Vacation resorts — those destinations you leverage your life savings for so the family can relax and have fun without sweating the pressures of daily life — include safety and security as part of the package, right? Such was the likely expectation of the family from Nebraska whose 2-year-old son was killed by an alligator at Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian Resort earlier this summer. The attack, which took place on an idyllic swath of beach on the manmade Seven Seas Lagoon, occurred as the family took in one of the resort’s family movie night offerings. For me the news was extra chilling, as just weeks earlier, my wife and 6-year-old daughter sat on that very beach watching “The Force Awakens.” Eerier still was the realization that a misadventure of mine two years earlier had given me a glimmer into the dangers that lurked in Walt’s waters.
I’ll be the first to testify to the structural beauty of the stately Grand Floridian and its limitless amenities, but those foreboding “no swimming” signs along the beaches gave me pause the very first time I passed them by. There was no footnote or qualification, just a red slash through a silhouetted swimmer. I assumed the water was polluted. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
During our first visit with an excited 4-year-old intent on meeting every princess in the kingdom, I peppered Disney employees with questions as to why there were no kayaks or canoes for use on the lake. The response was mostly attributed to the dangers associated with the ferries and water taxis shuttling people to and from the Magic Kingdom. Eventually, one well-informed concierge told me that rentals were possible on the next lake over.
Bay Lake boasted a large rookery loaded with exotic birds. I couldn’t wait to explore it by paddle, but at the dock, I was informed that the canoes and kayaks were down in the campground area and only for use on a lattice of streams and manmade conduits.
At a small pond situated on the outskirts of RV glamping purgatory, I spied the object of my quest. I signed the requisite form that says Disney is not responsible should I capsize, and the attendant instructed me to take a lifejacket and suggested I wear it. I glimpsed the log of recently rented boats. No one had been out in days. It should’ve been a sign. Before I left, the woman gave me an airhorn.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“The only thing that’ll hear you out there are the animals,” she said.
She’s joking, I thought, as she illustrated my options on a map, a 2-mile loop or a 1.5-mile lap to a dam and back.
“Problem is,” she said, “you’re not likely to get too far. It’s real shallow until you get out to the canal and most of the access points are overgrown. Last person couldn’t get through.”
I selected an orange kayak and pushed off into the dark water. I glided into the narrow channel that took me past a picnic area and a golf course. I was down in a trough, no one could really see me, and a wall of vegetation sealed me in from the other side. Eventually I came to a small fishing pool, passed through a culvert, and then all civilization fell away. Mangroves grabbed at the boat and my paddle. A canopy formed above and progress slowed. I contemplated turning back but then, there it was, a green thicket with what seemed to be a large body of brown water beyond.
It took some doing, but using the paddle as both machete and gondola pole, I was able to power through.
I was now adrift in a broad channel, about 100 feet wide, deep, soupy, and ominous. I followed close to the mangroves, heading in the direction I believed the dam was in. I kicked about for the airhorn to make sure it was still there.
I hadn’t gone more than 50 yards when something from within the vegetation leapt out at my paddle. It was a quick happening punctuated by a sizable splash. From the blur of what I saw, the thing looked like a giant mudskipper, or Jar Jar Binks, with a reptilian mug and eyes atop its head. I wrote it off as a big ugly carp thinking my oar might have been a tasty something. I paddled on.
Ahead, the channel opened up and both sides were edged by levees. As I got closer to what I perceived was the dam, I saw a man and a woman sitting atop the levee in folding chairs, drinking beer. It was a surreal sight made even more so when the man stood and started making frantic gestures. I had no idea what I was witnessing, but I followed the man’s arm across the canal where there was a large disturbance in the water.
“What?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
“An 8- to 10-footer slid in when you came around the bend,” he said.
The canal felt immense, my wife and daughter were thousands of miles away, and my heart beat in double time. I didn’t need more information. I did an about-face and headed back as quickly as I could without splashing too much.
I found the seam in the mangroves without any ado and bulled my way through the muddy conduit to the rolling greens of the fairway and into the pond. When I told the woman at the recreation shed about the gator, she didn’t even look up. “Yup, we got a few of them out there.”
Over dinner that night with my family, we had a good laugh. It was just another one of Tom’s misadventures. But now it doesn’t seem so laughable.