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The Disneyland Death Tour

posted by Mel. on 3/28/01

It's probably best to warn you upfront that this isn't another smear piece on all things embodied physical of the Disney experience. The wisecracking golly-whillickers approach to bitch-smacking the Supermaus has been done to death, and I grow very weary of meandering through smarmy testaments of betrayed Gen-Whyne authors on how they've 'realized' what a false kingdom Walt's built for us all. Instead, I'm going to state upfront in no uncertain terms that I am an unabashed supporter of Disneyland's manipulative design, of its facist dress codes and policies, of its overpriced food and humanity-throttled waiting lines. Point blank. I couldn't love the Magic Kingdom any more without projectile vomiting from the adrenaline, and I will continue to feel compelled to until I'm feeding maggots; not because of some membership in the Southern California glee club, but because I've also had a pretty awesome revelation about the Disney experience.

If people were capable of creating happiness for themselves, then they wouldn't be eating a forty-two-dollar gouge for admission into a contained environment.

But let's face it: we aren't. We're a miserable, cynical fungus, bred on lowered expectations and a faulty idea of what is and isn't fair. Disneyland was created out of escapist necessity, not because someone was trying to get rich--that simply trickled in as a welcome aftereffect. We made the Mouse Monster. To sit around and try to stick pins into what we've all, in some part, created, is fucking ridiculous. We've all paid too much for a Disney movie, a Disney video, a Disney shirt or stuffed Mickey. And as much as vogue nihilism tries to contradict the reason, there's no hiding it... we did it to make someone happy.

Disney doesn't deal in human foibles or the onus of being a supermammal, and that's the real crux of everyone's hypocrisy. Disneyland is exactly what it says it is upfront: The Happiest Fucking Place on Earth. There's no mention of a Constitution of Tourism, of visitor's rights or humanitarian diplomacy.. simply that mission statement. Bang. If you didn't understand what you were getting into, then fluster over the surgical removal of an entire line if a ride malfunctions, then I have a newsbrief you might be interested in: It's your own fucking fault. Disneyland not only has the right to utilize an iron fist to create peace of mind for the thousands of people who idle through its gates, they have a duty.

It's what separates them from Magic Mountain, from Universal Studios, from Busch Gardens. I don't know about you, but half a C-note is a pretty cheap tag to tack on hermetically sealed joy in my take. Disneyland has an evenflow to it, a nice series of punch-and-counter for those willing to suck it up and take it for face value. It's a legacy of the United States, a place where you can be crammed into sardinelike close-quarters with people from around the world, where the rules of tense reality are dismissed. Yes, Disney may own you, but it can't be said that they don't give at least a little something back. A little asphalt zen, as it were.

Of course, with its storied history, Disneyland has also become one of the most notorious breeding grounds of urban legends in the modern storyscape. Every kid got juiced up on the sordid tales about what happened to a friend of a cousin there, how they were either imprisoned in the secret holding tanks deep beneath the park, or how they watched in mute horror as a baby drowned in the Submarine Sea or gaping shock as a fellow visitor's head blew up like a ripe melon on impact with a stucco stalagmite on The Matterhorn. It all falls in line with the fantasy beyond the fantasy, the urge to create scandal on the virginal, the primal desire to dynamite Mickey's clean lines with a visceral dose of reality.

And hell, some of it's even true.

Oh, yeah. People do die at Disneyland. It doesn't happen very often and seldom within the scope of the public's gaze, but it does happen. I've spent unhealthy amounts of time gleaning nuggets of trivial joy from the obituary lines of the Disney history books, turning playground lore into something fitting in with the profile of such other morbid enjoyments as our visits to the Los Angeles Museum of Death and Skeletons in the Closet. It's a good story. It's also a good parable for anyone looking to fuck around in a drunken stupor or the presence of fifty tons of shaped and casehardened metal and plastic.

Because, really and truly, when you love something as much as I love the Magic Kingdom, you have no choice but to be equally fascinated by its shiny plastic exterior and its darker, more clandestine guts.

Peace of mind, indeed.

