those are provoked by attempts to capture the alligator. In the improbable event of attack, the survival rate is 96%. Suffice to say, if you are not alligator wrangling, your chances of a fatal alligator attack are close to zero.
Statistically, homicide, bus accidents, heat stroke, West Nile virus, drowning, malaria, and literally hundreds of other causes of death are far more likely in Florida than alligator attacks. In terms of animals, specifically, the most feared animals (like sharks and bears) are actually the most unlikely killers. Cows, spiders, bees, and snakes are all leading killers among animals. Even a fatal whitetail deer (also found on property at Walt Disney World) encounter is more likely, either in the form of a car collision or unprovoked attack. In fact, you are far more likely to crash your vehicle into an animal than be attacked by one (excluding insects).
I can understand why this recent alligator incident has resonated so much with people. It’s a heart-wrenching story with vivid detail, ghastly imagery, and many parents can imagine themselves in the shoes of those parents. It is quite scary to envision, provokes a deeply emotional response, and plays to our fears.
This doesn’t change the objective reality that alligators do not pose a significant threat to guests of Walt Disney World. Despite their nefarious appearance and protruding teeth, they are relatively timid creatures that fear humans. We have heard countless stories of alligators at Walt Disney World over the years, and I don’t mention that here to corroborate the myriad sensationalized “Disney Was Warned!!1!!!” headlines.
I find these headlines irresponsible. Of course there have been alligators spotted in and around numerous bodies of water in Walt Disney World. There are ~1.3 million alligators in Florida. Alligators live in all 67 counties of the state and inhabit all wild areas of Florida that can support them. The mere presence of alligators doesn’t make a location dangerous. The Florida Nuisance Alligator Program does not recommend small alligators for removal, as they are not threats to even small pets (unless the alligator is handled). This should underscore the point that in the swamps of central Florida, alligators have been around forever–certainly since 1971–and this is the first time something awful happened at Walt Disney World.
I’m not writing this to dissuade anyone on the fence about canceling a Walt Disney World vacation. That’s a personal decision. I know that overriding the emotions of a situation are easier said than done. It’s upsetting to think about what happened, and if you’re going to feel unease on vacation, the vacation is worth rethinking.
However, an isolated event that is–by any logical measure–an anomaly, should not dictate how we live our lives. Walt Disney World should not be forced to take prophylactic measures to “prevent” this from occurring again, because if it is bound to happen again, these “preventative” measures aren’t going to change that. (The only thing that will is guests ceasing to feed alligators, thereby potentially causing them to associate food with people.) All references to alligators should not be vanquished from the resort, as if it’s a four-letter word not to be uttered on property.
I can’t fault Disney too much for its response to this incident, even if I do think the subsequent measures taken are unnecessary. Disney is already facing nightmarish PR and media coverage, there have been a ton of cancellations, and innumerable irate guests have contacted Disney about their “alligator issue.” Moreover, we live in a litigious society in desperate need of reform, and some of its actions might behoove Disney from a legal perspective.
That doesn’t make any of this right. This type of response is endemic to our culture, and it’s time for us to say enough is enough with knee-jerk responses to fear mongering. Rather than responding to dramatized media accounts that play into our emotional fears and elicit ill-defined outrage, we should contemplate the real danger present. What we stand to lose to fears of alligators at Walt Disney World is insignificant in isolation, but it presents a growing trend of a willingness to ‘err on the side of caution’ and make meaningless sacrifices for an ill-gotten slice of peace of mind. You simply cannot protect people from every remote danger, and in attempting to do so, too much would be ceded in the name of “safety.” We must allow for some level of acceptable risk, or else live in a constant state of irrational fear.
If you desire things to fear, you will find no shortage if look for them. In the aftermath of 9/11, it was often said that if you live in fear, the terrorists have won. I believe this can be extended to fear, itself. It’s cliché, but Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words ring true. The moment you let fears alter any facet of your life is the moment those fears are fully-realized.
I thought this was a nice read. I like your writinv style. Still, I disagree with your position because you are faulting individuals for their choices simply because of their coincidental place in a collective response to an event. An individual is not responsible for others who may or may not share in his fear nor how others act on that fear even if the reactions are the same. There is no “we” or “the society” when it comes to each individual’s personal choice or response.
If I decide not to go to Disney World, that’s my choice. It is unaffected by and unrelated to your decision to also not go to Disney World. So, even if every single person decides to never go to Disney World ever again, that is not mass hysteria, that’s simply the coincidence of multiple individuals deciding for themselves (not some collective agreement to do the same thing).
The flaw in your position exposes itself when you said: “What we stand to lose to fears of alligators at Walt Disney World is insignificant in isolation…” The use of “we” is contradicted by “in isolation.” Isolated incidents happen to individuals and it only takes one tragic incident to claim the life of one individual, or even multiple individuals.
Lane Graves lost his life in that rare, isolated incident. The Graves family lost a two-year-old boy in that rare, isolated incident. Should other individuals decide that, inidividually, they’d rather avoid the slight risk, that is what’s right for them. It doesn’t become wrong because too many other individuals also decided the same thing.
