Authors: Aaron Goldberg
Tags: #Taled of Real Life Disney Scandals, #Accidents and Deaths, #Sex
In June of 1966, the Disneyland Monorail garnered much unwanted attention. Just before the beginning of Disneyland Grad Nite (an event Disneyland hosted for graduating high school seniors in Southern California), nineteen-year-old Thomas from Northridge, California, scaled Disneyland’s sixteen-foot fence at the northern portion of Harbor Boulevard in an effort to sneak into the park. Once over the fence, Thomas hopped on the monorail beam. Security guards noticed him and began shouting for him to “Jump, get out of the way, and get off there.” Instead, Thomas fell to a fiberglass canopy beneath the track and the lower part of the monorail killed him instantly.
The monorail isn’t known for its thrills and chills and neither is the Disneyland PeopleMover. Just like the monorail, the PeopleMover claimed some young lives; two lives to be exact. The attraction was dubbed “Tomorrow’s transportation today” when it debuted in Disneyland in 1967.
The technology and idea for the PeopleMover came from Disney’s work in the 1964 -1965 New York World’s Fair. In the same vein that Walt viewed the Monorail as an alternative way to “move people,” so too was the PeopleMover. The trains of the PeopleMover don’t use a motor to propel them down the track. The track itself uses electricity and rubber tires to move each train down the track at speeds ranging from 2 to 7 miles per hour. This crowd favorite gave guests an aerial view of the Disneyland landscape below them.
For a handful of guests, the openness of the trains and their relatively slow speed was enticing enough for them to try and leave their train and hop into another adjacent train. This is exactly what happened to fifteen-year-old Rick of Hawthorne, California in August of 1967. While attempting to change trains by hoping out of one and into another as the train was moving, Rick fell and got caught under the wheels of the PeopleMover and was dragged along. Unfortunately, this resulted in his death and the third death of a teenager in the 1960s at Disneyland. Rick’s wasn’t the last life the slow-moving PeopleMover would claim.
In nearly identical circumstances, in June of 1980 at another Grad Nite (there was a third death during a Grad Nite three years later when an eighteen-year-old boy drowned in the Rivers of America), Gerardo from San Diego was struck and killed around 1:30
. by the PeopleMover. As Gerardo’s train passed into the tunnel portion of the ride, he climbed out of his moving car in an attempt to hop into another. He lost his footing and landed on the track. The next train coming hit and dragged him until ride operators noticed and shut down the ride. Gerardo was pronounced dead at the scene of extreme internal injuries. Gerardo’s death was the last casualty for this ride. The attraction closed in August of 1995.
When Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress left Disneyland and headed to Florida for Walt Disney World in 1973, a huge hole needed to be filled, figuratively and physically. Carousel’s building featured a circular revolving theatre. The stage is stationary and the guests seated in the theatre rotate around the central stages. To take the place of the Carousel of Progress, Disney created the attraction America Sings in June of 1974.
The show featured 114 audio animatronics singing and entertaining the masses with different medleys of American music—think Yankee Doodle and Pop Goes the Weasel, some good patriotic stuff Walt would be proud of. Not even two weeks after the attraction debuted did tragedy strike. On July 8, 1974 (the attraction opened on June 29, 1974), Deborah, eighteen years old, of Santa Ana, got caught between a stationary wall and a moving wall as the theatre rotated. Deborah was pinned by the walls and crushed to death. Her death was the first employee casualty in the nearly twenty years the park was open. In an effort to avoid a similar situation in the future, Deborah’s death prompted changes to the attraction with a warning system and modifications to the walls so another accident wouldn’t happen. In April of 1988, this attraction was shuttered.
was the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe in 1790. A replica of the ship dubbed
The Sailing Ship Columbia
is the first (and only—the
which also cruises through the Rivers of America is a river boat) full-scale replica to circumnavigate the Rivers of America at Disneyland.
The Sailing Ship
is an enormous three-masted windjammer that is 84 feet tall and 2,310 feet long. The ship made its debut in 1958 and still operates today.