The First Sign of Trouble: Mark Maples and the Matterhorn
Fatalities: One
The Year: 1964
Mortem Methodia: Fractured skull and spine
The Tale of the Toetag:

As put so succinctly in Anthony Lovett and Matt Maranian's deviously brilliant 1997 book "Los Angeles Bizarro", Disney enjoyed a Camelot of unsurpassed safety records for nearly a decade after its grand opening. Though the park did astounding numbers in foot traffic, there was an apparent respect between visitors and the power of the ride mechanisms that kept the reaper from making a Mouse House call. Whether people knew better, were simply less drunk on booze or testosterone, or were simply so caught up in the illusion that they didn't try to bend the rules, not even the usage of live 22-ought ammunition at the Frontierland shooting gallery brought down the euphoria.

That is, until the spring of 1966. Mark Maples, a freshman from Long Beach, took it upon himself to stand up at the summit of the whiplash Matterhorn bobsled ride. The roller coaster wasted no speed despite his stunt, and Maples was ejected headfirst onto another track some ten to fifteen feet below. Fortunately, the ride was instantly stopped, barring a grisly finish to the story--less fortunate, however, was the crushed skull Maples sustained on impact. He remained in comatose for four days before succumbing to brain injuries.

Punch Your Ticket: Tom Cleveland and the Monorail
The Year: 1966
Mortem Methodia: Dismemberment
The Tale of the Toetag:

Before Disney's expansion muscled out Katella and Harbor boulevard in Anaheim and transformed their former asphalt ocean of a parking lot into another money magnet, there was a surplus of blindspots on the park property for industrious moochers to infiltrate the fence and avoid laying down the cash for admission and ride tickets.

One such fellow was Thomas Cleveland. Intent on making a grand entrance to a Grad Night celebration within the park, Cleveland vaulted the barbwire fence and paced the raised track for the monorail from the Disneyland Hotel into the park. Things were going fine on the young evening until he was spotted by a security guard; with the officer yelling and the game apparently up, Thomas wedged himself into a plastic canopy that covered a walkway in the apparent hope that he'd be able to hide from the fuzz.

Unfortunately, the officer had been trying to warn Thomas that the monorail was coming around the bend. Though stories about the exact clearance vary--some register a good two inches between the bottom of the train and the track, while some stretch the figure to five--the certainty that Cleveland didn't make the cut was a fatal error. His body was completely dismembered by the impact force, and the main mark he left for his graduating class was the forty feet of marinara that had to be hosed off the concrete and the underbelly of the monorail the next morning.

And to add an embellishing cap on perhaps the most grim passing in the entire list, Disney wasn't even found liable for compounded damages, since Cleveland had been trespassing.

The Revenge of the Standby: Rick Yama and the People ReMover Deception Theory
The Year: 1967
Mortem Methodia: Skull bisection
The Tale of the Toetag:

Of all the casualties of Disneyland's progress into the new century, none is more missed than the PeopleMover Through the World of Tomorrow. Familiar to a wide cadre of park lifers, retro-actives and emblazoned forever in the memories of children past, the PeopleMover was a perennial underdog in the face of the park's evolution--two steps behind any attempt to modernize it, from its ill-timed transformation to a tour through the GE showcase at a time when the young world was collectively puking on corporate mentality, all the way to its ten-year tenure as an advertisement for box-office bomb extraordinaire TRON.

Archaic as it was, the 'Mover also had the distinction of being one of the least-patronized rides in the entire park. It was devoid of thrills, moved at a crippled one-point-seven-mile-per-hour clip, and aside from serving as the premiere makeout, had little redeeming value to parents seeking distraction for the kids. It was a plain Jane amidst technological terrors and encroaching landscape and demographic shifts, the ugly stepsister that nobody liked. And it convinced the world that it was toothless, despite the fact that it shares the dubious honor of most lethal attraction with the Matterhorn.

The sluggish pacing and tempting close quarters of the PeopleMover made it a magnet for punk shenanigans and bored teenage daring-do all the way until its death in 1995. And it was exactly that lure that led to another grisly incident in the seamy summer of '67, a mere two months after the ride premiered.

