ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Mickey Mouse, Pluto, the Fairy Godmother and other Walt Disney favorites were still dishing out kisses, handshakes and high-fives at the Magic Kingdom on Thursday, despite the flu virus alert gripping the United States.
At the world famous Florida theme park, which is run by Walt Disney Co and visited by millions each year, enthusiastic crowds filled the avenues and rides, apparently unworried by the warnings of a possible pandemic of a new strain of influenza A (H1N1) virus.
The United States has declared a health emergency and in Mexico, where up to 176 people have died following the outbreak there of the virus originally termed “swine flu,” the government has ordered a five-day partial shutdown of nonessential government offices and businesses. The Mexican Health Ministry also warned people against touching or kissing while greeting each other.
Authorities in the United States, who have reported 109 confirmed swine flu infections but only one death, are recommending that people sick with flu symptoms seek treatment and stay home. Florida is testing a number of suspected cases.
At the Magic Kingdom on Thursday, one mother pressed her baby’s face into the costumed character Pluto’s furry snout for a kiss. Other youngsters continued to snuggle up to various other Disney characters and share “high-fives,” while fidgety kids slid their hands along the rope lines while waiting to get on the rides.
Among the crowds were the Jansens from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. They said they were not worried about bringing their 2-year-old and 7-year-old children to the Magic Kingdom.
“There’s no concern for us. We always go to the big public places with the kids,” said Ed Jansen. “Just like any Dutch man or Dutch woman, we have both feet on the floor. We’re not a panicked people.”
Coordinating the international campaign against the new flu virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has its current alert level just one notch below a full pandemic.
Despite some official fears that crowded venues could increase contagion risk, there were no visible extraordinary precautionary measures in place at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
Trash sweepers, as usual, swept up bits of garbage almost before they touched ground, but they did not appear to be doing any extra disinfecting or unusual cleaning.
The Walt Disney Co. has maintained a tight-lipped stance about the flu alert, wary of any news that could trouble its carefully crafted guest experience at the world’s largest theme park.
Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger in Orlando told Reuters this week, “We’re not really talking about it,” declining to say whether any special health measures were being taken.
Disney World representatives held a closed-door meeting with public health leaders on Thursday in Orlando to discuss the flu alert.
After the meeting with Orange County Health Director Dr. Kevin Sherin, Disney representative Mike Griffin told local media the company was “monitoring the situation.”
Sherin and Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty said they had full confidence in Disney’s contingency plans in the event of a health emergency, but they gave no details.
“We truly have world class theme parks in Orange County and Osceola County,” Sherin said, referring to Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. “These are the best in the world. The practices they have to protect cast members and staff and guests are second to none.”
Universal Orlando is co-owned by the Blackstone Group and NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co.
Most visitors seemed determined not to let the alarm over the spreading flu virus spoil their family fun.
“We come from a tropical island and we have many kinds of fevers,” said Puerto Rican retiree Luis Larregoity and his wife Miriam Cruz.
Ann Genthner, a grandmother from Boston visiting the Magic Kingdom with her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, said she hadn’t bothered to follow the news about the flu.
“I thought about it, but it didn’t affect me in any way,” Genthner said.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher