In Orlando, the 'Happiest Place' confronts a sad reality
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Coloradans Randy and Tammy Harris had been planning the trip for 10 months. Seven-year-old son Jackson had his heart set on Space Mountain; his 4-year-old sister, Anabelle, was hoping to meet her namesake from "Beauty and the Beast."
They'd come to experience what's billed as the "Happiest Place on Earth." And then, just a few miles away, there was another superlative: The deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The Harrises are certainly not insensitive to tragedy. They live in Aurora, Colorado, where a man dressed in black body armor rampaged through a movie theater in July 2012, killing 12 and wounding 70 others.
"There is no place that's completely safe anymore," said Tammy Harris, a middle school writing teacher. "Absolutely no place. These things happen in theaters, in schools, etc. It is just pervasive, unfortunately."
Sunday's massacre at Pulse Night Club in downtown Orlando was another reminder. That's what she'll think about as she remembers this trip, she said as she slathered her daughter with sunscreen in the Magic Kingdom's parking lot. "Unfortunately, it's just becoming a bit of the norm now where these tragedies happen."
Though they didn't know anyone killed or wounded in the Aurora shootings, as members of the community, they felt the effect.
Randy Harris said it takes time to absorb what happens in mass shootings. And for "people from Orlando, maybe even a year from now, would give more insight."
From all over the world, people come to central Florida's theme parks to enjoy themselves and to escape from reality, if just for a few hours.
But around 2 a.m. Sunday, police say, Omar Mateen entered the Pulse club, a gay venue, with a rifle and pistol and opened fire. When the shooting was over, Mateen and 49 others were dead, and 53 more were wounded.
Like any other major U.S. city, Orlando is no stranger to violence.
In December, leaders created the City of Orlando Nightclubs Task Force to study the sometimes unruly crowds spilling from its venues. Two months later, two people died and 10 were injured when a gang feud erupted in shooting at another nightclub packed with 300 patrons.
Not long before the Pulse incident, 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie, a former contestant on NBC's "The Voice," was shot dead while signing autographs. The shooter then killed himself.
But to people around the world, Orlando represents America at its most fun. In 2015, a record 66 million people visited Orlando, making it the most visited tourist destination in the U.S.
Laura Hakami of Norton, England, said her family had saved three years for their dream vacation to the Magic Kingdom. They followed the news all day Sunday, but they never even considered not going to Disney World on Monday.
"Oh it's horrible, isn't it?" Hakami said as her children, Oliver, 7, and Amelia, 5, fidgeted by the car. "But I think our good memories will still stand out more than what happened."
Despite the blistering heat Monday morning, Jessica Gunter of Teaneck, New Jersey, stood in line dressed in an orange and black "Tigger" costume. "He's my favorite character," she said of Winnie the Pooh's bouncy buddy. "I like to go as full Disney as I can."
But behind her beaming smile and blue-green hair was a faint shadow of guilt. She confessed to worrying that the park might be closed because of the shootings, or that the experience might be somehow changed.
"Not to make it all about us and, 'I don't want our trip to be ruined,'" she said. "It's a horrible thing to have happened."
Even these purveyors of fantasy and magic were not immune.
Luis Vielma, 22, worked at Universal Studios' Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Author J.K. Rowling tweeted a photograph of Vielma wearing a sweater vest and tie of a student at her fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"I can't stop crying," the author wrote.
Whether Mateen's rampage was born or radical Islam, mental illness, anti-gay feelings or some combination of the three remains unclear. But Orlando has wrapped its arms around the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Sunday night, the Orlando Eye — the Florida city's answer to London's Thames-side Ferris wheel — was bathed in rainbow light in honor of the Pulse victims. Inside, security guards passed wands over visitors, a new measure in reaction to the shootings.
Ray and Cecile Berthiaume wondered if it was the right time to be out enjoying themselves. But their 10-year-old grandson, Will, was visiting from Connecticut, and they wanted to let him ride the Eye and experience Disney World.
"We're going to go into our own world tomorrow and forget about it for a few moments — and maybe a few hours," Ray Berthiaume said.
"You can't dwell on it," his wife agreed. "Because, if you do, you'd never have any life at all. You'd have nothing."
At the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida, a few blocks from Pulse, volunteers loaded a truck with pallets of water and other donations for their grieving extended family. Out front, the U.S. and rainbow flags flew at half-staff and a handwritten sign on the front door warned visitors, "Please be prepared to open your bags + purse."
Volunteer Elizabeth Jennings, dressed in rainbow pants, squatted in the grass out back as she helped wrap roses and lilies for distribution to the mourning. The miracle to her was that Orlando had been spared such tragedy for so long.
"These things are happening, like, once a day, it seems like," she said. "So if you put it in that perspective, then you can't really ever celebrate, because someone's getting killed somewhere."
Inside, a harried-looking Russell Walker worked to marshal volunteers and field media inquiries.
Walker, community development director for the Hope and Help Center, which provides services for people with HIV/AIDS, said it is difficult dealing with such sadness in "such a happy town." He says that notion of this being the world's happiest place "seems lost right now."
But he is confident that sense of joy will return someday.
"I know it's something I personally look forward to being able to say again," he said. "Without the pangs coming when you say that kind of thing."