Ricky Lee Yama, a seventeen-year-old kid visiting the park with a quartet of friends from his hometown of Hawthorne, fell for the bait the lumbering tram presented. Halfway through the ride's ascension into the future Circlevision Plaza, Yama and his comrades began to jump over the chain of car couplings. Exact details are sparse--apparently, Rick was snagged by the cuff of his jeans or took a bad step--but the results of his folly were horrific. Yama was methodically dragged beneath the reinforced rubber wheels of the trolley and turned over twice before the sealed rollers split his skull cleanly in half.

To add insult to the gruesome and insulting tag on the coroner's report, unfortunate park attendants had to dismantle three sections of the train before they were able to get Yama's corpse loose and remove it from the tunnel.

Definite popcorn for thought during your next idle through the refurbished Rocket Rods pavilion, where two of the PeopleMover's retired pods sit in a proud and blacklit vigil.

The Air Up There: Disneyland's Express Airtram Disasters One and Deux
The Year: 1968
Mortem Methodia: Rotor Malfunction of Two Commercial Sikorsky S-61 Helicraft
The Tale of the Toetag:

Though discontinued due to financial strains at the crest of the seventies, one of the key attractions for park guests arriving from out of state or country was Disneyland's Express Airtram feature. Boasting full service from Los Angeles International Airport to the nearby Anaheim/Disneyland heliport, the routes boasted a series of powerful modified four-rotor helicopters capable of packing twenty heads including tourists and crew members.

Up until the summer of 1968, the Magic Kingdom's blackpox had been isolated incidents--easily reduced to half a column on national newspages and much more the stuff of campfire legends than real national tragedies. That sanctity hit a brick wall running in the May of the aforementioned year, when outbound Flight 851 suffered a main rotor hub malfunction. The lead-lag exchange of the rotors fell out of synchronicity, detaching fully from the swashplate and ripping into the fuselage like a punch through tinfoil. The helicraft made a death dive from two thousand feet, wiping out the entire payload of human life on impact. Thirty-some years after the fact, it remains a dark half of one of the greatest commercial air tragedies of American history.

The second half of that equation didn't even wait until after the wake of the first. Roughly three months later, operating Flight 417 from LAX to the park suffered an unrelated incident also concerning rotor malfunction; this time, stress fatigue on a main rotor spindle caused a complete separation from the craft, sending it spiraling out of control and to the Earth. The shower of explosive debris touched down in Leuders Park in Compton, on a miraculously unoccupied playground--again, there were no survivors out of the twenty-one onboard.

The Tom Sawyer Theory: Bogden Delaurot and the Rivers of America
Year: 1973
Mortem Methodia: Drowning
The Tale of the Toetag:

Despite the Magic Kingdom's incessant leaning towards the state of the art, there are a few attractions within the park's borders that remain sacred. One such institution is Tom Sawyer's Island, rising like a meditative citadel out of the Rivers of America, surrounded by works in progress and an endless wash of sweaty feet on the opposing concrete shores. Sawyer's Island was once the premiere lure for young children of the Cold War Era and their fixation on cowboys and indians, Tom and Huck, and mysterious caves and forests--these days, it's the only place in the entire resort where you can sit unmolested and indulge a game of checkers.

The island also has a potent tradition of being the spot of choice for those daring or drunken enough to try and evade Disney security's nightly sweep of the property. Though these days the simple patrol of employees with flashlights has been replaced by a platoon of scubamen with thermal imaging goggles, trained dogs and speedboats with spotlights at the prow, it doesn't deter guests from giving it the old frat effort. As a matter of fact, attempting to hide out on Tom Sawyer's Island remains the single highest cause of incarceration by Disneyland police: overshadowing the smuggling of alcohol into the park, incidents of physical violence and even shoplifting.

Though as alluded to, there was a simpler time in all aspects of the equation. Spending a night on Tom Sawyer's Island was exactly what Brooklyn teenager Bogden Delaurot had in mind when he and his ten-year-old brother eluded the final call for deporting rafts and used the stucco catacombs of Injun Joe's caves to evade the usual employee searches. Unfortunately, nightfall wasn't all it had cracked up to be, and the Delaurot boys became bored with their surroundings. Bogden suggested that they swim back to the welcome shores of New Orleans Square, apparently believing that nobody would question two kids emerging from the black waters to join the usual bevy of visitors.

