geology of disney, karst

Could a Sinkhole Swallow Walt Disney World?

I’ve done some videos about the real-life geology behind popular attractions at the Disney Parks, but Walt Disney World has some very interesting geology underfoot that may just give you a sinking feeling—sinkholes.

The state of Florida is a bit like a slice of Swiss cheese, given the number of sinkholes it has. All too often there’s news stories from Florida about a sinkhole appearing and swallowing cars and houses. Within the past few years there’s been a number of sinkholes appear in close proximity to the Walt Disney World Resort.

For example, a 60-foot wide and 15-foot-deep sinkhole formed under a resort in Clermont Florida only around 10 minutes from Walt Disney World in August of 2013, and a 15-foot wide 10-foot-deep sinkhole formed in the median of Interstate 4 at the Walt Disney World interchange in April of 2017.

So what are the odds that a sinkhole appears at the Walt Disney World Resort? Let’s first talk a little bit about how sinkholes form. Sinkholes are depressions in the land surface that result from the collapse of a surface layer above an area of dissolved bedrock.

Florida is a karst landscape composed primarily of calcium carbonate rocks, like limestone. When water and rain seeps through soils and continues percolating downward through the limestone bedrock, this water becomes weakly acidic from its interactions with carbon dioxide in the soil. Like an antacid tablet, the limestone reacts with the weakly acidic water and will dissolve over time. As water continues to flow through and chemically erode the bedrock, it creates larger and more connective cavities. Eventually the overlying material will lose its underlying support and collapse downward, forming the sinkhole.

Unfortunately, natural sinkholes cannot be prevented. However human activities like groundwater pumping can worsen or produce new sinkholes in sinkholes prone areas.

So given this, what are the odds that a sinkhole could appear at Disney World? Well what if I were to tell you there’s already a massive sinkhole there.

Let’s travel to EPCOT. There’s long been rumors that there was a sinkhole under the old Horizons pavilion and that was why they had to fully demolish it to build Mission Space, but that’s purely just a rumor. The actual sinkhole is a bit more exciting.

I want to read and full a quotation that comes from legendary Imagineer Marty Sklar’s book “Dream It, Do It: My Half Century of Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdom,” which features an excerpt from John Tishman’s book “Building Tall, My Life and the Creation of Construction Management,” which talks about the construction of EPCOT.

The quotation reads: “Smack in the center of the 600 acres was a huge sinkhole. Regularly cars and trucks that we thought had been on safe solid ground would start to sink in and would have to be rescued by a tow truck. This sinkhole was full of organic silt and peat, and the sand underneath went down as far as 300 feet. Nothing solid could be built on it since the underlying sand could not support the weight of a building. The most logical thing to do with the largest sinkhole all was to dig deeper and make into the lagoon around which the World Showcase pavilions would be situated.”

So yes, the lagoon area in EPCOT is so large because it’s actually a massive sinkhole! This

sinkhole is predominantly focused around the Odyssey restaurant, which is the reason why there’s such a long walk between Future World and the start of the World Showcase.

Given that there’s already a large, acknowledged sinkhole on the Walt Disney World Resort property, that definitely confirms that it lies in a very sinkhole prone area.

Sinkholes typically collapse and fail without advance warning, making them incredibly difficult to predict, but new use of radar data—by measuring and imaging small deformations on the Earth’s surface—may help to give advance notice if the single is to form.

Lesson is that Walt Disney World is on some shaky ground, and who knows what may lie under feet. But if Cinderella’s Castle does ever sink into the Earth, maybe it could just be turned into a Journey of the Center of the Earth attraction like in Tokyo. And at least Disney World is not right by the San Andreas Fault like Disneyland is, but that’s for another video!

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