Our Experience with Hurricane Irma at Disney World

If you followed our updates on social media, you might know that we were stuck at Walt Disney World during Hurricane Irma. Many readers asked for us to share the experience, so I thought I’d recount the story of how we get stuck, Walt Disney World’s handling of the situation, and other details.

Being at Walt Disney World during Hurricane Irma was definitely a learning experience for us, and hopefully this is helpful for someone else in the future as intense storms occur with increasing regularity due to climate change. Be warned, the first page of this is me ranting about why you should cancel a Walt Disney World trip and complaining about Delta Airlines. If you want to skip my bellyaching and get to the actual hurricane report, jump ahead to Page 2.

I hesitated a bit before deciding to write this, because I’m concerned about how this might be perceived, and because of the takeaways readers might infer. Since I think there is value in sharing our experience, I’m going to do so, just with a number of caveats…

First and foremost, the safest place to be during a hurricane definitely is not Walt Disney World. If a hurricane is approaching Florida, there are 49 other states that are safer places to be. This may seem glib, but I think it’s important to underscore.

In the lead-up to Hurricane Irma, when we explained how we were effectively stranded here, I lost count of how many people told us that Walt Disney World was the safest place to be. Now, I realize that most of these people were well-intentioned, trying to be reassuring. I get, and appreciate, that.

However, I’ve noticed this sentiment online, and it has become pervasive in a sense that is not just reassuring for those lacking better options. It’s also used by those who don’t want to cancel vacations, and still want to head to Walt Disney World even when they could cancel and stay at home.

Whatever mental contortions people might attempt to justify traveling to Florida prior to a hurricane, Walt Disney World is not safer than Chicago, New York, etc., during a hurricane. It’s safer relative to coastal areas of Florida and apartment complexes in the area, but being in the path of a hurricane is never safer than not being in the path of a hurricane. Unless there’s also a Sharknado, and then nobody is safe.

To the extent that Walt Disney World is safer than other parts of Florida (and it certainly is), keep in mind that Floridians are often evacuating their residences to safer locations in Central Florida. Walt Disney World pulled a lot of its hotel inventory early in the week prior to the hurricane, with large blocks set aside for displaced Floridians–peopled truly in need of them.

I know that will not be enough to convince some people. Some people spend over a year planning their Walt Disney World trips, spending hundreds of hours reading blogs like this one, expending a ton of effort planning. It takes work to score an exceptional discount, the best ADRs, FastPass+, etc. I know it’s beyond disheartening to cancel and have all that time go down the drain.

My response there is that you’re not out all of the time you spent researching and planning. The primary fruit of all that planning is not a tangible itinerary, but the knowledge gained in the process. You can apply what you learned to any trip you take, whether it be during a hurricane or a month later. Actually, you could apply that knowledge better on the later trip, as not much planning info covers ‘what to do to have fun during a hurricane.’

When it comes to the ADRs, FastPass+, discounts, and so on, most of that can be rebooked. If the trip is a month down the road, perhaps you won’t get that Be Our Guest Restaurant or Frozen Ever After booking, but if you’d potentially miss those during the storm, what’s the difference? And really, how much is that coveted ADR worth? Some of the absolute best restaurants at Walt Disney World can be booked inside of a week and you never need a FastPass+ for Country Bear Jamboree.

When it comes to discounts, the economics still do not work in your favor. Since hurricanes primarily impact fall bookings, Free Dining is probably what most people do not want to forfeit. Depending upon the size of your party and resort, Free Dining works out to be about a 0-30% savings above and beyond other discounts you could’ve booked. (Factoring in the opportunity cost of another discount.)

If Walt Disney World’s theme parks, Disney Springs, and its resort restaurants are closed for 2 days of a 7 day trip, you have lost 29% of the trip. That is, unless your ideal vacation involves being stuck at a hotel.

As a result of Hurricane Irma, the parks and Disney Springs closed early one day and were closed entirely for 2 subsequent days. During that time, you are not able to do attractions, effectively use Disney Dining Plan credits, or experience anything beyond limited offers in your hotel. And that’s the best-case scenario.

