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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Suspicious bags and bomb threats at Disney - just what SHOULD they do?

On 12/21, part of Tomorrowland was evacuated with no explanation to visitors, who were ushered (somewhat quickly, apparently) out of the area while bomb dogs were brought on scene. Disney never really officially commented on the situation, but with the land reopening about an hour later, the crisis turned out to be fairly routine. Apparently, there was a suspicious bag left behind, with no owner, and so the theme park reacted on the safe side.

In the moments of uncertainty during the evacuation, the twitterverse speculated a lot, and I heard one (fanciful?) report that Space Mountain had received a bomb threat. Maybe this is a stretch of the truth? That the bag was at Space Mountain but it wasn't a phoned-in threat?

As it turns out, I have first-hand experience with both phoned bomb threats and unattended baggage at Disney theme parks.

The bomb threat came in 1993 or 1994, when I was the Working Lead of Cafe Orleans at Disneyland. I got a call to visit my supervisor downstairs, who told me that Disneyland had received a vague bomb threat, with no details. This sort of thing happened all the time, she assured me, but at the same time, would I please go examine the possible hiding areas, especially the bushes, in my area? I did so, with a bit more caution than was warranted, borne of flights of fancy. No bomb turned up. No areas of the park were ever closed.

The unattended backpack was another story. It was October or November 2001 - just a few short weeks after the events of September 11, and everyone was jumpy. It might even have been late September 2001 - I know I was still kind of on guard myself. And so it was perhaps inevitable that I'd see a backpack lying all by itself, in the middle of the side street on Main Street at Disneyland. This area is not nearly as heavily trafficked as the regular Main Street, but there was a blue backpack on the street, stuffed rather full, and with no owner in sight. I watched it for a full minute, then decided I had to report it. I flagged down a nearby costumed Security officer, who phoned it in immediately while I watched from a distance. Then, before any backup came, he approached the bag and peeked inside. He didn't appear to find anything suspicious; he kept rummaging for several more moments.

Then, finally, the owner of the bag came running back--he's just forgotten it. Crisis averted. I went my merry way and thought nothing of it, until tonight anyway.

The clearing of a land is a pretty drastic step to take. They didn't do it in 2001 with the backpack I found, and they didn't do it when a bomb threat was phoned in to Disneyland in 1993. I would have assumed that such a big step normally occurs when there is reason to think it's not just a fluke, that there might actually be some danger to the public. I can imagine that if the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI told Disney of a specific threat, that would be reason to close a land for a sweep by the bomb dogs. But for them to close the land - even for a single hour - implies they had found something rather suspicious. Like a bag full of odd electronics and wires?

But for the land to open later with no repercussions implies it wasn't any of that. Did they just find an unattended backpack and assume the worst? That would be an overreaction. We may never know exactly what went down tonight - Disney is unlikely to issue any formal statements on what turned out to be routine - but that still leaves some questions.

So it's leading me to wonder. What really *is* the proper response when Disney finds an unattended bag? Do you want them to clear the area as a precaution? Or is that more disruption than you'd want?

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Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.