Its summer here in the United States, which means the kids are out of school and opportunity abounds for travel, sun, and sand. We happen to live in eastern North Carolina, where trips to the beach can be one-day visits. This year, however, we booked a trip for the entire family to a resort in Orlando, FL. We weren’t particularly interested in visiting Mickey and the gang, but we did want to enjoy the Sunshine State in all its summertime splendor.
Even when we are on vacation, however, the need to be on point with our security cannot rest. Just weeks before our scheduled trip, a lunatic entered his former workplace, Fiamma, and killed 5 people before turning his gun on himself. In 2016, a crazed gunman entered the Pulse Nightclub and killed 49 people while wounding another 53. These stories were fresh in my mind as we loaded the car the night before our trip.
Like any other security situation, it is best to formulate a plan before arriving at the hotel and then refine that plan upon arrival. Below, I describe my approach to planning for the unexpected in the event of an emergency situation at our hotel. Perhaps the information below will help you develop your own vacation emergency response plan.
My wife is a bargain hunting goddess. She managed to procure a multi-night stay in a posh Orlando resort for less than $100/night. Once all the payments were made, I immediately took to the resort’s website to look at the many promotional photographs they provided. The layout of the resort, which consisted of 9 separate primary buildings – three towers of suites, four towers of villas, and their main lobby/restaurant building – became my first area of interest. How close to our own room could we park? How many street-side entrances/exits were there?
The resort had easy access to main highways and secondary roads, making outbound travel easier should we need to depart quickly.
I looked up the resort on Google maps and examined both the satellite and mapped versions of the area. The primary buildings which housed the suites (in which we would be staying) surrounded a central circular area where we could find the pool, exercise facility, and poolside restaurants. The area provided numerous points of entry and exit, which allayed any concerns I had about being gated into a confined pool area. We planned on spending considerable time at the pool, so this particular point was important to me.
I took mental notes of the property for my own consideration. The shape of the towers indicated a centrally located elevator (which was confirmed upon our arrival at the resort), thus I would request a lowest or highest numbered room to ensure that we would be located on the wings of the building instead of its center. The reason for this is simple: in the case of a fire, I want my family to have immediate access to a stairwell. Stairwells are usually located at the ends of hallways away from the elevators.
The pre-travel recon phase of my preparation took about an hour. Most of that time was spent looking at photos of the resort, which was, to tell the truth, a pleasant preview of our trip.
The trip down proceeded without trouble. We arrived in Orlando, taking a few minutes to pick up a print order that we forwarded to a local office supply store on the way in. Upon doing so, we learned that the Pulse Nightclub was only two blocks from the store, so we drove down to pay our respects to those who lost their lives in that tragedy.
We arrived at our hotel a short time later. As always, I had my family monitor the vehicle while I go in to survey the lobby area and check in. The reason behind this practice is to avoid having nosy sorts in the lobby looking over any luggage (especially those that could carry electronics) we wheel into the hotel.
The lobby area was wide open (which I already knew based on the photos I had browsed), providing limited opportunities for bottlenecking in a mass-exodus situation (the stairwell was a point of concern, but even it split into three separate staircases).
I checked in and asked for a low- or high-numbered room on the wings of the tower. I scored a room directly across the hall from the stairwell – 1801 – but it was a little high in the tower for my liking (I prefer third or fourth floor because it takes far less time to get to ground level in the event of an emergency. NEVER take a ground-floor room). I was sure to avoid having the hotel attendant announce my room number.
I received two key cards, one for myself and one for the children. If you are using public transportation to get around, it’s also not a bad idea to pick up a few business cards for the hotel. There might be a dozen Hiltons in Orlando, but only one of them is the one you’re at. The cabby who picks you up needs a specific address.
Keys or key cards are a fundamental security element. Keep them close to you at all times. If you ‘lose’ your key/key card, request a new room for your own security. The card you think you lost might have been picked up from the pool or fitness center by an undesirable person who has taken an interest in you, your family, or your property.
Parking & Room
Having received our room keys, we parked near our tower in the closest space available that was under a parking lamp (I always park under the parking lot lights. Criminals will invariably choose the darker areas of the parking lot to target vehicles).
After we were settled into our room, I took a walk around the property to orient myself with the layout. I explored the main lobby facility and the pool area, taking note of areas that would trap or bottleneck people. They were few, but they existed nonetheless. I would tell my family about these areas when we were together in the room later.
