* Note that this article is the first piece in a 4-part series.
Setting the stage
Over Labor Day weekend, my family — my husband, mother, and I — fulfilled a “we should” dream that we had been talking about for years, and took a trip to Disney World together. We shared a one bedroom at the Wilderness Lodge’s Boulder Ridge Villas, and had the BEST time. We have all taken many trips to Disney in the past (and are all world travelers, too!), but at the end of this weekend, we all agreed that this was one of the happiest trips we had ever taken — to anywhere!
On Labor Day, our three-night trip was done, and we planned to part ways. My husband and I waved to my mother as she boarded the Magical Express Bus back to Orlando airport, and we stuffed our bags into our rental car to go. While we were sad to leave Disney and to put a practically perfect weekend behind us, we were looking forward to spending the rest of our trip at our family home near the town of Jupiter, along the Atlantic coast in South Florida.
We arrived to our Jupiter home around midnight, and woke up early the next day to fulfill our morning routine — to get black coffee from our favorite cafe, and head to a nearby beach to watch the ocean. Though we had heard a little about Irma the day before, we didn’t have much concern: it was too early to really tell anything, and as native Long Islanders (and the third generation of family who have loved this home in Jupiter), we have lived through a few storms.
By that afternoon, though, we starting paying more attention to Irma, and soon realized that she was going to be a problem. Strangers we met started to end our casual conversations with “be safe,” and as we drove along the highway US 1, we passed long lines of cars waiting to fill up their gasoline tanks at petrol stations.
While that night passed more or less uneventfully, I didn’t sleep that well. The next morning I woke up naturally at 6am, checked the news, and awoke my husband (who certainly would have loved to sleep for a few more hours!). “We better go out and get gasoline now,” I said.
Planning an exit strategy
As soon as my husband and I threw on some clothes and left the house, we saw that all the gas stations in our town were out of their supply. After the drive from Disney, we only had a quarter of gas left in our tank. We knew we had to find gasoline, and needed to be smart about how much fuel we burned. Not knowing what to do, we drove back to our favorite coffee shop to strategize. We started calling local friends, who had few leads as to when the stations could restock.
We continued making phone calls, but this time to gas stations themselves, and went through a lot of “no, we don’t have any”s before we got a “yes, we’ve got gas now.” After holding our breath before we got in line at the petrol station, we started thinking of the next moves for our trip. It was still too early to tell what Irma would do — things might be fine, but what if they weren’t? We playfully sang a few lines of “Should I stay or should I go?” by the Clash as we pondered.
After we filled up our car’s tank, we took a quick trip to the local Publix, and saw that they were nearly out of water. We soon decided that the best thing to do was to leave Florida as soon as possible.
As soon as we got home, we immediately called our airline carrier. They ultimately told us that they couldn’t help us find a flight any earlier than the next week, and that we should try a different airline. Then we called Delta, whose representative (after a few times of refreshing her flight search using various departing/arriving airport combinations) found a flight for us leaving Orlando in four days, on Saturday night.
It was later than we would have hoped, but we saw the writing on the wall: staying in South Florida was a risky bet, and since Orlando is a tourist hub, there would likely be many more flights coming in and out than in some other airports. Also, while we didn’t want to rely on our family and friends in the Orlando and Tampa area (they had their own problems and things to prep), we could call on them if we ran out of options.
Disney comes back into the picture
As soon as we had our sights set on Orlando, we immediately thought of booking a hotel with Disney. They have a car center where we could drop off our rental (and re-rent a car if we needed to). As long as flights were operating out of Orlando, Disney could give us a ride to the airport via the Magical Express Bus. If we were guests and got stuck, they were a good bet to have availability to accommodate us longer. If we ran out of food, it would be likely that they’d have emergency supplies (even if they are sold at a premium).
I checked online for hotel rates; there wasn’t much, but there was some availability. A bonus was that compared to our stay over Labor Day, the rates looked pretty reasonable! We looked on some of the travel booking sites (like Orbitz and Expedia), and they showed more options — until you clicked to book, and the room showed up as “unavailable.” It seemed like each time I refreshed any website, the options would change.
I picked up the phone and called Disney. Miraculously (the Disney Cast Member thought so, too) I was put through to a representative right away. The CM and I chatted about Irma, about his own storm preparations. When we told him our plans, he said “That sounds smart, Disney is a great place to wait out a hurricane.” I wasn’t sure of anything at this point (but we knew hindsight would be 20/20), so his validation did a lot to comfort me.
Then we talked hotels. The CM gave us our options, and we decided that the Grand Floridian was our best choice. This hotel was on our “we’ll do it one day” list, and we had never seen it for such low a price. The CM asked if we wanted to upgrade to a lagoon view for $10 per night. Saying “yes” was one of the easiest decisions we made throughout our entire trip to Florida.
We spent the rest of the night tending to our family house. We put old family photos that haven’t been digitized, as well as family art projects (like the photo above), high atop closet shelves, and put all of our beautiful glassware away from windows. Anything that wasn’t nailed down on the exterior of the home was brought inside and put on blankets on the floor, so they couldn’t be used as projectiles in strong winds. This type of preparation wasn’t going to help us in a major storm surge, or if there was signifiant wind damage, but they might help if there was some flooding or broken windows. I took pictures of everything in the house — from every angle I could think of, and every nook and cranny — in case the house was damaged, and those pictures could be helpful in dealings with the insurance company. We did what we could, then went to bed and got ready for the day ahead.