Failing the Disney stress test: How to be heart healthy on a theme park vacation
Orlando is the top tourist destination in the U.S., attracting 35 million visitors in 2020. That’s during a pandemic. This story is about an unofficial diagnosis some visitors will get while on vacation.
It was March 2017, and Larry Fine was on a Disney vacation in Orlando when his heart attacked him.
He had a big brunch, and watched The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History show. After a close family vote, Fine and his family decided to go back to the hotel for a rest.
That decision might have saved his life.
“So, if we’d stayed in the park, and were running around, I might not have noticed that my heart was attacking me,” Fine said.
He was lying in a pirate-themed hotel bed trying to take a nap, and his heart would not stop racing. And the beat felt irregular, too.
He went to an emergency department near Disney World and ultimately needed open-heart surgery: a quadruple bypass. The ambulance ride to the hospital's downtown Orlando campus was the most stressful.
“They were trying to decide whether they had to, like, run the sirens and call ahead to get me into surgery immediately,” Fine said. “And I was kind of freaking out.”
In local medical circles, there’s a slang term for what happened to him. A nurse told Fine he had “failed the Disney stress test.”
“He explained like it was not uncommon for people to come in with heart issues who happened to have been in the park,” Fine said.
Disney declined an on-tape interview for this story. But in a statement, Disney said people have heart problems on vacation all over the world – Disney just happens to get a lot of visitors.
A record 75 million tourists visited Orlando in 2019 before COVID-19. The pandemic dropped those figures by 53 percent, but early indications are that tourism is rebounding.
Honestly, we don’t know how many people fail the Disney stress test. Anecdotally, it’s common.
“Oh, yeah, everybody knew that you’re going to eventually go to the parks for something like that because it happened all the time,” said former Orlando paramedic Josh Granada.
Through a public records request, we do know the fire departments in Orlando and Orange County were called to Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Aquatica about 150 times in 2019. That does not include Disney, which has its own ambulance service not included in that count.
Granada said when he worked at the fire station closest to the theme parks, they would have to go at least once a shift. Most often, the calls were for patients who passed out.
“These are sedentary individuals, usually at their homes,” Granada said. “And then now they take a vacation and they’re all of a sudden gonna walk 5 miles in a day and not drink enough water to sustain that. I mean, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
So why are people having heart trouble on vacation?
Dr. Gul Dadlani is the chief of cardiology at Nemours Children’s Hospital and the former president of the American Heart Association’s Orlando chapter.
Dadlani points to a couple of risk factors: vacation stress, an increase in exercise, dehydration from the heat. And then there’s the takeout diet loaded with salt.
There are more than 30 million people in the U.S. with some form of heart disease.
“These people are coming and visiting Central Florida. And as they come, they come with some inherent risk,” Dadlani said. “And as their lifestyle changes when they arrive based on, again, stress, exertion, diet, dehydration from the heat, all of those can play factors.”
He said another common reason people fail the Disney stress test is because of an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation, or AFib. People forget to bring their medicine on vacation and then drink alcohol – which can induce a run of AFib.
His biggest tips for tourists? Stay hydrated, remember to bring your medication, and listen to your body.
“If you have acute chest discomfort, discomfort in the upper body, shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, if we’re nauseous, lightheaded, and if we pass out, we need to seek attention immediately,” Dadlani said.
For Larry Fine, he credits listening to his body with saving his life. He looks at the positives of the event.
“My father passed away a couple of years ago, but I got to spend a couple really intense, you know, quality weeks with him,” Fine said. “Which I never would have had otherwise. I consider that to be a huge positive of the heart surgery.”
Fine does not blame Disney for his heart attack, and has come back to Disney since it happened, most recently for his daughter’s wedding – which happened at an Orlando theme park.
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