Located a little south of Los Angeles in sunny California, Disneyland is a popular tourist destination for families from all over the globe. The surreal and fantastic theme park is also a great source for urban legends.
Internet users always want to repeat the campfire tale about the little boy who hung himself on It’s a Small World or share the video of the real ghost in The Haunted Mansion. Truth be told, Disneyland very well could be haunted… but it doesn’t need to rely on any made-up spooks and specters for its paranormal activity.
There have been enough real people who have died at The Happiest Place on Earth to legitimately haunt the hell out of it.
The first fatality at The Magic Kingdom occurred in May of 1964. Mark Maples, a 15-year-old boy, was riding the Matterhorn Bobsleds, a fast-moving rollercoaster thrill ride, when he inexplicably stood up and fell out of his sled. He fell down to the track below and suffered a fractured skull, several broken ribs, and many instances of internal bleeding. He was taken to a hospital, but never regained consciousness, dying three days later.
Almost twenty years later, in January of 1984, another park guest had an eerily similar accident on the same ride; A 48-year-old woman named Dolly Young was thrown from her Matterhorn bobsled into the path of an oncoming sled and died on the spot from massive head and chest injuries. An investigation revealed that her safety belt was unfastened, although it was not clear as to whether she took it off herself or if it was never properly secured to begin with. Either way, the widowmaker known as the Matterhorn had claimed another victim.
The Matterhorn is not the only multi-murderer at Disneyland. A ride known as the PeopleMover that, well, moved people throughout Tomorrowland from the late sixties until 1995, also has its tracks drenched with the blood of two guests, which is surprising because the ride only crept along at a tortoise-like 7 miles-per-hour. Both deaths had the same cause; the rider tried to switch cars in the middle of the ride, with disastrous results. The first occurred in August of 1967, when the ride had only been open for a short month. Seventeen-year-old Ricky Lee Yama slipped while trying to hop from one PeopleMover car to another and was crushed to death. An almost identical incident happened in June of 1980 when 18-year-old Gerardo Gonzales fell while climbing between two cars and was ground up by the slow-but-steady wheels of the ride.
The final attraction that has claimed multiple victims at The Happiest Place on Earth is also the deadliest: The Rivers of America. This is the body of water that separates the mainland of Frontierland and Adventureland from Tom Sawyer’s Island, and it has killed three park guests (so far). The first was in June of 1973 when 18-year-old Bogden De Laurot and his 10-year-old brother hid on Tom Sawyer’s Island after dark, when the attraction closes to guests. When the pair decided that they had had enough of the Island, they tried to swim back across the river. The little brother didn’t know how to swim, so Bogden tried to carry him across on his back. The good news is that the younger boy was rescued by a ride operator. Unfortunately, Bogden drowned in the four feet of water.
Ten years later, in June of 1983 during one of Disneyland’s annual “Grad Nite” celebrations, 18-year-old recent high school graduate Philip Straughan and a friend stole a maintenance dingy and joyrode around the river. Intoxicated, Straughan couldn’t control the boat and flipped it when he hit a rock. He fell into the water and drowned.
Blood spilled into the waters of the Rivers of America once again on Christmas Eve in 1998. An improperly secured line ripped a metal cleat off of the hull of the Sailing Ship Columbia, a replica vessel that “sails” along in the rivers on a track. The cleat struck a 33-year-old man named Luan Phi Dawson and his wife, 43-year-old Lieu Thuy Vuoun. Vuoun lived, but Dawson was declared brain dead two days later.
Just a stone’s throw away from the Rivers of America is the next deathtrap on our Disney tour, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Opening in 1979, this high-speed rollercoaster actually had a clean safety record until September of 2003 when one of the trains derailed, killing Marcelo Torres, a 22-year-old man, who bled to death from blunt force trauma caused by the accident. Ten other riders were injured as well.
Tomorrowland’s Space Mountain completes the roller coaster trifecta at Disneyland and yes, it has killed as well, its story being particularly tragic. In August of 1979, an unnamed 31-year-old woman complained of not feeling well after riding Space Mountain and was unable to disembark from her car. Disneyland employees asked her to stay seated while they removed her car from the track, but a ride operator mistakenly sent her around the ride again. She arrived at the unloading zone the second time in a semi-conscious state. She fell into a coma and died a week later, the cause of death determined to be a pre-existing heart tumor that became dislodged and made its way to her brain. In other words: natural causes.
Another heartbreaking incident occurred on The Indiana Jones Adventure ride. Located in Adventureland, The Indiana Jones Adventure is a ride that combines the turbulence of a roller coaster with the spectacle of a scenic ride. In June of 2000, 23-year-old Cristine Moreno, a newlywed from Spain who was visiting Disneyland on her honeymoon, complained of a headache after exiting the ride. That evening, she lost consciousness and was hospitalized. She passed away two months later from a brain aneurysm that her lawyers claimed was a direct result of riding The Indiana Jones Adventure ride. A wrongful death lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount, but Disneyland maintains that Moreno’s death was unrelated to her experience on the ride.