Finally, I know you didn’t mean any harm by it, but that line just rubbed me the wrong way also because it is not your place to determine for others what loss is “insignificant in isolation.” Losing a loved one, especially a child (and even more especially, a young child) is incredibly significant. So, I actually think your phrase makes more sense in the opposite for this topic: what one stands to GAIN by ignoring one’s fears is insignificant. I’d much rather skip a vacation than lose my child. Disney World be damned!
So sorry, I got so worked up, I forgot why I initially decided to comment. Lol… I had just wanted to let you know that there supposedly has been at least one other attack on Disney World grounds. According to another article, Paul Santamaria was attacked in 1986 when he was 8 at Fort Wilderness. Luckily, his two slightly older siblings were able to help him escape the jaw of the gator. This means there could be many other incidents that simply weren’t reported or covered by the media, so Lane Graves’ attack is not the only one since 1971.
Article in today’s Sentinel -Disney firefighters were warned to stop feeding alligators.
Wow. I am speechless. This certainly changes things. I really cannot believe that firefighters–of all people–would have been doing this.
This was in today’s Sentinel
I really appreciate that you wrote this particular post. Alligators are a part of life in Florida, they just are. They were there before any of us. I hope Disney is able to find a middle ground that respects the death of that poor child, while also acknowledging reality. Maybe instead of signs that only say “no swimming,” they could post signs that say “no playing in the water” or “caution: alligators” or something like that. But, in my opinion, the fences going up and the removal of any references to alligators is only going to increase ignorance and unawareness. They should use this as an educational opportunity, not try to run from it.
I just came back from 6 days at WDW, and didn’t have any concerns since we weren’t entering or walking along any bodies of water (the ferries aren’t a concern since you never get close to the water, and alligators don’t jump to my knowledge out of the water). However, both of my granddaughters had questions which I answered and re-assured them that there was nothing to worry about. I agree that the incident was a “freak” event and probably will not happen again for a very, very long time – if ever. It was also magnified (not to detract from the loss of a life) by the media that likes to sensationalize tragedies to draw in viewers.
However, from a personal perspective, and as someone above mentioned, the only signs I believe referred to swimming. From a legal perspective, and I’m not a lawyer, the signs clearly forbid swimming. In my own mind, if I’m just walking along the shore line and maybe just getting my feet wet and kicking around, it would never cross my mind that those actions could lead to a gator attack. So, I think the signage should have been more specific, but at the end of the day the tragedy was something that will probably not happen for decades again, if ever within WDW.
I believe it is not out of fear that Disney made changes to beaches and attractions but rather out of respect to the family who lost their beloved son. Disney cherishes the young and the young at heart, and by not implementing any changes would be dishonorable to Lane Graves, and in poor taste to have alligator jokes on the Jungle Cruise or Safari. It was an awful accident that may or may not have been avoided with proper warning. However, a beach environment gives the impression of an ocean, not a mucky swamp with gators and snakes. Regardless of the past, Disney is vowing to do what it can to avoid tragedies in the future.
Very well said. My first trip to Disney world is in a few weeks and this hasn’t hampered my enthusiasm one bit. Let common sense prevail.
Where we live there are no swimming signs posted near the water because there are no lifeguards. As a parent I would assume that is the reason for no swimming. When we traveled to a few California parks there was a sign at the front of the trail stating that mountain lions had been spotted in the area and to take precautions. A simple sign stating that alligators are removed/ occasionally found in the from the lake would also appropriately caution people. Families that are not from Florida may not know of the potential danger (we didn’t).
We were there during the search but we do not feel that Splash or other rides should remove alligators. Instead, a sign that mentions that alligators have been spotted occasionally in the lake is more appropriate.
I guess I have been out of the loop because I haven’t heard people going overboard in fear. Seems like a very normal and typical reactions when such a tragedy happens at the happiest place on earth. Not a lot of people know about the gator situation in Florida, now they do and it can be shocking, but informative about how to act near water in Florida. Disney HAD to take some measures for PR . Not that it’s bad, people expect a big reaction with a big tragedy. It otherwise a would have seemed unbalanced and like they weren’t doing enough. A healthy amount of fear is good, and I don’t think it’s controlling people’s lives because of this accident.
We aren’t canceling our reservation, but we HAVE sat with our children and talked about the importance of leaving ANY wild animal alone, not just in Florida, but anywhere. We talked about how most wild animals are not a threat as long as you don’t get to close or threaten them in some way. We also talked about following rules, being aware of surroundings, watching for signs and following those as well.
I had never really thought about alligators at Disney….it really does seem like a bubble where nothing bad can reach you. But once this happened, I thought…OF COURSE there are alligators there. It’s FLORIDA! I hadn’t thought of it before, but I SHOULD have. But really, the most you can do is know how to behave and follow rules to be as safe as possible. Looking both ways before you cross the street isn’t going to guarantee that a bus won’t jump the curb and hit you. You can’t prevent 100% of accidents, man made or natural. I can’t imagine what that family feels, and the scrutiny they are under…it must be purgatory. This isn’t their fault, and it’s not Disney’s fault, though I do support more specific signage in regards to WHY swimming is not allowed in certain areas. It’s all about practical solutions to prevent further incidents without overreacting and placing blame.
You’ve made valid points Susan and I completely agree with you. Well stated.