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After fatal attack, theme parks weigh alligator warnings

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In the shadow of the Magic Kingdom Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Officers searched for the body of a young boy Wednesday, after he was snatched off the shore and dragged underwater by an alligator Tuesday night at the Grand Floridian Resort at Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

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Alligators lay on the grass near fresh water at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, in Gainesville, Fla. The death of a Nebraska tot killed by an alligator at Walt Disney World raised questions in a state known for tourism.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. » It’s an unwritten rule for Florida residents: Keep your kids away from ponds and lakes because alligators are everywhere.

But after a gator killed a 2-year-old Nebraska boy at a Walt Disney World resort, attention soon turned to tourists. In a state with an estimated 1 million alligators, how should theme parks and other attractions warn visitors, and did Disney do enough?

Disney beaches remained closed today after the death of Lane Graves, and the company said it has decided to add alligator warning signs, which it previously did not have around park waters.

Jacquee Wahler, vice president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement that the resort was also “conducting a swift and thorough review of all of our processes and protocols.”

Local law enforcement and state wildlife officials publicly praised the company for spotting and removing nuisance gators from park waters.

Disney’s wildlife management system has ensured “that their guests are not unduly exposed to the wildlife in this area,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said during the search for the child.

Yet Kadie Whalen, who lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, saw no evidence of that system when she visited Disney World with her family four years ago.

Whalen said her three young children and niece were playing on a resort beach at the water’s edge with buckets and shovels provided by Disney workers when the beady eyes of a 7-foot gator appeared in a lake just a few feet away. She screamed and everyone scattered.

No one was hurt, but after her experience, this week’s fatal alligator attack did not surprise her.

“We knew that Disney was aware that this was a problem, and yet they encourage people to be there,” Whalen said today in a telephone interview.

The dead child’s parents, Matt and Melissa Graves, who live in a suburban area of Omaha, have not spoken publicly, so it’s unclear whether they knew anything about the gator threat in Florida. A statement released through a family friend thanked local authorities for their tireless work.

An autopsy showed that the boy died from drowning and traumatic injuries, according to the Orlando medical examiner.

Most Florida residents know to keep kids and pets away from water, not to feed gators and to be especially vigilant at dusk, dawn and during the June-through-July nesting season when the reptiles are most active.

State wildlife officials say they receive nearly 16,000 alligator-related complaints a year. Last year, they removed more than 7,500 gators deemed to be a nuisance.

Depending on the size of an alligator, the state may send out a trapper, as happened after the gator grabbed the boy at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, located across Seven Seas Lagoon from the Magic Kingdom, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

Five gators were removed from the lake following the boy’s disappearance, and trappers continued looking for gators after his body was found Wednesday.

While Disney had posted “no swimming” signs at the lake where the boy died, it did not have alligator warning signs, which are common around golf courses, ponds and public parks all over Florida. That has raised questions about whether the company did enough to convey the potential danger to visitors.

“They presumably know, since they have caught four or five alligators in this area, that the area has dangers that far and away exceed the danger of drowning,” said Miami-based defense attorney Scott Leeds. “So this issue of posting a sign warning of swimming or no swimming doesn’t adequately warn patrons of the known danger.”

Responding to questions from The Associated Press, Disney said it has a policy of relocating alligators that are considered a potential threat. Animals less than 4 feet long are taken to conservation areas. Larger gators are removed by state-licensed trappers, the company said.

Whalen said that’s what happened in 2012 after the gator appeared in the water near her kids at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, which is on a different lake than the one where the boy was killed.

As shocked tourists looked on, she said, trappers caught the animal and carried it away, writhing, across a pool and courtyard area outside the hotel. Disney workers threatened to confiscate the phones and cameras of anyone who tried to photograph or videotape the spectacle, she said.

Whalen said she complained to the front desk and wrote a letter to Disney but never heard back. She was also chided by Florida residents who questioned why she’d ever let her kids get near the water, even at Disney.

“It never crossed our minds at Disney World that we would have to worry about a predator eating our children,” she said. “We don’t have alligators in Pennsylvania.”

5 responses to “After fatal attack, theme parks weigh alligator warnings”

  1. justmyview371 says:

    My parents had two alligators in the lake behind their home near Tampa. An alligator “wrangler” had to be called in. No problem. We also found an alligator in a river in Texas and caught him by baiting our fishing poles. Pretty easy to catch, but what do you do then.

  2. Heart says:

    About 10 years ago I saw tourists feeding a gator (I’d estimate about 4 feet long) from the dock inside the Magic Kingdom near the Liberty Square/Frontier Land areas. I never expected to see a gator in those waters.

  3. wkama says:

    I have to agree with Kadie Whalen that signs should be posted warning of alligators. Anyone from states or countries far from Florida visiting DW would never suspect that there would be alligators roaming around the lake ready to pounce on any little kid playing along the shore. On solution is to place a barrier between the deep and shallow part of the lake. In any case put a warning sign.

    BTW what was a life guard doing there? No swimming allowed signs posted? Maybe those guards should be equipped with weapons to beat off alligators coming to shore.

  4. downtown says:

    Besides placing warning signs, Disney should fence in areas of beach to make them safe for kids. And, patrol the area before it opens to make sure no gators crawled in overnight or broke through the fencing. Unless they also install fencing around the borders of their lagoons, they can’t prevent gators from crawling in from other areas. Australia installed netting at beaches to reduce shark attacks. They worked but were controversial because they also killed sharks. If they don’t do more, they’re liable to litigation. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t get sued by this family. Disney would lose big time because they did not post adequate warnings. It doesn’t matter if everybody in Florida knows about gators. Tourists don’t.

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