Henry Pierson Curtis and Scott Powers | Sentinel Staff Writers June 22, 2007 Walt Disney World is stepping up efforts to roust unwanted teens and young adults from its Downtown Disney complex.
The company's security guards and off-duty Orange County deputy sheriffs boosted their presence last weekend at the popular shopping and entertainment area, issuing as many trespass warnings in two days as they had the previous 51/2 months.
Fifty teens and young adults were banned from Disney property forever. If they return, they can be arrested.
Those barred included a 15-year-old boy from Osceola County who was arrested with marijuana and a loaded .380-caliber pistol, according to the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
The operation, which adds 11 off-duty deputy sheriffs to the normal four-member team at Downtown Disney for four weekends, started a week after two Connecticut tourists reported they were abducted from the parking lot and later robbed.
Disney and sheriff's officials said the crackdown stemmed from broader concerns, not one incident.
"A ganglike presence was unfortunately identified at Downtown Disney. And that is not going to be tolerated," Disney World spokeswoman Jacquee Polak said Thursday. "So additional deputies were proactively assigned to patrol the area and that's going to go on as long as is needed."
Sheriff's Capt. Ted Brown, who supervises patrols at Disney, said the heightened enforcement had been planned weeks ago in response to increasing numbers of problem teens Disney and deputies had noticed starting late last year.
"A lot of them were described as 'wannabe gangbangers.' " he said. "And some of them were flat-out harassing and bothering other guests."
Under the current push, Disney security officers survey the crowds and question guests they suspect of being a problem. Deputies are asked to issue warnings if the guests refuse to answer, argue and refuse to leave, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Out of the 50 warnings issued last weekend, the Sheriff's Office was able to find only 40 of the reports. Warnings were issued to 20 young Hispanic males, 19 young black males and one young black female.
None came from Orange County, the location of Downtown Disney. Eleven were from Osceola County, 11 from Lake County, 11 from Polk County, five from Georgia and one each from Arizona, Texas and an unreported location.
One of the teens told never to come back asked why no whites were among those warned about trespassing.
"A whole bunch of white boys walked by yelling and stuff, and they didn't do nothing to them," said Michael Washington, 16, of Polk City.
Washington said that he, his brother and three cousins drove to Downtown Disney on Friday night to go to the movies. They met two young black men and a woman in the parking lot who said "they were arresting all black folks."
He said Disney security officers followed them after they visited a store. One of his cousins cursed the guards after being stopped, Washington said.
Asked whether he thought race played a role in why they were ejected, the teen said, "I don't know. I don't know, sir. They came straight at the black crowd."
Polak would not comment on the racial breakdown of those teens and young men who were rousted. She also would not comment on what guidelines Disney security follows in deciding who should get a trespass warning.
"Our priority, and that of law enforcement, is to maintain a safe experience," Polak said.
A review of trespass warnings issued last year at Disney showed more diversity. Out of 296 total trespass warnings at Downtown Disney in 2006, 29 went to blacks and 42 went to Hispanics, according to sheriff's records.
The rest -- 225 -- went to whites, Asians and others.
'Like it was the mall'
Teens loitering in the Downtown Disney area first became a problem in early 2005 after Disney stopped charging an entry fee to the Pleasure Island nightclub complex, Brown said.
Once the turnstiles were removed, teens began congregating at two outdoor plazas between the nightclubs. Large screens that displayed rap, hip-hop and other music videos provided free entertainment.
"It quickly became an area for these kids to go, and for whatever reasons undesirable elements started congregating there, too," Brown said.
In January 2006, Disney removed the projection screens and outdoor music to "get rid of the street-party atmosphere," he said.
An additional concern involved even younger guests.
"And there was an even younger group of kids who were getting dropped off by their parents like it was the mall or someplace to hang out," Brown said. "You know, Disney does not want to be a baby-sitting service."
No one has been arrested in the June 10 abduction and robbery reported by Justin Stetzer and Jessica DellaCamera of North Branford, Conn. But even before the first beefed-up detail began, sheriff's detectives were raising doubts about parts of their story.
Inconsistencies included their claim to have been abducted at gunpoint in a lighted parking lot just six rows from an observation tower staffed by a Disney security guard, according to a report released this week.
"Both victims then became even more irate and began cussing and stating that they never would cooperate any more," a detective wrote about asking Stetzer and DellaCamera to take a lie-detector test.
The Sheriff's Office has stopped pursuing the case.