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The Disneyland Death Tour

posted by Mel. on 3/28/01


The vehicle had no warning lights, no siren, no lifesaving equipment in its rear and allegedly followed all posted speed limits and red lights en route to the medical center. When it did finally arrive eleven minutes after leaving the park, more than half an hour after Yorba had been stabbed, it was too late. Mel Yorba was pronounced dead on the scene, and the media began buzzing about like angry carrion flies looking to inject some maggots into the tragedy.

As you'd expect, Yorba's family took Disneyland to court over the incident. In a legal stereo limbo, O'Driscoll was also taking the stand to testify in his own murder trial a mere floor down in the courthouse, alleging that Yorba had rolled over onto the brandished blade.. twice. Simultaneously, the Yorba wrongful death suit was being clinched with damning evidence that Disney DID have procedures for summoning trained paramedics to the park during life-threatening situations, contrary to numerous media reports--they simply hadn't been followed due to the on-duty nurse's inexperience. The jury didn't buy the defense in either case, and O'Driscoll was sentenced to eight years on a second-degree murder charge (Shaved down due to the fact that he did not instigate the fatal incident) and Disney was nailed with a $600,000.00 payday for the parents of the fallen teenager.

Disney instantly appealed, and the Yorbas were unable to ante up anything more in legal fees--consequently, the case was closed with what was deemed "a generous cash settlement". Thus ended the only legitimate homicide to ever mar the parkgoing experience of the Magic Kingdom's guests.

Returning to the Rivers of America: Philip Straughan and the Other Grad Night Parable
The Year: 1983
Mortem Methodia: Drowning
The Tale of the Toetag:

Even with a steady diet of capsized canoes and other comical mishaps, the Rivers of America hadn't hosted a genuine tragedy since Bogden Delaurot went under an even decade earlier. That all changed in the June of 1983, during the stumbling excesses of another annual Grad Night.

It was June, and Phil Straughan was attending the twenty-thousand student bash with a double purpose: his graduation and his eighteenth birthday. Apparently unaware of the legendary foibles of alcohol, inflated sense of immortality and Disneyland by dark, Phillip and a friend boatjacked a unattended rubber maintenance raft around the Tom Sawyer's Island cove and took it for a joyride around the Rivers of America. Boozed up and lacking any real visibility on the dark waters, Straughan ran headlong into a plaster-casted rock and was hurled over the prow. In the same inexplicable fashion that had claimed his predecessor, Phil hit the water and never came up--a double mojo considering that he was not only a jock, but didn't have the extra weight of a passenger on his back. Regardless, Straughan's graduation night turned out to be another fatal celebration of youthful impetus, as he promptly drowned in less than four feet of water.

And the weirdest thing was, the Rivers of America weren't done claiming tourist lives just yet.

The Matterhorn Part Deux: Dollie Young and the Sonic Bobsled Ride

The Year:
Mortem Methodia: Varies by account--crushed torso, decapitation
The Tale of the Toetag:

When it comes to the tender of Disneyland urban legend, nothing provides such a vivid opportunity for off-the-cuff bullshitting as the holy triumvirate of old school rollercoasters that make up the backbone of the park's attraction base. They are the Mountains: Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain and the mighty Matterhorn.

I've heard a lot of different crap from a lot of different people considering stories passed down from friends of friends of parents of cousins of wallpaperers and so on. My personal favorites are the oft-recounted testimonies of exploding heads: like cockroach eggs bursting from a poor chick's cheek, it always involves the same basic elements. Head clearance, high velocity, and lack thereof. Sometimes the victim is a kid stricken down in the prime of his life, other times it's an adult who didn't know any better--regardless of the details, the axle of the tale is always the skull being detonated like a watermelon on impact.

It's always fun to try and talk some sense into these sorts of stories, and a fool's errand besides. Instead, I like to offer the wild-eyed narrator something with a little more beef to it. Something they can find in any apocrypha of bizarre deaths in popular culture. Usually, I'll go with the Mark Maples incident. But when the mere macabre isn't enough, Dollie Young's story is the anecdote of choice.

Young was a 47-year-old mother visiting the park with her kid and a few friends. Like Mark Maples, she met an unexpected and horrific end on the supersonic bobsled workings of the Matterhorn; unlike Maples, however, it wasn't due to the repercussions of an idiot urge. Young was riding in the rear compartment of the coupled sleds with her child when her safety belt came undone--with terrific force, she was snapped out of the bucket seat on a particularly nasty turn and ended up sprawled on the tracks. As she tried to regain her footing, a second bobsled burst down the tunnel and utterly flattened her, its velocity carrying it over her mangled body a full car's length before coming to a hobbled halt.

As a morbid addendum, the only evidence of Dollie Young's demise was her feet, poking out at skewed angles from beneath the sled. As it had been with the PeopleMover, the Imagineers design hadn't been executed with this sort of tragedy in mind, and the entire section of track had to be dismantled in order to remove the corpse.

Blood Beneath the California Adventure: Salesi Tai and the Parking Lot Incident
The Year: 1987
Mortem Methodia: Shooting
The Tale of the Toetag:

While Disney had overhauled its in-park procedures for handling potential gang incidents after the Mel Yorba murder, they failed to give the oceanic sprawl of the Magic Kingdom's main parking lots the same sort of diligent attention. Even on the page, the asphalt desert was trouble: something like a mile wide, packed with cars and low visibility at night. Despite the fact that there had been multiple carjackings, robberies and fights in the shadowy corners of the expansive lot, Disney didn't beef up security until after another fateful encounter between bored teenagers looking to rile up trouble with one another.

