The Dark Side of Disney Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com

The Dark Side of Disney

It’s the land of dreams, a fantasy land where everyone can unleash their inner kid. Walt Disney World and Disneyland are popular vacation destinations for many people, young and old, who are attracted by the magic of the theme parks. Whether you love rides or just want to meet your favorite Disney character “in the flesh,” Disney has embedded itself in our minds and our hearts as a sort of utopia, where everything and anything is possible—as Disney himself once said, the Happiest Place on Earth. But we often forget that if anything and everything is possible, then so are things that are less savory. The House of Mouse has long been plagued by rumors and urban legends about some of the goings-on in the parks, some of which are nothing more than hearsay. Other stories, however, have more than a grain of truth to them—it’s more a matter that the powers that be have gone to great lengths to sweep some of these stories under the rug. Of course, persistent talk of cover ups has only served to fuel rumors about shady happenings inside the park gates, which are often levied alongside accusations of corporate corruption on the part of Disney top brass. After all, if there really are immoral things going on inside Disney theme parks, the public ought to hear about them—if only for our own safety.

Not everything gets covered up and some of the urban legends that have cropped up around Disney are based in truth. Many of the incidents were widely reported in the news media and, with the advent of the Internet, stopping such stories has become even more difficult, even for Disney’s highly skilled legal and public relations teams.

There are hundreds of stories about people being injured or dying while at a Disney park. Some of the deaths aren’t too far-fetched; after all, the parks are full of rides and machinery that can easily malfunction, just the same as any other theme park with roller coasters. Similarly, many people have died after undetected health issues are aggravated by thrilling rides much the same as those in any other theme park. Disney seems to have earned a special spot in people’s consciousness however, as people love to gossip about someone dying a grisly death in the Happiest Place on Earth. Maybe we just love the contrast, but stories that we heard from “a friend of a friend” spread faster than a wildfire.

Deaths

Of course, not all of those stories are simply rumors. Some of the more infamous tales of death in a Disney park are completely true. In June 1973 and June 1983, some teenagers died in the River of the Americas attraction, both after violating the rules. In the first incident, an 18-year-old and his brother stayed in the park after closing; the teenager drowned when they attempted to cross the river. Ten years later, a boy stole a rubber emergency raft from a cast-only area of the park, only to capsize and drown. A year later, in 1984, Dollie Young was riding the Matterhorn Bobsleds when her seatbelt was unfastened. Young plummeted to the track below, only to be hit by another car and dragged along the rails before the ride was stopped. Even now, we can only speculate on how her seatbelt failed. More recently, in 2007, a teenager died on the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster at Disneyland Paris. When the ride stopped, her friends noticed she was unconscious. Park medics rushed to the scene and an ambulance was called, but it was too late. Cast members aren’t immune to the dangers of the park either; in 1974, an employee named Debbi Stone was crushed to death between a rotating wall and a permanent theater wall in the “America Sings” attraction.

DIsney World

Injuries

Of course, not every incident leads to death, although some of the injuries people have sustained at Disney, either as a guest or an employee, are just as awful. In 1983, an 18-year-old man fell off Space Mountain and was paralyzed. In September 2000, a 4-year-old boy fell out of the Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin ride and suffered serious internal injuries, cardiac arrest and brain damage after being dragged underneath the car. Although he lived, there was a serious delay between the time of the incident and when medical emergency personnel were contacted, leading Disney to review and change their policies. Unfortunately, it was too late for this child, who lived with the consequences of that fateful ride until he passed away in January 2009. Disney’s California Adventure has also been the site of several accidents, such as when the California Screamin’ attraction malfunctioned and a train rear-ended another, sending 15 guests to hospital as a result.

