It can seem as if the Disney parks, Disney World in particular, operate within their own little bubble. You rarely see mosquitoes; you’re unlikely to experience a power outage; they’re stunningly clean. And in addition to a lack of general litter and pollution, you also won’t experience much noise pollution. How come airplanes rarely fly over Disney World and Disneyland?
Well, the answer is actually pretty simple: Disney has a permanent no-fly zone over both of its U.S. parks. The full explanation and story behind that, though, is pretty involved. It’s been a gradual path to a full ban, for a few different reasons.
1990s: Animals and ads
Disney’s original flying restriction began in 1998. It coincided with the opening of Disney World’s Animal Kingdom park. Disney didn’t want big, noisy airplanes flying above the park, for the sake of not spooking the Most Magical Place on Earth’s new residents. But back then, “it was never officially a rule,” explains Christoper Lucas, author of Top Disney: 100 Top Ten Lists of the Best of Disney. “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.”And it wasn’t a particularly strict rule.”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,'” Lucas says.
While Animal Kingdom was the primary, official reason for the flight restriction, Disney also had another, more self-interested reason for not wanting aircraft above their park—aerial advertisements. “[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,” Lucas told 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.” Advertising is one of the things Disney guests aren’t allowed to do at the parks, and Disney didn’t want nearby businesses doing it either.
So, when Animal Kingdom was set to debut, Disney essentially seized the opportunity presented by animal welfare to kill two metal birds with one stone. “Technically, they did it for Animal Kingdom…but Disney is very happy that now you can’t fly advertisements over their property,” Lucas explains.
2000s: Safety first
A sobering realization from the tragic events of September 11, 2001 was that American icons and heavily crowded places may present safety risks. And it was this that set the course in motion for the Disney no-fly zones to become permanent. Immediately after, the unofficial ban was enforced a little bit more, but then in 2003, the no-fly zone—now over Disneyland as well as Disney World—became permanent. You can’t fly within three miles of Disney parks or lower than 3,000 feet above them.
It happened with the passage of the congressional act known as Operation Liberty Shield. This act established permanent no-fly zones around several government and military installations. And the U.S. Disney parks were included with those. “[Disney World is] the most visited tourist destination in the world, and they’re part of the American fabric,” Lucas explains, so its safety was considered paramount. Disneyland found its way into the law by association, and the permanent no-fly zones over the Disney parks were born. “They’re the only two non-government properties…in the continental United States to have a permanent no-fly zone,” Lucas says. (Alaska’s Valdez Ferry Terminal in Alaska also has one.)
The no-fly law is not without its critics—perhaps most prominently, its rival theme parks. Lucas understands why Disney received special treatment because of its prominent status in American culture, but at the same time, its neighboring Florida theme parks feel neglected. “They 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, Lucas explains. “Universal’s right up the road, and they don’t get the same protection.”
The future of the law
The law does not apply to all planes, all of the time—you yourself may have seen an airplane while in Disney World. “You’ll see commercial airliners flying over, but they’re way above 3,000 feet,” Lucas says. You may even see sky writing from advertisers who’ve found a loophole. “They’ll 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,” Lucas explains. “They’re far enough away [to be obeying the law], but close enough that you can read what they’re writing in the sky.”
And, crazily enough, Disney has actually shown interest in getting an exemption from the law recently. The reason? Drones—which are, ironically, one of the 18 items that are actually banned from Disney parks. But the rise (no pun intended) of this technology has not gone unnoticed by Disney. Most notably, in April 2019, Universal Studios Hollywood created a massively impressive spectacle using drones. In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they created a luminous Patronus spell. “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,” Lucas says of this conundrum.
They can’t just send up some drones scot-free, even though it’s their own property—it’s a full United States law, not just a Disney rule. Will Disney eventually receive a congressional exemption from their no-fly zone so they can compete with their fellow theme parks’ 21st-century sky shows? Only time will tell. For now, we’ll just have to enjoy the new things coming to Disney parks in 2019, without being disturbed by the grating sounds of low airplanes.