Regardless of the logic (or lack thereof) involved, the boys headed into the water despite the fact that the younger Delaurot couldn't swim. Bogden tried to carry him on his back, but for reasons undisclosed even today, succumbed to fatigue and sank five feet to the concrete bottom of the river. His brother was hauled out of the water around ten PM, exhausted by breathing, and made a full recovery after his consequent arrest.

Bogden wasn't so fortunate. It took a collaboration of Anaheim police, firemen and park employees armed with boats and searchlights a projected eight hours to finally find his corpse where it had been carried by the turbine-produced flow of the water--wedged between rocks at the start of the fake rapids.

Yet the most astounding thing of the entire odd affair is that poor Bogden wouldn't be the last to succumb to the danger of the ridiculously shallow body of water. More on that in about ten years.

Automaton Unpleasant: Deborah Gail Stone and the America Sings Attraction
The Year: 1974
Mortem Methodia: Dismemberment
The Tale of the Toetag:

Of all the superstructures within the confines of the Happiest Place on Earth, none has housed as many storied failures and experiments as the massive Cylindome building that squats over the rear of Tomorrowland. In the park's half-century of operation, it has been a Mission to Mars, a showcase for General Electrics concepts of a futuristic techno-Eden, a dangerous visit through the gloriously cheesy mainframe world of TRON, and most recently an exposition of cutting edge trinkets and entertainment innovations.

However, of all the various guises it's been saddled with over the years, none has clocked in so high on the kitsch meter as the America Sings! tenure of the seventies and eighties. A sort of a Small World v2.0, the attraction featured a rotating network of six theaters that revolved around a central stage. Guests would sit down and watch the show while the building made its gradual revolution, visible due to its loud design of deco stripes and circles on the concrete skin outside.

Deborah Gail Stone was a recent grad from the local flavor and the picture-perfect image of Disney's ideal employee. Glee club and a top tenth percentile student, she'd concluded her studies at the top of her class and segued easily into her job as an America Sings! hostess on the evening shift.

What happened next is, as so many of these accounts are, debated from article to article. Whether or not Stone's lack of training or simply a bad step were to blame for what ensued is unknown, but at some point during an intermission on her shift's shows, she ended up on the wrong side of the audience revolution mechanism and was consequently caught between the proverbial wall and a hard place.

The machinery was powerful enough to move an entire three floors of architecture. As one can imagine, it took a considerable fraction of that impressive torque to mangle Deborah beyond any sort of physical recognition--coworkers didn't realize what had happened until hours later, when what was left of their departed coworker was finally found. In standard Disney fashion, the ride was closed for a couple of days while warning klaxons were installed backstage, then when chugging merrily along until the demise of the attraction years later.

The PeopleMover Redux: Gerardo Gonzales and the Repetition of History
The Year: 1980
Mortem Methodia: Alleged torso detachment
The Tale of the Toetag:

The chronicle of Grad Night horrors is well documented in the phenomenal bible of underground Disneyania 'Mouse Tales'. A must-read for any morbid soul with a taste for poison trivia, the author takes especially deadpan glee in reading off an endless parade of anecdotes about drunken carcasses scattered in the park's bushes at daybreak, the abundance of pot smoked on rides like the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Ghost House, as well as the universal proliferation of kinky sex in every venue imaginable. The events also hold a much more dubious honor: no single private event in the park is host to more unfortunate injuries and deaths.

Although the presumed allure of the PeopleMover during a graduation takeover of the Magic Kingdom would be hopes for a nice view of the Anaheim skyline and a hummer, the usual proliferation of the drunken testosterone penned another chapter of the ride's storied existence in blood during the summer of 1980.

Gerardo Gonzales had presumably never heard of the name Ricky Lee Yama when he boarded the sluggish trail of candy-painted tram cars that night, which is a shame. Aside from sparing his parents the embarrassment of recounting his story to relatives at the wake, it would have also denied an opportunity for ironic history to repeat itself. Sadly, this wasn't the case.

Gonzales and a few friends were pacing the couplings between cars through the "Superspeed" tunnel (Later to become the TRON portion of the ride) when he lost his footing and was dragged beneath the meandering boxcars. But unlike the Yama incident, Gerardo was still alive after being spat out at the rear of the tram from several eyewitness testimonies--unfortunately, this merely ensured that he had the unpleasant opportunity to watch the arrival of the next series of cars. Unable to move from the tracks, he was run down again and dragged for hundreds of feet before the attraction was finally shut down.