The damage hurricanes can cause is unpredictable, and all it would have taken is a couple of strong gusts of wind during the storm to have caused additional damage in one or more of the parks, precluding that or those parks from reopening for another day or two. Suddenly, in addition to the two full days of closure, one or two of the parks are closed for additional days. During this time, capacity is reduced significantly, and guests are crammed into fewer parks, causing longer lines and heavier crowds.

Or, maybe there’s significant damage to Orlando International Airport, and flights are canceled for several days after the hurricane, and you are forced to extend your vacation and stay in Orlando. There’s a cost to that, too.

I think you get the point. I’m 1,000 words into this post and have spent a lot of time explaining why people should cancel their trips when a hurricane is forecast to impact Central Florida. To me, it seems like such a patently obvious, no-brainer decision. To each their own, I suppose.

With all of that said, I’ll cut to the chase here. Well, actually, not quite to the chase…to a few days before, as we tried to deal with Delta to avoid this whole scenario in the first place. Originally, our plan was to stay at Walt Disney World and do Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party before leaving on a Halloween on the High Seas cruise on Friday, then flying back to Los Angeles the following Monday.

That cruise was cancelled late Tuesday night. First thing on Wednesday, we called (or should I say, started calling) Delta to get our flight rebooked. At that point, all they had was Saturday evening–still a day in advance of Hurricane Irma’s projected Central Florida arrival–so we took it. We knew there was a chance the airport would close early, so we kept trying for other flights after getting that rebooked.

Our experience with Delta was frustrating and a bit embarrassing, actually. Normally, we are the savvy travelers who know the right things to do or we are persistent until catching the right break. We had three days to get our flight rescheduled. We made over a dozen calls to Delta, and yet, absolutely nothing.

Since the hurricane, I’ve replayed what we did in my head, wondering how things could’ve gone differently. If we had asked to speak to a manager on a particular call or been more tenacious when asking to be rebooked on a different airline, we could’ve gotten home. I’m convinced of this–I know Delta added flights and I have no doubt that people who called after us were able to get out. They just were luckier or savvier.

It is a bit concerning that this is the second consecutive trip with serious flight cancellation problems, and serious issues dealing with the airline (United & Lufthansa and now Delta) CSRs with obstinate attitudes. In our Norwegian Fjords Disney Cruise Report, I wrote that we had more cancelled flights on that trip than during our previous years of flying combined. Well, we ended up having just as many cancelled flights on this trip.

The cancellations are not Delta’s fault, but the response and customer recovery to said cancellations certainly was. Around half of the CSRs with whom we spoke before the trip didn’t even seem to care or realize that a hurricane was approaching Florida. Orlando was not originally on Delta’s list of airport waivers (for 2 days–despite the airport already having announced it would likely be closing), which was probably part of the problem.

Once our rescheduled flight was finally cancelled (hours after MCO announced it would be closing early), Delta messaged us with rescheduled flight info: they had rebooked us on a flight that would be occurring during the height of the storm, on a day MCO would be closed. I found some humor in this, figuring it was an automated thing and Delta’s system was just slow in updating, so I tweeted out a screenshot.

Their response:

That exchange pretty much illustrates everything you need to know about how Delta bungled this. Believe me, I could write paragraphs more about specific face-palm encounters we had with them, but I’m guessing most people aren’t reading this for some diatribe about Delta.

Normally, after such an abysmal customer service experience, most people wouldn’t deal with said company again. If you’ve watched the news lately, you know this is sort of the MO of legacy U.S. air carriers. It’s not as if United and American Airlines have sterling reputations right about now.

Unfortunately, Delta has a lot of routes we like, they are investing a ton into LAX, they fly internationally, and are in a major code-sharing alliance. If we only flew domestic flights, we’d take our business to Southwest or JetBlue. In this situation, voting with our wallets simply isn’t feasible. Hooray industry consolidation with antitrust rubber-stamping from the Department of Justice! On Page 2, we’ll check into our hotel, do some hurricane prep, and then ride out the storm at Disney’s BoardWalk Inn. Click here to continue reading

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