Disney Disasters: 15 Accidents and Incidents That Prove Disneyland Is Not Perfect
Disney has a reputation for being immaculately clean and running their parks as perfectly as a clock, with all gears shifting on time. If you were to spill your drink on Main Street, a white-suited Disney cast member would immediately swoop in and sweep it up, leaving no evidence that an accident ever happened there. Everything is in order, sparkling and beautiful, and cast members are always kind and helpful.
However, sometimes the curtain falls off the rails and exposes the fact that Disney is run by people, and even people with the best intentions can make mistakes. This is a chronicle of some of those Disneyland accidents where things have gone astray or even become disastrous for park employees and guests.
1. Disneyland's Opening Day Was a Crowded Catastrophe
Disneyland's Opening Day on July 17, 1955, was known as Black Sunday because of how disastrous it was, and newspapers around the country called the park "Walt's Folly" and decried it as an expensive failure.
Some areas of the park were not quite finished, and the construction crew had to rush to finish other areas. The plumbers had gone on strike, forcing Walt to choose between building restrooms or water fountains; he chose restrooms, and guests staggered around looking for water on that hot summer day.
In addition to this, a lot of excitement for the park's opening was created by Walt's television broadcasts advertising the wonders of Disneyland, resulted in the park being filled with over double its maximum capacity of guests. One man was charging people $5 to climb a ladder into the overcrowded park! Rides were breaking down under the sheer amount of pressure they had to handle. The large crowds and technical difficulties made the opening day of Disneyland a disaster.
2. A Rain of Terror Hits Disneyland on Easter Sunday
Tommy Walker was Disneyland's first entertainment director, a brilliant man who had many great ideas that shaped the park into a magical place to spend your day, including the Fantasy in the Sky fireworks show, Date Nite, and the Christmas Candlelight Processional. However, even great minds can occasionally produce duds.
For Easter Sunday one year, Tommy decided that a helicopter flight with the Easter bunny throwing flowers down to park guests was a great idea, and even though Walt Disney asked him if he was out of his mind, he went through with his plan since Walt was called away to New York on business.
On the fateful holiday morning, guests arrived at the park clothed in their Sunday best, and a 100-member orchestra played on the steps of the Main Street Railroad Station. At 11:15, Tommy's helicopter appeared, floating over the railroad tower on schedule. But the roaring helicopter was creating a lot more wind than Tommy had anticipated, tearing the branches off of the park's well-groomed trees, blowing the musician's music sheets away and overpowering those who were still playing with noise, and lifting the skirts of proper women in a Marilyn Monroe style.
The rabbit did not seem to notice that anything was wrong, and tossed down purple and white orchids into the crowd. Unfortunately, the orchids were frozen solid, preserved for the event but not given the chance to thaw, so guests ran screaming as their pristine suits and skirts were ruined by what essentially became paintballs fired from above.
The finale of the flight was no less chaotic. The helicopter blew dirt and debris into all of the Main Street shops, and the force of the wind that it created blew out many furnaces and thermostats. In the end, Main Street looked like a tornado had hit it.
3. A Rumor During Beatlemania Causes Chaos in Disneyland
In 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, the Beatles flew down to southern California to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. Since they were in the area, rumors began flying that they would come to Disneyland for a fun day off, and some Disney employees caught on to the gossip. They told guests that the Fab Four wanted to have a quiet time without being recognized, so they would hide in character costumes and pretend to be the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.
At first, the characters would play along with the screaming teenage girls, pretending to run and hide, but the Beatles fans became so intense that the characters' need to flee became real. Fans were mobbing the characters and grabbing at them (sometimes inappropriately) all weekend, forcing Disney's management to temporarily remove all characters from the park until the Beatles left California. The culprits behind the rumor were never tracked down.
4. Tinker Bell Got Stuck on Her Flight Down From the Matterhorn
When Peter Pan was released, it quickly became one of Disney's most popular movies. Park guests began asking where Tinker Bell was, so in 1961, Disney hired Tiny Kline, a 71 year old circus acrobat and stuntwoman from Europe, to play Tinker Bell in the fireworks show every night. Her job was to begin the show by sliding down a cable from the top of the Matterhorn to a tower in Frontierland, portraying Tinker Bell as a daring, free-flying fairy.
