Many People Died at Disney?
Disneyland has often been called "the happiest place on
earth." Since its opening in 1955, hundreds of millions of people from all walks of
life have flocked to this American Mecca and been swept up in the fantasy world envisioned
by Walt Disney. From the park entrance on "Main Street USA", recreating turn of
the century small town America at 5/8 scale, to the top of the faux Matterhorn, complete
with imitiation bobsled runs, Disneyland evokes images and fantasies of life in happier,
more pleasant, and more exciting worlds.
But, beneath this glittering facade lurks something malevolent, something lethal. In the
Magic Kingdom, life is not all pixie dust and happy, fairly tale endings. Behind the
mouse's perpetually forced grin, there is more than a trace of the death head's grimace.
For not all of the millions of "guests" (never visitors, patrons or suckers)
entering the park in search of fantasy and pleasure survive to see the Electric Parade.
They will leave the park in body bags, struck down by fantasy "attractions" run
Reactionary pundits and other defenders of the All-American Way of Life, Orange County
style, will immediately spring to the defense of the pride of Anaheim with the old
transporation argument. "Why, you're more likely to die on the way to the park than
inside." And right they are, _especially_ in the case of Disneyland. History does not
record the number of young Disneyland-bound families wiped out in fiery holocausts on the
Santa Ana freeway. But other modes of transport do demonstrate the dangers. In 1968 alone,
the Disneyland/LAX helicopter service suffered two of the worst civilian chopper crashes
in U.S. history. In May, a helicopter carrying 23 people lucky enough to leave the park
alive disintegrated in mid-air and crashed near Paramount. There were no survivors. Less
than three months later, a Disneyland-bound chopper crashed on a Compton playground,
killing all 21 would-be "guests" and crew on board. Even the stroll from the
parking lot to the park entrance is not without its risks. In 1987, after a Mormon party
at the park, a gang fight in one of the lots erupted in gunfire, leaving one youth dead
and a bystander injured.
But this is beside the point when it comes to discussing the hazards awaiting the unwary
inside Disneyland. You're just as likely to die en route to such traditional mid-American
amusements as tractor pulls or Bon Jovi concerts. Once inside, you're safe. But, to place
yourself at the mercy of Disneyland is to risk mangling, mutilation, and even death.
From 1955 through 1963, Disneyland's safety record was flawless. Not all of their
"guests" may have left happy, but they did leave alive. Tragically, this perfect
record ended in May of 1964, instituting the era of carnage that continues even today.
The killer attraction: the Matterhorn. The event: a party for 10,000 Long Beach Elks and
their guests. Its tragic first victim: 15 year old Mark Maples of Long Beach. The day had
been difficult for Mark. Earlier, during an otherwise sedate ride on the Skyway, he argued
with a girl over going steady. His friends had to restrain him from flinging himself to
the ground 50 feet below. But no one can stay depressed in Disneyland for very long. By
11:30 that evening, he was in better spirits, engaging in "horseplay" while
waiting in line for the Matterhorn with his friends.
Things went smoothly for the first third of the ride. Then, near the summit, Mark felt a
sudden, inexplicable need to stand up. It's not clear whether he merely wanted to stretch
his legs or was confusing the simulated bobsled ride with such more traditional Angeleno
sports as surfing or skiing. His friends merely heard a thump, some noise, and Mark was
gone; no screams or triumphant shouts of "Kawabunga!" According to Disneyland
officials, he was "catapulted from the speeding car". He landed on the track a
few feet down, with a skull fracture and various internal injuries. He never regained
consciousness, and died four days later. The Matterhorn had claimed its first victim.
The Matterhorn earned its underground sobriquet of "widowmaker" in January,
1984. This time, its victim was no innocent, hi-jinking teenager, but a
respectable 48 year old matron. Dollie Young of Fremont had been enjoying an impromptu
Disneyland visit with old friends from Arizona. The survivors later recalled that "It
started out like one of those magical, happy days" so frequently depicted in Disney
promotional materials. And the day had gone well, until they dared the deadly slopes of
Dollie was riding alone in the rear car of the sled, so no one saw quite what happened.
Disney workers swear they had buckled her in. However, two thirds of the way down the
slopes, her so called "safety" belt was definitely unbuckled. She fell to the
track, and, as she bounced along track while struggling to regain her feet, a second
speeding sled smashed into her. The "bullet" sled dragged her for a car-length
before stopping with her corpse pinned beneath its wheels. She was pronounced dead at the
scene from massive head and chest injuries. The Matterhorn was closed for the rest of the
day due to "technical difficulties", and the bullet sled riders evacuated via a
hidden elevator. The nearby motorboat cruise and monorail ride were also shut down,
presumably to spare Fantasyland guests the sight of a real-life police investigation.
