Tuesday night while walking along the sandy beach along Disney’s Grand Floridian, a 2 year old boy was taken by an alligator in front of horrified onlookers. The father tried to wrestle his child free. Covered in claw marks and bruises the father was unsuccessful and the alligator retreated with the child back into the darkness of the Seven Seas Lagoon. The child was found Wednesday, deceased but mercifully intact.
In my darkest nightmares I could never have thought of a worse post for my inaugural Father’s Day issue. In many ways the tragedy at Disney has hit closer to home than the tragedy at Pulse. I haven’t been part of the nightclub scene (or even nightlife scene) in over 15 years but we go to Disney at least once a month. Every parents biggest fear has to be the loss of their child. This is in the back of our minds at any age but for parents of toddlers fear and danger is always present. Potential harm lurks around every toy, crowd or coffee table. Spotting potential dangers is part of the core of parenting. We believe that if we’re knowledgable, cautious and vigilant we can protect our family. We feel as long as we, personally have eyes on our kids, if they are within reach, were safe. This is obviously part of the myth that is ‘security’ in general. For as we learned this week, none of us are truly safe. I pray that I never truly understand the helplessness of seeing this unfold in front of me and to be part of such a primal struggle only to lose, I can’t even begin to imagine. As a people, we always need to make sense out of senseless tragedy. We want someone to blame or something we can change so that it doesn’t happen again, especially to ourselves, we need a reason. I however have too much experience with Disney, parenting, alligators and Florida water to have the luxury of an easy answer.
Some of my first memories of Disney World include actually swimming in the water off of the campground on Bay Lake. My father and wife both reminded me today that there used to be fencing out in the water to keep alligators away from the shore. At some point Disney opted for a “no swimming” policy instead because by the time my wife and I had kids and took them to Fort wilderness tent camping, the “no swimming” were already up. I asked a cast member at the marina about it back then and they did, in fact, cite alligators as the cause for the change. Being a cynic and seeing a thick slick of fuel from all the little rental boats, I felt that was just the official story and that the truth had more to do with chemical burns than wildlife. We moved to the far end of the beach, away from the boats, and played in the water (but didn’t swim) and built sand castles, as one does.
I’ve lived in Florida now for over 30 years and I’ve become quite cavalier about alligators. My first move here was to live with my grandparents in Fort Myers in a golf course community, adjacent to a marsh reserve. Their back door opened to the 18th tee. The hole was long and narrow with a sprawling pond to its right running the length of the hole to the cup. The far side of that pond connected to Six Mile Cypress Slough. Seeing alligators was a daily occurrence as they traveled, often between the closely built homes, from one pond in the community to the next. Occasionally a service would remove one that ranged between 10 and 15 feet long but for the most part we just looked out for them. The consensus among the golf pond divers was that unless it’s over 8′ long it’s not really a danger. (Yes by the way for those of you in the rest of the country; there are actually people whose job it is to scuba dive in the murky alligator infested bonds of Florida golf courses to retrieve golf balls for a fee.) We currently live adjacent to conservancy land and know that alligators can be in there, though far less common than my first Florida home.
So we Florida Johnsons are well aware of the omnipresence of alligators, and poisonous snakes as well.
Being surrounded by coasts and lakes and water parks and pools my wife and I made a point to teach our children to swim at a very young age. However at age 2 or 3 even they only had the basic swimming skills necessary to make it to the side of the pool or other body of water should they fall in. We never worried about water they could easily stand in.
So we were quite familiar with the dangers and limitations of toddlers swimming and the waters of central Florida.
Overall my wife and I are what most of our contemporaries consider overprotective parents. We are not helicopter parents, bothering teachers over grades and insisting we do all of the kids projects for them. We are, however very careful where they go, who they’re with and any potential danger that could ensue.
With all that said I can tell you with certainty that my wife and I have absolutely been walking on the Disney beaches while our children, shoes off, were wading knee-deep in the water. We probably even have pictures or video. As a family we have all walked the beach and waded in the waters of; the Ft Wilderness campground, the Wilderness Lodge, the Grand Floridian, the Polynesian and the Beach club. As for the last one I distinctly remember that the outdoor movie in the beach had already started so it was well past dusk. My wife and I thought it was too cold to walk in the water so we walked along the sand as our kids walked with us five or 10 feet out, knee-deep in the water that runs from EPCOT past Boardwalk to Swan & Dolphin, on to Hollywood studios. I don’t wonder, I’m sure, there are alligators in that water, but at Disney we didn’t give it a second thought. I can’t say why, it’s part of the myth of the fantasy world and I don’t think I want that to change.
It’s hard to end a Disney story without a villain to best, but there really isn’t an easy one here. The family had every reason to believe they were safe. Disney had reason to believe that families are safe. The alligator was only doing what alligators do. At best we could point to the endless sea of random visitors who, despite rules against such things, cast popcorn and other food to the ducks, alligators and turtles that call the lakes home.
I’m sure the stories of blame will fill airtime for a while and in the end I’m certain at a minimum Disney will add “beware of wildlife” to the “no swimming” signs. It’s more likely though that guest will no longer be allowed in the water at all and fences may go up around all natural waterways.
Second-guessing the family isn’t the answer, vilifying Disney isn’t the answer, eradicating alligators isn’t the answer. All that I think we can learn from this horrific tragedy is to cherish every moment with your family because every moment with them can be special and anything, ANYTHING can get through even the most vigilant parents defenses.