Tiny was a tough, brave woman who once hung by her teeth from an airplane (she could never get the Disney officials to let her slide down the cable as Tinker Bell by her teeth, though, as Tink was far more dainty than her actress). She did not take it well when anyone tried to grease her wire.
One night, she got stuck in the middle of the cable during her descent, dangling 60 feet in the air over alarmed guests. No one could reach her until the Anaheim fire department showed up with an extension ladder and a rope, bringing her down to safety. After that incident, Tiny was slightly more amenable to Disney's safety measures, until 1964 when she retired due to stomach cancer and passed away before being able to return to work.
Tiny Kline Doing Her Aerial Iron Jaw Act
5. A Band Member on LSD Directed Boats Naked on Disney's Rivers of America
In the 1960s, drugs were an epidemic in society, and not even Disneyland was immune to their spread. One night a cornet player who was part of a guest band playing at Disneyland snuck away from his group to get high on LSD. He stripped naked, threw his cornet into the river, and swam across to Tom Sawyer Island. Once he was there he climbed up on some rocks and began trying to direct traffic.
One of the boats passing by had a driver giving a tour to guests and shining his flashlight at the scenery as they went. "To your right is the burning settlers' cabin, on the left is an Indian village... and on your right is a nude man standing on a rock." At this point, the naked man moved, and a passenger screamed "Ahhh! He's real!" to which the captain replied, "Yes, sometimes you see strange things on the Rivers of America".
Another boat had already radioed security, so soon after that a guard piloted a maintenance boat out to the island and picked the disoriented man up, covering his rear end with a hat as he forcibly carried him out of the park. By the time the man was removed, the story had spread like wildfire. The next day, the morning papers read "Nude Dude at Disneyland!"
6. A Guest Got His Artificial Leg Ripped Off by a Space Mountain Rocket
Space Mountain sends its rockets off on a precisely timed, automatic schedule, so to ride it, guests need to be able to enter and exit the ride vehicles at a reasonable speed. One pair of friends, a few Cast Members, and hundreds of horrified witnesses learned this the hard way.
One of these two friends had an artificial leg, and they wanted to ride Space Mountain together regardless of the one-legged friend's special requirements. The Cast Members at the ramp asked them if he was able to get in and out of the ride unassisted, because they knew about the rockets' schedule. If a rocket comes out too late the computer will turn on every break on the ride and stop the whole thing entirely, so the employees wanted to make sure that that didn't happen.
The man said he could do it, but he took a very long time to get seated because he had to push a button to get his leg to bend. This made the employees very anxious: if it took so long to get him in, would it take even longer to get him out? So after the man was finally in the car and on the ride, they sent another Cast Member to the unloading dock to get him out.
Unfortunately, when the car with the two friends arrived at the unloading dock, there wasn't much time to get them out before the rocket left again, so the Cast Member at the unloading dock immediately started trying to yank the guy out, without consideration for the need to bend his leg. It was quite a struggle, but eventually the Cast Member sat the man with the artificial leg beside the rocket, and yelled for the control tower to move it. What none of them noticed was that the man's artificial foot was stuck in between the lap bar and the edge of the seat.
When the rocket took off, it took the man's artificial leg with him. By this point a crowd had gathered to watch the struggle, and a lot of people began screaming because they thought his real leg had been ripped off! Naturally, the people who were next in line were reluctant to ask for help getting on and off the ride.
7. A Child's Ashes Were Dumped on the Haunted Mansion Ride
On December 14, 2002, a small group of people arrived at the Haunted Mansion and asked for a private elevator. They wanted a place to pray for their 7-year-old boy who had died recently, and chose the Haunted Mansion because it was his favorite ride in Disneyland. The cast member felt bad for them and let them in alone even though there was a long line. Things were relatively normal until the group was in their Doom Buggies.
