Note: Guestwriter “Heresabe” Abe is not a hurricane chaser, though he might deserve that title after his recent trip to Florida in the midst of Hurricane Irma. He calls this his MISGUIDED TRIP TO ORLANDO.
Heresabe here. I recently took a misguided trip to Orlando. Here’s my story:
My original itinerary was certainly a frugal endeavor. The entire trip – airfare, lodging (one of the nights via points) and car rental – was going to cost less than $500. Arriving Friday afternoon, staying overnight at an Econo Lodge in the vicinity of the Orlando airport (this budget locale provides an airport shuttle and is within walking distance of restaurants and the FL Mall). I intended to rent a car the next morning and drive to Clearwater, where I would visit my aunt, then return to Orlando in advance of the hurricane. My aunt, however, vehemently insisted that I cancel (she said she would worry incessantly if she knew I was driving). So…I did cancel my reserved rental car before I headed south and arranged lodging arrangements in Orlando. I cancelled my Clearwater hotel reservation but could not extend my Econo Lodge booking because they were already sold out for Saturday. I was able to find availability at Embassy Suites at a reasonable price, near the airport, for Saturday. And I was booked at a Comfort Suites in Orlando on Sunday. I was scheduled to stay at a Disney Resort for my final two days.
My Friday flight south via Delta was uneventful, even pleasant. Proceeded to Econo Lodge without incident. The Florida Mall essentially closed at 5PM for hurricane preparations, but ok.
Hearing the increasingly dire forecasts, and not knowing if I would be able to proceed to the Comfort Suites I had reserved for the next night, I attempted to stay at the Embassy longer. Sadly, the Embassy Suites was now sold out (southern and western FL residents had booked rooms in anticipation of being evacuated).
As the forecasts grew ever dire, and being an overly careful person, as well as sensing uncertainty that I would be able to proceed with my original Disney lodging plans, I extended my reservation at the Fairfield Inn by one additional day, then reserved a third day there just in case I couldn’t make it to Disney. (So, I now had a room reserved at the Fairfield from Day 3 thru day 5).
All was fine as the storm grew closer. In the evening, the forecasts indicated Irma was not taking a northwestern path as expected. Instead, it was heading due north, placing the eye closer to Orlando.
Day 4 -Monday
The city of Orlando imposed a curfew; no-one allowed on the streets until 6:00PM Monday.
The winds were howling as the center approached, lights flickering. I had fallen asleep but the wind awakened me- I believe Irma hit Orlando with strong Category 1 level winds. I was listening to the radio at 3:30 AM as they were relaying that the worst of the storm would pass within 35 minutes. Immediately after that pronouncement, the Fairfield lost power. Despite feeling tense, somehow, I fell asleep again.
The Fairfield managed to serve a cold breakfast (no coffee!). It remained windy on Monday but the streets, at least in my immediate vicinity, were not flooded. A few trees, and many branches, had not survived. The nearby Doubletree Hotel sustained heavy damage- it’s wall was literally ripped off, though it appeared that none of its windows shattered.
Mid-afternoon (Monday), still without electricity, the Fairfield folks announced that they will evacuate everyone, but did not offer compensation for any higher rates incurred elsewhere nor transportation to another hotel unless the facility was nearby. As I mentioned earlier. I was scheduled to go to Disney property that day, where I was hoping to end my trip exploring the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. But I had no way to get there. And I was unable to reach the Disney folks. Fairfield staff made calls, attempting to find places for displaced guests but I revisited the Embassy Suites across the street, figuring they might be helpful (Embassy still had no rooms and they, too, had lost power). The front-desk person on duty at the Embassy Suites relayed that there was availability at the Hyatt Regency in the airport.
Much pricier than my preference (remember, this was supposed to be a frugal trip) but the Hyatt had electricity and I reserved 2 nights … just in case.
Fairfield shuttled me to the Hyatt (complimentary), and transported another couple (from Massachusetts) to a nearby Hampton Inn.
Arrived at a virtually deserted Orlando Airport approx. 6:30 PM (Monday) with no planes on the tarmac and empty ticket counters. It was eerie.
Day 5 – Tuesday
Early Tuesday, finding myself in the airport (which was about to re-open), I decided to walk to the lower level and see if the Disney Magical Express (Disney’s resort bus service) was open. They had not yet resumed service, but I spoke to two women who had driven to Orlando overnight rather than wait for a rescheduled flight, and they relayed that Disney was providing them with a bus to their resort, just the two of them (Disney customer service!) and they pointed to a woman who helped them. The Magical Express person, Susan, was very helpful- she called my resort for me (I was unable to get thru on my own) and they readily agreed to refund my unused day and advised that my originally reserved room was there for me.
So…I checked out of the Hyatt (canceled my 2nd day without penalty) and took an 8:30AM Magical Express bus to my resort. Aside from a couple of non-functioning street lights, I saw minimal damage along the route between the airport and Disney property. I checked in at 9:00AM and noticed that Disney has placed a flashlight in my room- they must’ve put one in every room. And I made it to the Food and Wine Expo.
As an aside, the two women with whom I conversed at the airport saw me later in the day as I was walking the Boardwalk area (I did not see them) and shouted out to me.
Epcot was operating normally Tuesday, and was packed.
Checked out of Disney and was transported back to the airport in the morning. My return flight, via JetBlue this time, was also uneventful. The person seated in my row told me she had a similar experience – she visited family in the Orlando area and decided not to cancel her trip, despite the storm warnings. She said she would not do that again.
Reflecting on the experience
Did I ever feel unsafe? No, not even when my phone buzzed with a tornado warning. Perhaps the calm nature of the pre-hurricane hotel staff – at all three hotels – was comforting. Even when electrical power was lost, no staff members displayed any outward sense of irritability. But did I feel a sense of anxiety – surely I did. I tend to be an analytical person, so the possibility that I would have no place to stay the next night was of real concern and the wind was nerve-racking, especially since the heart of the storm hit Orlando overnight. How I was able to sleep for the hours I did, I do not know.