10 Disneyland Urban Legends, Some Of Them True
The happiest place on earth is also one of the greatest sources of conspiracy theories. From rumors of Walt's frozen head to rumors of theme park deaths, people love a sinister story that taints the family-friendly image of the park. So, in honor of Disney's 100th anniversary, let's take a closer look at our 10 favorite Disneyland urban legends — some of them actually true!
This story was first published in 2015, and continues to be popular with readers. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Disney company, we updated it to include, among other things, new estimated pricing for Club 33, and have republished it.
1. No one can die at Disney
Lots of people seem to think that Disney will not allow anyone to die on its properties, requiring all ill-fated guests to be officially pronounced dead elsewhere. In the book Inside the Mouse, a writer claims that a medic said that this was actually a park policy when a guest killed himself in front of the EPCOT center at Disney World. A man did kill himself in front of the EPCOT Center in 1992 after a rough breakup, but what's actually more probable, according to Snopes, is that anyone who's been seriously injured is rushed to the hospital — even if they seem like a lost cause —and pronounced dead there.
And people have definitely died or sustained fatal injuries at both American parks. Here are just a few from Disneyland:
In 1964, a 15-year-old boy was killed trying to stand up while on the Matterhorn bobsleds. He was thrown from the ride and died three days later. In 1973, an 18-year-old man drowned after he and his little brother, who was 10, hid on Tom Sawyer Island until after closing and then tried to swim across when they wanted to return home. The older brother tried to carry his younger brother to shore, but didn't make it. He disappeared under the water about halfway across. The 10-year-old was rescued by a ride operator, but the older boy's body wasn't found until the next morning. In 1998, Luan Phi Dawson, 33, and Lieu Thuy Vuong, 43, were waiting to board Columbia. As the boat docked at the Rivers of America, it tore a metal cleat loose, which struck both Dawson and Vuong. Vuong survived, but Dawson was declared brain-dead two days later. Two teenagers were killed 13 years apart, both while trying to hop cars while on the People Mover. Ricky Lee Yama, 17, was crushed to death in 1967 and Gerardo Gonzalez, 18, was crushed and dragged by a car when he fell onto the track. In 2003, Marcelo Torres, 22, was killed on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad when the car he was on separated from the rest of the train. Torres was the only fatality, but several other passengers sustained injuries.
A Disneyland employee was killed in 1974 while working at the America Sings attraction, which featured singing animatronic characters. The stage would spin around and feature different segments, about three minutes in length. In between songs, the theater would go dark. Deborah Gail Stone, 18, was the greeter for the audience as they entered the attraction. She would stand to the side of the stage and speak to guests with a microphone. Then, the outer ring would spin around and show the audience the first tableau. One night, Stone happened to stand closer to the rotating wall than usual and was crushed between that wall and a stationary stage wall. Safety improvements were made after Stone's horrifying death.
2. Secret rooms
There are numerous reports of strange and clandestine spaces at Disneyland. These rumors are sometimes true.
There is a private club called Club 33 located in New Orleans Square. Membership to this club is expensive and coveted, with hopefuls waiting on a list for years at a time. It is difficult (impossible?) to nail down a cost, unless you are actually ready to shell out some dough. The website sends you to an email address. We emailed, and if we get official word back, we will update this story. Until then, it's safe to say that membership is for a select few. Back in 2019, USA Today noted that initiation fees reportedly start at around $25,000, and that doesn't include an annual membership fee that starts at around $12,000. If those numbers were accurate, they've no doubt risen in the four years since. BTW, meals are not included. Membership and entry are closely guarded. And that membership can be revoked: A longtime Club 33 member filed a suit against Disney after they canceled his membership, allegedly for giving passes to a friend who auctioned them off for charity.
It's also true that a basketball court was built inside the Matterhorn at the top of the mountain — sort of. It's actually very small, not even the size of a half-court — just large enough to shoot free throws. However, it's not true that Disney built the basketball court to skirt Anaheim's height limits for new structures. It was merely a suggestion from employees on what to do with the top, unused third of the Matterhorn ride since the bobsleds didn't go up that high.
There is a secret suite inside called the Disneyland Dream Suite. Disney intended for his family to live there, but died before its completion. This ornate, gorgeous suite is now sometimes offered to a lucky family who wins a contest to spend a night in finery.
3. Walt's frozen head
Let's just cut to the chase: Walt Disney wasn't cryogenically frozen, and his frozen body and/or head isn't underneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. In reality, he died in 1966 from lung cancer and was cremated two days later. The urban legend likely dates back to an interview in 1972 given by Bob Nelson, president of the Cryonics Society of California. He said Disney wanted to be frozen, but stressed that he wasn't. Disney's ashes are located at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale and have not been scattered around Disneyland.
