|By Greg Groeller, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 15, 2004 - Tourists ventured out of their hotels Saturday morning to find most of Orlando's major theme parks open for business, despite downed trees, debris and cosmetic damage to some structures in the parks.
Less than 24 hours after closing early to prepare for Hurricane Charley, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios -- as well as SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios -- all threw open their gates to visitors.
But Disney chose not to reopen its Animal Kingdom theme park and one of its water attractions, Typhoon Lagoon. Disney officials blamed debris at the heavily landscaped Animal Kingdom and a scarcity of employees for the closures. Debris also kept SeaWorld's Discovery Cove closed.
All Orlando parks -- including Animal Kingdom -- and Discovery Cove planned to be open and operating at regular schedules today. Disney's Typhoon Lagoon and Fort Wilderness Campground will be closed.
Many employees reported to work Saturday morning, but many others were unable to make it because of damage to their homes or impassable roads, Disney officials said.
"We had to make a decision as to what we thought the capacity would be at each park and what we thought the needs of our visitors would be," said Bill Warren, a Disney spokesman.
One Disney worker said that Animal Kingdom suffered more downed trees and broken glass than expected. But Warren said he wasn't aware of any damage to buildings within Animal Kingdom.
SeaWorld reopened at noon Saturday, two hours late because of last-minute cleanup from downed trees, the main problem the lushly landscaped marine-life park experienced from the storm, said Jim Atchison, general manager of the Orlando attraction.
"We're in full operation," Atchison said, noting that park workers labored through the night to cut up and clear at least 50 or 60 trees -- perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the park's leafy landscaping -- that were uprooted or damaged.
The roof on the ski stadium was damaged and that part of the attraction remained closed, Atchison said, along with Shamu's Happy Harbor children's play area, which had net climbs and plastic crawl tubes damaged by the whipping winds. Atchison said he had no estimate of dollar losses from the storm.
Anyone who attended on the storm-shortened Friday, or on Saturday, can get back in free within seven days, Atchison said. Disney allowed people who bought park tickets on Friday to come back on Saturday for free. Universal gave guests free tickets for use on Saturday and today.
Disney mobilized teams of engineers and cleanup crews soon after Hurricane Charley passed through the area late Friday. Downed trees were removed from roads within the resort before most visitors awoke Saturday morning.
At Magic Kingdom, Main Street's shops suffered virtually no damage, in part because employees had taped all the storefront windows and placed sandbags near every door.
Disney's underground power lines saved nearly all of the resort's hotels from prolonged power outages. When Disney's three parks opened at 9 a.m., nearly all of the rides were functioning.
For their part, tourists seemed ready to forget the storm and get back to their vacations.
Paul Walsh and his family visited Universal Studios shortly after it opened Saturday morning. When the Walshes arrived in Orlando from the United Kingdom on Thursday, they had no idea that a hurricane was approaching, Walsh said.
"We would have come even if we had known Charley was coming to Orlando," Walsh said.
And at the Magic Kingdom, a large crowd had already gathered near the front gates before the park had officially opened.
Marc Cohen and Ivy Bruder were among the first in line. They said they rode out the storm at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel in Lake Buena Vista, which lost power only briefly.
"We were on the eighth floor and it didn't seem as bad as we expected," Bruder said.
At the Doubletree Castle Hotel on International Drive, staffers worked Friday night as the worst of the storm slammed Orlando's tourism corridor.
The dining room flooded, and the wind was blowing so hard that General Manager Steve Erickson and four colleagues strapped on goggles and hard hats and braced themselves against the lobby's glass doors for an hour.
Along Hotel Plaza Boulevard at Disney World, hotels experienced a wide variety of problems. At the Holiday Inn, clay roof tiles flew off and smashed in the parking lot. The hotel's manager would not comment on the damage, but guests said some rooms flooded, some windows blew out and the hotel had no telephone service, even by midmorning Saturday.
At the Best Western Lake Buena Vista, where the hotel filled to capacity with storm evacuees on Friday, managers drove two large buses in front of the lobby's glass doors to deflect the 100-mph winds.
Although 50 to 60 percent of the hotel's 325 rooms had been filled Friday with people from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, most checked out Saturday -- only to be replaced by people from Central Florida whose homes have been damaged or are without power.
"I'm filling up tonight with locals, people from Osceola and Polk counties," said Rooms Director Neill Jackson, who said the hotel was running a "hurricane special" with rooms going for $69 a night.
Along Kissimmee's U.S. Highway 192, tourists camped out Saturday in non-air-conditioned hotel lobbies to avoid even hotter rooms and searched for working phone lines to check the latest status of their flights out of town. From John Young Parkway to Disney, parts of the strip were barely recognizable with landmark signs for hotels and T-shirt shops shredded by Charley.
Jerry Jackson, Chris Cobbs, Linda Shrieves, Aline Mendelsohn and Beth Kassab of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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