Much attention is spread over the proliferation of Latino and African-American gangs in Southern California, but it's arguable on a dozen levels that their ghetto rivalries pale in comparison to the ages-old conflicts between Islander sects. The Tongans and Samoans have been killing each other for centuries, a trend that continues enthusiastically into today. The story was no different fourteen years ago, when the rivalry flared up at the Magic Kingdom to deadly results.

The instigation was offense taken at a baseball cap worn by an 18-year-old Samoan named Keleti Naea by a gang of Tongans at the park entrance around closing. Amidst an ebb of hundreds of tourists and park staff, a fistfight broke out between Naea and the Samoans, but was quickly squelched by astute security.

As Naea and his cohorts made their way out into the parking lot, they again caught sight of a Samoan who had pulled a 22. caliber pistol during the park confrontation, and moved to intercept him. The Samoan, Salesi Tai, drew the gun again at the approach of the Tongans and licked a shot--unfortunately, he missed badly, and the bullet struck a fourteen-year-old boy who was walking to his car with his family about fifty yards away. The boy survived the gunplay. Salesi would not.

The Tongans moved fast and jumped Tai to the asphalt. The gun fell on the ground, where it was quickly retrieved by Naea and put to homicidal use: five shots struck Salesi Tai in the side, neck and back. He was rushed to a hospital (And as it should be noted, by ambulance) but died soon thereafter from excessive loss of blood. It was one day after his sixteenth birthday.

Keleti Nea was apprehended later, and found guilty of second degree murder. He'd end up serving seventeen years to life for the killing, and won't be eligible for parole until 2003. The scene of the murder has since been smoothed over, as Disney finally rid themselves of the treacherous parking lot expanse by transforming it into the new California Adventure themepark.

A Decade Without Incident Comes Crashing Down: Lieu Thoy Vuong and the Columbia
The Year: 1998
Mortem Methodia: Head trauma
The Tale of the Toetag:

After the Tai killing, Disneyland finally seemed to find an equilibrium with itself. Through the early and mid nineties, the Happiest Place on Earth enjoyed a decade without incident, while its rivals in the amusement park arena seemed to be in the news for various scandals every month: a riot at Six Flags here, a shooting at Knott's Berry Farm there. Disney was doing the same overstuffed business it always had, but due to new security statutes and preemptive policies towards potential troublemakers, it hadn't been splashed over the front page for the wrong reasons in some time.

Until 1998.

The Lieu Thoy Vuong tragedy set itself apart from the other dark spots on Disneyland's otherwise chipper history for a few reasons. It occurred in a painfully unjust and ironic fashion, specifically the Christmas Eve of that year. It was also the first time that an employee's negligence or error had proven fatal for a Disneyland park Guest. And unlike the uncertain legal waters of the Mel Yorba murder, the Mouse did pay for this deadly accident.

The clipper Columbia is one of the Magic Kingdom's more b-grade attractions, but still does a good head of business. Setting sail around the Rivers of America along with its harbormate, the steamship Mark Twain, the Columbia has played host to marriages, birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and almost every other conceivable sort of celebration. Christmas loomed, and the park's celebration schedule was in full swing--a packed dock stood ready and waiting to board the incoming ship for a tour of the surrounding manmade forests and other sights.

As the clipper rolled around the bend, it cast its mooring line as it had thousands of times before. What happened next was never specifically determined--whether the rope was cast too early or the boat's speed slowed too late, the anchor was pulled severely taut around the mooring plug. The ship continued to overshoot its mark, and the pressure was too much for the wood to stand: in an instant, the mooring cleat was ripped clean from the dock and snapped like a bungee cord into the waiting bevy of tourists.

It's actually a miracle that only a handful of people were hurt, considering the numbers' game. Ms. Lee Thuy Vuong, aged forty-three, caught the worst of it, as part of her jaw and face was completely sheared clean by the explosive chunk of pig iron. Her husband was also injured, as was a nearby cast member. Vuong was taken to the hospital, but the extent of her injury told its own story--by New Year's Eve, she was declared braindead and the plug pulled. Disney didn't even try to fight this round in court, choking out a check in the six-to-seven digit neighborhood to try and stymie the blemish on their good name.

Of all the attractions in the park, it's ironic that the docile Rivers of America remains the mortal champion, sitting atop the Matterhorn and PeopleMover's pair of fatalities with three confirmed deaths of its own.

So, what does it all sum up to? Not much, actually. As anyone can tell you, you're still more likely to get flushed forcibly out of the shitter of a 747 than you are to eat your final piece of cake at Disneyland. And there is that pesky matter of responsibility: despite legalities, despite the tales of the media and despite the spin laid on it by sensationalist writing scabs looking to take a swing at the Mouse's Empire, all but two of the actual deaths within park limits could have been avoided had the victim simply followed the park rules. For those who assert their lives as someone else's responsibility have a rude awakening coming in this foul little world--especially when and where they least expect it.

It's definitely something to consider the next time you get the urge to challenge six thousand tons of steel, plaster and plastic moving at high speeds. It might not only save your life, it might also save your family a lifetime of being the people whose son, daughter, brother or sister was that kid who bit the bullet on It's a Small World. And hell... shouldn't that be reason enough?


(Credit: Mouse Tales: David Koenig, Bonaventure Press, 1995. LA Bizarro: Anthony R. Lovett and Matt Maranian, St. Martin's Press, 1997. And a special thank you to and everyone at the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society.)

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