Monday, June 20, 2016

Reassessing risk, Disney edition.

Disney didn’t get to be an empire with a $169 B market cap without being smart and savvy. They’re obviously brilliant marketers, and canny merchandisers. And earlier this year they were ranked as the world’s most powerful brand. A good deal of that powerful brand rests on Disney’s ability to deliver fun. Isn’t Disneyworld billed as “the happiest places of earth”?

I can’t even begin to imagine the pain – the lifetime of pain – that has been visited upon the family of the toddler who was snatched and killed by an alligator. Unimaginably horrific. However many millions that Disney settles on this poor family, it can never be enough. The only situation I can think of that is worse is the cases you read about where a parent inadvertently backed over their own child. The entire incident is just beyond the beyond.

And whatever risk assessment led Disney to not put up any alligator warning signs is, I’m quite sure, being reassessed.

I looked at the pictures of that lagoon beach. Sure there was a ‘no swimming’ sign, but the beach was sandy. There were lounge chairs. It was inviting. Who can blame a family for letting their little guy get a little splash in by wiggling his piggy toes in the water? I’m sure if they’d seen a sign that said: ‘Caution: there are alligators in the lagoon, and sometimes those critters walk onto land’ they might have hung out at the pool instead of the beach.

All sorts of folks are coming out to say that they’ve seen alligators on Disney properties, and that when they voiced their concerns, they were shrugged off. ‘Hey, this is Florida. Gators be here.’

Although I have been to Florida, and I have seen alligators in residential areas, I hadn’t realized just how prevalent they are. As in pretty much every fresh water body in the state has alligators in them. The good news is that, even though their brains are the size of a couple of olives, alligators are for the most part smart enough to steer clear of humans. The not so good news is that as both the human and alligator populations in Florida have grown, alligators have become habituated to humans.

This is happening in part because humans, even though their brains are larger than a couple of olives, have been feeding the alligators, even though to do so is against the law.

And some of this feeding has been going on in the Disney lagoon where the child was killed.

It seems that it wasn’t enough to have the standard, $500+ hotel rooms. So Disney built bungalows on stilts in the lagoon, and these go for $2K+ a night. Why leave any money on the table? And it seems as if guests have been sitting on the bungalow porches and feeding the alligators that populate the lagoon. Disney employees have come forward to say that they had warned higher-ups about this situation. And claimed to have gotten no response.

For Disney, I’m sure, the calculus meant weighing the benefit of putting out alligator warnings vs. the likelihood of something bad actually happening (alligator attacks are very rare) vs. the cost in terms of turning off folks who come to the happiest place on earth to escape their everyday cares, not to have to worry about an entirely new set of fears that don’t exist anyplace else on earth. (My biggest nature fear is having a rat cross my path, which invariably happens if I’m walking on Newbury Street at dusk.)

I’ve got to imagine that there are both old-school and high-tech things that Disney can do – and it already doing - here.

Although I don’t imagine there are any visitors hanging about there these days, the lagoon is now fenced off. There are new signs being put up that warn of alligators and snakes.

Signs don’t always do it for people. Just a couple of weeks ago, some young dolt visiting Yellowstone wanted to get a closer look at a hot spring. Even though there are signs saying stay on the walkway, he took himself to the edge and fell in. The hot spring is so hot, there was no body to recover. It just disintegrated.

But even if signs are made to be ignored, I would think that Disney needs to go all out on signage, and with information in the rooms, and given to people at check-in. Just a reminder that there are wild animals around, and you need to keep your distance. Maybe some info on what to do when you spot a wild thing.

And there has to be sensor and monitoring technology that can alert personnel when a new gator makes its way into the lagoon (which is man-made) from the adjoining lake. This isn’t rocket science, and the lagoon – while 14 feet deep – isn’t Loch Ness, which, at its deepest point, is 755 feet deep. If they want folks to hang out on the beach, or to kayak on the lagoon, which ain’t all that big, they may want to do a better job making it alligator free. While they’re at it, how about cameras on the bungalow porches, and automatic, no-refund ejection if you’re caught feeding the wildlife.

I’m sure they’re on it – and probably giving special attention to those bungalows. Especially given that it’s probably just a matter of time before someone overnighting in one of them decides it’s not enough to just toss Cheetos to the alligators. Someone’s going to want to go skinny dipping.

Disney will be assessing its risk here, and assessing, and assessing. There’ll be more warnings, more physical barriers, more preventive measures. They may not be up to their eyeballs in alligators yet, and the death of the poor little kiddo may be a one-in-trillion happenstance, but whoever decided they didn’t need to worry the pretty little heads of tourists with alligator warnings, and who, in fact decided that it was okay to make the lagoon environs something of an attractive nuisance, is likely rethinking those decisions.

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