Employees

Employees often speak of the atrocious treatment of “cast members” at the parks by both guests and higher-ups. A common complaint is about the lack of water and the strict rules imposed on those portraying characters in mascot costumes; heat stroke is frequent among those cast members who perform mascot-suit roles. Others have reported sexual harassment and other forms of abuse, both from guests and even their managers. Some guests have reported altercations with cast members. One woman sued Disney in 1976, claiming that a cast member portraying one of the Three Little Pigs in the “It’s a Small World” attraction sexually harassed her, going so far as to grope her. Disney disproved this by presenting the costume, which had short, inoperable arms that made it impossible for the cast member to grope anyone while in costume. In 1981, a 1978 incident between Winnie the Pooh and a little girl went to court. The girl’s parents claimed that the cast member portraying the lovable bear had slapped their daughter. The cast member argued that the girl had been tugging on the costume and, in the course of turning around, he’d accidentally knocked her over. He showed up to court in costume, which convinced the jury that the arms on the costume wouldn’t have allowed a cast member to slap a child of the victim’s height. In February 2012, the situation was reversed when an employee encountered a 53-year-old man near the Tower of Terror. The man, allegedly drunk, assaulted the employee, who pepper-sprayed him. The man continued fighting and other guests had to subdue him.

Suicide

Sadly, some people have even inflicted injuries on themselves, by jumping out of moving vehicles or otherwise engaging in dangerous behavior, in order to sue the park afterward. Such was the case in 1994, when a man fell about 20 feet from a Skyway gondola. Just prior to the case going to trial in 1996, the victim admitted that he had purposely leapt out of the gondola. Others, of course, have different reasons for attempting to hurt themselves or others. In September 1994, a 74-year-old man leapt to his death from a 9th floor balcony in the Disney Hotel. In 1996, a 23-year-old man jumped or fell to his death and in 1998, an employee jumped from the same floor (but survived). Ten years later, in 2008, a 48-year-old man leapt from the 14th floor. In 2010, another jumper leapt from the Mickey & Friends parking structure.

Violence

When the going gets rough, though, some people resort to violence against others and, in some cases, the Happiest Place on Earth has been the site of murder. In 1981, a teenager was fatally stabbed during a knife fight. In 1987, a 15-year-old was shot in the parking lot during what had started as a confrontation between rival gang members. The altercation soon erupted in violence and ended with death. In 2012, a young man’s body was found near the Mickey & Friends parking structure. Although it was thought that this was a suicide case at the time, there were no witnesses to report that he had jumped. In 2013, there were 2 small explosions in trash cans in the Toontown area of the park that caused the park to be evacuated. The cause of the explosion was a bottle filled with dry ice and soon, a 22-year-old confessed to detonating the 2 bombs. He was sentenced for the misdemeanor of possessing a destructive device.

Spreading Ashes

A final grisly tale relates to legends that people take the ashes of their deceased loved ones to the park to be spread. In most cases, the tales say that the deceased either loved Disney or worked for Disney and so having their ashes spread there was a final request. There has only been one recorded incident wherein a family may have spread ashes. The family approached park staff and requested a private memorial for their loved one in the Haunted Mansion. Their request was granted, but park staff noted that the family seemed to go beyond “memorial” and were witnessed spreading a powder around the attraction, which some presumed to be ashes. Others have reported people spreading powdery substances on other rides, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, and it’s rumored that this happens on a fairly frequent basis, so much so that park maintenance staff now use special vacuum equipment and park staff have to be trained to handle such situations.

Despite all of these tales of pain, blood and death, we still flock to Disney. Perhaps the parks get more than their fair share of attention when something goes wrong; after all, death and violence seem downright out of place with the ethos of the Happiest Place on Earth, which tries its best to maintain a squeaky-clean and innocent image. The fact that it’s the site of tragic injuries, violent murders, suicides and other incidents only make us more interested in what “really” goes on behind the scenes. We’re fascinated by Disney both because of the delightful and fancy-free image it provides us, the magic it promises us—and precisely because we know that such magic can’t really exist, which makes discovering the seedy underbelly of the beast that much more gratifying.

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