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Wrestling with Gators

A look at the dangers posed by alligators in Greater Orlando and how local attractions work to keep guests safe.

Earlier this summer, along the bucolic shoreline near its Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Walt Disney World Resort quietly unveiled its newest feature: a statue of a lighthouse. This sculpture isn’t a tribute to any of Disney’s beloved characters or blockbuster movie franchises, though. Rather, it’s in honor of Lane Thomas Graves—a 2-year-old boy who, a year earlier, was shockingly killed by an alligator not far from the monument’s location.

Coming immediately after the murder of singer Christina Grimmie and the Pulse nightclub massacre, Graves’ death capped off what is widely recognized as the worst weekend in Orlando’s history. The attack happened while Graves’ family was relaxing on the shore, and although signs were posted warning guests against swimming, Lane waded into the water. Within 30 seconds, he was gone.

“I can’t imagine having something so terrible happen to one of my kids,” says Meg Johnson, an Orlando resident and mother of two who was horrified when she heard the initial reports. “I know some people blamed the parents afterward, but really, who could be so cruel?” Whereas some families in their situation might have chosen to sue Disney for every penny they could get, the Graves instead opted to turn their loss into a beacon of hope for others by launching, in partnership with Disney, the Lane Thomas Foundation, which works to provide assistance and support to families whose children need organ transplants.

“We know that we can never have Lane back, and therefore, we intend to keep his spirit alive through the Lane Thomas Foundation,” says the Graves family. “It is our hope that through the foundation, we will be able to share with others the unimaginable love Lane etched in our hearts.”

The death was ultimately ruled an accident—albeit a devastatingly tragic one—but it raised two questions. First, how much of a threat do alligators really pose to tourists and residents? And secondly, what steps do local attractions take to keep their guests safe? The answers to both are important, because no matter how rare such attacks might be, the inherent danger presented by alligators and other native reptiles should never be underestimated.

In May, a 10-year-old Orlando girl was swimming in Lake Mary Jane with four family members when an 8-foot gator attacked her. Fortunately, she was able to pry the creature’s jaws open and free herself, escaping with non-life-threatening injuries that included puncture wounds on her leg.

Just a month later, an 11-foot alligator had the temerity to attack a small airplane that was landing at Orlando Executive Airport. According to reports, the gator actually jumped up and struck the plane. “The gator was killed instantly, and the aircraft sustained damage to the wing,” says Brad Pierce, a local pilot who posted about the incident on Facebook.

Prior to these incidents, Greater Orlando’s most recent attack involved Rachael D. Lilienthal, a professor at Rollins College who lost her arm to a gator while swimming near Wekiva Island in August 2015. Lilienthal, who teaches Spanish, was back at work five months later.

These and other cases throughout Florida make it clear that alligator attacks do happen, and they’re always horrific. But perhaps more importantly, they also drive home the fact that such occurrences are isolated. As Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), says, “Alligator attacks are a very rare occurrence in Florida.”

FWC data supports that statement. Records show that, since 1948, there have been 388 recorded incidents of gators attacking humans in Florida, with just 24 of those encounters being fatal. Any loss of life is obviously too much, but by comparison, more than 50 people have been killed by lightning strikes in Florida during the past 10 years alone.

Accordingly, Johnson probably sums up the attitudes of most locals when it comes to the ever-present danger of alligators. “[My husband] and I are natives, so we know gators can be dangerous,” she says. “We’ve talked to our kids about it and always keep an eye on them when we’re in the water. But as horrible as [the Graves attack] was, knowing that we’re statistically more likely to be hit by a car or something, we don’t lose any sleep over it.”

KEEPING GUESTS SAFE

At the time of Graves’ death, many observers expressed shock upon learning that signs cautioning guests about swimming on Disney property made no mention of the potential presence of alligators—especially in light of how frequently gators have been spotted at the resort through the years. Indeed, FWC records show that more than 240 alligators have been trapped on Disney property in the past decade alone, including more than 15 in 2016.

To its credit, Disney quickly installed new signage along the waterfront at its resorts, explicitly warning guests that alligators and snakes are located in the area. They also erected temporary barriers at the Grand Floridian. In the year since, they’ve taken many other steps to help keep guests safe.

For instance, last June, Disney cracked down on fishing to keep people away from nearby bodies of water. A month later, workers started constructing wide boulder walls along the Seven Seas Lagoon, which borders the Grand Floridian. In a statement, Disney says of these efforts, “We continue to evaluate processes and procedures for our entire property, and as part of this, we are reinforcing training with our cast for reporting sightings and interactions with wildlife, and are expanding our communication to guests on this topic.”

Universal Orlando Resort also puts a premium on providing a secure place for people to have fun. “The safety of our guests and our team members is our number-one priority,” says Tom Schroder, vice president of media public relations for Universal Orlando. “We have detailed, time-tested plans and procedures for a wide variety of potential scenarios that may impact our destination. We constantly review, refine and continuously improve on all our plans and procedures. That said, we don’t discuss the details of those plans.”

Orange County has gotten into the act, too, with parks and recreation crews adding new signs near local bodies of water that warn visitors of the dangers posed by reptiles. All told, the county added 50 new signs, which read in part: “Alligators and snakes are common in this area. They can be dangerous and should not be approached, frightened or fed.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gatorland puts a particularly high premium on keeping attendees safe. They also work to educate the public via alligator safety tips that are available from its website and through interactions with park employees.

What’s more, had it not been for Gatorland, the 10-year-old girl who was attacked in May might not have survived. According to reports, she successfully escaped the gator in part by poking the creature in its nostril—a tip she picked up during a visit to Gatorland.

“I’m just happy that she heard it here,” says Gatorland trainer Donald Aldarelli. “I’m happy that she remembered.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s September 2017 issue.

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