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Authors: Aaron Goldberg

Tags: #Taled of Real Life Disney Scandals, #Accidents and Deaths, #Sex

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BOOK: Disney Declassified: Tales of Real Life Disney Scandals, Sex, Accidents and Deaths
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Disney’s STOLport lasted almost as long as a flight over to Tampa. After a bit more than a year in service, flights ceased at the runway. Logistical issues and profitability doomed the enterprise. Despite not having a long track record, the STOL in its brief stint at WDW was accident-free, but the same couldn’t be said for Walt Disney World, not even in reference to a deadly plane crash.

In 1984, Gary, Doreen and their three children boarded a single-engine piper plane in Greer, South Carolina. They were flying to Kissimmee Airport to spend Thanksgiving with family members and then visit Walt Disney World. Ten miles short of Kissimmee Airport, FAA investigators believed the plane ran out of gas and crashed in the EPCOT parking lot hitting several unoccupied vehicles. The plane crashed just 200 feet before a monorail beam, and killed Gary, Doreen and their year old daughter, Stephanie. The family's other two children were initially hospitalized in critical condition but went on to survive the crash.

The monorail escaped damage in the accident with the plane crash, but less than a year later; Disney’s unique form of transportation had an accident of its own. Today, Walt Disney World’s monorail boasts over fourteen miles of track and runs three lines to different areas of the property. Tens of millions of people travel the “highway in the sky” each year, with a relatively pristine safety since it went online in 1971.

But on the evening of June 26, 1985, roughly 240 people were aboard a six-car monorail going from EPCOT to the Ticket and Transportation Center. Along their journey, the monorail driver noticed a warning light, stopped the train, and radioed in for help. People on the ground noticed the rear car had smoke billowing out and was obviously on fire. Stranded more than thirty feet in the air, the passengers had to kick out doors and windows in an effort to climb onto the roof for safety. Eventually, a cherry picker came to rescue the passengers as firefighters battled the blaze. The accident could have been a lot worse; most passengers escaped any real danger with only a few being treated for minor smoke inhalation and bumps and bruises.

 The cause of the fire was due to a flat tire to both a primary and a back up that heated up quickly, caused friction and sparked a fire to the monorail. The tires were checked every other day and thus the situation was deemed a fluke accident. The fire did bring safety changes to the monorail; each car now features an emergency exit that lifts out to the roof, in case a similar situation should arise. 

The Monorail had a minor crash in 1974 and another in 1991 during the filming of a commercial, but nothing major occurred. Fatefully, in 2009 all of this changed. On July 5, 2009 around 2:00
A
.
M
., the Disney monorail was beginning to wind down for the evening. One of the trains in service was attempting to do a transfer from the EPCOT loop and onto a “switch beam” and then to the Magic Kingdom Express beam. This maneuver takes place at the Ticket and Transportation Center, where a track switch is activated and the monorail needing to switch beams goes into reverse to accomplish the task. This fateful night, the track switch was never activated and the train ended up reversing back down the EPCOT line and into a second stationary train. The stationary train’s driver, twenty-one-year-old Austin of Kissimmee was killed when the monorails collided. The six passengers on Austin’s monorail were unharmed.

During a two-and-a-half-year investigation, in October of 2011, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) determined a lack of safety protocols contributed to the accident. Another factor was "Walt Disney World Resort's lack of standard operating procedures leading to an unsafe practice when reversing trains.”  The NTSB went further and agreed with an OSHA report that the employee at the monorail’s maintenance shop, which controls the track switches, failed to adjust the switch beam properly. In addition, the shop manager was not in the control tower during the procedure. Had he been there he may have caught the error.

The shop manager being in the control tower during this process was not a mandatory procedure at this time for Disney. Also, Disney did not require its employees to follow an operating guide in which monorail drivers were supposed to switch from the front cab of their trains to the back cab before driving in reverse, so they could operate the trains while in a forward-facing position - two procedures that were changed after the NTSB and OSHA accident investigation. In March of 2011, the mother of Austin settled her wrongful death lawsuit against Disney for an undisclosed amount of money.

