This Is Why You Won’t See Planes Flying Over Disney’s Parks
By James Cannon
Ever been at a Disney park and just stopped to listen? Really listen to what’s going on around you? Well, if you were too busy being pulled in five different directions, we’ll let you in on a secret. Among the happy chatter of kids, the whir of the rides and the parade’s triumphant trumpets, you’ll hear no distant drone of airplanes. None. Zilch. Nada. And there’s a very good reason why.
It’s kind of weird to think about. Even if you don’t see a plane, you can often pick up on its quiet hum from afar. But at Florida’s Disney World and California’s Disneyland, that’s practically an alien sound. Strain your ears all you like – there’s no noise to make out above you!
You’re more likely to pick up on the distant screams of joy as guests ride the attractions. Oh, and the general buzz of excitement from folks exploring the resort. It’s quite pleasant, actually – much better than hearing a jet plane or even a helicopter. Even the sighs from exasperated parents are kind of satisfying, as at least that’s not you – for the moment, anyway...
Don't just fly, soar!
And as you look up at the sky while wandering through the park, the only things you’ll see are passing clouds and flocks of birds. From time to time, a stray balloon may make an appearance, too, as it slips out of a kid’s hand and floats up and up and up... There’s a better chance, in fact, of spotting a flying elephant above you than an airplane. We’re sure Dumbo has connections at Disney to make that happen.
But if you can’t see any planes around the parks, surely that must mean there are no airports around? Not quite! Let’s start with Disney World in Florida. As anyone who’s flown in for a visit will know, Orlando International Airport is only around 20 miles or so from the resort.
A hop, skip, and jump away
As for Disneyland, John Wayne Airport is the ideal place for its visitors to touch down. The resort’s website notes that it’s just a 15-mile trip between the two locations in California. So yes: that’s more than enough distance for planes to travel around without flying over the parks.
That’s got us wondering, though. How many overseas guests visit the two resorts? They might not be able to gaze upon the parks from their plane windows, but we’re sure that isn’t a deal-breaker! Well, as far back as 2013, the growth in foreign visits to Disney’s parks was outstripping those embarked upon by Americans themselves.
It meant that Disneyland and Disney World enjoyed a seven percent increase in overseas attendees in 2013, according to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper. Yet in terms of overall numbers, Florida’s Disney World was a larger draw than California’s Disneyland for foreign guests. The newspaper stated that foreign visitors made up around 18 to 22 percent of all attendees at Disney World.
Back in the day
We can only imagine how much those numbers have changed in the following years. And speaking of change, that brings us back to the airplane situation. Because the skies over both Disney World and Disneyland haven’t always been free of aircraft. The Florida resort, in fact, experienced a spell where it was a hot spot for aviation activity.
Consulting the expert
That’s hard to picture, but it’s true! To shed more light on that front, a Disney expert named Christopher Lucas spoke to RD.com in September 2019. He’s the man behind the book Top Disney: 100 Top Ten Lists of the Best of Disney, from the Man to the Mouse and Beyond.
Lucas informed the website, “[Starting] in the early 1980s, there was a whole industry of planes near Orlando. Companies would hire them specifically to fly over Disney World. And they were just advertising everything.” Yep, the “Most Magical Place on Earth” was seen as the perfect spot to grab the attention of new customers.
So what kind of ads are we talking about here? Lucas wasn’t exaggerating when he said “everything” was being hawked. He continued to RD.com, “Bars in Orlando would fly banners saying, ‘You can’t drink at Disney, come to our bar.’ SeaWorld made a blimp that looked like Shamu that used to fly over Disney World all day long.”
Laying down the law
That’s crazy, right? Something tells us that Disney wouldn’t have welcomed such antics. So you’re probably wondering when planes stopped flying over the resorts – regardless of their intentions. It was, surprisingly, a few years after the advertising blitz started. And the decision had nothing to do with the banners or gimmicked blimps.
A somewhat unofficial rule arrived in 1998, reports RD.com, before becoming more concrete around five years later. It means that for nearly two decades now, aircraft of any type have been forbidden from getting too close to the Disney resorts in Florida and California. So annoying aerial Shamus are very much a thing of the past.
But are there any other places around America that can also be considered no-fly zones? Surely it isn’t just Disney that receives such treatment? Well, the resorts are in pretty good company. According to The Orange County Register, locations like the Kennedy Space Center and the White House are on the list too.
Plus packed sports stadiums in the United States come under that umbrella, as well. The newspaper noted that if a venue holds 30,000-plus people, planes can’t fly above them. Not that you’d really notice – after all, the action in front of you and the noise of the crowd would block out a passing jet anyway.
In good company
And similar rules are reportedly in place outside of the United States. You won’t see aircraft around locations like Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament, for instance, in the United Kingdom. As per the Daily Express newspaper, they’re no-fly zones for “security reasons.”
Keeping the ambience
The Taj Mahal, too, is another spot on the list. This is one of India’s most iconic attractions, so it shouldn’t be that surprising. Yet the reasoning behind it could catch you off guard. Because alongside the safety of the location, officials don’t want jet emissions to ruin its exterior.
Tibet and Antarctica are two more places where no-fly zones are enforced, according to the Daily Express. The latter doesn’t have any emergency landing sites, while the former’s alpine region is highly dangerous for passing jets. You won’t spot whale blimps around there, that’s for sure.
