On the surface, it looks like things are back to normal at Walt Disney World.
Oh sure. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, there's a heightened state of awareness. And numerous security precautions already have been put into place. Example: WDW guests must have their bags searched before they're allowed to enter the theme parks. And inside those parks, the Mouse's security staff (which totals some 650 full-time officers) is a much more noticeable presence.
Of course, the same could be said about the 20 Orange County Sheriff's deputies assigned to patrol the vacation complex. Mickey used to insist that Kevin Beary's boys keep a low profile, so as not to remind tourists of the big, bad world outside. Not any more. Nowadays, the Mouse is thrilled to have people see Orange County's cruisers all over the property. It conveys a comforting message.
Except the Mouse obviously doesn't believe its own publicity.
Based on their recent words and actions, senior Disney officials aren't at all certain they can keep their parks secure. Consider Sunday, Oct. 7, the first day American forces began dropping bombs on Kabul. Disneyland management quietly closed Sleeping Beauty's Castle that morning. No explanation was offered. But given that the Anaheim icon is thought to be a tempting target for critics of America from abroad, limiting access was a prudent reaction. Or so park officials thought.
Or how about this past Saturday, when Mouse House officials cordoned off a good portion of Disney's California Adventure park when a pile of white powder was found on the ground. It took emergency crews several hours to investigate, giving guests a primo view of workers in full hazardous-materials gear. The incident -- plus a similar one next door at Disneyland on Sunday -- turned out to be a hoax. But still it caused reporters once again to quiz senior company execs about what Disney was going to do to guarantee guests' safety.
Luckily for the Mouse, Disney already was in full damage-control mode. Heading into the weekend, a front-page Miami Herald article on Friday reported that internal government reports had said terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network had considered attacking Disneyland and Disney World.
At a moment like that, it helps to have a well-connected governor in your pocket. Disney honchos dialed up Jeb Bush -- the same guy who showed up last month at a Disney Store in Chicago, where he urged consumers not to cancel their Orlando vacations. Jeb may or may not have phoned his brother, the president, who last month dispatched his Cabinet officials onto commercial flights to prove the skies over America were safe again and implored Americans to "go to Disney World." Whatever the chain of events, come Saturday, federal law-enforcement officials suddenly were downplaying the Disney danger.
The company has tried to be soothing on its own. "I think we're going to always make sure that we create, whether they're new parks or existing parks, a safe environment for our guests," Walt Disney World president Al Weiss told a reporter from Reuters. "So we're going to take the appropriate measures."
What exactly are these measures? That's what Disney's Imagineers would like to know. Since Sept. 11, work on new parks, shows and attractions has virtually halted as the company tries to devise a coherent set of design guidelines to improve guest safety. And yet, with no projects in the pipeline, Imagineers -- including some who were rehired after recent layoffs -- are being laid off once more.
The irony here is that as cutbacks resume, the Imagineering headquarters campus currently is undergoing a decorative makeover. Offices are being renovated. The landscaping is being redone, with trees ripped out and ornamental shrubs dropping in their place. Even the cafeteria (a.k.a. "The 'Eat' Ticket") is being revamped, and its outdoor dining patio retrofitted with new furniture.
Reeling from the twin terrors of their own lack of job security and Disney's seeming indecision about how to address security concerns, Imagineers might wish they, too, had a favor they could call in with the Bush family. Unfortunately, the only Bush they're close to is the George W. Bush robot, soon to debut in the "Hall of Presidents" attraction. Disney hopes the real George W. and First Lady Laura -- who now can be seen on the Disney Channel reassuring children in the wake of the Sept. 11 events -- will trek to Orlando to join Jeb for a preview of the presentation.
If he does, expect him to say how safe it is, and invite everybody to join him.