In keeping with the theme of transportation, the 1990s featured several fatal car accidents at Walt Disney World property. In April of 1995, nine-year-old Tyler from a town outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan was with his family visiting Walt Disney World. The family was walking along the sidewalk that connects the Contemporary Hotel with the Magic Kingdom when Tyler was fatally struck by a car at the intersection connecting the two properties. The family claimed the intersection was an accident waiting to happen. There was no traffic light, there was a large amount of shrubbery along the walkway, the sidewalk was poorly lit, and there was no curb indicating a transition from the sidewalk into the street of the intersection.

The police deemed this fatality an accident and didn’t charge the seventeen-year-old Disney employee with speeding or negligence. Today, there is a traffic light in the area where the buses pull in to drop guests off from and to the Magic Kingdom, and there are lights leading the way from the Magic Kingdom to the Contemporary.

A few years before the accident in front of the Contemporary, the Caribbean Beach Resort was the scene of a fatal accident. In July of 1990 four teenagers were visiting a friend working at the Swan hotel. Upon leaving the hotel, they got into Joseph’s 1989 Mustang and set out on to Buena Vista Drive. At a high rate of speed, the Mustang crashed into the rear of a bus as it sat in the median waiting to turn into the Caribbean Beach Resort.

The car quickly burst into flames, ending the four young lives. Police investigators believe Joseph pressed down hard on the accelerator, and then couldn't handle the speed. When he realized that the rear of the bus was hanging out in his lane, it was too late. Instead of swerving, he locked up the brakes and skidded 250 feet before the impact. Joseph was driving on a suspended license and had several speeding tickets in the past. Investigators didn’t fault the bus driver, who was the only occupant on board.

Ever wonder how the nearly 300 buses in and around Walt Disney World (the fleet is the third largest in Florida behind Miami and Jacksonville and one of the largest private fleets in the country) know exactly where they are as the bus pulls into a resort or park and plays the appropriate message or music to correspond with the location?  Is it Disney Magic? Well, sort of, it’s that good old global positioning system (GPS) and a computer program that Disney installed on all of their buses, it’s called Magic in Motion.

Magic in Motion (MIM) was implemented in 2006. The MIM allows Disney to track in real time the position of all of their buses. The system also allows for real time rerouting around the property to ease crowding at locations that may need additional buses. All sounds great, right? Especially if you’ve stood at a bus stop in ninety-degree heat and wondered if a bus was ever going to pick you up!

Well, in 2010 the system came under scrutiny during a few weeks in April when the Disney buses were involved in three accidents in two weeks; one was fatal involving a nine-year-old boy. Many of the bus drivers complained that the MIM was distracting and unsafe. Drivers said they should be focusing on the road and not dealing with a computer program. At that time, here’s how the MIM worked: just before the driver completed one round-trip route, the driver radioed into their dispatcher for a new five-digit code. The five-digit code is their next destination and is then entered into the onboard computer. The code gives the driver the new route, updates the marquee on the bus, and changes the music and greeting. The problem for some drivers is that the process is distracting, with having to radio into dispatch and then type into a computer. In contrast, Disney officials think MIM has improved safety for drivers by relieving them of some responsibilities, such as making passenger announcements and has cut down on waiting times for guests.

 With the MIM on board, the more than 1,200 Disney bus drivers cart around millions of people each year. Before they can get behind the wheel, the drivers undergo a four-and-a-half-week training program. They sit for the state licensing exam, drug testing, a physical exam, and Disney’s own on-site training. Despite all of this training at the Magic in Motion, just like any other bustling town with buses and heavy traffic at times, accidents are bound to happen.

 The three accidents in the spring of 2010 that spurned the publicity about MIM aside, Disney had bus accidents before and will continue to have them despite advances in technology. Then in December of 2010 a bus killed a pedestrian as he walked in the parking lot of the Port Orleans resort, and as recently as August 2013, a bus hit a stationary car near EPCOT that resulted in another fatality.

Accidents at Walt Disney World aren’t exclusive to just planes, trains, and automobiles; there are boats as well. From the resort hotels to within the parks themselves, boats and ferries are omnipresent at Walt Disney World. It is even a way to get to the illustrious Magic Kingdom. Before we get there, we have to traverse the Seven Seas Lagoon, and sometimes the waters are rough and troubled.

