Hurricane Irma: How Disney World Kept the Magic Alive as Irma Headed Towards Florida (Photo Credits: AllEars.net, Weather Atlas, Bryan Perri, Karen Goodwin, Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images, Jennie Nowers, Reuters/Gregg Newton)
GOES satellite image of Hurricane Irma heading towards Florida in 2017 (AllEars.net).
Since its 1971 opening, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida has been the ultimate vacation destination for millions of people from all over the world each year. If you’re planning a trip to WDW, chances are you’ve heard mixed reviews about the weather. Some say it’s a summer-lover’s paradise (I mean Florida is known as the “Sunshine State”!), while others can’t stand the sweltering humidity. But, one thing’s for sure about Orlando weather: it’s unpredictable.
Walt Disney World is approximately 50 square miles of magic, so the weather can vary from park to park: You’ll get your fair share of sunshine in Magic Kingdom and downpours in Epcot, and depending on the time of year, it could be sunny and 80 degrees one day and cold the next. With an overall average high temperature of 83 degrees Fahrenheit and an average low of 62 F, the weather sounds almost perfect year-round. On average, January is the coolest month at Disney World (48 degrees Fahrenheit); July and August the warmest month (92 degrees Fahrenheit).
Average temperatures and rainfall for Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando FL (Weather Atlas).
In the summer, you can get frequent afternoon thunderstorms and high temperatures. Starting early and leaving after lunch will give you a chance to rest and avoid the strongest heating of the day. It’s important to hydrate and wear clothing designed to wick away moisture (along with hats and sunglasses to protect yourself from the powerful rays of the sun). Also, the park will be at its peak crowds in June, Juy, and August, meaning you’ll likely have to wait longer in the hot sun at most popular rides and attractions.
The maximum average rainfall usually falls at the park in August (7.32 inches), while the driest month is April at an average 2.02 inches. But, what about rain in the forecast during hurricane season? Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s. You name a holiday and Disney is open and ready to receive guests. Given how often hurricanes and tropical storms strike Florida, it can be a minor miracle that Disney World went nearly 28 years without an unscheduled closure due to weather. However, that streak ended in September 1999 thanks to Hurricane Floyd. With June 1st the official start to the Atlantic hurricane season, most activity ramps up in August, September, and October (with the “official” ending to the season being November 30). Although rare, Disney World has had to close its doors a handful of times for hurricanes since it opened: Hurricane Elena (August 31, 1985), Hurricane Floyd (September 15, 1999), Hurricane Charley (August 13, 2004), Hurricane Frances (September 4-5, 2004), Hurricane Jeanne (September 26, 2004), a partial closure for Hurricane Wilma (October 24, 2005). Hurricane Matthew (October 7, 2016), Hurricane Irma (September 10-11, 2017 ; a state of emergency was declared on September 4, 2017 by Florida Governor Rick Scott),and Hurricane Dorian (September 3-4, 2019). (In addition to weather closures, the park closed their doors early for guest safety on 9/11 and during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic).
As Hurricane Floyd bore down in 1999, Disney closed all four theme parks, Downtown Disney, and waterparks early in the afternoon September 14. At the time, the company announced it would be closed on the following day as well. However, after Floyd’s path took an unexpected change, Disney did end up opening Animal Kingdom and the Downtown Disney area the following day. Walt Disney World was hit with three more weather-related closures in the summer and fall of 2004. The first came in August of that year, when Hurricane Charley forced the closure of Disney’s parks on August 13. Although it had been over a decade between when Disney had been affected by a hurricane, in October of 2016 Hurricane Matthew forced the park to close as severe winds and rainfall swept through the region. The 2016 hurricane was only the fourth time in the 45-year history of Disney World that the theme parks had to close.
Disney doesn’t actually employ meteorologists for day-to-day operations, but WDW Operations Center monitors the weather as part of their standard duties. They simply follow NWS warnings and advice and call out warnings/ closures via walkie talkies to managers in the theme park. But, meteorologists can help Disney forecast park attendance based on long-term weather and climate patterns, and help to reduce revenue loss caused by closing the park for safety reasons, especially as intense storms occur with increasing regularity due to climate change. If a strong El Niño were to develop this fall, for example, Disney could plan to expect a more active Atlantic hurricane season.
If you’re traveling during hurricane season, research different travel insurance options and find the plan that fits your trip best. Stay updated with all forecasts and projected hurricane paths from legitimate news sources and the National Weather Service. You should also be aware of Disney’s hurricane policy, which includes safety instructions for resort guests as well as refund information: “If a hurricane warning is issued by the National Hurricane Center for the Orlando area—or for your place of residence—within 7 days of your scheduled arrival date, you may call in advance to reschedule or cancel your Walt Disney Travel Company Disney Resort Hotel Package and most room only reservations (booked directly with Disney) without any cancellation or change fees imposed by Disney”. Before a closure is announced, capacity is reduced significantly and guests are crammed into fewer parks, causing longer lines and heavier crowds. Or, significant damage may occur to Orlando International Airport and flights may be canceled for several days after the hurricane, forcing you to extend your stay in Orlando. It’s safer (being at Disney) relative to Florida’s coastal areas, but being in the path of a hurricane is not ideal compared to not being in the path of a hurricane. If you do find yourself at Disney in the midst of a hurricane, all you can do is make lemons out of lemonade.
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©2022 Meteorologist Sharon Sullivan
5:30 pm at the Magic Kingdom on October 6, 2016 before Hurricane Matthew’s arrival (Bryan Perri, Simplemost).
Guests walk past “Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party” on September 8, 2017, 2 days before Hurricane Irma forced Disney to close their doors to guests (Karen Goodwin/ Insider).
Tourists in Mickey Mouse rain ponchos (Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images).
Mickey and Minnie share an umbrella during a rainy day at Disney (Jennie Nowers/ Jennie Must Love Epcot).
Sunlight breaks through the clouds near Disney World on September 8, 2017 (Reuters/ Gregg Newton).