Disney World visitors felt the heat as medical calls spiked this Summer

9/7/2022:   A hot summer sun rises over Los Angeles during the e
Orlando’s weather 'can turn a dream vacation into a potentially dangerous ordeal.'

In roughly 20 years of warnings, the National Weather Service never issued an excessive heat advisory for Orlando.

Until this Summer.

Then, suddenly, Orange County had four excessive heat advisories, all in mid-August, as the heat index hit 113 degrees and above.

Disney World vacations got dangerously hot.

One person passed out at Toy Story Land. Another fainted at Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom, while someone else collapsed at the Disney Springs Rainforest Cafe. Others complained of not feeling well and being dizzy.

Disney paramedics rushed to nearly 40 medical calls across the property for overheated Disney guests and took six people to the hospital during those four days in August. 

Like much of Florida, the most Magical Place on Earth isn’t immune from the effects of climate change and the planet’s rising temperatures.

Throughout the entire summer, Disney World paramedics received 441 calls for guests’ heat-related medical issues — 22% more than last summer and more than double from five years ago, according to Florida Politics’ analysis of data obtained through the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District from a public records request. 

At Disney World’s Epcot Skyliner station, one person was “going down from the heat.”

“I’m dehydrated and freaking out,” another said at Animal Kingdom.

One person at Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion “got overheated, began seeing spots” on the Fourth of July. 

In at least one case, it was a baby suffering from heat exhaustion. The baby, who did not go to the hospital, was crying at Magic Kingdom’s Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe on a 93-degree day with a heat index of 103 degrees.

About 25 people passed out or nearly fainted from the heat in August — the busiest summer month for the fire department.

That month, the firefighters responded to a total of 179 heat-related illness calls as the average high temperature rose to 94.4 degrees in August, up from 93.8 degrees in August 2022. 

The hottest day this Summer fell on Aug. 12 when the high temperature hit 100 degrees between 1 and 3 p.m. although the heat index made it feel like 119 degrees. It was so hot, Aug. 12 tied for being the hottest August day ever recorded at the Orlando International Airport data station since the temperatures were first recorded in 1952. 

Orlando’s weather “can turn a dream vacation into a potentially dangerous ordeal,” said Dr. Ariel Mejia, an assistant medical professor at the University of Central Florida.

“When you combine high temperatures, high humidity, long wait lines in the blazing sun, and physical exertion for hours, you have the recipe for the most serious heat-related illness: heat stroke,” Mejia said. “This is when the cooling mechanisms of your body fail, and core temperature rises to 104 Fahrenheit or higher. Symptoms include nausea, confusion, headache, dizziness, fainting, skin hot to the touch, and rapid but weak heartbeat. This is a medical emergency.”

Out of the 441 calls, about one in every five were transported to the hospital. The rest of the people were treated by Disney World’s first responders and released. 

The district deletes 911 calls after 30 days, so no records existed when Florida Politics requested them. However, the district provided the “chief complaint” in the data which gave basic insight into the nature of the medical calls. It did not identify anyone’s age or any other personal information on who needed help.

The 441 Summer calls are certainly a small drop in the bucket considering every day, tens of thousands are on Disney property. 

It’s unclear exactly how many people dealt with heated-related illnesses at Universal Orlando and SeaWorld after Florida Politics made similar record requests for the fire departments in Orange County and Orlando. SeaWorld had no heat-related calls and Universal had only one case, the departments said.

The extreme heat and weather are a real worry for all theme park operators from the major players in Orlando to the smaller regional parks, said industry consultant Dennis Speigel of Ohio-based International Theme Park Services.

If heat scares visitors away, the parks lose money.

The Fourth of July holiday, which fell on a Tuesday this year, was an unusually slow day at Disney World, according to Len Testa who runs Touring Plans that analyzes wait times to help people plan their vacations. On the holiday, wait times at the Magic Kingdom were only 27 minutes long — some of the shortest waits all year, he said.

On July 4, the elevated temperature was 97 degrees with a heat index of 110, making it one of the hottest days that month.

In a recent earnings call, Disney blamed the lower attendance on the park’s 50th-anniversary celebration being over. 

Speigel said the industry is adjusting as it designs and builds new attractions and theme parks.

“It isn’t going away,” Speigel said of the extreme heat. “We know that.”

Disney knows that, too.

Disney Imagineers intentionally added trees and more shade in Epcot’s World Celebration neighborhood that officially opens in December. The company is rolling out new uniforms for employees to help them cool down. This year photographers out in the theme parks began wearing new uniforms made of recycled materials specially designed to protect against the sun and control moisture. Disney also has installed more water bottle fill-up stations around the resort property, bringing the current count to about 70 stations, to keep guests hydrated.

“Like most businesses in Florida, we have additional measures in place during hotter times of year to help keep our guests and cast members comfortable and safe,” Disney World spokesperson Avery Maehrer said in a statement.

Other parks are adjusting too.

This Summer, an expanded weather policy that for the first time includes extreme heat went into effect at SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and SeaWorld Entertainment’s other properties across the country. If the heat index hits 110 degrees or above, guests can return another day for free.

The policy is “without a doubt” one of the most consumer-friendly weather policies at theme parks, said Rob McNicholas, Corporate Vice President of Operations for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

“If you don’t have a great day at the park, we want you to come back and have a great day,” McNicholas said.

He could not say how many guests have asked for return tickets in Orlando but said guests are taking advantage of the policy.

Just like Disney, SeaWorld is mindful of the heat as it builds new attractions. 

When the roller coaster Penguin Trek opens next year, guests will wait in line in an indoor, air-conditioned queue.

“It’s vital from a guest’s comfort standpoint,” McNicholas said. “We want our guests to be comfortable and safe. So, whether it’s air conditioning, shade, fans, we’re certainly making that a top priority.”

Universal Orlando, Central Florida Tourism Oversight Administrator Glen Gilzean Jr. and the Disney firefighter’s union President Jon Shirey either declined to comment or did not respond to questions for this story.

___

This story was written with historic weather data provided by the National Centers for Environmental Information at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is an award-winning journalist based in Orlando. She covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. Her previous newspaper stops include the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Toledo Blade, Kalamazoo Gazette and Elkhart Truth as well as an internship covering the nation’s capital for the Chicago Tribune. For fun, she runs marathons. She gets her training from chasing a toddler around. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @GabrielleRusson .



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