The Haunted Mansion has hidden cameras in every room to make sure guests remain seated and behave. On one of these hidden cameras, a Cast Member noticed a woman in the group throwing some powder out of her Doom Buggy. This Cast Member did not want to stop the ride, but he did tell the woman repeatedly to not throw things out of the ride vehicle. By the time he went to get a supervisor, the family was off of the ride and had disappeared into the crowds outside.
The ride was evacuated so a Cast Member could go inside to see what the woman had been throwing out of the Doom Buggy. Inside, he found a strange gray dust. 2002 was shortly after 9/11, and people were paranoid about anthrax being delivered in the mail by terrorists, so the Cast Member did not take any chances. He called park security, the police, the fire department, and every manager in the park to come investigate. The dust was identified as cremated human remains. Park custodians were called to disinfect the vehicles and the area where the ashes were thrown, and the ride was shut down for hours.
8. Live Alligators at the Jungle Cruise Were a Terrible Idea
Not all animals on the Jungle Cruise used to be animatronic. When the ride was first opened, Disneyland rented live alligators from the Buena Park Alligator Farm to sit in chicken wire pens near the entrance of the ride. The three-foot-long alligators were intended to impress guests waiting in line, but many thought that the alligators weren't real because they were making a hissing noise. Kids would throw popcorn at the alligators and whack them with the rubber gators being sold at the souvenir shop next door. When the animals smiled, you could see popcorn kernels and chunks of rubber in their teeth.
Often, the alligators would get loose and flee from their tormentors into the lagoon. When this happened, the alligator farm's handler would be called to lure the alligator back by standing on the dock and making noises with his throat that sounded like alligator calls. If a boat derailed while an alligator was loose, the divers normally sent to retrieve the boats and put them back on track would be afraid knowing that a real alligator was somewhere in the water. The escaping alligators proved to be a risk that Disney was not willing to take, and the alligators were returned to the farm where they would no longer be beaten up by unruly children.
9. Pranks by Cast Members Backfired
Disney frequently hires high school and college students, and if there's one thing people in their teens and 20s love, it's pranks. However, some of these pranks have backfired on their pranksters and gotten them fired.
On the Adventures Through Inner Space ride, guests started coming out of the ride covered in hot liquid and began to complain to Disney management. An investigation was carried out, and it turned out that a longtime ride operator was responsible. As a prank, he would hide in the dark corridors of the ride and throw hot soup on the passengers. Management did not find this funny, sensing potential lawsuits, and he was fired.
The Frontierland canoe drivers had one coworker who they liked to pick on by pushing his canoe into the reeds or the waterfall, or splashing him with water. One day they pushed his canoe ten feet behind the Mark Twain paddlewheeler, not realizing that the large boat needed to back up to leave the dock. His canoe got stuck in the marsh, and the guests who were sitting in it began to panic as the Mark Twain moved backward. One man yelled "We're gonna die!" and jumped overboard with his kids, and the rest of the passengers followed. Luckily, the Mark Twain came to a stop 5 feet from the canoe, and nobody was hurt. The four canoe drivers behind the incident were fired.
For the Matterhorn supervisor's birthday one year, two pranksters spiked the punch with alcohol, the brownies with marijuana, and the guacamole dip with a powerful hallucinogen. The entire crew unknowingly ate the spiked food and returned to work the ride. The supervisor knew something weird was going on, but he didn't shut down the ride for a while because he himself was drugged and hallucinating. For a while, everyone was behaving strangely, until one crew member passed out and another one began convulsing. The supervisor called First Aid, and the convulsing employee had to be taken to the back and put in a straitjacket, and that employee and several others were sick enough to be taken to the hospital. The ride had to be shut down and the entire crew was replaced with a new one while things were being sorted out. Eventually, the two pranksters responsible for the spiking were caught and fired.
