Travel

Disney World, Universal visitors find emotional support and fun doing scavenger hunts

ORLANDO, Fla. — On a scorching July afternoon in Orlando, Danette Goad walked around Universal Studios with a backpack full of rocks.

She led a group of friends toward the Harry Potter area of the park to create their own magic. They hid the painted stones in secret nooks, took pictures and typed captions with clues to their locations and posted them to a Facebook group for others to find.

For Goad, the fun activity has helped her survive a tragedy.

This is her fifth trip to Universal since her 22-year-old daughter Allyson “Ally” Goad was killed in a head-on crash last September involving another driver who was charged with DUI manslaughter.

Universal was one of her daughter’s favorite places, so the Goad family of Edmond, Okla., decided to go through with their October trip to the resort. A family friend gave Goad rocks painted with messages about Allyson Goad and the dangers of drinking and driving to hide around the theme parks.

“We did it and discovered that it was rather healing,” said Goad, 44.

Ally Rocks 405 was born, and since then volunteers in the family’s Facebook group have painted and hidden rocks worldwide. Universal Orlando is popular spot, with visitors leaving stones and other objects in her memory year-round. The number references the family’s area code.

Thousands of other theme park visitors are setting up similar scavenger hunts at Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World.

Over the past few years, Facebook groups such as Universally Crafted have grown exponentially as members make handmade objects and hide them around the theme parks. They use these groups and apps like Theme Park Watch to announce the “hides” and track when they’re found.

Representatives for Disney and Universal did not respond to questions about the practice. Administrators of Universally Crafted say they know about it and allow it to happen with basic safety rules.

Almost anything goes for the crafts, from trading cards to carved human skull replicas.

For some, hiding objects is just a fun pastime and a way to advertise their small businesses. For others crafting through adversity, like Goad, the activity has given them a supportive found family.

“It’s not about what you find, it’s the people that are doing it,” said Mike Rhoades, founder of Theme Park Trading Cards. “People are telling their stories, and they tell it through their crafts.”

Organized on Facebook

Crafters credit UO ROCKS, which has encouraged guests to hide painted rocks around Universal Orlando since 2017, as the first local theme park craft hide-and-seek group.

Universally Crafted (Universal Orlando) was founded on Facebook two years later but has become the largest group of its type with more 35,000 participants.

Alexa Harris, 29, founded the group with her friend Stephanie Gaughf over a shared love of making things and to create an interactive activity for kids visiting the parks. They started out hiding handmade bookmarks and resin keychains, and people were hooked.

The pandemic slowed the hobby but its popularity exploded in early 2021 as theme park crowds returned, Harris said. Many people mention the Facebook group in their “hides,” which brings in new members.

“It’s just amazing to think that these people take the time out of their day to create these amazing projects and little trinkets just to give away, not even expecting anything in return,” Harris said.

More than 16,000 Disney fans belong to sister group Universally Crafted (Walt Disney World) on Facebook.

Harris said employees at both theme parks helped group administrators establish rules about the types of crafts allowed and the hiding spots, and they keep in contact to ensure compliance, she said.

Objects made of glass, that look like weapons or contain adult content are a no-go. Crafters aren’t allowed to sell items on property, and they cannot hide crafts on rides or in queues, bathrooms or restaurants. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is off-limits for animal safety.

The vast majority of participants follow the rules, Harris said, and members gently correct those who make mistakes.

Goad and Rhoades say they have never encountered problems with employees or fellow guests when hiding objects.

Even Zane Wylie, who has hidden seven handmade resin replicas of carved human skulls around Universal since November, said he has not faced scrutiny.

That’s a good thing, because he has limited hiding spots.

“It’s difficult to find places where you can hide a whole skull,” said Wiley, who also sells the objects through his business, Zane Wylie Skulls.

Universal employees participate too, members said. Some even check popular hiding spots — like the “Duffman” statue in the Simpsons-themed land and a broken post dubbed “Non Nom” in the park’s New York area — to help guests find crafts.

This enthusiasm encourages crafters to continue their work, even as the hobby costs them time and resources. For example, Wylie said he can spend over 200 hours carving designs for a skull, which he sells for over $300 each.

“It’s been a complete blast,” Wylie said. “I’ve had a lot of fun meeting people, and hearing people’s stories and trading ideas back and forth. So it’s definitely been worth it.”

‘We feel love’

When Rhoades, 45, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer five years ago, he began walking around the theme parks regularly to exercise. He stumbled across a craft during one of his Universal laps in early 2021 and quickly got involved.

Since then, he has designed and printed nearly 500 different trading cards featuring his photos of local theme park features such as rides and characters.

He mainly distributes them through the scavenger hunts, but he also gives packs to donors of his cancer awareness nonprofit, Autographs for a Cure.

He said fellow members of Universally Crafted have become like family to him, especially the Goads.

“When they’re in town, I clear my schedule and spend every moment I get with them,” Rhoades said.

He met up with them during their recent trip and their group stashed around 80 painted rocks across Universal, along with countless buttons, cups and trading card packs.

On July 17, fellow crafters met to perform a “wands up” ceremony to pay tribute to Allyson Goad, a “massive Harry Potter fan,” outside Diagon Alley. They lifted wands in unison, recreating a scene from “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” honoring a fallen character.

Goad’s group was recognizable in their Slytherin-themed “Team Ally” T-shirts and stopped for hugs, well-wishes and requests for crafts.

“I can’t tell you how much we feel her presence here,” Goad later said. “And the people of this group have just poured their lives out into ours and we feel love; we feel supported. We feel surrounded by people who didn’t even know her but love her all the same.”

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©2022 Orlando Sentinel. Visit at orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published August 1, 2022 2:00 AM.

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