ORLANDO, Fla. — A security guard reminded a guest to put on his mask before he walked into Disney World’s Contemporary Resort near the Magic Kingdom last month.
“I’m a guest,” argued the middle-aged, fedora-wearing man. He asked to be left alone.
Then he spat, and some of his saliva hit the guard’s forehead.
It was one of several confrontations on Disney property in recent weeks as some guests have angrily refused to follow Disney’s pandemic safety rules. Some of the situations have led to arrests, although not in the case of the spitting man, who hurried inside the hotel and disappeared in the elevators before he could be identified on Feb. 5.
At Disney World, visitors are required to have their temperatures checked and they must wear masks at the four theme parks, hotels and Disney Springs. Many have praised Disney for putting strict rules in place and devoting employees to enforce them during the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 31,000 Floridians.
But Orange County Sheriff’s reports released to the Orlando Sentinel also depict the challenges theme parks and their employees face enforcing the rules. Not everyone is willing to obey them. Some visitors spit. They yell. They push Disney employees out of their way. They are drunkenly defiant.
“There’s never a day when I don’t have a story,” said one employee whose regular job was upended during the pandemic so she took a new assignment enforcing mask rules in the Disney Springs parking garages. “I cried the first week I started. It was not a good time at all. Imagine going to work every single day where people ridicule you.”
People get angry because they can’t wear a gaiter mask or don’t understand why Disney has mask requirements when the state of Florida does not, the employee said. She asked not to be identified over concerns about losing her job.
“I’ve had a guest literally get right up in my face and literally curse me out,” she said.
She was scared she was going to get punched if her supervisor hadn’t been there, she said.
“If I honestly didn’t have good coworkers, I would have already quit by now,” she said.
Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said most of the visitors who returned to the parks since the pandemic reopening are supportive of the safety rules.
“Millions of guests visit our theme parks each year, and in rare instances when things of this nature occur, we hold them accountable,” Finger said in a statement.
Theme park-goers don’t want to be told what to do in a society where “we’re more prone to think about ourselves than about the welfare of those around us,” said Gregory Webster, a psychology professor at the University of Florida.
“They’re thinking about it in terms of having their free will repressed instead of making a very small and trivial sacrifice for the betterment of the whole,” Webster said of the COVID-19 rule violators.
The mistreatment of Disney employees is a problem that runs deeper in the service and retail industry, Webster said.
Last Tuesday, Hyatt officials complained that attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference acted with “hostility” when hotel staff urged them to wear masks and socially distance during the event last month in Orlando.
Disney’s Reedy Creek firefighters were helping a drunken woman who had hurt her ankle onto a gurney in the lobby of the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel on Feb. 12, a sheriff’s report said.
The woman’s husband, Stephen Johnson, also seemed drunk and began yelling in a firefighter’s face, apparently upset his wife was being taken away, the report said. He wasn’t wearing a mask.
“I do not have a mask, buddy!” Johnson screamed, growing more irate when the firefighter asked him to step back and then cover up, according to the report.
Johnson threatened to kill a sheriff’s deputy, tussled with the officer and then grabbed an Orange County Sheriff deputy’s gun from his belt, the report said.
Johnson, 32, of Fernandina Beach, Fla., was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer, assault on a law enforcement officer, resisting an officer with violence and disorderly intoxication. He has pleaded not guilty, according to court records.
Reedy Creek Improvement District spokeswoman Eryka Washington declined to comment on the incident.
Allen Beltran was charged with disorderly intoxication and resisting an officer without violence after he kept pulling off his mask and moving close to other people in line at a Disney Springs’ Starbucks Jan. 5, according to court records. He pleaded not guilty.
Beltran, 29, of Aiken, S.C., caused a scene as he yelled profanities and pushed people in line at the coffee shop and threw a phone at a Starbucks employee at the counter, according to the sheriff’s incident report.
“During this time of day the area was very busy with guests of all ages who appeared to be greatly disturbed by his actions,” the report said.
Kelly Sills had gotten past the Disney Springs medical tent without having his temperature checked on Feb. 13. A sheriff’s deputy caught up with him outside The Boathouse restaurants where Sills was yelling at a security manager and waving his arms, the report said. Sills was arrested after he refused to leave Disney Springs.
Sills, 47, of Baton Rouge, La., pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a misdemeanor charge of trespass on property after being warned, according to Orange Circuit Court records.
Attorneys for Sills, Beltran and Johnson did not return messages for comment.
Sometimes the problems from pandemic rules brewed between the visitors. And the trouble wasn’t confined just to Disney World.
SeaWorld Orlando annual passholder Aaron Maddox filed a lawsuit last month against the theme park after he said he was pushed by another guest when he asked a group not to stand so close at the Mako roller coaster in August.
“There’s a certain percentage of the country that doesn’t even believe that there’s a pandemic,” said Maddox’s attorney, Lou Pendas. “So this is the kind of the stuff that you end up with.”
The lawsuit criticized SeaWorld for not enforcing social distancing rules and having staff to monitor the park among other allegations.
“If they’re going to open, they better open safely. We are in the middle of a pandemic,” Pendas said. “It is very real. Over a half a million Americans have died.”
SeaWorld did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Breaks my heart’
Some theme park fans say they have observed similar situations where visitors expressed outrage over the rules and felt sympathy for the employees attempting to maintain order.
On Valentine’s Day, Kissimmee, Fla., resident Shawn Warr was shopping in a sandal store at Disney Springs when he overheard heated words from a man who had been politely asked to cover up his face by the employee. The man’s mask hung down at his neck.
Warr watched as the man, upset, finally left
He recalled his time spent working in customer service and sympathized with how the store employee must have felt.
“It breaks my heart,” Warr said.