Gators have no place in a family-friendly park

I could be in Matt Graves’ shoes.

Yes, even knowing what I know after helping raise three children, after a career of covering too many murders, terrible accidents and natural disasters, after realizing marketing professionals seldom tell the whole truth, I wouldn’t have been any better off than Graves.

It was Graves, you recall, who in June tried to fight off an alligator that snatched his 2-year-son Lane as he walked in shallow water at a Walt Disney World beach. The next day the boy’s body was found.

I suspect Graves and his wife, Melissa — when the attack happened, the young Nebraska couple had their other child in a playpen nearby — decided on a vacation there because they believed what I believed, that it was a family-friendly destination, just as Disney portrayed it in advertising.

What that translates to is safety, according to Billy Bai, an associate dean at the UNLV William Harrah College of Hotel Administration, where resort management is taught.

“Safety is a primary factor in Disney’s marketing to families,” Bai said.

That’s why I would have taken my grandchildren, if I had any, to Disney World.

No, you can’t protect children from all the evil in the world.

But the last thing I would have thought if I stayed where the Graves stayed — the cheapest room at the Grand Floridian Hotel is around $600 a night — is that alligators often were in the hotel’s beach area.

How is that family friendly?

Nor would I have thought that a no swimming sign meant walking in 6 inches of water could provoke a gator attack.

How is that family friendly?

As cynical as I often am about marketing pitches, I bought Disney’s family-friendly marketing pitch hook, line and sinker. Loving Disney’s cute characters no doubt had something to do with that.

So did video of Mickey Mouse with smiling children also enjoying the rides. Testimonials from friends who went there, who said poor behavior in the park wasn’t tolerated, also helped convince me Disney World was family friendly.

As we all now know, gators were common at Disney World. The Orlando Sentinel, which noted tourists had complained about the beasts which Disney moved from time to time, reported Grand Floridian custodian Mike Hamilton was so concerned about alligators close to the shore that he had warned managers they should fence off the area.

The Sentinel also reported San Diego attorney David Hiden said he whisked his son to safety two seconds before he “would have been killed” by a gator. When Hiden said he complained to a manager, he was told the gator was “a resident pet.”

If they weren’t going to round up the gators and move them away from tourists, it’s a mystery as to why Disney executives — they’ve now put up signs warning of gators as well as barriers — didn’t put up signs earlier, as nearby resorts did.

Could top brass have feared few families with children would want to pay up to $2,000 a night to stay at a hotel if they knew alligators could rip their throats out at the shoreline?

We’re told the Graves aren’t suing, meaning a settlement has probably already been made. Given how Disney executives ignored warnings about alligators, I think a case could be made for criminal negligence.

But Addie Rolnick, a UNLV Boyd School of Law professor, said gross negligence is difficult to prove.

Of course, it also might be hard to find a prosecutor who wants to go after the area’s top attraction and employer.

What will come as no doubt small solace to the Graves — Melissa Graves also saw the tragedy play out — is that the couple may recover emotionally from their son’s death. Paul Greene, a New York psychologist, says the vast majority of people who go through the trauma of losing a child live productive lives.

He says therapy as well as associations with other parents who’ve lost children can help them compartmentalize their loss so they can move forward.

I pray that’s true.

And I also pray Disney — its $100-plus daily ticket charge now shows that one of its core values is greed is good — may truly become family friendly.

I may have grandchildren one day.

Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday in the Nevada section and Thursday in the Life section. Contact him at or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter.

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