LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Alligators are as culturally iconic to Florida as slot machines are to Nevada.
But you’d have to mine the brain of a horror novelist to deliver a scenario as tragic as what unfolded Tuesday and Wednesday at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
Orange County officials late Wednesday afternoon confirmed that they had recovered the body of 2-year-old Lane Graves, a son of Matt and Melissa Graves of Elkhorn, Nebraska.
The body of the toddler was recovered in about 6 feet of murky water about 10 to 15 yards away from where he was snatched by an alligator from the shoreline of the man-made 172-acre Seven Seas Lagoon at the resort a short monorail ride away from Walt Disney World.
Hours earlier, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told the media that the investigation had been altered from search and rescue to recovery, indicating searchers did not believe the youngster could have survived after being in the water for more than 15 hours.
Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said his agency’s investigation would turn to determining whether any of the five alligators that had been removed from the water and euthanized had attacked the boy.
Wiley said his agency would use forensic evidence, including bite marks on the body, to determine whether one of the captured alligators was the one that attacked the boy.
Demings said he personally notified the Graves family about the recovery and that they were devastated with the news, but it brought closure to the incident and they were appreciative of the efforts of those who worked through the night in the search.
He said about 50 personnel, including divers, scoured the lagoon for signs of the boy. There are also marine units with sonar on the lagoon working the recovery operation.
Walt Disney World resort closed its beaches on Wednesday.
It’s the third tragedy in Orlando in less than a week. On Friday, budding pop musician Christina Grimmie was gunned down by a crazed fan and early Sunday morning, a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub, killing 49 people before police shot and killed him.
Tuesday’s incident at the Grand Floridian occurred just as residents of Orlando were concluding a prayer service at the First Baptist Church of Orlando and as another memorial was being conducted at the University of Central Florida Memory Mall.
Demings said five members of the Graves family were relaxing on a beach shoreline at the resort when the alligator attacked the boy. The child had waded no more than 1 or 2 feet into the water around nightfall Tuesday when he was taken from a small beach, authorities told The Associated Press. His father unsuccessfully attempted to pry the boy from the reptile’s jaws and had scratches on his hands from the encounter.
Deputies closed off the area with crime-scene tape. Multiple emergency vehicles filled the front drive of the Victorian-style hotel and a helicopter hovered overhead. About 50 members of the Reedy Creek Fire Rescue, Orange County and the Florida Fish and Wildlife officials joined forces to search for the child and the alligator.
The search was complicated because waterways in the Disney resorts are connected by canals and rivers.
Wiley said Disney officials routinely have alligators removed from their lakes and waterways. He said alligators removed are euthanized.
How the Grand Floridian tragedy, as well as the killing of Grimmie Friday and the mass shooting on Sunday would affect Orlando’s tourism economy remains to be seen.
George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, which markets Central Florida tourism and conventions in the same way as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, declined an interview with the Review-Journal, but issued a statement late Wednesday.
“To date we have not seen indications of change to our visitors’ plans to visit the destination and it would be premature to speculate on future visitation,” Aguel’s statement said. “What we have seen is an incredible outpouring of support from people all over the world – for Orlando as a community as well as a cherished travel destination.
“In just the last 25 years, we have been a destination that has helped more than 1 billion visitors create emotional connections and lifetime memories as they enjoyed the special experiences in Orlando. We have no reason to believe this will change.
“The safety of our visitors has, and continues to be, the top priority of the Orlando community, and our tourism industry has been working closely with the authorities to coordinate efforts, share information and enhance the already strong foundation our tourism corridors have in place.”
Contact Richard N. Velotta at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3893. Find him on Twitter: @RickVelotta