As Walt Disney himself once said, The House of Mouse is the Happiest Place on Earth. Both Walt Disney World and Disneyland attract millions of fans and tourists of all ages every year with the rides and attractions, Disney characters and princesses “in the flesh”, and the general magical feeling. This fantasyland is a bucket list trip for many travelers and families with children growing up with Disney movies and parents longing for the nostalgia it brings. However, if anything and everything is possible at the parks, then that includes things that are less savory. Some things are just rumors; urban legends about what goes on within the gates and behind the scenes. But other stories have more truth to them, some of which have even been widely covered by the media.
The powers that be at Disney have often attempted to sweep these stories under the rug, but there’s nothing quite like hot gossip about the Happiest Place on Earth to help spread the goings-on. And with social media and the Internet, squashing the stories has become even more difficult, despite Disney’s top notch legal and public relations teams. After all, if there really are shady things going on inside theme parks, the public ought to know!
There are hundreds of stories about people being injured or dying inside Disney’s parks. Some of the deaths aren’t too surprising. After all, the parks are full of rides and machinery that can easily malfunction, just the same as any other theme park. Similarly, many people have died after undetected health issues are aggravated by thrilling rides. But Disney seems to have earned a special spot in people’s consciousness and people love to gossip about someone dying a grisly death in the Happiest Place on Earth, so here is some of the not-so-magical side of Disney.
Of course, not every incident leads to a fatality, although some of the injuries people have sustained at Disney, either as a guest or employee, are quite 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.
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 started as a confrontation between rival gang members and soon erupted in violence. In 2012, a young man’s body was found near the Mickey & Friends parking structure. Although it was thought that this was a suicide 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 bombs. He was sentenced for the misdemeanor of possessing a destructive device.
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 their managers. Some guests have also 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.
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 and 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. 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.
Sadly, some people have died by suicide or survived an attempt (suing the park afterward) in the park by jumping out of moving vehicles or otherwise engaging in dangerous behavior. 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. 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 person leapt from the Mickey & Friends parking structure.
Another 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.
Other Strange Secrets
There are a host of other secrets that aren’t quite as grisly, but are equally as interesting! Disney has many parks – so many that one has been abandoned! Before Typhoon Lagoon, Disney had another water park called River County, which has been closed up and left to deteriorate from 2001 to 2015. It’s now set to be turned into a hotel, but sat rotting for 14 years.
Another rumor that’s circulated over the years is that there is a jail under Disney World. While that would be fascinating, it’s untrue. There is, however, a network of tunnels called utilidors (short for utility corridors) that allow cast members and other staff to access different parts of the park and move around without being seen, so as to not break the illusion and take guests out of the immersive Disney experience.
A final unsavory fact about the park is how they are rumored to treat employees. In fact, whisperings that the “brainwash” their employees are not uncommon. While they likely don’t go that far, Disney does apparently tend to go a bit overboard when “initiating” staff. Culture is top-down, abbreviations (like MK for Magic Kingdom) are required, and cast members must play the part 100% while on the clock, including always smiling at guests. Water breaks are limited and employees aren’t afforded things like a regular work schedule or fair pay, despite Disney claiming to be family oriented. Many former staff have spilled the tea and shared about their experience. Bottom line: Disney is anything but magical for employees.
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 image. The fact that it’s the site of tragic injuries, violent murders, suicides, and other incidents only makes people more curious about 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 interesting.