All of this on-site reconnaissance took about 15 minutes, and most of that was spent walking around the facility – something I would have done irrespective of my desire to raise my level of awareness of my surroundings. I was able to discount the areas I would not be frequenting – I wasn’t going to the villas, and I had no intention to play tennis in Florida’s summer sun – so my walk took little time out of my stay.
Given the degree of security provided by the resort, there were only a couple of ground rules I had for the family during our stay: travel in groups and secure all property in the room prior to leaving it empty.
We had three of our children on this trip. They weren’t allowed to leave the room alone (to go to the pool, gym, game room, etc.), which wasn’t really asking much of them given that one going to the pool meant ALL of them going. We took a family walk around the resort the morning after we arrived, during which I pointed out the various bottleneck points and exits. It wasn’t the focus of the walk – we were walking just to have a daytime look at our temporary home.
The kids have tablets and cell phones. I carried a laptop and tablet of my own. Any tech devices that didn’t go to the pool with us had to be packed in a closed bag. While this isn’t the most secure method of keeping our technology from disappearing from our room, it suffices to reduce the temptation to staff for taking an object that is just laying on a table.
The resort had an unpredictable cleaning schedule – our room wasn’t cleaned until almost 4:00 one afternoon – so keeping valuables locked away was an ongoing practice. Our room had a guest safe in the closet for smaller valuables. Everything else was put into bags that were then closed and placed out of view in the closet or wardrobe.
When sleeping, the door to the suite was locked, bolted, and secured with the foldover security bolt. The general rule is that the door is not to be opened for anyone other than family. Even hotel employees were subject to scrutiny when they came up. We used the peep hole in the door to identify anyone who knocked (including the resort security officer I called, who came to quiet the noisy neighbors on our last night). Were we still in doubt, a call to the front desk could be made to confirm the visit by hotel staff.
I carry a flashlight everywhere I go. At night, it was placed on the table next to me. This is not just handy for emergencies, but it prevented me from having to turn on lights during any late-night trips to the bathroom.
When you are out and about, avoid attracting attention to yourself. Wearing expensive jewelry and carrying large cameras is a good way to gain unwanted interest from criminals looking for a mark. This is not only true at the resort itself but in town as well. We were in the heart of Disney country (just 2 miles from the gates to the Kingdom). There were tourists everywhere (and boy did they stand out), and you can bet that there were plenty of criminals looking to victimize them. We did our best to look unworthy of their attention. We wore no jewelry beyond wedding bands and earrings. We didn’t carry electronics (except cell phones) from the room. Photos were taken with phones.
For the record, we uploaded exactly zero photos while in Orlando. We didn’t ‘check in’ at the resort, restaurants, or any other points of interest. All of the updates waited until we were safely back home to avoid informing everyone that we were 600 miles from home. This will be the topic for another blog.
Back to Orlando. It is best to avoid carrying cash as much as possible. At most, I’ll carry $20 or so – just to appease a would-be thief – but I use my debit and credit cards for shopping and eating. In the event these are stolen from me, I keep the phone numbers to each stored in my phone in order to facilitate rapid cancellation of the cards.
Leaving a room after an extended stay is always tedious. We pack everything into our luggage and stage it near the door. I then scour the room for any wayward objects that might have gone unnoticed in the packing. I look under the beds, in every drawer, in the bathroom/shower, and on the vanity. We seldom leave objects at hotels.
Once I am certain that everything is packed, we carry everything down to the car in one trip. No bellman. Just 5 people carrying a couple of bags each.
As a standing rule, I never leave packed luggage unattended. In fact, we carry everything directly to the car, pack it in and drive to the same area where we came on day one. We park as if we were checking in. My family waits in the locked and running vehicle while I proceed to turn in key cards and sign off on any additional charges. In the event of trouble while we’re checking out, my wife can drive the vehicle toward the side or rear of the building where she can pick me up after I’ve left the lobby through a secondary exit.
Do not think of this level of planning as paranoia. It’s preparation. All of my security preparation and planning for this trip took maybe two hours total. The rest of the time was spent having fun with my family. In fact, that two hours saved me countless hours of wondering about potential problems. Given that the city to which we were traveling had experienced two major newsworthy attacks in the prior 12 month period, I didn’t think such planning was over the top.
I was planning for a domestic trip where the rules of the road were pretty simple. Foreign trips require far more diligence. I mean, do you know the 911 equivalent in Spain, England, and France (112, 999/112, and 112 depending on the need)? England and France have experienced numerous terrorism-related incidents in the past year. Planning your security for such trips just makes sense.
It’s common sense to plan your travel. Security is just one more element of your planning. Do a good job ahead of time so that your trip can be as worry-free as possible.