Equally hazardous to park visitors is the PeopleMover. Hurtling through the sterile
corporate future of Tomorrowland at a speed of two miles per hour, it is plainly a menace
to the life and limb of every guest. Less than two months after its opening, it mutilated
and killed its first victim. In August of 1967, Rick Yuma, a 15-year old boy from
Hawthorne, innocently attempted to change cars as the PeopleMover passed through a tunnel.
Unfortunately, he slipped and, as the papers reported, was "found wedged between two
cars with his head and the upper part of his body crushed". And "wedged"
was the word for it; Disney "Imagineers" negligently hadn't forseen this
possibility and made allowances for it in their design. Workers had to dismantle the train
in order to extricate the boy's mangled remains.
The PeopleMover killed a second time under even more tragic circumstances: During a Grad
Night party. On that sad June night in 1980, the park was filled close to capacity with
18,000 young people celebrating their high school graduation. The crowd included 260
graduates of San Diego High. Only 259 would survive to receive their diplomas. In the
early morning hours, their classmate Geraldo Gonzales attempted to change cars as the
PeopleMover tore throught the "Superspeed" tunnel. He stumbled and fell. As he
lay sprawled across the tracks, a second speeding PeopleMover train struck, crushing him
beneath its cruel hard rubber wheels and dragging him along the tracks. He was pronounced
dead at the scene from extensive internal injuries, yet another young man cut down in the
prime of life.
Rides aren't the only attractions at Disneyland; nor are they the only killers. Consider
Tom Sawyer Island. Located in the middle of the Rivers of America and accessible solely by
raft, this is the only attraction in the park Walt designed personally. Although it and
the surrounding river are as fake and manmade as Sleeping Beauty's castle, it appears to
be an innocent, rustic oasis of nature in a sea of synthetic "imagineering", as
well as an inviting refuge from the omnipresent lines. Precisely for these reasons, it
beckons innocent park guests to their deaths, much like the Sirens of classical mythology.
The island's sinister spell claimed its first victim in June, 1973. Bodgen De Laurot, an
18-year old Brooklyn man, and his younger brother, decided to watch the nightly fireworks
display from the island. Unfortunately, the rafts to and from the island stop running at
dusk. After the fireworks, the brothers found themselves stranded a la "Swiss Family
Robinson". But, rather than building a tree house, they did what any true red-blooded
American young man would do - they swam for it. History does not record if the river was
too swift, the water too cold, or the distance too great. What is known is that neither
brother made it.
The younger boy was the lucky one - a boat ride operator hauled him from those treacherous
waters around 10 PM. Bodgen was nowhere to be found. A search followed, possibly the
biggest land, sea and air search in park history. Frontierland and the Rivers of America
were scoured by police, firemen, and park employees using searchlights, helicopters and
boats. Not until dawn did they find Bodgen's drowned body among the rocks and rapids near
the lethal isle.
In June of 1983, the island lured a second young man to his death in yet another grad
night tragedy. That evening, Phil Straughan of Albuquerque had a double cause for
celebration: his graduation and his 18th birthday. In an innocent display of youthful high
spirits, he and a friend "borrowed" an inflatable rubber maintenance boat for an
impromptu nighttime cruise on the river. Near the deadly island, they struck a rock. Phil
was flung into the river. As a football player, he had the strength to struggle valiantly.
But he was no match for the power of the Rivers of America as four feet of cold, cruel
water closed over his head. Rescuers recovered his drowned body an hour later. In all
apparent sincerity, a Disney spokesperson said, "It's a really, really sad thing on
what's supposed to be one of the happiest days of his life."
The entire park exerts a similar, irresistible lure. For 35 years, management has hyped
Disneyland as the American Mecca, making every American feel that they _must_ make the
pilgrimage at least once in their lives. The only catch is that the park charges stiff
admission price for entry onto these hallowed grounds - over $25 as of late 1990. Not
everyone can afford it. One can only feel sympathy for these frustrated pilgrims, and
understand their desperate efforts to sneak in.
One of these poor souls never made it, and died trying. Guy Cleveland, a 19-year old
Northridge man, undoubtedly driven to his fate by the irresistible media hype, futilely
attempted to enter the park along the monorail track. With a monomaniacal intent usually
confined to religious fanatics, he climbed a 16-foot fence, disregarded the security
guard's shouted warnings, and evidently ignored the sound of the rapidly approaching
train. As he clambered along the canopy underneath the track, the train struck. It dragged
him 30 or 40 feet before it could stop. The newspapers could only describe his body as
Park guests aren't the only ones seduced to their deaths by the park's attractions.
Consider the late, lamented "America Sings". It was seemingly designed strictly
as a hazard to employees. Converted from the old General Electric Carousel of Progress, it
featured six theaters revolving around a four part fixed stage of Disney audioanimatronic
animal figures performing well-loved American songs. Even before its official 1974
opening, there was something sinister about this android musical spectacular. The tragedy
to come was foreshadowed at the press preview party, when one of the attraction's
designers fell into a pit and sustained slight injuries.
