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Alligators a frequent sight at Disney World

Alligators a frequent sight at Disney World

Grand Floridian custodian Mike Hamilton was so concerned by alligators occasionally swimming up close to the shore of Walt Disney World's Seven Seas Lagoon, he said he warned managers they should fence off the area.

"There are signs that say, 'No swimming,' but no signs that say gators and everything else in this lake," he said.

Alligators have been commonly sighted at Walt Disney World, prompting both fascination and fear in surprised tourists. On Tuesday night, one of the reptiles grabbed a 2-year-old Nebraska boy playing at the water's edge at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. The boy's body was found Wednesday, said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, adding he was sure the cause of death was drowning.

Other tourists reported alarming experiences with Disney alligators, especially at the Seven Seas Lagoon, a man-made lake between Disney's luxury hotels and the Magic Kingdom.

San Diego attorney David Hiden told the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday that last year he whisked his son to safety at Disney's Coronado Springs after a gator approached the boy playing in calf-deep water. Then Hiden saw a second gator nearby. Hiden said a hotel manager called one of them a "resident pet" and seemed unconcerned.

"If I hadn't gone down there in another two seconds, my kid would have been killed," Hiden said.

Alfred Smith of Charleston, S.C., said he alerted a Grand Floridian employee Tuesday night after seeing a gator in the lagoon. He thinks it's the same one that attacked the boy less an hour later.

"I did warn another family of three that had small kids too close to the water and they along with another family took their children and left," Smith said via email.

A British couple told the Mirror newspaper that in April, a gator "lurched" out of the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of them at Polynesian Village Resort.

Current and former Disney employees say the resort does its best to manage the alligator population, but that's not always easy when so much wilderness lies nearby. Disney World consists of more than 40 square miles, much of it undeveloped land.

"They're surrounded by quintessential alligator habitat," said conservationist and television personality Jeff Corwin, who hosts "Ocean Mysteries" on ABC, owned by The Walt Disney Co.

"The entire property is interconnected via canals so it is difficult to keep them out of the lakes," former Disney executive Duncan Dickson said in an email. "Gators are on all of the golf courses. The team attempts to relocate the gators to the uninhabited natural areas as best they can, but the gators don't understand the boundaries."

Disney said it works closely with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on a comprehensive approach to alligator management, including reducing the potential for interaction with humans. Disney said its employees call in sightings from guests, and technicians from the pest management team are dispatched. Technicians encourage gators back into the water when possible and determine if they need to be caught.

Disney relocates alligators considered a nuisance, meaning they continually show up on the banks of waterways sunning themselves, don't fear humans or have done damage. Disney can catch and release alligators 4 feet or smaller. The state handles larger ones.

"They have people constantly monitoring" the area on the lookout for gators, Corwin said.

One employee at the Disney property who did not want to be identified said in an email "there is such a problem on property with guests feeding the alligators thinking it's cool." Visitors at Buena Vista Palace regularly feed two of them from the balconies, he said.

In 1986, an alligator bit a boy at a pond at Disney's Fort Wilderness campground. The boy suffered knee and thigh injuries. The parents later sued the resort, alleging Disney failed to warn visitors.

Alligators have been spotted in Magic Kingdom. Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com and a former Disney World raft operator, remembers having to delay the opening of Tom Sawyer Island one morning because a family of gators was parked on the dock.

Floridians know that alligators lurk in many places, he said. but "if you're living up north there's just no thought" about any danger.

"They really do need to be explicitly warned about it," he said. He expects Disney and other tourist spots with water will do more to notify visitors, he said, because "just saying no swimming really doesn't cut it."

spedicini@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5240

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