Although hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30, the time between late August and September is really when the tropics heat up, both literally and figuratively. Right now with Hurricane Irma moving through the Caribbean and forecasted to impact Florida, Tropical Storm (and likely to be Hurricane) Jose on her heels, plus Tropical Storm Katia off the coast of Mexico, and with Hurricane Harvey’s impact still fresh in people’s minds, discussion about weather isn’t just idle chit chat.
At present, the one everyone has its eyes on is Hurricane Irma, a dangerous Category 5 hurricane, with sustained winds of 185 mph. To put it another way, it is like a 60-mile-wide F3 tornado that will not dissipate for days, also bringing with it the possibility of spawning additional tornados or bringing flash flood-inducing rain.
If there is a good thing about hurricanes compared to other storms, and with Irma in particular, people in the affected areas have time to evacuate and/or prepare. As of 8 PM on September 5, 2017, the National Hurricane Center estimates that the Orlando area will experience tropical storm-force winds as early as Saturday, September 9, 2017. How much stronger or how much longer Irma will affect Orlando is not yet certain, as hurricanes can have a mind of their own.
One thing that I can say for certain, having been through many hurricanes, including Andrew (the benchmark for really scary hurricanes in Florida), it is not fun to ride one out. Here’s some information that you can use if you have a Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, or Disney Cruise Line vacation coming up.
If You Have Not Arrived, But Are Scheduled To Arrive Between September 6 and September 12
If they have not announced it yet, within the next day or so, all airlines will let you know that there will be service disruptions due to the storm’s impact. Policies for cancellations and changes vary by airline, so contact your carrier for the latest information, however most will be flexible with a storm of this size. The same is true for rail travel with Amtrak.
Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando also has a certain level of flexibility at times like this for cancellations. You can find the official Disney FAQ for hurricane policy here and the policy for Universal Orlando here. One question that is asked frequently is whether promotions like Free Dining will be applied to a future visit. The short answer is, by the book, only if the offer is available at the new time you will be traveling (so in most cases, not very likely). But it never hurts to ask–just be kind to the reps that you talk to on the phone. They have a lot going on right now and some people may be “less than magical” to deal with on the phone. If you have a travel agent handling your booking, they can certainly help you figure out the best options for your situation.
Another question that has come up frequently is “Should I cancel?” I can only speak for me and my family, but I absolutely would cancel. To me, it would be no vacation sitting in a small hotel room in the dark with no electricity, internet, TV, or air conditioning (and remember, hotel room windows don’t open!) for a few days with limited food and room temperature water. Although Disney does its best to keep everyone safe and as comfortable as possible, there’s only so much that can be done. And while Disney will do its best to get hotel services up and running as soon as possible and get the parks open as quickly as they can, this hurricane is much larger than any that has ever passed near Walt Disney World in its history. We simply don’t know how much damage the parks will take and how many days they will be closed.
If you have trip insurance, read the policy to know what is or isn’t covered. Unfortunately, if you do not have trip insurance at this point, it is too late to get it for this storm.
If You Are Already Here in Orlando and Are Scheduled to Remain Through the Hurricane
As of right now, there still are options to leave this area and head to safety. If you are flying out of the area, contact your airline and see if you can move your flight to an earlier time. If you are planning to drive, things may be a bit more difficult, as you will also be traveling with people evacuating from their homes. In the immediate Orlando area, there are already gasoline shortages and outages. Along the evacuation routes, hotel rooms have already started booking in full–by this weekend, you may be hard pressed to find a hotel room available from Georgia/Alabama south through Florida. Make sure that you remain aware of the directions of local authorities–they will suggest the best courses of action to ensure your safety.
