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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tip Tuesday: Hurricanes and Disney

Welcome to another Tip Tuesday!
(Yes, it's Wednesday. The "great" East Coast earthquake kept me busy yesterday.)

While the East Coast is still reeling from the Virginia earthquake (the center was about 150 miles from here), another major natural disaster is taking aim on the Caribbean and the East Coast shoreline.

All this talk of hurricanes led me to today's tip -- how Disney handles hurricanes.

There are two different sections of Disney that I'll discuss when it comes to hurricanes -- Walt Disney World (including Disney's Vero and Hilton Head resorts) and the Disney Cruise Line. Then I'll discuss what you should do to be prepared should tropical weather impact your trip or cruise.

Walt Disney World
The chances of a hurricane-force winds itself hitting Walt Disney World are nowhere near as likely as the coast, though if a major storm where to make landfall in Florida, it is possible that WDW could see winds in excess of 74 mph.

Disney keeps a close eye on tropical systems and has been known to close the parks should weather conditions become too dangerous for guests. The first time the Disney parks closed due to hurricanes was for Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Since that first closings, the parks have closed for hurricanes several times in the last 12 years (it closed twice in 2004 for Hurricanes Charley and Frances).

In the event the parks are closed, guests usually are asked to stay in their resort. Cast members plan different inside events and activities including movie showings, special in-resort character meet-and-greets and more to ensure the Disney magic remains strong. Once the parks and weather conditions are safe for guests again, Disney will let you know so you can resume enjoy the parks.

If you're planning a trip to Walt Disney World and you see that a tropical system may interfere with your travels, you do have several options for cancelling/re-booking, depending on how your booked your trip.

IF you booked directly with Disney:
Disney's temporary hurricane policy is effective in the event a hurricane warning is issued no more than 7 days before your scheduled arrival date by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) for the Orlando area or for your place of residence. It is also effective in the event a hurricane warning is issued for the Vero Beach area or Hilton Head Island area for Guests traveling to those destinations. Once that NHC warning has been issued, you can cancel and/or re-book your WDW vacation without any change fees. This DOES NOT apply to airfare.

IF you booked with a travel agency:
Disney's temporary hurricane policy DOES NOT apply. You will need to contact your travel agent to make arrangements. I talked with Vicki Damanti, my own agent with MEI & Mouse Fan Travel about how they handle hurricane-related cancellations and/or changes. She said that since Mouse Fan Travel is a no-fee agency, any possible change fees would come directly from the suppliers, including airfare (which can be expensive). One of the great benefits of working with a Disney Specialized travel like Mouse Fan Travel is that if you have to make last-minute changes, you don't have to spend hours on the phone. Just contact your agent, and they'll do the work for you.

Disney Cruise Line
The Disney Cruise Line handles hurricanes a little differently than Walt Disney World. First, being a ship, it can move out of the way while a hurricane passes by. Second, should weather make a particular port inaccessible, the ship can simply go to an alternate destination. "The wonderful thing about a cruise vacation is that we can easily modify our itinerary or course to avoid inclement weather and still provide a great vacation experience," Rebecca Peddie from the Disney Cruise Line explained to me. "Should changes in itineraries become necessary, information will be available to guests on our website at or through our reservation center," she said.

Anyone booking a cruise also has to bear in mind that cruises do operate during the traditional hurricane season and changes in the itinerary always are possible, should extreme weather arise.

So if a hurricane is forecast for the Caribbean (or other cruise destinations), what should you do? To be honest... nothing. Really. Ride it out. Disney's not going to put any guest in harm's way and will (literally) go out of their way to make sure your cruise experience is a pleasant one. Well, you may want to do one thing: pack some Dramamine (or other motion sickness medicine) because you might experience some rough seas, even though the cruise ships (especially the Dream and the upcoming Fantasy) are so large you might not feel the sea swells.

If you really feel like you have to cancel/re-book, then you need to carefully read the terms and conditions before you consider taking any action because you WILL incur change fees. Depending on how much in advance you make your changes, the fees can be staggering, and your trip might even be completely non-refundable. Basically, once you book a cruise -- you need to be prepared to go on that cruise be they fair or foul seas.

Additional Considerations
However there is one way you can cover yourself should things go completely awry (not just due to hurricanes, but anytime) and that's by acquiring trip insurance.

MEI and Mouse Fan Travel's Vicki Damanti says trip insurance is strongly recommended for anyone booking a cruise because the chance/cancellation fees are so high. Insurance is suggested for those booking trips to Walt Disney World, especially longer trips with higher total costs. Damanti has one reminder for anyone thinking about purchasing trip insurance to protect against hurricanes: You have to purchase insurance BEFORE a storm is named. Once a storm is named, you can't purchase insurance to cover yourself should that storm interfere with your plans, so you do need to decide if you want travel insurance well in advance of your trip.

All this being said, I need to pass along another important piece of advance from Vicki: "Use some restraint," especially when it comes to hurricanes. There's a very good reason for this advice. Hurricane forecasts have a tendency to change frequently. One day a storm might be forecast to hit central Florida, but 24 hours later, the forecast track has changed and central Florida is in the clear. This is a common occurrence, as has been seen with the constantly changing forecasts for Hurricane Irene (which as of this post, is forecast to brush the North Carolina Outer Banks.) Days earlier, this same storm was forecast to make landfall in central Florida.

The key point is stay informed and be prepared. Here are a few links to monitor when tropical weather potentially causes problems:

Hopefully, you'll never have any reason to worry about a hurricane causing problems on your trip, but should a storm arise, you'll know what to do and what to expect.

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