Much like the Monorail or PeopleMover, a trip on
The Sailing Ship Columbia
is pretty mild in the world of theme park attractions. As we’ve seen, even the mellowest of rides can be dangerous. On a fateful Christmas Eve, in 1998, Luan, a thirty-three-year-old man from Duvall, Washington was visiting Disneyland with his wife Lieu, their son and grandson.
The family was set to take a ride on the ship and waited on the dock for the vessel to approach. As the ship approached, a cast member threw a mooring line around a cleat—for those less nautical, a cleat is a metal device used to wrap a rope (or mooring line) around to anchor a ship—on the still-moving ship, to secure it to the dock. As just mentioned, The Columbia was still moving and this caused stress and strain on the bolts that secured the cleat. The bolts of the cleat snapped off and the eight-pound piece of cast iron went airborne into the crowd waiting to board the vessel.
The cleat hit the cast member trying to secure the boat; it shattered her foot, then proceeded to hit Luan and his wife Lieu, both in their head and neck. Luan passed away from his injuries: brain hemorrhage and skull fractures. Lieu suffered severe facial trauma and paralysis. She underwent numerous surgeries over the course of a year.
California OSHA quickly went to work on the scene to investigate the cause of this tragedy. When they closed out their investigation they issued two serious citations as a result of the accident, and a state max penalty of $12,500, which revealed some troubling issues that were the primary cause of the accident.
The injured employee that was trying to dock the ship had not received proper and specific training to dock the vessel. She had never performed the docking procedure prior to the accident. As it turns out, due to a scheduling error, Christine, the cast member involved in the accident, was actually filling in for the person usually tasked with securing the Columbia. This was OSHA’s first citation: lack of training.
The second citation was for the overloading of the cleat. The OSHA investigation determined that the accident occurred because the cleat on the ship was designed to hold the ship at the dock and was not strong enough to be used to brake the ship's forward motion and bring it to a stop and hold it there—something they determined happened several times, as the bolts securing the cleat were bent at the time of the accident.
was moving too fast and an attempt shouldn’t have been made to corral it. At the speed at which the vessel was traveling, the captain should have overshot the dock, then reversed the ship and move back to the dock at the proper speed. The investigation into the accident and its after effects loomed larger than just with Disney. The Anaheim Police Department also came under scrutiny. The claims involving the PD had to deal with their lack of response time. The first uniformed police officer didn’t arrive at the park until an hour after the accident. The officer then waited in the security office for two hours until additional police investigators arrived and they were all briefed. They eventually made it to the park’s accident scene, four and a half hours later.
At that time, the PD wasn’t able to investigate the original accident scene. Disney cleaned up the scene as quickly as they could. They washed away any blood or debris from the accident scene, as it was very “unsightly.”
The after shocks of this accident were far reaching. Obviously, and most importantly, was the loss of life of Luan and the devastating injuries to his wife, and their family members that witnessed the atrocity. While money is no replacement for a loved one, or the mental and physical pain the family endured, Disney settled this case in October of 2000. The details of the case were not released but legal experts estimated the settlement was in the range of over $20 million.
Christine, the cast member who was also involved, underwent over ten operations to repair her foot and was walking with a cane. Unable to physically work in the park as she did before the accident, she eventually took a job with Disney working from home.
An after effect of the accident helped give leverage to those looking to usher in more regulations and oversight from the state into theme park safety. This came to fruition roughly a year later, as discussed earlier in the chapter with the California Permanent Amusement Ride Safety Law implemented in 2000. As for the Anaheim PD, they set up a permanent station at the park and Disney agreed to leave accident scenes undisturbed until police investigators arrive.
If you’re the type of person who believes in curses, bad omens or just plain bad luck, then the attraction Big Thunder Mountain Railroad may not be the attraction for you. The ride debuted in 1979 at a cost of nearly $16 million, almost as much as Disneyland itself in 1955. The roller coaster attraction takes guests on an indoor and outdoor excursion through the setting of a mine train operation during America’s gold rush.
