A Family Vacation, Ruined by Bug Bites

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Matt Stroshane / Bloomberg / Getty

A statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse sits in front of Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Someone had better turn Cinderella back into a maid, because one family claims Disney World needs some serious cleaning. They say they got bitten by bugs in a room at one of the theme park's resorts.

Offending Party: Disney's All-Star Music Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

What's at Stake: $200 for a two-night stay

The Complaint: Denine Erlemeier and her family woke up after their first night in the budget-priced hotel to find themselves covered with red bites. A little research online suggested the marks may have come from bedbugs, the reddish-brown, blood-sucking insects that often live in mattresses and bedding.

The Outcome: Erlemeier e-mailed Disney with her complaint, and customer service responded that her family's bites were not the result of any condition at the Disney resort. In other words, the only bug around there was the one that hangs out with Pinocchio with the lovely singing voice. "I was very disappointed in how they handled the complaint, as I don't feel it was even considered," Erlemeier says.

When the Avenger contacted Disney, a spokesperson said that the resort has a bug expert on staff who investigated the complaint and found no evidence of bedbugs in the room. So what bit the Erlemeier family? It's impossible to know.

But one thing is for sure: Bedbugs are a growing problem internationally and across the United States. According to the National Pest Management Association, its member pest control companies, which used to receive one or two bedbug calls a year, are now reporting as many each week. Maciej Ceglowski who runs bedbugregistry.com, an online user-generated database tracking infestations in apartment buildings and hotels in North America, says he saw a "huge spike" in reports in 2009 — though he can't say whether the increase was due to the spread of bedbugs or simply to the growing popularity of his site. (The registry has not logged any complaints for Disney's All-Star Music Resort.)

Because of the increasing number of reports, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) last summer held two National Bed Bug Symposiums in Newark, N.J., and Seattle, in hopes of educating hotel operators about the pests. The Environmental Protection Agency also held its first bedbug summit last year in Washington. The bugs are most common in big cities, including New York, San Francisco and Toronto, but the number of infestations is sharply on the rise around the world, in part because of the increase in international travel. Bedbugs don't crawl in themselves; they're carried in by visitors.

A report produced last year by England's Department of Infectious and Tropical Diseases found a 29% increase in complaints, and in 2006, an Australian entomological study estimated that Sydney was losing $100 million a year in tourism revenue because of an outbreak of the pests.

In the U.S., the bedbug problem is "miniscule," according to Joe McInerney, president and CEO of the AHLA, if one takes into account the fact that there are 4.4 million rooms in the country. "The only people that are making a big deal of it are the media," he says. McInerney says hotel operators exterminate rooms regularly, not just for bed bugs, but for all kinds of pests. An AHLA bedbug fact sheet recommends that hotels prevent infestations by inspecting rooms daily for evidence of bedbugs in bedding and furniture. Rooms found to have bedbug activity should be put out of service until a pest-control expert eliminates the critters completely.

If you're worried that the creatures might make a meal of you the next time you're on the road — or, worse, hitch a ride back home in your luggage — there's good news and bad. The bad: There's currently no official database where you can check if your hotel has suffered an outbreak, and hotels are not required to report infestations. The good news is that, even if your room does have the bugs, they're unlikely to sneak up on you. The insects are large enough to see with the naked eye, which means a simple check of a hotel room will determine if they're lurking there. Peel back the bedsheets and examine the mattress, and check behind the headboard if possible, for black spots of excrement, shed skins or the bugs themselves. It's not a particularly pleasant operation, but it beats waking up all itchy.