ORLANDO, Fla. – Casey Pavlacka planned to be in Walt Disney World (search) on Thursday for a Labor Day weekend trip with her best friend.
Instead, she stayed home in Michigan after her mother-in-law sent photographs of damage from Hurricane Charley (search) three weeks ago, and warned that the approaching Hurricane Frances (search) would be much worse.
"We wanted to be in Florida right now, but we would rather be safe than in a hurricane," said Pavlacka, 23, by telephone from Grand Rapids, Mich.
Florida's $50 billion tourism industry ground to a halt as Frances and its 140 mph wind neared the state. Florida officials issued the biggest evacuation request in state history, urging 2.5 million residents to clear out.
"This is the worst time of the year to have this hurricane," said Abe Pizam, a professor of hospitality management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "Labor Day weekend is very busy."
He said the lost revenue likely will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The 300-room beachfront Holiday Inn Beach Resort in Melbourne, about 70 miles southeast of Orlando, was fully booked for the holiday weekend until guests -- and employees -- began evacuating Thursday.
General manager Tim Michaud said he expected at least $100,000 in lost revenue.
"That's just rooms," Michaud said. "We're also losing functions for the weekend."
Further north along the coast, almost every business in Cocoa Beach was closed, including Ron Jon's Surf Shop, a tourist attraction that normally stays open 24 hours a day.
The weekend wasn't a total loss for hotels. Most of the 120,000 hotel rooms in metro Orlando, which has the second-largest hotel market in the nation behind Las Vegas, were occupied -- by evacuees. Just over 1,000 rooms were available for Friday.
Sea World Orlando and Discovery Cove, and Universal Orlando's two theme parks and Citywalk entertainment complex, planned to close Friday afternoon and all day Saturday. Walt Disney World planned to close its four theme parks an hour or two early on Friday. No decision had been made on whether they would be open Saturday.
Disney's crowds were unusually light Thursday. At the Magic Kingdom, people waited only about 10 minutes for rides like Space Mountain that can take up to two hours to get on. The short waits were a boon for visitors like Barb Delaney and her children, of Springfield, Va.
"We're going to look at it as one more adventure," said Delaney, a civilian Department of Defense worker whose 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son saved three years worth of pocket change totaling $600 for the trip. "We saved up three years to come here and a hurricane isn't going to stop us."
South Beach's main artery, Ocean Drive, usually a bustling thoroughfare of outdoor cafes and posh pink hotels, was nearly empty Thursday afternoon, with the last few remaining tourists still trying to leave.
Lion Country Safari, west of West Palm Beach, closed Thursday afternoon. Its lions, chimps, rhinos and elephants were going to ride out the storm in their night shelters, built of steel and concrete.
Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday warned visitors to stay out of Florida for the next few days, but then asked them to come back after the hurricane had passed -- real soon.
"If you decide to spend Labor Day somewhere else," Bush said, "We ask that you reschedule your vacations."