Since 1991, the attraction has been plagued with a myriad of accidents, a fatality, and was even the scene for a non-ride-related medical emergency. In June of 1991, Grigore from Romania was visiting Disneyland to celebrate his forty-fourth birthday. He took a ride on Big Thunder Mountain and the next thing he knew, he was lying in a hospital bed. Around 9:00
., a cast member found Grigore on a catwalk next to the track of the ride. How he got there is the mystery, as he doesn’t recall what happened, and no one witnessed him jump from the coaster.
Grigore, who didn’t speak English, told a park mechanic at Disneyland who was fluent in Romanian that he felt faint on the ride and may have passed out. Others speculated that he might have suddenly tried to exit the train before it entered the mountain portion of the attraction; nevertheless, his injuries were not life threatening, and he was released from the hospital after a few days.
It was almost eight years before Big Thunder was the scene for another accident. This accident came only a few months before the tragedy involving
The Sailing Ship Columbia
. In March of 1998, young David, from La Jolla, California, just five years old at the time, set out on his first trip aboard Big Thunder Mountain.
As David’s mom described the day, he was very excited for his ride. David was finally tall enough, at forty-six inches, for the real roller coasters, and he wanted to ride them over and over. At the end of the day, he talked his more cautious seven-year-old brother, Steven, into a last go at his favorite–Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The boys piled into the car with their mother, Kathy, in the middle. They all loved the ride, screaming gleefully as it whipped along the track.
But as the roller coaster wound down and pulled up to the platform, it paused about twenty feet from where the passengers are supposed to disembark. Thinking the ride was over, David nonchalantly stuck his left foot out of the open-sided car, "as if he were trying to slow it down the way he does his bike," Kathy explained. "It was such a kid thing to do." When the ride slowly started up again, David's foot became wedged in the small gap between the car's running board and the edge of the platform.
Panicked, he grabbed his mother and the safety bar, which fit only loosely across his lap, and managed to keep his body in the car, but the friction against his foot virtually tore it in half. "It was held together by just two tendons, and he had lost all soft tissue on the bottom, up to his heel, all of the pieces were there, in his tennis shoe."
The roller coaster operator, who was on the opposite side of the track and thus unable to see what was happening, stopped the ride within seconds, but David remained caught. It took about a half hour for Disneyland employees to pry the running board off the car to release him, and another twenty minutes or so for the paramedics to arrive. Later, all of his toes would be amputated, though his foot would eventually be salvaged with vein, muscle, and skin grafts.
Kathy considered suing Disneyland, but was philosophically opposed to taking the company to court. "It was an accident, for God's sake," she says. Plus, she was worried that a trial would prolong her family's agony–and David's emotional recovery, so she settled privately with Disneyland in January 1999 and agreed not to discuss the details.
On January 21, 1999, Robert was walking through Disneyland by Big Thunder Mountain when he took a spill and struck his head on the ground. Paramedics rushed to the scene where Robert was in the throes of a seizure. He was transported to the hospital and admitted to the intensive care unit. This situation was the first accident or emergency after the accident involving the
The troubles in and around the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad came to a fatal climax in September 2003, with an accident that left a twenty-two-year-old man dead and ten other riders injured. On September 5, 2003, Marcelo of Gardena, California was riding in the front car of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad when the locomotive became separated from the rest of the cars and derailed. Marcelo died on the scene from blunt force trauma to the chest.
An accident report by California OSHA faulted park maintenance workers, ride operators, and a mechanic. The report noted that operators heard loud clanking noises at least thirty minutes before the accident.; however, they decided to keep the coaster running for twelve more rides before deciding to remove it from the track after one more run. The “one more” run was the fatal run. The train crashed on the 13th ride.
The mechanical cause of the crash happened when two bolts on the locomotive's left guide wheel assembly fell off. This caused an axle to jam into the railroad's ties. The locomotive nose-dived, and its rear hit the top of a tunnel. The force snapped a tow bar connecting the locomotive to the lead passenger car, which slammed into the locomotive's undercarriage.