For some of you, the only option may be to ride out the storm at Walt Disney World. In general, the parks will close well in advance of the storm, usually when winds start nearing tropical storm strength, to ensure that guests and cast members alike are able to get to sheltering locations safely. At that time, cast members at your resort will provide you with information about where to go and how to shelter in place. Food options will be very limited (and, in years past, rather pricey). If you have the ability to get to a store for some non-perishable foods and snacks, it would be in your best interest to have them in your hotel room. Currently, many stores in the Walt Disney World area are already out of water. Some that have gotten shipments in are limiting the amount you can purchase. The best time to go is as soon as stores open (around 7 AM for many Publix stores, for instance). If a truck has arrived word of mouth goes quick and supplies go even quicker. Candles or any sort of open flame are not to be used in a hotel, but battery-operated tea lights can be a good option, as can flashlights and portable lanterns. To see a checklist of the kind of hurricane supplies that are recommended for those sheltering in place, click here.
If you have a rental car, make sure you know what insurance coverage you have on your rental car to avoid nasty surprises if your car is parked at the hotel. Contact your rental car company for more information.
During the hurricane, stay in your sheltered location and away from windows and doors. If the eye should pass over the Orlando area, there may be a time when it gets calm outside–please stay inside until an all clear has been announced, because the back side of the eye comes in quick with high winds that can take you by surprise.
If You Have a Cruise Scheduled on the Disney Dream or Disney Fantasy
There are several changes to upcoming cruises for the Dream and Fantasy.
- The September 2 Fantasy cruise is returning to Port Canaveral two days early, and will arrive on Thursday, September 7.
- The September 9 Fantasy cruise has been cancelled.
- The September 4 Dream cruise is returning to Port Canaveral one day early, and will arrive on Thursday, September 7.
- The September 8 and September 11 Dream cruises have been cancelled.
For more information, and to find out about refunds and the possibility of rescheduling, contact Disney Cruise Line or your travel agent.
When Will Things Be Back to Normal Down There?
Simply put, it is impossible to know how long it will take to recover until the storm has left the area. During Andrew, power outages of 1-3 weeks were common, roads were destroyed, and some communities were completely wiped off the map and not rebuilt. These days, cell towers may be knocked out, making it more difficult for updates to get out, however those of us sheltering in place will do our best to get updates out. And when we get things cleaned up and rebuilt, we will all be very happy to have you all come down to once again enjoy all that the vacation capital of the world has to offer.
If you have additional questions, please let us know in the comments.
Update, 9/6/17, 11:30 AM: Osceola County (Kissimmee, Celebration, southern part of Disney) has announced that public schools will be closed on Friday (9/8) and Monday (9/11) as some public schools will be set up as shelters. People staying in hotels in the Kissimmee area should listen to local authorities about the need to relocate to shelters. If you are told to go to a shelter, bring essential supplies (medication, ID, money/credit cards, travel documents, a change of clothing, closed-toe shoes, toiletries, flashlights, non-perishable food, activities for kids and adults).
Update, 9/7/17, 7:30 AM: Two notes from this morning. First, a report was making the rounds that Orlando International Airport would be closing to commercial flight operations on Saturday at 5 PM. The message has since been taken down from MCO’s web site, and the official statement is that a determination of when airport operations will close has not been made yet. As always, if you are planning to leave, go early, pack your patience, and stay in contact with your air carrier.
Also, there is a viral post making the rounds that says that all hotels in the state of Florida, including Disney hotels, MUST accept your pets during times of emergency. This information is false — the federal law being referenced (the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards act, or PETS) only applies to shelters, not to hotels. Some hotels in the Orlando area that are traditionally pet-free *are* accepting people with their pets in, generally for a fee, but Disney has not made the decision to accept pets at this time. For the latest in pet policies at local hotels, call the hotel directly. The nearest Pet Friendly hurricane evacuation shelter to Walt Disney World is at Kissimmee Middle School, 2410 Dyer Blvd., Kissimmee, FL.
Update 9/7/17, 9:30 AM: Local meteorologists are giving the time of 5 PM Saturday, September 9 as the cut-off time for storm preparation and getting to a safe place to ride out the storm. As of yet, theme parks have not announced closures, but with that recommendation, it is likely that we could see closures of theme parks as early as Saturday evening.