ORLANDO, Fla. – Sad things are not supposed to happen during The Happiest Celebration on Earth. But for the fourth time this summer, the Walt Disney Co. – in the midst of an 18-month birthday party for its first theme park – is dealing with sad news.

An autopsy Friday revealed that 12-year-old Jerra Kirby of Newport News, Va., suffered no physical trauma when she died a day earlier after collapsing at Typhoon Lagoon. Disney lifeguards and staff had called emergency services and tried to resuscitate her.

Autopsy and death are not words that any attraction or theme park, let alone one as well-known as Disney, wants to be associated with.

This is the second reported death of a child at Disney World this summer. A teen, who collapsed after riding the Tower of Terror ride last month, remains in critical condition at Florida Hospital Orlando.

And just a week ago, 15 guests were injured at Disney’s California Adventure when a roller coaster they were in was hit from behind by a second coaster.

Four such negative headlines in the span of less than two months would be hard on any company, but experts who specialize in public relations say Disney should be able to weather the storm.

Disney “is better equipped than any company out there” to deal with such negative news, said Eli Portnoy, a brand consultant who works in Orlando.

“They understand the power of their brand and their relationship with customers,” Portnoy said. “They understand that, when a crisis occurs, you have to respond quickly, forthrightly and not try to cover up.”

People often forget the size and scope of Disney’s operations, which are equivalent to hosting one or more Super Bowls seven days a week, 365 days a year, said Leslie Goodman, senior vice president at Walt Disney Parks & Resorts in Burbank, Calif.

“We would never want to minimize any event or tragedy, which is huge to the individuals affected,” Goodman said. “But the law of averages says that, by sheer volume and normal life events, it’s going to happen to us. We take solace in the fact that at the end of the day, our guests have an uncommon amount of common sense.”

Mark DiMassimo, who owns a New York advertising agency that represents a number of large clients, agreed that Disney patrons would take the series of unfortunate events in stride.

“I do think people understand that Disney is a place with a huge annual population, and stuff is going to happen,” DiMassimo said. “No doubt the Disney brand and PR people would like for all the news to be pure pixie dust. But it doesn’t work that way.”

DiMassimo lives within two miles of Playland, an old amusement park in Rye, N.Y. A 7-year-old boy died on a boat-in-the-dark ride there on Wednesday, the park’s second fatality in 15 months.

“Playland is as crowded today as it was last week,” DiMassimo said. “I don’t know how many mothers are letting their 7-year-olds on that (boat) ride, but on one level, (they understand) death and freak accidents happen.”

At Typhoon Lagoon on Friday, British visitor Peter Brunt showed similar understanding. He, his wife and three young children already had been to Typhoon Lagoon earlier in the week, and they returned despite learning about the death the previous evening.

“It hasn’t put us off at all,” said Brunt, 47. “I suppose we’re expecting that it’s some sort of natural cause, rather than an accident. One thing we’re very impressed with is the amount of attention to safety.”

(Adrian G. Uribarri of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.)

(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-06-05 1416EDT

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