Disney, Universal hotel guests wait out storm

Emily Wahlgren knew Hurricane Ian was coming toward Florida, but she hoped it would spare Orlando as she packed for her vacation early this week.

The preschool teacher from Louisville, Ky. said she gets limited vacation time and did not have the chance to reschedule her Wednesday through Sunday trip to Universal Orlando for her birthday. She and her husband, Ethan, flew into Orlando Wednesday, prepared for rain at the theme parks as forecasters warned the potentially “catastrophic” hurricane was Orlando-bound.

But within hours of their arrival, Universal announced it was closing its theme parks Wednesday and Thursday, leaving the couple to spend at least the first half of their vacation in their hotel room at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort.

“We’re being taken care of, and I feel safe in this building,” said Wahlgren, 25. “I’m more so worried about all the other people that don’t have it as lucky as us right now … There are worse places to be stranded.”

Wahlgren and her husband are among thousands of people waiting out Hurricane Ian’s projected high winds and heavy rainfall at hotels in Orlando’s theme parks. Some, like the couple, are tourists who could not reschedule their vacations on short notice, or visitors who got stuck as airports closed for the storm.

Others sharing their stories on social media are South Floridians who sought comfort at the theme parks after evacuating their homes. A few are guests who knew the storm was coming but were determined to be at the theme parks anyway.

Universal’s hotels are already at full capacity, and employees are working to care for guests. Disney’s resorts are also full but will accept guests with existing reservations until 3 p.m. Wednesday, spokesman Eric Scott said. The hotels plan to reopen for new reservations at 3 p.m. Friday.

On forums for theme park fans, some guests worried about the cost of extending their stays through the storm.

Scott said Disney will accommodate such guests and has discounted room rates available for them. Loews Hotels spokeswoman Jennifer Hodges did not specifically comment on this concern, but said Universal’s hotels are focused on caring for guests and “making them feel safe and comfortable during the storm.”

Both Disney and Universal have hotel employees were staying on-site to help guests.

“Housekeeping is going door-to-door asking if anyone needs help or needs anything specific,” Wahlgren said of Universal. “They are going above and beyond to make sure that everything here in the hotel is comfortable for guests.”

Her hotel, called Sapphire Falls, was selling food and beverages to sheltering visitors, and wait staff at its Amatista Cookhouse restaurant offered to fill diners’ water bottles during brunch, she said.

At Disney, dining options for hotel guests vary and restaurants are accepting walk-ups, according to its website. Disney has paused transportation between resorts, the theme parks and Disney Springs until the storm passes.

Before the storm hits, Disney also is offering meal kits with foods like sandwiches and wraps with fresh fruit, chips, cookies and a drink, Scott said. Breakfast boxes are $5 for adults and $4 for children, while lunch and dinner boxes are $7 for adults and $6 for children.

Guests gathered in the Sapphire Falls lobby at Universal, sometimes with pets, to watch hurricane coverage together on the hotel’s TV. A performer dressed as Alex, the lion from “Madagascar,” posed with guests to keep up morale.

Disney is offering similar entertainment at its hotels, Scott said, including costumed characters, complimentary arcade games and crafting.

Guests at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando gather in the hotel's lobby ahead of Hurricane Ian's landfall on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022 (photo courtesy of Emily Wahlgren)

Wahlgren said the staff assured her the hotel has generators in case it loses power. That was encouraging for Wahlgren and her husband, who packed a gaming laptop and streaming stick to entertain themselves during the storm.

“I just can’t explain enough how appreciative we are for the team members,” she said. “If I was a worker here, I would want to be at home with my family … [but] they’re all smiling, and they’re all here to be of service.”

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