10. Anti Vietnam War Protesters Once Tried to Invade Disneyland
Disneyland has only closed early a few times in history, and the Yippie Invasion on August 6, 1970, is probably the weirdest reason the park closed early. The Yippies (members of the Youth International Party) were an antiwar, anti-capitalist, and anti-establishment group of young protesters that formed in response to the Vietnam War and the growing civil rights movement. Flashy political protests were their bread and butter, and Disneyland with its large audience and conservative culture seemed like the perfect place to protest. A flyer went around proclaiming August 6, 1970 to be Yippie Day at Disneyland, with events such as the liberation of Minnie Mouse and a Black Panther breakfast on the agenda. Park officials were worried but decided to leave the park open that morning, hoping that it would all blow over.
At first, the event seemed like a dud. Only around 300 Yippies had gathered in the park, so most of the rumored 20000 protesters must have given up before even arriving. Their small numbers weren't enough to cause a disturbance, and park guests mostly ignored the teenagers chanting about Ho Chi Minh, even when they climbed on top of the Chicken of the Sea restaurant. However, managers took it seriously. Executives in suits followed the Yippies around, pleading with them to keep things cool and not cause any property damage. Others tried and failed to disguise themselves as tourists, but were called out by the Yippies as "narcs".
Things started to get more serious in the afternoon, when a group of Yippies marched to Frontierland, chanting "We are marching to Cambodia.", and took over Tom Sawyer Island, kicking tourists out and planting a Viet Cong flag on top of Fort Wilderness. The park discontinued rafts to the island in an attempt to contain the Yippies there, but the Yippie invasion was not over.
Around 6:00, they attempted to rush the Bank of America, replacing the American flag with one of their own. Tourists gathered to boo them and tell them to stop, and one tourist tore down their flag, prompting several Yippies to jump him. A wall of security guards had formed blocking off Main Street by this point, and when the Yippies tried to head back up the street they were stopped and a massive brawl broke out.
Riot police fought to contain the mob, and section by section, the park was closed and emptied, with 30000 confused and angry tourists being told to leave. 23 of the Yippies were arrested, while many others fled the scene. The mob had caused a lot of damage to the park, from flaming trash cans to trampled flower beds to blunts and beer bottles being littered all over the ground. However, even though the Yippie Invasion was all over the news, Disneyland was mostly viewed in a positive light for not letting things get too out of hand by shutting down the park, and getting park guests out of the situation safely.
11. A Toxic Gas Poisoned 30 People on Pirates of the Caribbean in 1992
Thirty guests once got sick from a mysterious toxic gas that was floating around near the end of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Someone in one of the boats may have sprayed a Mace-like gas in the air before getting off the ride, and the boats following floated through it and became backed up due to the one-at-a-time nature of the ride's exit. The symptoms that the gas caused were coughing, nausea, dizziness, headache, burning eye irritation, skin discoloration, and chest pain.
Employees were able to get the passengers out while holding handkerchiefs over their mouths, but thirty people were taken to First Aid and six of those were taken to the hospital with more serious symptoms. The ride was shut down for about an hour for investigation, but Disney did not call the fire department in the end, as the gas seemed to have dissipated after a short time.
12. Mickey's Rat "Friends" Terrorized Employees and Guests
In the fledgling years of the park, rats were the number one pest of Disneyland, coming out at night to feast on popcorn, chips, and cookies.
Sometimes, Cast Members had fun with the pest epidemic. Once, some raft drivers found a nest of baby rats behind a crate on the dock, and trapped one under a mint julep glass set on top of the crate. When people walked by, they would tell them that they found Mickey's friend.
Other times, Cast Members were terrified by the rats. One Tomorrowland worker was being frightened by a rat in the submarine queue area, so she called her friend, a burly Monorail driver, to come deal with it. The Monorail driver cornered the rat and jumped on its head with his big black boots, and became known around the park thereafter as the Rat Stomper. Similarly, on Tom Sawyer Island one night, two snack shop attendants accidentally locked themselves in and became surrounded by rats crawling out of the woodwork. They called the raft drivers for help, and they came to the rescue, beating the rats away with their oars.