Back in the day
So no-fly rules aren’t exactly unique to Disney. But why are the regulations in place at the resorts? What prompted their creation? Well, like we mentioned a little earlier, they first came into play during the late 1990s. This was just as Disney World rolled out the red carpet for its latest park – Animal Kingdom.
Disney officials, you see, weren’t too keen on the idea of their animals getting frightened by passing planes, according to RD.com. That’s certainly fair, right? Yet as we’ve already noted, it wasn’t exactly written in stone. Christopher Lucas went into a bit more detail about that period while speaking to the website.
Lucas said, “It was never officially a rule. It was just a request by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to pilots to stay 2,000 feet above [the park] and try not to fly within about two miles of the area. It started out as just Animal Kingdom, and then they expanded it to the whole property.”
Getting in trouble
And what happened if pilots violated the request? Not much to be honest. As Lucas noted to RD.com, “You would not get in trouble for it. You’d just get a slap on the wrist saying, ‘Please don’t fly in that area.’” As far as deterrents go, that’s got to be near the bottom!
Yet the “rule” was also the perfect starting point for Disney to finally get rid of those unwanted aerial ads. Disney expert Lucas continued, “Technically, they did it for Animal Kingdom. But Disney is very happy that now you can’t fly advertisements over their property.” Take that Shamu!
The relaxed attitude surrounding the rule quickly changed, though, following one of America’s darkest days. Yes, the New York terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, shocked the nation to its core. And suddenly the possibility that a Disney park could go through something similar became a very real concern.
On the books
So the rule wasn’t as laid-back from that point onwards. And within two years of 9/11, it became an official regulation thanks to the U.S. government. It came under Operation Liberty Shield – a law that forbids planes from flying over certain American locales. Both of the country’s Disney resorts were added to that particular list.
Lucas told RD.com, “[Disney World is] the most visited tourist destination in the world. And they’re part of the American fabric. They’re two [of the only] non-government properties in the continental United States to have a permanent no-fly zone.” In case you were curious, Alaska’s Valdez Ferry Terminal is another non-government location on the list.
All in the details
So what are the specifics of this restriction? It means aircraft aren’t allowed to travel any closer than three miles from the two Disney resorts. Plus pilots can’t dip below 3,000 feet over the California and Florida attractions either. Thus flight paths probably needed a bit of tinkering after 2003!
But there are exceptions to the rule. For instance, planes or helicopters belonging to the military, police and emergency services can fly into the parks. But they must inform nearby air traffic control of their approach. Lucas also shed some light on a few loopholes.
Bird's eye view
Lucas revealed to RD.com, “You’ll see commercial airliners flying over [Disney], but they’re way above 3,000 feet. [And advertisers will] get a plane that writes messages in the sky that you can still see while you’re at Disney. But they’re not directly above Disney. They’re far enough away [to be obeying the law], but close enough that you can read what they’re writing.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right? But that’s got us wondering – has anyone actually opposed this regulation? Barring the companies looking to advertise of course! Well, we wouldn’t say that groups were actively against it. Some believed, in fact, that the government was leaving them out of the loop in favor of Disney.
Feeling left out
This was a particularly big issue in Florida, as there are lots of other notable theme parks dotted around the state. And none of them are on that no-fly list alongside Disney. To offer some more insight on that front, Lucas noted the complaints they had during his chat with RD.com.
Officials weigh in
Lucas recalled, “[The theme parks] said there was no debate on [the law]. There was no going in front of the FAA to decide which theme parks would and wouldn’t get no fly zones. Universal [Studios is] right up the road, and they don’t get the same protection.” So you can certainly see where they were coming from.
One other party has shared its opposition of the no-fly zone rule in recent times, too. Who could it be? Representatives from a different attraction in Florida or California? The answer may well shock you, so brace yourselves! Yes, the entity in question was Disney itself.
Staying in the game
So why have the Disney parks looked to move away from the ruling? What prompted this change of heart? It’s quite simple actually. The two resorts want to keep up with the likes of Universal Studios, which is now utilizing drones for certain shows, notes RD.com.
Yet thanks to the regulation, Disney can’t do that at the moment. Lucas explained, “Theme parks are trying to move in that direction, because [drones are] cheaper than fireworks and it’s easier to do. But Disney [is] handcuffed right now, because they have a no-fly restriction over their own property.”
The future of flight
Simply put – if Disney started to fly drones around its American parks, the company would be breaking a federal law. So that hits the brakes on plans for non-firework shows for the time-being. Plus that’s not the only issue that’s cropped up thanks to the no-fly zone regulation at the resorts.
Because in Orange County, California, an idea was put in place to tackle a nasty mosquito problem in September 2015. These insects were transporting the West Nile virus and could easily pass it on to local residents, reported The Orange County Register newspaper. So it was a pretty serious situation.
Therefore officials put a plan together to release a pesticide across several communities in the region. And, low and behold, Disneyland was on the flight path. So here’s where the problems cropped up. You require dispensation from the Transportation Security Administration and the FAA to bypass the no-fly zone law.
On the clock
Plus you could be waiting nearly five days before the agencies give you the green light. The community’s pesticide idea went up in smoke for that very reason – the request was submitted too late. So for every silver cloud that comes with Disney’s no-fly zone rule, there is the odd hiccup!