As they prepare to host tens of millions of holiday visitors, three of America’s biggest theme park operators – Disney, Universal and SeaWorld – have reacted to heightened security concerns by installing metal detectors outside their gates.
But the companies, which have experimented with metal detection in the past but never adopted it on a large scale, plan to use the equipment in different ways. Disney, whose six domestic theme parks attract about 50 million people annually, will most likely make the detectors permanent. But they will initially screen guests randomly rather than divert everyone through a new line. Universal described its efforts as “a test.”
”This is a natural progression for us as we study the best security practices for today’s world,” Tom Schroder, a Universal spokesman, said in an email. SeaWorld, which operates 11 smaller parks under various brands in five states, said it would also increase security inside its properties. “The safety of our guests and team members, along with the welfare of our animals, have always been our top priority,” SeaWorld said in a statement.
Disney, which also halted the sale of toy guns at its parks (after worries that a toy could be mistaken for a real firearm and prompt alarm), declined to comment beyond an emailed statement: “We continually review our comprehensive approach to security and are implementing additional security measures, as appropriate.”
Ever since the 9/11 attacks, theme parks – in part because of their status as symbols of Americana – have been considered vulnerable targets. The entertainment companies have responded by intensifying security efforts. A couple of years ago, Disney brought in George Tenet, the former director of the CIA, to speak to managers at Disney World; service entrances at Disney’s parks were long ago outfitted with barricades aimed at stopping trucks carrying explosives.
Until now, however, only the 18-park Six Flags chain has made metal detectors a routine part of the entry process. Most theme park operators, concerned about maintaining an atmosphere of fun and escape, have taken pains to hide security procedures, relying heavily on undercover guards and veiled surveillance cameras.
After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, the theme park companies felt they had no choice but to make security much more visible. The metal detectors were not installed because of any specific threat, but rather as an added deterrent that would help make families feel safer in crowds, according to a Disney executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the company bans the public discussion of its security practices.
Metal detectors, which can be expensive to set up and operate, are often seen at major sporting events and some schools. Unless used meticulously in an airport-style fashion, they often serve as “more of a feel-good measure than something actually designed to really stop anybody,” said Michael Dorn, a security consultant.
In addition to adding metal detectors and banning the sale of toy guns, Disney also barred people over 14 from wearing costumes inside its parks, even for Halloween.
The theme park industry has an impressive track record of guest safety. Even so, some recent incidents have illustrated the challenges facing them. In April, a man shot himself inside Universal Studios Hollywood. Earlier this month, a Florida man was arrested for trying to bring a handgun into Disney’s Magic Kingdom park.