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A Friday Visit with Jim Korkis: The Fort Wilderness Alligator Attack

By Dave Shute

Welcome back to Fridays with Jim Korkis! Jim, the dean of Disney historians, writes about Walt Disney World history every Friday on


By Jim Korkis

In 1986, eight-year-old Paul Santamaria was bitten on the leg by a 7-foot-4 inch long female alligator, which had been lurking in the shallows of a pond at Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground.

Santamaria now lives in Hebron, New Hampshire and was interviewed by a local ABC affiliate when two year old Lane Graves was taken by an alligator in 2016.

“It was pretty terrifying at the time,” said Santamaira. “Under the water, where you couldn’t see, there was an alligator.”

Santamaria had been watching ducks waddling out of a small pond, located on the grounds of the resort, when he was snatched up by the sharp-toothed creature.

Fortunately for him, his 12-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother were there to save his life.

“Instead of just freezing, they decided to fight, to help me to fight to get away, and I’m here because of it,” Santamaria recalled.

“It came out of the water, knocked me down, grabbed my leg and started to throw me around and try to pull me into the water. My sister grabbed me under the arms and started pulling me away from the alligator. My brother started hitting it with whatever he could find and trying to get it to let me go, and with my free leg, I started to kick it and try to get away from it.”

While he managed to escape with his life, he was left with large gashes in his leg and a gator tooth lodged in his thigh.

“I was very lucky,” he said. “I still have some scars on my left leg, but that’s it.”

Santamaria said that while he felt even more fortunate after hearing about what happened to Lane Graves in 2016, it hurt to know that someone had lost their child.

Santamaria, who has been back to Disney World at least three times since the attack said that while it would be wise for Disney to have signs that warn of alligators, people need to remember one thing: that creatures like alligators are commonly found in Florida and small children usually can’t read very well.

“It’s hard to say what can and can’t be done,” he explained. “I don’t want to paint this as Disney is wrong or the parents are wrong. All I know is that as a child, at eight-years-old, there could have been signs there and I wouldn’t have noticed them.

“Children can’t read signs or just don’t pay attention to them. And parents who are trying to watch their kids might not notice those signs, either. They could have all the signage in the world there, and people could still not notice it.

“While attacks are rare, they do happen, and people who live up north don’t even think about the possible danger. While it won’t affect my decision for bringing my children to Walt Disney World in the future, it will definitely have me more alert of the surroundings.

“My kids love their movies, and I even plan on taking them back in the next year or so. It’s a place that families love to go. I look forward to taking my children there. With my situation, I was more fortunate than this (Graves) family was, so their feelings might be different.”

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Thanks, Jim! And come back next Friday for more from Jim Korkis!

In the meantime, check out his books, including his latest, Disney Never Lands, and about planned but unbuilt concepts, and Secret Stories of Walt Disney World: Things You Never You Never Knew, which reprints much material first written for this site, all published by Theme Park Press.


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