Deaths not expected to hurt Disney

Entertainment company well prepared to handle news from park accidents

August 06, 2005|By Harry Wessel | Harry Wessel,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. - Sad things are not supposed to happen during the Happiest Celebration on Earth. But for the fourth time this summer, the Disney company - in the midst of an 18-month birthday party for its first theme park - is dealing with bad news.

An autopsy revealed yesterday that 12-year-old Jerra Kirby of Newport News, Va., suffered no physical trauma when she died a day earlier after collapsing at Typhoon Lagoon. Disney lifeguards and staff had called emergency services and tried to resuscitate her.

Autopsy and death are not words that any attraction or theme park, let alone one as well-known as Disney, wants to be associated with.

This is the second reported death of a child at Disney World this summer. A third child, who collapsed after riding the Tower of Terror ride last month, remains in critical condition at Florida Hospital Orlando.

And just a week ago, 15 guests were injured at Disney's California Adventure when roller coaster cars they were in were hit from behind by a second train.

Four such negative headlines in the span of less than two months would be hard on any company, but experts who specialize in public relations say Disney should be able to weather the storm.

Disney "is better equipped than any company out there" to deal with such negative news, said Eli Portnoy, a brand consultant who works in Orlando.

"They understand the power of their brand and their relationship with customers," Portnoy said. "They understand that when a crisis occurs, you have to respond quickly, forthrightly and not try to cover up."

Mark DiMassimo, who owns a New York advertising agency that represents a number of large clients, said that Disney patrons would take the series of unfortunate events in stride.

"I do think people understand that Disney is a place with a huge annual population, and stuff is going to happen," DiMassimo said.

"No doubt the Disney brand and PR people would like for all the news to be pure pixie dust. But it doesn't work that way."

DiMassimo lives within two miles of Playland, an old amusement park in Rye, N.Y. A 7-year-old boy died on a boat-in-the-dark ride there Wednesday, the park's second fatality in 15 months.

"Playland is as crowded today as it was last week," DiMassimo said. "I don't know how many mothers are letting their 7-year-olds on that [boat] ride, but on one level, [they understand] death and freak accidents happen."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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