by Sandy Malone and Christopher Berg
Orlando, FL – Universal Studios has responded after employees spent almost an hour preventing a retired cop from entering their park due to his shirt.
The incident started when a retired Ormond Beach police officer and his girlfriend were stopped by security at the gates of Universal Studios’ Orlando theme park because he was wearing a shirt that said “retired police officer.”
After almost an hour delay, the employees relented and allowed the retired officer into the park.
In a statement from their communications department, Universal Studios said, "I want to assure you that all of us at Universal have tremendous respect for police, firefighters and all first responders. We cherish our relationships with our local police and sheriff’s departments and work closely with them."
"We are sorry for what our guest experienced – and we have reached out to him and apologized," the statement explained. "Our policy is designed to keep our guests and team members safe. But this guest’s shirt is something we would allow in our parks and is not the kind of thing our policy is designed to prevent. We want you to be proud of what you do or have done for those of us in the communities you serve."
"And so, as always, we are going to use this as an opportunity to learn and grow and improve," the statement concluded.
Retired Ormond Beach Police Officer Vincent Champion told Blue Lives Matter that the incident occurred just after 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 1 as he and his girlfriend, Holly Bickel, were headed into the theme park to meet up with some other couples for Halloween Horror Nights.
A 22-year-veteran of the Ormond Beach police, he now splits his time between working as a reserve investigator for the Florida State’s Attorney’s Office and representing other officers through the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
“I walk up to the line wearing a retired law enforcement officer shirt,” Champion explained. “I start emptying out all my pockets and as I’m about to walk through, the girl behind the security counter says ‘do you have another shirt?”
He said he was surprised by the question.
“I told her ‘no ma’am, I do not’ and explained I was in town from Daytona,” the retired officer told Blue Lives Matter. “And she says you can’t come in here with anything that says ‘police officer’ on it.”
Champion said that normally, that would have been enough anti-police sentiment for him to turn around and leave the park.
But on this occasion, Champion and Bickel were meeting up with other couples who were already inside waiting for them so they didn’t want to just walk away.
He told Blue Lives Matter that he offered to turn his shirt inside out.
The security officer said that wasn’t okay.
“There was a group of five or six couples behind us that lost their minds at that point, and some of them started yelling at the security officer saying things like ‘this is what you do to retired heroes, this is how you show respect to law enforcement?’”
Champion said one of the couples behind them handed him another shirt to put on so that he could go in, and he gratefully accepted it.
He said he was standing in line changing shirts when the security officer piped up again and informed him that he was “going to have to take that other shirt back to the car.”
The retired officer explained to the security officer that they had just left their car with the valet and there was no way they were going to get it back. He said he would tie the shirt around his waist or carry it.
“But the girl told me, ‘no, you have to put it in your car,’” Champion told Blue Lives Matter. “So I put my shirt back on and asked for a supervisor.”
“So the security supervisor comes down and he explains ‘we have a policy that you can’t wear any police gear,’ and I asked him to show me the policy,” he recalled.
He said they discussed the signage that said patrons could wear nothing with gang sign affiliations or offensive language, but there was nothing that said anything about “police gear” or shirts with badges.
The security supervisor told Champion that they didn’t permit anything with the word “police” because they didn’t want any of the other park patrons to confuse him with “real police or park security.”
“I explained that my shirt says I’m a retired police officer – and then I asked, if I see something happening inside the park, like somebody getting beat up or something, you don’t want me to react?” he told Blue Lives Matter.
“And he said that would be okay ‘but we don’t want anybody to confuse you with real police or security,’” Champion said.
He said he asked the security supervisor if it would be alright for an EMT to wear an EMT shirt, even though other patrons might mistake them for being a park medic, and the supervisor answered yes.
After almost an hour, the security supervisor agreed to allow Champion into the park wearing his retired police officer t-shirt after he was unable to produce any written rule or policy to the contrary, but the experience was still humiliating.
“Ultimately, I was allowed in. I think it was because I complained enough and other patrons were yelling at him, he said it would be fine. He looked at my shirt and said ‘well, that doesn’t really look like a badge, so you’re okay,’” Champion explained.
He’s still not sure what exactly the problem was – the presence of a badge or the word “police” – because “they don’t have a written policy they can show you.”
Champion said that, as a result of that experience, he will not be returning to University Studios and that he’s started spreading the word in the law enforcement community.
“I will never return to Universal and I know of two other police families who have already cancelled their season passes to that park,” he told Blue Lives Matter.
He also said that police union he works for was considering the theme park for an upcoming convention, but that there’s no way that they’re going to go there now.
“Why can’t we be proud of who we are?” Champion asked Blue Lives Matter. “I was proud to be a police officer – still am – and I can’t wear what I want because they are bowing down to other people who may not like it. Lots of people wear shirts that I don’t like but I can’t do anything about it.”
“By the way, if I had that shirt on, what are the chances anybody would do something in front of me? We also prevent things from happening,” he added.
Champion's girlfriend reached out to Universal Studios on Twitter on Nov. 4 and told them what had happened.
"Hello, while we're honored to welcome off-duty first responders to our resort as Guests, safety is our highest priority. Our Security Teams and local emergency officials maintain a strong, ongoing presence in our parks. To avoid any possible confusion this attire is not allowed," Universal Studios replied.
Blue Lives Matter reached out to Universal Studios to ask what the official policy was regarding police apparel at their theme parks but had not received a response by publication time.