The first attempt to get rid of the rats did not go well for Disney. Employees tried leaving out hot dogs laced with cyanide as rat bait. The rats would come out and eat the hot dogs, then go to the river in an attempt to drink and fall in. A boat would sail down the river in the morning before the park opened, skimming the dead rats off the top of the water. Sometimes, though, there would be a couple of rats left over in the morning, and the raft drivers would have to stealthily hook them out of the water and hide them from guests. This practice stopped when a little boy picked up one of the poisoned hot dogs and ate it. He got sick and his family sued the park.
The second attempt to get rid of the rats has worked much better. Management brought in a bunch of wild cats to try and curtail the rat population through natural selection. The cats roam the park at night, eating the rats, and typically hide from the public during business hours. They are sterilized so they don't breed and overrun the park with cats, and are vaccinated and tagged, receiving routine veterinary care. The Disneyland cats have developed a following among parkgoers, with their own Instagram page and website.
13. A Rumored Kidnapping Ring Scared Guests
In 1987, a 16-year-old boy was sent out to the Disney parking lot to bring the car around front to pick the rest of his family up. He was followed by a pair of men who kidnapped him at gunpoint with his own car and drove all the way to Santa Ana, where they drove off and dropped him off unharmed. The two men were arrested the next day in Los Angeles, but the abduction fueled rumors that had been going around for a few years of a black market kidnapping ring in Disneyland.
The source of these rumors seems to be a church bulletin from Utah that told parents about child snatching, and specifically warned them to watch their children closely at amusement parks like Disneyland. One misinterpretation led to another, and soon Salt Lake City residents and police were calling the Anaheim police asking about all of the kidnappings going on in the Magic Kingdom. The callers were very upset, and although the Anaheim police chief gave a formal statement denouncing the rumors, the rumors continued to spread.
According to these rumors at least 200 children were kidnapped at the park each year and trafficked. One story that was commonly circulated told of a 2-year-old boy that was pulled from his stroller while his mother was distracted. His mom begins frantically searching all over the park and eventually sees another woman carrying a bundled up blanket, with her son's shoes sticking out. The mom snatches the bundle out of the woman's hands, and is horrified to see her son, drugged and disguised with short red hair. To this day the Anaheim police continue to receive dozens of calls each year asking about the nonexistent kidnappings occurring in Disneyland.
14. A Live Bomb Was Found on the Peoplemover Track
During the summer of 1971, Disneyland received several bomb threats, one of which turned out to be real. Peoplemover foreman Jeff Burdick sent out a subordinate to walk the track to see if there were any cars with motors that weren't working. The subordinate found a large shoebox with wires protruding from it near the end of the ride in the AT&T building, sitting between the track and a glass window. He came back and informed Mr. Burdick of what he had seen, looking very pale and shaken. Burdick called supervision and they sent in a bomb squad, who discovered that the bomb was real and removed it. The culprit was never caught, but thankfully no one was harmed.
15. Employee Cathy Davis Survived a Fall Off the Matterhorn
Back in the 1970s, if a rider lost something on the Matterhorn, the employees were required to ride the ride and look for the item, and when they found the item, they would lean out the back of the sled, hooking it with a straightened coat hanger while zipping past.
A woman lost her wig one day, so ride attendants Cathy Davis and Gary Lucas boarded the ride to try and find it. They saw the wig on their first pass, but needed a second attempt to be able to reach it. When they passed by the wig, Davis leaned out the back to try to reach it, but leaned a little too far, and when their sled turned a corner, she fell out and slid over the edge, falling through the center of the mountain.
When this happened, Lucas was afraid the sled would hit her and began screaming and waving his arms to stop the ride. Davis was extremely lucky in her fall, not hitting the track or the ride's structure anywhere. She fell 50 feet, breaking her shoulders, ribs, and pelvis but escaping with her life. If she had fallen at pretty much any other point of the ride, she would have most likely been killed. Doctors told her she would never walk again, but she regained her ability to walk and worked for Disney for many years after her accident as a parking lot attendant.
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© 2019 Melissa Clason