The Alligators in the Amusement Park

This post is the last in a series of five that I write this summer about negative events involving animals in living collections. I wasn’t sure whether to write about this particular occurrence since I do not consider a theme park and resort an informal learning environment. But the story of Lane Graves, the two-year-old who died after being attacked by alligators at Disney World’s Seven Seas Lagoon in June, has been in the news and in people’s minds, and I would feel remiss leaving it out.  My heart goes out to the memory of Lane and to the Graves family.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, several alligators were killed in an effort to eliminate the danger, and Lane’s father revealed to the media that it was not one, but two, alligators that attacked Lane.

What separates a place like Disney World from the amorphous category of museums and similar sites? Museum and amusement park both have that “muse” root in their names, after all.

In an email/essay from 1995, Robert A. Baron writes:

In the theme park we are offered historyless reenactments of those events and times that define our national and social moral fiber. Unlike museums, theme parks do not attempt to recreate history, but, rather, offer us a perpetual or timeless version of the ever-present past….

In the theme park it is by virtue of the act of imitation that we are drawn into the center of our existence. It is by virtue of our placing ourselves in mock jeopardy, and by passing through the emotions of pity and fear that we undergo our Americo-Aristotelian catharsis….

The museum and the theme park have opposite mandates. That being said, I do not think that museums should compete with mass entertainments, for to succeed in this effort will probably mean that the historical, social, educational or aesthetic mission of the museum will come to be abandoned. On the other hand museums have a lot to learn from theme parks about how to make their prizes accessible to those who venture their way.

On a couple of occasions in my museum work, I joined coworkers in resentment when we received orders from above to “Disnify” our programming. While I understood that Disney has its appeal, I felt that our institutions, as museums, should focus on what museums have to offer, without trying to emulate a whole other category of visitor attraction.

Disney parks are billed as “The Happiest Place on Earth.” There is no reason that museums, which collectively deal with content eliciting the full range of human emotions, should try to be “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

With all that said, there are some things that amusement parks and museums have in common. For example, neither is a place where visitors should be in physical danger. And since both are visitor destinations that may attract people from around the country and world, these institutions must keep in mind that folks might not have any familiarity with the local climate and wildlife. The “mock” in Baron’s description of “mock jeopardy” above is key.

While I did not delve deeply into the website for Disney World, I did not see anything on its front page or the front page of its blog relating to the tragedy, nor did any statement come up when I searched both for the word “alligator.” In fact, the top result on the blog was this 2015 post that I might remove, if I were Disney, in light of recent events.  (While one article mentioned that Disney had put a statement on its blog homepage, I have not been able to find any such post. I checked in late June, in July, and again in August.)

Disney is now making efforts to put up signage specifically warning of the danger of alligators on its property. There have been many reports that Disney was repeatedly warned and questioned (including by employees of Disney and/or companies contracting with Disney) about the precariousness of having guests so close to gators long before the death of Lane Graves. While Lane Graves’s death is already one too many, I hope it is the last alligator-related death at Disney World.

In 1991, my family took a trip south to visit both Disney World (our one and only trip there) and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (our first of a great many trips there). My grandparents had just moved to Hilton Head to live out the rest of their years. They lived in a community where man-made lagoons were everywhere, including in their backyard, and alligators lived in these waters. The youngest of us kids was three years old at the time. I have a newfound appreciation for how nerve-wracking this must have been for my parents.

To end this post on a lighter note, here is a 1991 photo of Goofy with three goofy children. I am the tallest and goofiest.

Three kids (the blogger and her siblings) with Goofy at Disney World in 1991.

Disney World, 1991. Photo by a parent or grandparent.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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