Alligators are a fact of life in Florida. Walt Disney World is in Florida. Therefore, there are alligators at Walt Disney World.
This truth at the East Coast headquarters of the Happiest Place On Earth™ came to shocking light recently when a 2-year-old from Nebraska, Lane Graves, was snatched and drowned by a gator lurking in the manmade Seven Seas Lagoon near the Grand Floridian Beach Resort.
The sprawling, white Victorian-themed hotel, where Princess Diana once holidayed with princes William and Harry, now is known for tragedy beyond words.
I concede my first reaction to reports of the attack was astonishment. Never mind the circular truth at the top; I honestly imagined Disney World was immune. I’ve been visiting the parks routinely since the early days of tear-off tickets, and I’ve never seen an alligator. Not one. And not for lack of searching, either, from shorelines, docks, around the campgrounds and aboard rented boats prowling quiet waterways.
Ultimately, I chalked it up to Disney’s fabled attention to detail. Somehow they’d figured out how to alligator-proof most of a Manhattan-sized slab of central Florida claimed out of swampland and pine forest.
Now I know better. Now I know Disney has an aggressive gator-wrangling program permitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In the 10 years before the attack on little Lane, Disney-authorized trappers killed 239 “nuisance” alligators — reptiles longer than 4 feet that invade space reserved for humans.
They’ve since done away with six more, among them the suspect that will live forever in the nightmares of Melissa and Matt Graves, newly initiated into the miserable and inescapable fraternity of bereaved parents.
So I was partly right, anyway. Disney has an aggressive removal program. And partly, devastatingly, wrong: Its program isn’t foolproof.
Maybe no program can be. As former Disney World trapper Ron Ziemba told Reuters, “You’ll never be able to get them all. There are just so many canals, so many waterways. The gators travel a lot.”
This information is scarcely news to anyone who spends a fair amount of time in Florida. We see them basking on the banks of ponds and lakes, cruising lazily in rivers, and, on breathtaking occasion, crossing streets and golf course fairways.
We know the rules … don’t we? … about alligator safety. Don’t feed them, because doing so short-circuits their instinctive wariness toward humans. Avoid wading or swimming in their habitat, especially between dusk and dawn when they’re particularly active. Swim only in areas marked safe. Also, don’t presume: An absence of warning signs does not equal an absence of alligators.
More safety tips are available at the FWC web site, MyFWC.com. Among the more fascinating insights: Dogs in the water mimic gators’ preferred prey, so you should avoid taking them swimming.
Again, we’re Floridians. We pretty much know this stuff. And now, with the revelation out of Disney and the company’s response — they’ve erected barriers and new, stronger warning signs — we know this stuff better than we did. If alligators have breached the House of the Mouse, they are, indeed, everywhere.
But the Graves aren’t Floridians, and Florida’s economy relies on families such as theirs from faraway places to visit and spend, and go home sufficiently happy about the experience to spread the word among their friends and loved ones.
Accordingly, we need to assume what Florida’s tourists don’t know about alligators is, well, everything. I’ve heard more than my share of stories about visitors and newcomers being shocked into disbelief that alligators live, often literally, in our backyards.
Long before he went on to make a name for himself as a national golf reporter, Tim Rosaforte was a fresh graduate from a New England university playing his first round of golf at the University of South Florida with colleagues from the old Tampa Times. At No. 11, his tee shot checked up near what he took to be an 8-foot log lying by a pond.
At his approach, however, the log quivered and, as real logs never do, raised its head. Stopping dead, Tim assessed this surprise development by blurting, “What the hell is that?!”
At 22, Tim had never seen an alligator outside a zoo. Now this former college linebacker, still in fine tackling form, puddled before us while we looked on in amusement. In Florida, golf and alligators went together like grouper sandwiches and tartar sauce.
It was all we could do to keep him from leaving on the spot, packing up and fleeing north. Ultimately, Tim stayed and, having made a prudent peace with alligators — anything within 10 yards triggers a free drop — made his home in Florida.
In short, we can live together. We pretty much have to. But, the lesson out of Disney World is: We have some teaching to do. Maybe that involves the Legislature toughening signage statutes, but for now, it certainly involves us. That’s you. That’s me.
We have a duty to warn others about being careful out there.
After all, with brains that couldn’t fill a tablespoon, alligators are not going to figure this out on their own.
Published June 29, 2016