As an Orlando website, the obvious must be stated first: The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has no impact on Disney, Universal, Sea World, or any other Orlando attraction. The swimming pools remain crystal clear, the water park slides still flow, and Shamu (Sea World’s killer whale) does not leap from the water covered in brown Vaseline.
But what about Florida’s beaches?
Visitors fear the unknown, and contrary to all the coverage, no one knows what to expect. To report a story that’s balanced, reporters have an obligation to include opposing opinions, and that’s not difficult here. The entire crisis, so far, is a big simmering pot of speculation. But people want answers before they plunk down $2,000 for a vacation.
A crisis of this size demands a lot of news coverage and reporters have little to report. With two pages of copy to fill and only one paragraph of actual news, they gather up opposing scientists and have them fight it out; to sell a few more newspapers, an editor puts the scariest quote on the front page in a big black font. (Many stories remind me of The Blob – a horror classic film in which a formless monster emerged from the inky depths to absorb humans.) It becomes an endless spiral in which worst-case scenario opinions start to become facts.
I don’t want to downplay the devastating effect this crisis has on the environment. It’s sad and I can’t look at photos of pelicans covered in oil. However, potential tourists want to know if they should write Florida off their to-do list, and the answer is a qualified “no.”
• The big danger comes from fresh oil – stuff that hasn’t been in the Gulf very long. A beach or two in the Florida Panhandle could get hit with this fresh stuff, a potentially disastrous outcome; but it’s extremely unlikely that any Florida beach well below the Panhandle will. Given the time it takes oil to travel even on a loop current, the Atlantic Coast beaches have little to fear from a major catastrophe of fresh oil.
• However, expect tar balls. As oil mixes with air and water, it dries out and turns into tar balls (or tar mats or tar mousse – a bizarre word.) A tar ball results from liquid oil drying into a semi-solid. Tar balls are inconvenient, but they’re not vacation killers. Once tar balls hit the beach, sand wraps around them like powdered sugar on a Greek wedding cookie. Beach cleaning crews find them fairly easily. If a beach has not been cleaned, they can be avoided.
• With that said, tar balls aren’t fun. If you step on one, it leaves a brown stain that only nail polish, paint thinner, or similar chemicals can easily remove. If you put your towel on one, learn to love the stain – it won’t come out. Twenty-five years ago, South Florida beaches had tar balls and hotels kept buckets of remover for visitors to use. It was inconvenient; it wasn’t a big deal.
• If booking a vacation, ask about a hotel’s cancellation penalties generally and an oil slick guarantee specifically. Many hotels feel the hit as reservations slow, and they’re offering oil-slick guarantees to entice visitors – something like “if oil hits our beach you may cancel all or part of your vacation without penalty.” However, get that in writing if it’s offered.
• The Florida visitor’s bureau, VisitFlorida.com, maintains an update on the oil’s impact at http://www.visitflorida.com/florida_travel_advisory. The page has links to 102 cities, counties, and local visitors’ bureaus throughout Florida; and each of those sites has an update on the nearby beaches, state parks, tourist attractions, etc. The site also includes a link to fishing information.