Wildlife officials have pulled four alligators from a lagoon at Walt Disney World after a two-year-old boy was dragged into the water by an alligator near the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa as his father frantically tried to rescue his son.
Meanwhile, Disney closed beaches on Wednesday at its resorts "in an abundance of caution", divers remained on standby and stunned summer visitors to the Magic Kingdom waited to hear news of efforts to find the child.
The family of five from Nebraska was on vacation and wading in the Seven Seas Lagoon on Tuesday evening when the child was taken from an area where "no swimming" signs were posted by an alligator estimated to be between 4ft and 7ft long, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told a news conference early on Wednesday.
The search for the child was still considered a "search and rescue operation," said Jeff Williamson, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
"We are very hopeful," he said at a morning news conference. "Sometimes you get the worst, but we are hoping for the best."
Nick Wiley, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the four alligators were taken from the water overnight, but officials found no immediate indication they were involved in the child's disappearance. He said the alligators will be cut open and their remains examined after they are euthanised.
The beach area is part of the luxury Grand Floridian resort, across the lake from Disney's Magic Kingdom theme park. The man-made lake stretches about 200 acres and reaches a depth of 14ft. Called the Seven Seas Lagoon, the lake feeds into a series of canals that wind through the entire Disney property.
More than 50 law enforcement personnel searched the lagoon along with an alligator tracker and two marine units. Mr Williamson said more personnel were being brought in on Wednesday to offer some "fresh eyes" for the search.
Mr Williamson, the sheriff's spokesman, said the boy was at the edge of the water, probably about a foot or two into the water, when the alligator attacked. The water was dark on Tuesday night as searchers looked for the boy, he said.
Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahaler said everyone at the resort was devastated by what happened and Disney is helping the family.
Minnesota residents John and Kim Aho, visiting Disney with their 12-year-old son Johnny, were stunned to hear what had happened to the child, whose name has not been released.
"We have been to Yellowstone and encountered grizzly bears, but this is just freaky," John Aho said. Kim Aho said their son is "a little freaked out about the gator".
The sheriff said there had been no other recent reports of similar alligator attacks on the lake.
More than a million alligators live throughout Florida, although the species remains listed as an endangered species because it closely resembles the endangered American crocodile.
Although Florida has grown to the third-most populous state, fatal alligator attacks remain rare. There have been 23 fatalities caused by wild alligators in Florida since 1973, according to data compiled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Those fatalities were among 383 unprovoked bites not caused by someone handling or intentionally harassing an alligator.
Eight children, ages two to 16, are among the fatalities. Five died while swimming in lakes, rivers and canals.
The wildlife commission said eight of the 15 adults killed by alligators had been swimming in freshwater bodies of water, including a 36-year-old man swimming across a pond while trying to elude police. One 54-year-old woman was seized by an alligator while landscaping near a pond, and an 82-year-old man was killed while walking his dog on a path between two wetland areas.