Disneyland dry-ice blast threatens aura of 'happiest place on earth'

Disneyland and Disney's Animal Kingdom both saw incidents this week that pointed to weaknesses in park security. But ramping up security might not be an acceptable answer.

Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort/AP
This photo shows a scene from 'Mickey and the Magical Map,' a performance at Fantasyland Theatre in Disneyland Park in Anaheim, Calif. An explosion in the park's Toontown area Tuesday raised security concerns.

The sign at the entrance to Disneyland famously reads “The Happiest Place on Earth.” But this week, the worries of the everyday world have intervened.

On Sunday, a grandmother found a loaded .38 caliber Cobra pistol on her seat on the dinosaur ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla. Then Tuesday in Anaheim, Calif., Disneyland’s Toontown was evacuated after a trash can exploded.

In recent years, parks worldwide have ramped up basic security measures such as checking purses and bags upon entry, beefing up undercover security  patrols, and adding cameras. But while some park chains have introduced metal detectors, Disney has not, “because this can be seen as very scary for young children and families, which are the target market for these parks,” says Paul Ruben, North American editor of the trade journal Park World

Disney “has a remarkable safety record,” Mr. Ruben adds, but as theme parks that entertains millions of visitors annually — 17 million at Disney World and 16 million at Disneyland in 2011 — the events of this week spotlight Disney's balancing act between keeping families safe and keeping their parks family-friendly.

“These events can be very debilitating for a theme park,” he adds. “Because people go to parks to be happy, they are not thinking about security, so it’s more important than ever that the park make sure the facility is safe.”

These incidents need to be taken seriously, says branding expert Catherine Blake, an adjunct economics professor at the University of New Hampshire. “This is the world we live in today, and any one of these incidents could trigger a copycat or anyone else who wants this kind of publicity or attention,” she says.

Disney does not comment on security protocols, because, as Rubens says, that would make them less effective.

In a statement to the Monitor, Disney downplayed the incidents. “Millions of guests visit and enjoy our parks each year,” says Disneyland Resort spokesman John Nicoletti in an e-mail. “Our commitment to safety and security measures is unparalleled. These were two isolated, unrelated, and unfortunate matters that were handled swiftly and professionally without incident."

The trash can exploded after a “dry ice bomb” was placed inside on Tuesday night. A 22-year-old park vendor has been arrested in connection with the explosion and is being held on $1 million bail. This is the latest in a series of recent blasts in the Anaheim area involving dry ice, according to local reports. But police say they do not see any connection.

The gun on the Animal Kingdom ride apparently fell out of a patron's rear pocket during a "bumpy" ride. The man who returned to claim the firearm from park officials was reportedly licensed to carry a concealed weapon. But "weapons of any kind are not allowed on Disney property," according to the Disney website.

The owner of the pistol, which had five hollow-point bullets in it (although none loaded in the chamber), told the Orlando Sentinel that he had “no idea” Disney prohibited guns on its property.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.