Walt Disney World’s 185-acre Seven Seas Lagoon is one of the gateways to the Magic Kingdom. Ferries shuttle up to 600 guests at a time from the boat launch at the Ticket and Transportation Center to the house of the mouse. The lake is more than just a byway to the Kingdom. Guests can do a number of things from fishing, parasailing, to renting private boats at the lagoon. Sometimes things don’t always go as planned in a boating environment.

In October of 1989, thirty-three-year-old Pat, from Glen Cove, New York, and her son rented a boat from the marina at their hotel along the lagoon. They were going to videotape friends and family waterskiing when tragedy struck. A ferry carrying about 80 people to the Magic Kingdom saw Pat’s boat cross into the path of their ferry. The captain sounded a warning whistle and tried to throw the ship into reverse to avoid hitting them. The accident was unavoidable. The ferry hit the boat as Pat drove right into the front of the ferry. A crewmember and guest dove into the water from the ferry and was able to save Pat’s eight-year-old son, but Pat was killed. Investigators claim Disney was not held negligent in the accident and a wrongful death case was settled out of court.

In April of 2010, there was a similar boat–versus-ferry accident at Walt Disney World. This accident happened in the waterway near Downtown Disney. Barbara, sixty-one years old, of Celebration, Florida and Skipton, England, rented a two-person Sea Raycer boat with her husband at Cap'n Jack's Marina. As the couple set out, they steered into the path of a larger boat shuttling guests. Barbara’s husband, commandeering the boat, said he turned away to avoid the other boat. When the ferry saw the boat coming towards them, the captain put the boat into reverse in an effort to avoid hitting them, but it was too late. The boat went under the ferry, and Barbara was wedged between the two vessels. She was knocked unconscious and suffered a collapsed lung, fractured ribs, and back pain.

Barbara and her husband filed suit against Disney and claimed neither her nor her husband were given any instruction about piloting the boat and had no previous experience boating. Thusly, they should not have been allowed to rent the boat and use it in the waterway. The outcome of this suit is still pending.

Boating accident aside, Barbara should feel somewhat lucky with the injuries she received. Barbara’s accident could have been much more dire, considering what part of the country she was in and the climate. As the accident report detailed, Barbara was submerged into the water of a lake, a lake in Florida no less. In Florida—as with much of the south— during the summer months, a dip in a freshwater lake can be deadly. There is a single-celled amoeba called
Naegleria fowleri,
known in the media as the brain-eating amoeba that can do devastating things to people’s neurological system.

These little buggers love warm freshwater lakes, something the southeast of America is filled with. In the rare chance the amoeba is present in a body of water, and someone is exposed to it, usually by having the water go up their nose, and introducing the water into their body, the results are almost always fatal. The
Naegleria fowleri
can invade the human nervous system and brain with a 95% mortality rate. Tragically, this is exactly what happened to an eleven-year-old boy from New York who was swimming at Walt Disney World’s River Country in 1980.

Not familiar with River Country, eh? Well, let's go back in time to June of 1976, the month the water park opened. Along the shores of Bay Lake (the lake next to the Seven Seas Lagoon), was a six-acre themed water park, Walt Disney World’s first. The park was situated adjacent to the Ft. Wilderness Campgrounds and had a rustic theme featuring an Ol’ Swimmin’ Hole, rapids, raft rides, rope swings, beaches and water slides. River Country featured both a pool (chlorinated) and cove that was part of Bay Lake—although separated by a barrier. Disney utilized the water from the lake for the slides and attractions. It was filtered and monitored for quality, but that couldn’t stop the amoeba incident from happening. Sadly, the last week of August 1980, the eleven-year-old boy passed away from
Naegleria fowleri
from his exposure at River Country during the first week of August. Brain-eating amoeba aside, calamity struck River Country two more times in the 1980s with the drowning of two teenage boys. Despite these deaths, River Country continued to entertain guests until the park closed in November 2001; however, swimming was banned at the lakes around Disney property in the 1990s.

BOOK: Disney Declassified: Tales of Real Life Disney Scandals, Sex, Accidents and Deaths
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