As gutwrenching as these deaths are, the next one is the worst. A few short months after Cristine Moreno’s visit, in September of 2000, four-year-old Brandon Zucker was riding the Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin ride with his mother and brother when he fell out of the quickly spinning car and became pinned underneath for several minutes. The poor boy suffered numerous injuries, including a ruptured diaphragm, a collapsed lung, a fractured pelvis, and a burst spleen. Brandon never fully recovered from his injuries and finally died in 2009, nearly a decade later. Again, a settlement was reached that allowed Disney to pay for the boy’s continuing medical care without accepting blame for the injuries that ultimately resulted in his death.
Not all of the folks who have been killed at Disneyland have been park guests; there have been two Cast Members who have died on the job as well. The first was in July of 1974 when 18-year-old Deborah Stone was working the brand-new America Sings attraction. America Sings consisted of a rotating ring of six stages that spun around six stationary theaters, so that every four minutes the audience would be treated to a song by a different set of animatronic characters. The unfortunate Miss Stone was standing too close to one of the rotating walls of the attraction when they started moving, pulling her in and crushing her between the rotating wall and a stationary one. Reportedly, many park guests thought that her screams of agony and terror were all just part of the show.
The other Cast Member to lose his life at Disneyland actually was working at Disney’s California Adventure, an adjacent park on the same property as Disneyland. In April of 2003, 36-year-old stagehand Christopher Bowman was preparing the Magic Carpet Ride for the Aladdin Show at the park’s Hyperion Theater when he fell 60 feet from the catwalk, landing on his head. Bowman never regained consciousness and died four weeks later. His safety harness was not attached to the protective fastening equipment on the catwalk.
Not everyone who dies on the Disneyland property even makes it into the park; one young man met his fate just trying to get in. In June of 1966, during another one of Disney’s “Grad Nite” parties, 19-year-old Thomas “Guy” Cleveland tried to sneak into the park by scaling a fence and walking in on the tracks of The Monorail, a train-like transport that runs in a circle around Disneyland, taking visitors from the Disneyland Hotel into the park. A security guard spotted him, and in Cleveland’s haste to avoid being apprehended he didn’t hear the guard’s shouted warnings of an approaching Monorail car. The car struck Cleveland and dragged him 40 feet along the track before coming to a stop. Disneyland maintenance crews had to hose Cleveland’s remains off of the bottom of the track.
Although the incidents are much rarer, a couple of Disney fatalities have actually been bona-fide murders. In March of 1981, an 18-year-old youth named Mel Yorba was stabbed to death by 28-year-old James O’Driscoll in the Tomorrowland area of Disneyland. Yorba allegedly acted inappropriately towards O’Driscoll’s girlfriend, and a fight between the two men broke out.
Exactly six years after Yorba’s killing, in March of 1987, a gang fight erupted in the parking lot of the park that escalated into gunfire. When the smoke cleared, 15-year-old Salesi Tai, a gang member from Compton, was dead, fatally shot four times (three in the back). An 18-year-old rival gang member named Keleti Naea was arrested and charged with the crime.
And then, there are the suicides; yes, some people come to the Happiest Place on Earth to kill themselves, yet they’ve never done it in the park itself. In September of 1994, 75-year-old Joachim Chi Tu jumped from the balcony of his ninth floor room at the Disneyland Hotel. There were two suicide notes, one in English and one in Chinese, found on his body. Two years later, in July of 1996, a 23-year-old man named David Daigle jumped or fell from a fourteenth floor balcony. There was no note. Then, in May of 2008, another man, 48-year-old John Newman Jr., also jumped from the fourteenth floor while a business associate sat in the room with him.
After that, it would seem that the popular suicide spot shifted from the Disneyland hotel to the Mickey & Friends Parking Structure, as 61-year-old Ghassan Trabulsi jumped from the top floors of the structure in October of 2010 (a note blaming “personal issues” was found on his body) and 23-year-old Christopher Tran leapt to his death from the same spot in April of 2012 (no note).
Last, but not least, a somewhat happy death at Disneyland. In October of 2013, Michael Zarcone, the founder of a hospital for disabled children, visited the park to see the annual Halloween decorations. The man had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for several years, and he lost his balance while walking and fell. While trying to get back up, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 63. Zarcone’s daughter said that it was fitting that he would die at his favorite place on the planet – Disneyland.
It’s clear from these stories that, with a few exceptions, the fatalities that have occurred at Disneyland have generally been the result of negligence, carelessness, or sometimes just plain stupidity on the part of the victim. There’s no real reason to be afraid to go to Disneyland, but next time you’re visiting the Happiest Place on Earth, make sure to keep your head on a swivel and stay between the white lines. That way, the only thing you’ll have to be afraid of is the many rumored ghosts, both from the unfortunate souls who have been killed at the park and from the cremains of loved ones that guests continue to insist upon dumping in the Haunted Mansion.