Theme parks: Is Tighter Security Tight Enough?

Sept. 12, 2006
Venues still vulnerable, analysts say

Sep. 9--Motor vehicles are kept at a distance. The skies over Walt Disney World are clear of aircraft. Back entrances are well-guarded and in some cases even fortified. Delivery trucks are searched. And millions of visitors' bags are checked.

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks changed the world, Central Florida theme-park operators insist they have also taken stronger, less-visible measures to tighten security they won't talk about.

"It's really become the new normal," said SeaWorld Orlando spokeswoman Becca Bides.

Yet some analysts are concerned that theme parks remain highly vulnerable.

The parks face the challenge of allowing tens of thousands of strangers to enter and congregate each day, and keeping them safe while not letting them feel caught up in a security net. For many visitors, the bag checks are the only security measures they notice.

David Cid, a former FBI counterterrorism specialist who is deputy director for the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City, said nothing short of airport-style security could keep the parks as safe as they should be. Person-by-person searches. Metal detectors. Bomb-sniffing stations.

"If you want to make sure somebody is not bringing a weapon into a facility or wearing some sort of device under their shirt, you've got to put them through some sort of detection system," Cid said.

He acknowledged the huge and disquieting inconvenience of such measures. And he said they could be impractical. But he worries the parks might one day be sorry they aren't doing them already.

"The first time somebody walks into a theme park with a bomb, everything will change. And then everyone will expect you to do this sort of thing," Cid said.

It's a prospect the tourism industry doesn't like to talk about but clearly thinks about.

"The bag check -- it's very cosmetic. It just puts people at ease and once in a blue moon might prevent something," said Abe Pizam, dean of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida and editor of the book Tourism, Security and Safety: From Theory to Practice. "But somebody who is very sophisticated, they can slip through," Pizam said.

Many visitors also recognize the risk. Janene and Andy Bougetz of Cambridge, Minn., who were visiting Disney-MGM Studios this week, were pleased to see more uniformed security guards. But much like Cid and Pizam, Janene Bougetz scoffed at the bag checks.

"It's pretty lame. If you really wanted to get something in here, I think you could," she said. "They never check the guys' pockets. He had a camera in it."

Theme-park officials insist they are doing all they can.

"The safety of all of our guests and cast members is our top priority," said Disney World spokesman Jacob DiPietre. "In today's environment, like all Americans, we are exerting extra vigilance and asking our guests and cast members to do the same."

Such vigilance, in the nation's family playground, begins largely at the airports.

A record 51 million people are expected to visit Central Florida this year, with Orlando International Airport serving as the gateway for many.

Their experience flying is far different from the one shared by travelers before the terrorist attacks five years ago.

Passengers these days likely head to the gates by themselves, with no loved ones to say goodbye to before their flights. Their carry-on luggage may be swabbed for traces of explosive material. And they may be on a flight with an air marshal.

Last month's undoing of an alleged plot to blow up planes departing England for the United States has prompted further restrictions, including prohibitions on liquids and gels in carry-on bags.

At the parks, the only security measure many visitors see is the bag check, begun at the gates shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. For some visitors, as Pizam suggested, the checks offer comfort.

"I know I don't have anything to hide, but I don't know about the next person -- and I feel safer because of it," said Vivian Jones of Detroit, who was visiting Universal Orlando this week with her husband, Arlington Jones, and adult son Denny Jones of Destin.

SeaWorld, Universal and Disney officials all insist they work closely with local, state and national law-enforcement and security officials. That includes sharing ideas, receiving briefings and hosting mock emergency drills. It also probably includes intelligence information, Cid said. And that, he added, likely would be as crucial as any physical precautions.

The parks were designed so cars and trucks park far enough from trafficked areas that they would be unlikely weapons -- and that line of defense has been strengthened. At Disney, employee and vendor entrances were outfitted two years ago with gates that could withstand a crashing truck. Trucks are frequently searched at all the theme parks.

Disney also got the airspace above Walt Disney World declared a no-fly zone in 2003.

The skies above Universal and SeaWorld remain relatively open. "We are comfortable with the existing height restrictions for aircraft," said Bides, the SeaWorld spokeswoman.

Plainclothes guards and surveillance-camera systems are reportedly employed throughout the area's theme parks, though none of the venues will discuss those security measures. With proper training, Cid said, the measures would be highly effective as a second line of defense, after scrutiny of guests at the entrance.

Terrorists' nerves can give them away. "Those pre-operational indicators we see, that puts up a cop's antennae when he walks into a 7-Eleven and someone is just standing there. He [the officer] might not be able to articulate it, but he knows it," Cid said. "That's absolutely essential."

Beth Kassab of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.