Disney Will Withstand PR Nightmares of Alligator Attack, Terrorist Interest

The Street, June 17, 2016.

Walt Disney‘s  (DIS) giant theme park operation in Orlando, Fla., will bounce back from twin public relations nightmares that rocked it after the death of a toddler in an alligator attack and news that the resort was sized up by a terrorist for a potential attack, according to crisis management consultants.

Barring an unlikely major new bombshell that would shake the 45 years of goodwill Disney has established at its 27,000-acre Walt Disney World theme park and hotel complex, the media giant is unlikely to suffer attendance declines despite worldwide attention to the death of two-year-old Lane Graves, experts said.

Nor is it likely to be affected by reports that Omar Mateen, the terrorist who fatally gunned down 49 patrons of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last weekend and wounded 53 others, previously had scouted Disney World as a possible target.

“I’d be surprised if more than a very few people canceled their reservations,” said Rich Tauberman, executive vice president of MWW PR and a crisis communications expert who has advised clients in the tourism industry. “The bottom line is that they have done all the right things and said all the right things, and they have spent years perfecting a great global brand.”

Disney World’s four Orlando theme parks attracted 54 million visitors in 2015, according to the annual report from the Themed Entertainment Association. The largest of the four, the Magic Kingdom, is the largest in the world and lured 20.5 million visitors in 2015, a 6% increase from 2014.

Experts said Disney moved quickly to capture the news cycle after the toddler was dragged off from the Seven Seas Lagoon where he was playing; Disney announced that all of the resorts’ beaches were closed.

Within two days, sources confirmed, the company decided to install new signs, warning patrons of alligators, replacing those that directed its guests to not swim in the waters.

Disney executives, including CEO Bob Iger, who was in China for the opening of the company’s 43% owned Shanghai Disneyland, tried to console the toddler’s parents with a statement that “as a parent and a grandparent, my heart goes out to the Graves family during this time of devastating loss.”

“They understood they needed to immediately get out there with their position because of how fast news travels on social media,” Tauberman said. “And they said and did all the right things.”

Following the Pulse nightclub shootings, Disney also took action, stiffening security at its parks. The company announced it was giving $1 million to a fund established by Orlando officials for people affected by the shooting.

Disney’s Orlando operation can weather the bad news because of the reputation it has forged with consumers for the rigor in which it maintains a safe environment at its parks and hotels, said Peter Kreisky, chairman of Kreisky Media Consultancy, who has advised companies planning to build their own theme parks and studied Disney’s worldwide network of parks.

“Not only is the Disney brand strong enough to withstand terrorist scares and this alligator incident,” he said, “but the company takes extraordinary measures to protect itself from the unpredictable behaviors of millions of diverse visitors and the negative publicity that can generate.”

Kreisky said: “Visitors are monitored from the moment they enter the parks. Any hints of trouble are dealt with instantaneously via well-hidden networks of cameras, tunnels and staff.”

In the weeks after 9/11, Disney successfully lobbied government regulators to make the air over its property a no-fly zone. In addition, the three backstage access roads that connect its parks are heavily fortified with cement blockades.

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino mass shooting in December, Disney World and other parks installed metal detectors. Disney also said it would ban the sale of toy guns.

A Disney spokesman would not comment for this article.