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After San Bernardino shootings, Disneyland and Universal Studios step up security

After San Bernardino shootings, Disneyland and Universal Studios step up security
Disneyland Monorail passes by the Matterhorn Bobsled ride in the background at Disneyland during its 60th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Disneyland has long promoted itself as a magical refuge from the worries of everyday life.

Employees are "cast members," never to be seen out of character; costumed janitors whisk away trash and horse manure; a hidden army of cats keeps vermin at bay.

But now terrorism fears appear to be seeping into that fantasy world.

Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood began using metal detectors and other new security measures Thursday to bolster guest screening.

The added measures, including an increased use of bomb-sniffing dogs at Disneyland, represent an acknowledgment by the nation's $55-billion-a-year theme park industry that past insistence on discrete, behind-the-scenes security doesn't go far enough to protect guests from potential terrorist attacks.

"We want our guests to feel safe when they come here," Universal Studios spokeswoman Audrey Eig said. "This test is a natural progression for us as we study best practices for security in today's world."

At Disneyland and California Adventure, walk-through metal detectors were added Thursday for use on randomly selected customers. In addition, the parks have banned visitors from carrying toy guys and prohibited those over age 14 from wearing masks or costumes that conceal their identities. And the park no longer sells replica guns.

Universal Studios began to use metal-detecting wands Thursday to screen visitors.

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. in Orlando, Fla., said it was "enhancing" security at all 11 parks for the holiday season but declined to say what measures were being taken. A reporter visiting SeaWorld San Diego on Thursday afternoon saw no evidence of metal-detecting equipment.

Theme park operators have long been tight-lipped about surveillance and protection of crowds, which can grow as big as 80,000 people a day.

Theme parks may have resisted adding metal detectors because they don't want customers to think about being vulnerable to gun violence or terrorism, said Martin Lewison, a theme park expert and business management professor at Farmingdale State College in New York.

"The parks want people to come and forget their cares, and that is the attitude they want to maintain," he said.

Theme park officials declined to say what prompted the latest expansion of security measures, but security experts say the addition of metal detectors was inevitable, given the mass shooting in San Bernardino two weeks ago that killed 14 people and wounded 22 others.

In July, a man with a felony record was arrested outside Disneyland with a loaded handgun. Last week, a man was arrested at Disney World after trying to enter the park with a handgun.

"Metal detectors are here to stay, not only in theme parks but we are seeing them in banks, churches and schools," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati.

Disneyland visitors seemed to understand the need for the new security measures.

"It does freak me out, but I understand they have to do what they have to do to keep us safe," said Angelica Moreno, 37, who was visiting the park Thursday from New York. "It'll be a little weird, but that's just the world we live in now."

She pointed to the silver-sequined Minnie Mouse ears on her head. "So, I guess I'll need to take these off for the metal detector," she said.

Others said the metal detectors made them feel more secure. "I think this is a very good thing," said Ana Calahorra, who was visiting from Barcelona, Spain, with her 7-year-old son, Nicolai. "I think it's necessary given the situation that we currently find ourselves in. It gives me peace to know that they are taking every possible measure to keep us safe."

But some worried that the metal detectors could be used to racially profile customers.

Jamal Altheeb, who was visiting from Dubai with his wife, Amal, said he wondered why the metal detectors were not used on all visitors.

"It should be everybody," he said. "It should be fair … for all people. This is a country of freedom, no?"

Disneyland spokeswoman Suzi Brown said the park won't use the metal detectors based on a person's race or ethnicity, adding that the policy of random screening may be changed in the future.

Theme parks rely heavily on discrete security measures, such as surveillance cameras that scan the crowds from building tops and plainclothes security officers who resemble guests as they patrol the parks.

Security officers at Disneyland and Universal Studios have routinely inspected purses and backpacks of all visitors before they reach the entrance turnstiles. Universal Studios increases its security measures during its popular nighttime Halloween celebration by using walk-through metal detectors to screen people.

In Florida, metal detectors were added Thursday at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Universal Studios Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. Theme park officials would not say whether the addition of the security measures was a coordinated effort among executives of the theme parks.

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Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia has funneled all visitors through metal detectors since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Although park officials say the metal detectors do not slow access to the gates, regular visitors to the park say gridlock at the entrance turnstiles is common.

Security experts say metal detectors — also known as magnetometers — increase the time it takes to screen those entering theme parks, but the detectors act as a strong deterrent for people planning to use weapons.

"The bigger the deterrent, the better," said John Thomas, chief of USC's Department of Public Safety and a former LAPD captain. "Criminals and those wanting to do harm to others don't want to be caught before they can act."

He added that the addition of metal detectors can increase the sense of security among park visitors.

"Places like Disneyland are obvious targets," Thomas said. "The sad reality in this day and age is this is the world we live in now."

The added security comes during one of the busiest seasons of the year for theme parks. Disneyland was so crowded during the Christmas holiday last year that the park temporarily closed its gates.

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Contributing to this report were Times staff writer Richard Winton, Dan McSwain of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Sandra Pedicini of the Orlando Sentinel.

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