Disneyland ignored this omen, and opened "America Sings" to the public at the
end of June. This decision would cost them the life of an innocent young hostess, the
first Disneyland employee killed in the line of duty.
Deborah Stone had just graduated from nearby Santa Ana High. In many ways, she epitomized
the crisp, clean all-American image encouraged among park employees. She edited her high
school year book, belonged to the honor society and capped her high school career by
winning the principal's award for "outstanding service to her school and
community". Undoubtedly, she breezed through her coursework at the Disneyland
Yes, she had nothing but a bright future full of promise to look forward to on that tragic
July night. There were no witnesses to her agonizing end, no
spectacular fall or dramatic search. Around 11 PM, fellow employees noticed her missing
from her post greeting guests. After a brief search, they found her crushed remains. As
the theaters rotated about the fixed inner stage, she had been caught between a stationary
wall and a moving wall. The attraction smashed her like a steamroller running over one of
Disney's beloved characters in a hilarious act of animated mayhem. Except this was no
cartoon, and there would be no animated sleight of hand to "uncrush" her.
America Sings was closed for three days until a system of warning lights could be
installed. But for one young hostess, it was a little too late.
By far the grimmest and most widely-criticized event in Disneyland's blood-spattered
history was the park's first homicide in 1981. The victim was Mel Yorba, an 18-year old
Riverside man. On that fateful March night, he was attending a private party at the park
thrown by a local defense contractor, accompanied by a friend and their dates. His family
recalled that the young people were simply out "to have a good time".
The "good time" ended around 10 PM that evening in the deadly confines of
Tomorrowland. Near the Skyway, James O'Driscoll, a 28-year old man from San Diego, accused
Yorba of touching his girlfriend. There was a scuffle; blows were exchanged. O'Driscoll
pulled a knife. Then, either O'Driscoll brutally stabbed Yorba, or Yorba stumbled while
lunging forward, impaling himself on the blade. The jury believed the former. Eventually,
this scuffle would cost the killer 8 years to life for 2nd degree murder.
No one criticized Disneyland security's handing of the killing. With efficiency rivalled
only by certain Third-World dictatorships and some (former) Eastern Bloc police states,
they swung into action. O'Driscoll's girlfriend was quickly apprehended as she tried to
slip out of the park. Divers found the alleged murder weapon, an 8 1/2 inch knife, in a
Disneyland waterway, variously reported as the Sleeping Beauty Castle moat or the
submarine lagoon. O'Driscoll only managed to evade the kingdom-wide manhunt for little
more than an hour before he was found hiding in the bushes in Adventureland.
Meanwhile, as Yorba lay bleeding to death on the grounds of Tomorrowland, the Disneyland
nurse made a fateful decision. Instead of calling the
paramedics, she elected to have him driven to the hospital in a park van. By the time the
van, lacking flashing emergency lights, made its leisurely way to the hospital (which,
unlike other nearby hospitals, did not have a trauma center), Yorba was to all intents
dead from a knife wound piercing his heart, liver and diaphragm.
For once, Disneyland was roundly chastised in the media. Two Disneyland workers claimed
"the rule at the park is don't call the paramedics". Presumably, flashing red
lights and uniformed rescue personnel tearing up Main Street would mar the park's
atmosphere. Not that the emergency crews wanted to disturb the guests; the Orange County
Director of Emergency Medical Services was quoted as saying he would not be
"adverse" to dressing up paramedics in mouse suits if necessary.
In wake of this criticism, Disneyland hired an ambulance and changed its emergency
procedures somewhat. Not that this helped at the trial. Contrary to what their employees
thought, the park produced a written policy in effect at the time of the stabbing
requiring that paramedics be called in life-threatening situations. Nonetheless, the jury
found Disney neglegent to the tune of $600,000, making Yorba (or at least his family) one
of the few of the park's many victims to win compensation for their injuries.
Of course, these are just the fatal incidents. The offical pristine park history also
fails to mention other serious mishaps that fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) didn't
end in death. There was the innocent 4-year old boy who plunged 30 feet to the ground from
the deadly People Mover and fractured his skull. In 1983, a young man was thrown from the
Space Mountain rollercoaster and left as a paraplegic. And the blood continues to be spilt
to this day. Just last year, an 8-year old girl riding a Fantasyland tram was hit and
seriously injured by a stray bullet.
Yes, beneath the sunshine and smiles, and behind the fun and fantasy lurk true danger and
real death. Some members of the crowds queued up in the hours-long lines aren't just
media-tranquilized consumers patiently waiting for a 90-second dose of ersatz,
"safe" thrills. Rather, they are sheep being led to the slaughter by a startling
array of anthropomorphic rodents, pigs and puppets playing the part of the Judas goat.
Those treasured E-tickets are but one-way passes to the morgue. As one victim's relative
put it, "You don't think of people dying Disneyland". But people do.
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