Florida theme parks boost security in light of terrorism, mass shootings

BY SANDRA PEDICINI
ORLANDO SENTINEL/
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

ORLANDO — Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are hiring additional security employees as theme parks enter what experts say is a new era of stepped-up efforts to shield visitors from possible terrorism and mass shootings.

Universal Studios in Orlando has installed walk-through detectors at entrances. (ELLEN CREAGER/DETROIT FREE PRESS/TNS)
Universal Studios in Orlando has installed walk-through detectors at entrances.
(ELLEN CREAGER/DETROIT FREE PRESS/TNS)

The theme parks would not say how many people they are adding or give details on the security measures they are taking. At Disney, many of the new security personnel will help staff metal detectors. A third-party company has overseen the detectors since Disney — along with the two other major parks — put them up last month. Over the coming weeks, Disney is moving the operation in-house.

One expert said the number of new security hires at the parks would likely be large.

“I would say given the nature of their operation, we’re not talking about tens. We’re talking about hundreds,” said Abraham Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

Metal detectors
In the wake of recent deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., attractions are focusing more on security, said Dennis Speigel, president of the consulting firm International Theme Park Services.

“I think in 2016, we’re going to see the implementation of more security measures, heightened security … than we’ve seen in the last three decades,” he said.

Last month Disney made several security changes, including forbidding costumes on adults in the theme parks and banning toy gun sales. As it announced those restrictions Dec. 17, Disney — along with SeaWorld and Universal — began using metal detectors at its gates.

That same day, President Barack Obama said that the United States had no “specific and credible” information about a terrorist threat over the holidays, but that the country was seeing “a new phase of terrorism, including lone actors and small groups of terrorists like those in San Bernardino.”

‘Like at the airport’
Universal describes its detectors as in an experimental phase.

“We really wanted to test what we see as best practices when it comes to security in today’s world,” spokesman Tom Schroder said. “It’s just part of our dedication to the safety of our guests.”

Universal started out with metal detector wands, then installed walk-through detectors at entrances.

Monday morning, it appeared everyone leaving a parking garage with a purse or backpack had to walk through a metal detector. Guards scanned people with wands if they didn’t have bags.

At SeaWorld recently, there were at least two sheriff’s vehicles in the parking lot and a deputy stood at the entrance. Visitors were randomly selected for scanning with a wand. There were metal detectors at the gates, to the side, but no one was going through them early Monday morning.
Guests shrugged off any inconvenience.

“With all the news stuff going on, it will help,” said Kathy Frasure of Kentucky, who was visiting Universal. “It’s like at the airport.”

Drones next?
Disney and Universal have been advertising for the security guards. Disney’s pay starts at $10.55; Universal doesn’t specify. Also, a security guard is now watching over the offices of Reedy Creek, the Disney-controlled taxing district that provides government services such as fire rescue.

Speigel said industry leaders have discussed measures including printed materials warning visitors to report anything that seems suspicious, though it is unclear whether local theme parks are considering that. He said he also would expect that the drones Disney is seeking federal permission to fly for nighttime entertainment could be eventually used for surveillance.

Tim Stromsnes, president of the Reedy Creek firefighters’ union, hopes the new emphasis on security will persuade the Disney taxing district to keep its special-operations-and-response team, whose members get specialized training on jobs such as rescues from collapsed buildings and detection of chemical agents. The district last year suggested disbanding it — one of the issues that the union and Reedy Creek have disagreed on as they negotiate a new contract.

Security has been a major concern of theme parks for years because of the large crowds they attract.

An attorney for a Disney security officer suing the company for discrimination noted during the lawsuit that she had once detected “a possible terrorist issue” that involved a subject who was later killed in a drone attack in Pakistan. A Disney security director confirmed that account in a 2013 deposition.

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