ORLANDO – On September 11, 2001, Brian Avery was an accident investigator at SeaWorld Orlando watching the news in a conference room when images of the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center paraded across the screen.
Shortly thereafter, SeaWorld executives made the unprecedented decision to close the park. Guests visiting SeaWorld, as well as Disney World and Universal, “left quietly” as the parks were smoothly evacuated within an hour of the attacks, according to one. Orlando Sentry article.
In the days that followed, Avery participated in discussions about the resort’s new security protocols and procedures.
“Basically it boiled down to this: everyone was a suspect in the future, and whether you are a staff member, a customer (or) a salesperson delivering products to the property, we were going to check you out,” did he declare.
Immediately after the attacks, SeaWorld made it mandatory to check employee and guest baggage and began searching all vehicles entering the property, including employee golf carts, Avery said.
The company realized that theme parks, like stadiums and other places where large numbers of people congregate, could be potential targets for an attack. So she also beefed up her security service, installed additional surveillance cameras and had another K-9 monitor the property. , he said.
“No stone has been overlooked after that day,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience, and I think people realized that it was a necessary experience in order to make the environment as safe as possible so that we can continue to operate. … There was a lot of uncertainty and fear, but we realized we had a job to do.
For many theme parks, the terrorist attacks on America that day highlighted the need for tighter security, as officials realized that large sites could become targets for terrorism.
And over the next 20 years, other attacks and events – including the Pulse shooting and the COVID-19 pandemic – prompted parks to constantly update their safety protocols in a changing landscape.
Safety evolves in 20 years
Most of the basic security improvements at Orlando theme parks after 9/11 have remained in place today, but resorts have adapted as new threats and technologies emerged.
In the months following the attacks, searches for guest bags by Disney, Universal and SeaWorld were so intensive that they included removing batteries and tapes from video cameras to ensure that they did not appear. was not disguised weapons.
At Disney and Universal, officers on leave from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Orlando Police Department oversaw searches of bags outside the doors while private security patrolled inside. After hours, officers would bring bomb sniffer dogs to the parks.
Disney has also installed barriers capable of withstanding collisions with vehicles at employee and vendor entrances and, with help from federal authorities, established a no-fly zone over its parks. The company briefly used metal detectors in 2004 before their return in late 2015, as all theme parks in the region began using the technology following deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.
The 2015 attacks sparked further security changes in the area’s parks during an active holiday season. All three stations have improved their security; at Disney, police dogs once again patrolled the property. Disney has also stopped selling toy guns and banned guests 14 and older from wearing costumes at the resort.
In January 2016, representatives for Disney and Universal confirmed that the companies had hired additional security workers, but declined to provide details of the security expansion at the time.
The Pulse nightclub shooting in downtown Orlando sparked new concerns months later.
Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people and injured dozens more in early June 12, was in Disney Springs and near Epcot just hours before the shooting, court records show. Authorities said the gunman’s wife told them her husband was planning to attack Disney Springs and, during his trial, prosecutors argued that he planned to hide his gun in a stroller and bring it into the shopping district.
Additional security cameras were added to Disney Springs after the shooting, although at the time Disney said they had been scheduled for installation months before.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put safety back at the forefront of park operations, said Avery, now a senior lecturer at the University of Florida and a senior member of Event Safety & Security Services. Previously, where security personnel could simply “get the job done” by performing bag checks, COVID informed staff of potential failures, he said.
Security technologies have also advanced due to the pandemic, including contactless systems used to scan bags and take customers’ temperatures.
Temperature checks became the norm when parks reopened, and visitors lined up to have their foreheads scanned for almost a year until parks began phasing out the practice in May.
Disney also improved its security checkpoint technology in the summer of 2020 with weapon detectors that scan guests using an artificial intelligence system. Disney also instituted bag checks at Disney Springs entrances in 2020.
The exact technologies and strategies used in the parks remain largely trade secrets. Representatives from Disney, Universal and SeaWorld have all declined to discuss details of their parks’ security measures for this story.
Local law enforcement is also working alongside area theme parks to keep properties safe. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office has a dedicated area for surveillance of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, which encompass Disney property, and works with Disney and SeaWorld security. The Orlando Police Department is helping watch Universal.
For theme park companies, not talking about their safety measures is a safety decision in and of itself, Avery said.
“We’re low key in this industry about our security protocols, for good reason,” Avery said. “You don’t want these protocols, and the exact measures we take, to be disclosed to the public, because then they can test for vulnerabilities.”
Customer safety and comfort
Security often works so seamlessly behind the scenes that guests don’t notice it, said Jim Seay, president of Premier Rides and former chair of the World Safety Committee of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
The events of September 11 have made theme park security more visible. Bringing metal detecting technology to the theme parks was “a really big deal,” because it could hamper the fantastic experience, Seay said.
“You have this intense aspect of security on you when you walk into the park, and it starts the day at a time when you are only focusing on security as a guest,” he said.
Advances in technology make screening less intrusive and less convenient for customers, said Todd McGhee, co-founder of Protecting the Homeland Innovations. Now security can filter multiple people at once, reducing the time visitors spend online and near each other.
Innovations like high-frequency radio wave systems and facial and biometric scanners can deliver better security in a fraction of the time, Avery said, and theme park companies are constantly looking for emerging technologies that can handle large crowds in a safe and efficient manner.
Theme parks are also sharing more security information globally to be better prepared to respond to emerging threats.
McGhee helped develop a mass notification system called the IAAPA Security Advisory Program. It debuted in 2017 to alert IAAPA members to global and regional safety and security events.
“Often the expression (is), ‘Not if, but when’,” he said. “And I think what I’ve seen is that the theme park industry is open-minded to see what’s going on in aviation, or public transportation, and then think,” If it happens 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.
Theme parks have a responsibility to keep guest safety first, but visitors can protect themselves by reporting suspicious activity they see in parks, Avery, McGhee and Seay said.
“It’s supposed to be a lifetime memory to come to a theme park or amusement park, and that should be the goal of (guests), as professionals spend their time making sure they are in a safe environment, ”Seay mentioned.
This story was written by Katie Rice of the Orlando Sentinel.