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Monday, September 04, 2006


Tropical Storm Ernesto heads to Disney World

Last Wednesday tropical storm Ernesto hit Orlando as the 4:30 Indiana Jones stunt show began at Disney's MGM Studios. Indy had just avoided getting squished by a gigantic stone ball when the rain started. The cast awkwardly tried to entertain the crowd with improv as the staff backstage debated what to do. They finally rushed through a quick pyrotechnic stunt before sending us outside to contend with the weather.

The rain stopped as we headed out from beneath the show's covered risers but the sky! Jez, the sky! I've lived in Rainy Day Central (AKA Portland) most of my life and I've never seen a clouds like these. Dark grey, impossibly big and heading straight for the Walt Disney World Resort.

Rather than head for cover back at the hotel, the family and I decided to shoot over to the Magic Kingdom. After all, if Ernesto was a serious threat the good folks operating Disney's Florida empire would have sent us back to our rooms. Right?

I flashed back to the night before. Thunder storms were passing over northern Florida as my flight descended towards Orlando. In the distance bolts of lightening went off every single second for something like 35 minutes. I put on the Doors' "Riders on the Storm" and stared out the window, transfixed. Would Ernesto be like that metrological preamble to the main event? Would we be ducking electric bolts from Thor in Frontierland?

The following evening thousands were fleeing for their cars as we confidentally strolled through the gates and down Main Street. An hour later, the sky unleashed a strong, unending downpour. Along with about a 2,000 or so other stubborn fools that refused to let a tropical storm get between them and full evening of Disney brand fun, we walked on and off all the rides. No wait for It's a Small World? Hot damn! A "water special effect" caused by raindrops flying off the riders in front of us on Space Mountain? Sweet!

We practically had the place to ourselves and, I'll be honest, the storm was pleasant. I know, these are incredibly naive words in light of what the region went through a year ago but rain, sweet, blessed rain, on a muggy Florida night? Following a day of nearly unbearable tropical heat? It felt friggin' fantastic. Can these comments be any more insensitive to recent tragedies than these ads for Typhoon Lagoon? They can be found in many of the buses that transport visitors from park to park.

Given all the falling water and the thunder, the Dumbo ride turned into the world's greatest thrill ride, especially when I set the controls for the highest height possible. What could go wrong? Plenty but at least it would have made a great headline in the next day's edition of The Orlando Sentienel. "Stupid Oregon Tourist Dies in the Magic Kindgom." Byline: "Struck by lightening while riding on the back of a mechanical elephant."

Towards the end of the night we wound up on Splash Mountain. Why not? What could Brer Rabbit and his little water ride do to us that the storm hadn't? The mountain broke down at the first drop and, after a long wait, it looked like we might be spending the night there. But the ride jump started ten minutes later and we made it over to the Haunted Mansion by closing time on this dark and stormy night. Only one staff member seemed to working the ride and he looked and acted like Crispin Glover. When I made the mistake of taking a photo of a painting in the foyer, he poked me in the head and hissed, "the master despises flash photography!"

Taking his Tom-Waits-in-Francis-Ford-Coppola's-Dracula shtick even further, he paced around the ride's gallery/elevator like the love child of Hannibal Lecter and Elvira. He seemed convinced that he was a real butler working in a real haunted mansion for a real ghost host. If a Disney "cast member" was going to go completely bonkers, this was probably the night to do it. When the lights went out during the "there's always my way" bit, I half expected him to come at me with a sharpened Mickey Mouse hat.

But I survived the mansion and, for some reason, the Disney staff decided to go ahead with the fireworks show as the park closed for the night. The rain had finally let up and about fifty spectators stayed to watch. We all stared at the spectacle from underneath our dripping ponchos before heading for the gates (see photo above). Back at the hotel I checked out the pool but it had closed early.

Another lesson learned. Mechanical elephants are perfectly safe to ride during a tropical storm. But diving into a hotel pool? That's crazy. Just ask this guy.

All things considered, this storm was small potatos but it was exciting for those of us hailing from a state that sees a hurricane roughly twice a century. For more photos of Disney World and storm, feel free to check out this Flickr gallery I put together.

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