4. The Haunted Mansion scared someone to death
The Haunted Mansion opened in 1969, but some say that an earlier version of the ride was so terrifying that a man invited to preview the attraction suffered a heart attack and died. Due to the unfortunate circumstance, Disney ordered the ride toned down to prevent anyone else from being scared to death. The truth? There's no evidence to support that anyone ever died in the Haunted Mansion, though an 89-year-old woman did break her hip getting off a Doom Buggy once.
The Haunted Mansion was supposed to open in 1963, and workers did finish the exterior that year. Disney also showed a teaser of the ride in 1965 on TV, in an episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. However, the ride wasn't delayed because it killed someone. What really happened was that Disney was tied up working on the New York World's Fair in 1964 and then he passed away in 1966. Afterward, there were some changes to the attraction's design. For instance, there was supposed to be another attraction called the Museum of the Weird designed by Imagineer Rolly Crump. However, that got shelved after Disney died, though some of Crump's designs were incorporated into the Mansion's spill area.
There have been other minor changes to the ride over the years. A ghostly figure known as the Hatbox Ghost resided in the Mansion's attic disappeared shortly after the attraction opened, but later returned.
5. There's a real dead body at Disneyland
The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction is a hotspot for rumors. According to legend, Imagineers decided to use real human bones when constructing the attraction because the fake bones didn't look, well, dead enough. Supposedly, they got the bones from UCLA's medical school. One skeleton reigned over his treasure, two played a game of chess and another met his end when he was stuck with a sword. They say the skeletons remained for many years until they were eventually swapped out for fake ones. However, some believe that the skull and crossbones behind a skeleton lounging in a bed are real. A cast member supposedly told Disney blog the Disney Dose that the skull was real on video.
It could technically be true that there's a dead body located on the property, thanks to rule-breaking guests. Bloggers have asserted that Disneyland is a popular place for relatives to scatter the ashes of their loved ones — particularly within the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. In Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland, author David Koenig mentioned an employee who said that the family of a 7-year-old boy was once caught spreading his ashes inside the Haunted Mansion.
Now, spreading ashes on private property is illegal and Disneyland denies requests to do so on their property, though it's sort of a hard rule to enforce and there are no real health hazards if it were to happen. In 2007, a woman was accused of scattering a powdery substance while on the Pirates ride. Bloggers claimed she was dispersing human remains, a witness said it looked like baby powder, the police couldn't find the substance to test it, and Disneyland denied that spreading ashes was a growing trend.
We know a couple had a secret wedding at Disney, so we suppose it's possible that there have been other ash-spreading incidents that were never discovered. Perhaps the Haunted Mansion is truly haunted — if you believe in that sort of thing.
6. Abandoned by Disney
Many people believe there are a number of abandoned Disney properties holding spooky secrets. This is sort of true, especially if you're afraid of baby vultures.
Discovery Island, originally called Treasure Island, was a Disney-owned island in Bay Lake from 1974 to 1999. Most people believe that the park shut down due to Florida laws regarding bacteria in the water, but other people have littered comment pages about the island with theories — basically, that the government bought the island from Disney to use as a death camp. While no one's sure what's going to become of the properties, Disney did at one point consider turning the park into an interactive game inspired by the video game Myst, but that project never got off the ground. Which is a shame, because that would have been awesome. Disney also had a nearby water park called River Country, which, too, has shut down.
Writer/photographer Shane Perez once broke into the abandoned Discovery Island by swimming there. He and his cohorts took several photos of the grounds revealing an eerie scene with baby vultures and preserved snakes in jars. Disney was not cool with their adventure and threatened to ban Perez and his friends for life from their theme parks
Many people, however, believe there are two other abandoned resorts: a Treasure Island in the Bahamas and a park called Mowgli's Palace in North Carolina. Mowgli's Palace is actually from a creepypasta called "Abandoned by Disney." (A creepypasta is sort of like a modern urban legend, a scary story written by one person, then uploaded around the Internet, often to the Reddit forum r/creepypasta.)
The "Abandoned by Disney" story revolves around an urban explorer who decides to investigate an abandoned Disney resort near his hometown in North Carolina. There, he finds a snake and a bunch of abandoned buildings, some of which are scrawled with the phrase "abandoned by Disney." He eventually locates a "mascots" area where he pulls off the head off a Donald Duck and a human skull falls out. Then, a Mickey costume in inverse colors starts walking towards him. He flees, but not before seeing the words "abandoned by God" scratched into the door as he escapes.
