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Staying at Disney Before Hurricane Irma: Part 2

Staying at Disney Before Hurricane Irma: Part 2 Ashley-S-Cooke-Grand-Floridian-Coffee-feature-2

*Note that this article is the second piece in a 4-part series. You can read part 1 HERE.

Getting to Disney from South Florida

The pre-daybreak drive from Jupiter to Orlando doesn’t take that long, maybe 2.5 hours or so, but on Thursday morning it took more than 4. I continued to call airline carriers, getting tipped off by eager-to-help family, friends, and colleagues on what airlines were planning on opening up additional flights.

As the hours passed, and pre-dawn became morning, the call center lines got longer and longer. Each call to a carrier representative was similar — they would search for flights from any Floridian airport, to any airport near New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, D.C. They would tell us there was nothing. We’d thank them, hang up, and immediately call again to be queued in the “callback” line.

While we waited for callbacks from carriers, we also considered driving to even safer ground: either all the way back to New York, or to city hubs away from the storm’s path, like Nashville or Memphis. From there, we thought, it would be much easier to find flights back to New York. We looked at maps, counted hours, and considered the risks. For every scenario, it seemed that the safest bet was to stick to the plan we already had — keep calling airlines, and try to fly from Orlando.

When we approached the entrance gates to Disney World, I was on the phone with a Delta representative who was helping to search for flights. I immediately realized how different this experience was to all of the times we reached property before; those gates are always a source of excitement and adrenaline, but not this time. Not only was I exhausted from strategizing, calling, and worrying, but I somehow felt wrong for being there — part of me felt guilty for choosing to be at Disney amid the threat of a crisis. My husband reassured me that this choice made sense, and I tried to put my worry in the back of my mind.

Staying at Disney Before Hurricane Irma: Part 2 Ashley S Cooke Grand Floridian Sign Ashley S Cooke Grand Floridian Sign

Checking in at the Grand Floridian

When we checked into the Grand Floridian, I explained our situation to the concierge as succinctly as I could (by this time, I had told the details of our complicated situation so many times that I had developed something of an elevator pitch for our story). I was hoping to get confirmation that we’d be covered in a number of different scenarios: what if our Saturday evening flight was canceled, and we were stuck in Orlando — would there be space on property for us to extend our reservation? And what if we found a flight that would require us to leave in a hurry — could we check-out early without having to pay for the unused room?

The CM’s answer? “Whatever happens, we’ll accommodate.” He also included another note: “I’ll put you on a high floor, just in case.”

We dropped off our rental car, and did so apprehensively, since we knew that losing our car would close a door of opportunity to escape the storm. The attendant at the rental space on property drove us back to the Grand Floridian and we chatted about Irma. Many guests were driving back to their homes to escape the storm, he said, and he didn’t think that we’d have luck getting out by plane.

I immediately got nauseous at the idea that we had made the wrong choice, and now had no rental car. But as the van pulled up to the Grand Floridian, my husband said, “I’ve got a text that says our room is ready.”  I again tried to put my worries behind me.

Our pre-storm room

Walking into our room at the Grand Floridian, on the 4th floor of Boca Chica, was a breathtaking experience. We expected that our lagoon view would be overlooking the Polynesian Village Resort, or maybe the monorail track leading to and from the Magic Kingdom. As we walked onto the balcony, we saw Discovery Island and the Contemporary ahead, as well as the Magic Kingdom entrance, Space Mountain, and Cinderella Castle to the left.

“We will never get this lucky again,” I said to my husband.

“Yeah, I know,” he replied.

Staying at Disney Before Hurricane Irma: Part 2 Ashley S Cooke Grand Floridian Coffee Ashley S Cooke Grand Floridian Coffee

The parks 

While we weren’t sure if we wanted to buy park tickets for this impromptu visit (we had just spent 4 days on property over Labor Day, after all), we ultimately decided to go for it. We said that we’d continue our “dial and wait for a callback” process with airlines, so we could still support our exit efforts while being in the parks.

We headed for the Magic Kingdom first, and immediately felt that the crowds had been more than halved since the weekend before. What before were 35-minute standby lines for rides like Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and Journey of the Little Mermaid, were now walk-ons. And while FastPasses were still nice, they were no longer a necessity.

We wondered if the crowds were low because it was after Labor Day, and most families are busy with “back to school” activities, or if the low attendance was caused by a fear of Irma. Maybe a little of both, we thought.

Since we had skipped it over Labor Day, we park hopped to Hollywood Studios and waited only a few minutes for both the Tower of Terror and Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster. It was a similar situation for Toy Story Midway Mania, which really surprised us; besides rope-dropping, we have never seen it with a short wait time!

We left this park pretty quickly after we arrived; we wanted to take advantage of the “we’ll-never-get-this-lucky-again” opportunity to watch Happy Hallowishes from the balcony of our dream-room.

Staying at Disney Before Hurricane Irma: Part 2 Ashley S Cooke Grand Floridian Balcony Fireworks Ashley S Cooke Grand Floridian Balcony Fireworks

Back “home” and a lucky break

When we got to our room, we cracked open a bottle of wine that we had brought to enjoy in South Florida (and never got the time to drink), and sat on our balcony overlooking Bay Lake. By this time, we had heard that the Orlando International Airport was closing at 5 pm, but our airline said they didn’t know about the closure. From their standpoint, our 7 pm flight was still scheduled and on time. Suspicious, we called the airport to hear their thoughts, and were told the 5 pm closing was uploaded to their website as a mistake, and to disregard it. We remained suspicious, so we continued making phone calls and searching online for exit opportunities.

As the wine left in our bottle gradually disappeared, we had made countless phone calls and had found many flights online that seemed available, until you were brought to the final landing page to input payment. Then you were told that the flight had sold out. We joked that this all felt like a game, albeit one that we didn’t expect to win. In my gut I felt that the probable scenario was that we’d be unable to find a new flight, that our 7 pm would be cancelled, and we’d be riding out the storm at Disney.

But then we got lucky.

I’m surprised (and a little embarrassed) to say that I wasn’t all that elated when my husband said, “I found us a flight. It leaves Saturday morning for Boston.” Despite our persistence, countless representatives couldn’t help us find a flight; how could it be that we finally found one?

I was encouraging to my husband, and thanked him for finding it, “but we should confirm,” I said. My husband pulled up the confirmation email, viewed our reservation on the airline’s cellphone app, and wrote to the airline on social media to confirm that we had actually found something. It seemed that everything had checked out, and we had finally found a flight…


A frequent visitor to the parks as a child, Ashley rekindled her love for Disney after realizing that it had, in part, sparked the curiosity and determination that led her to travel the world, and to embark on her own adventure of story-telling through a career in publishing. She now enjoys experiencing the parks with a childlike enthusiasm, while appreciating the company's creative business strategies that inspire her own working style. She currently lives in New York City with her beloved husband, and cherished dog, Hojo.


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