The sheer absurdity that the most passive ride in the park would have the privilege of claiming not one, but two deaths due to rider negligence caused attendants to start referring to the ride as the "PeopleReMover" until its eventual conversion to the Rocket Rods.

The Murder in the House of the Mouse: The Mel Yorba Homicide
The Year: 1981
Mortem Methodia: Stabbing
The Tale of the Toetag:

As anyone who's ever braved the volcanic concrete and sweaty close quarters of a summer weekend visit to Disneyland can attest, it's a miracle that there haven't been more homicides within park gates. Aside from the pressure cooker provided by short-fused normals trying to elbow their way into food lines and the usual tension that Johnny Suburb, the wife and the three kids will bring to any herd situation, the Magic Kingdom also suffers another affliction: the unnecessary need to fuck up someone else's good time.

A practice employed mostly by roving hordes of bored teenagers, rednecks and frat fuckers, the challenge presented by any amusement park entity is considerable. An institution that guarantees trouble-free interaction is just too good an offer to pass up for perro aguayo pissants, and so it happens. A push. A shove. A leer. Before you know it, some bitch who just couldn't make it through half a day without overcompensating has ended up dead.. if you're at Six Flags, that is.

Disney's education in the perils of bull mentality preceded the laughable series of misfortune at Magic Mountain in the nineties by a good decade. It only took one homicide--and the media circus and lawsuit that came attached--for the Walt Estate to wise up and transform their idyllic park into a subtle security stronghold. In these fine modern times, anyone with a questionable beanie, manner at the admission gate or shady eye color will be on a sort of a mutant probation, chalked up by the unseen world of the glass eye as a potential troublemaker. Disney kills problems off miles before they began, but when Mel Yorba made the wrong move in 1981, there was no such gestapo to break up the situation before it turned deadly.

Yorba was attending the park during a private celebration for Anaheim's contractor union population with a group of friends on March 7th of the aforementioned year. Yorba fit the standard profile of a bored punk kid as it's come to be recognized by park authorities--roaming the grounds with his pals, he'd been looking to start a problem since earlier in the evening. Yorba made the biggest mistake of his life when he got what he was looking for around the line for the Matterhorn.

Mel was allegedly passing the chained area for waiting guests when he pinched the butt of an attractive girl. Her boyfriend, James O'Driscoll a 28-year-old drywaller from the area, presumably took offense and chased Yorba and his cronies through the park. Eventually, he managed to seize one of them by the sleeve, and Yorba took the opportunity to sucker-punch O'Driscoll in the jaw. With James on the asphalt, Yorba and his crew gained some space on their adversary and continued onward. O'Driscoll wasn't about to let the situation blow off after taking the blow, and after his girlfriend pointed out Yorba as her fresh assailant, he charged the group and seized the teen by his shirtfront.

Yorba landed another fist to O'Driscoll's jaw, but James managed to drag Mel down with him on this trip to the ground. Yorba tackled him there, and with his friends cheering him on, commenced the tussle. It was decidedly short-lived. And so was Yorba.

O'Driscoll was through with the party games by the time Yorba allegedly starting trying to choke him, and drew an eight-inch hunting knife from his ankle. Later testimony in court stated that Yorba fell on the blade while the two struggled, but regardless of the intent behind them, the stab wounds went deep and went mortal. Yorba was run through in his chest and in his stomach, and as O'Driscoll fled the scene, horrified onlookers moved to attend to the injured youth.

The sordid little occurrence doesn't end here. While O'Driscoll was ditching the evidence in the moat around Sleeping Beauty's castle, a registered nurse who was visiting the park came to Yorba's aid, applying pressure to the wounds. When park security did finally arrive on the scene, they took up positions to keep the stunned crowd at bay as they tried to help the nurse. It was another twenty minutes before the Disney EMT crew joined the death in progress. A brief appraisal of the situation and they decided that Yorba had to be taken to a nearby hospital... in a Disneyland First Aid van.


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