While the story is clearly a work of fiction, many people wondered if Mowgli's Palace was a real place. It's not. The story also mentions another abandoned property: Treasure Island in the Bahamas, a resort Disney purportedly sunk $30 million into before forsaking. Treasure Island was, of course, the original name of Discovery Island, but there's no concrete evidence to suggest that the abandoned resort ever existed. Sure, there are blogs talking about it and dubious stories, but not a lot of evidence. And Walt Disney Archives founder and former chief archivist Dave Smith once said in an interview on D23.com that Disney never owned a resort in the Bahamas, only the island Castaway Cay, which is affiliated with the company's cruise line.
7. Disneyland cats
Urban legend states that Disney released a number of cats into the park to — and we note the irony here — control the rodent problem. That's not true, but there are a bunch of cats that live at Disneyland. According to Disneyland Cats, which documents the cats who live at the park, the kitties were found by Walt Disney when they entered the building that would become the Sleeping Beauty Castle attraction. Because the cats weren't harming anyone and are natural hunters, they decided to let them stay in the park. They are fed, cared for and spayed and neutered when possible. There are currently about 200 cats or so living in the park, though as they tend to come out at night, you might never see one. You can, however, follow them on Instagram.
8) Long-haired hippie people need not apply
When Disneyland first opened, there were harsher dress codes than you'll find today. For one, women weren't allowed to wear certain provocative attire, such as halter tops. Male guests weren't allowed to sport long hair. The latter is because Disney liked a neat, all-American appearance and not — as rumor sometimes suggests — because a group of long-haired political activists once stormed the park. However, there is some truth to that rumor.
The Youth International Party was counterculture movement formed by Abbie Hoffman, Anita Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, and Paul Krassner in New York in 1967. They were left-leaning, anti-war and pro-free speech. Their members, known as Yippies, mostly did a lot of flash mob-ish, performance art-style street theatre to raise awareness and disrupt mainstream society. Their flag was a red star with a marijuana leaf over it, centered on a black background. Many Yippies, who had long hair, didn't really fit in at Disneyland.
However, when the dress code loosened up in the late '60s, the Yippies decided to take advantage of it. Hoffman and Rubin organized a fake powwow for Aug. 6, 1970. There was to be a roast of Porky Pig, a Women's Lib movement to free Minnie and a breakfast at Aunt Jemima's Pancake House for the Black Panthers, according to writer and Disney historian Jim Hill.
Disney called in police officers from Anaheim and Fullerton just in case things got out of hand, and staff politely told the Yippies that they were welcome so long as they didn't cause any trouble.
For kind of a while, the Yippies' attempts to cause a scene were largely ignored. Most of the planned events didn't happen, and Hoffman and Rubin never showed up. Nothing happened until the early evening when a Yippie climbed a light pole to raise the Yippie flag, successfully annoying a tourist. Soon, the two began shoving each other. Disney staff told the Yippies to leave and soon called in the riot police, who had been waiting in the wings. Everyone was evacuated, no one was hurt, 23 people were arrested, and the guests who had their day ruined by the Yippies' valiant attempts to stick it to the man via performance art were invited to return the next day for a refund.
Since 2000, employees have been allowed to keep a neat mustache, but they'll have to keep the handlebars in check and grow their neat mustache while on vacation. Disneyland's current dress code can be found here, and includes not wearing costumes that may trick guests into thinking you're an official Disney character.
9. They control your mind through scents
Some conspiracy theories accuse Disneyland of controlling your mind through your nose. That's sort of true. Disneyland smells great, and that's by design: the Smellitzer is a clever device invented by Imagineer Bob McCarthy to manifest smells throughout the park. The smells are meant to correlate with what you're experiencing. For example, you'll smell cookies on Main Street, candy and vanilla at Candy Palace, and if you visit during a certain seasons, you may smell what makes you nostalgic for them — like peppermint during Christmas, or pumpkin spice come autumn. The Haunted Mansion also smells musty.
It's more of an attempt to control the environment via every means possible for an immersive experience, and less of an attempt to control your mind … or is it?
Disney isn't the only attraction to use smell. At the world's most extreme haunted house, McKamey Manor in San Diego, you'll smell the grossest smells for all eight hours of your experience —of course, a bad smell is probably the last of your concerns if you find yourself one of McKamey's victims. And if you play The Basement, an escape room in Sylmar, don't expect pretty smells either. They use scents like "Rotting Flesh" and "Slaughter House" to create a sense of discomfort — but only a little bit.
And if you think that's gross ...
10. Disney character actors used to share underwear
This is true. The human beings inside the roving characters used to have to share underwear because their own undies could potentially bunch up. Cast members would turn in the undies at the end of the shift, supposedly to be properly washed. However, after numerous complaints from cast members about dirty underwear, scabies and public lice, the Teamsters union negotiated in 2001 for cast members to each have their own set of Disney-approved underwear that they themselves could launder.
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