As you walk through the gates, a magical world unveils itself. The laughter of children fills the air, as do the joyful screams of thrill-seekers who populate the pulse-quickening rides that fill the park. It is indeed a magical place, perhaps the pinnacle of childhood desires, but under the gloss of Disney World lies a dark myth that has proven to be just that: a myth.
Disney theme parks, now found around the world, subscribe to the ideals of the original Disneyland in California, the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth.” On the surface it all looks, smells and sounds like a dream, but that is exactly the idea, for Disney parks have been making dreams come true for generations.
Entertainment resorts under the Disney umbrella now consist of adventure and water parks, movie studios and even a wildlife sanctuary. But all boast the same effusive Disney charm and provoke childlike wonder. And all are allegedly subject to a rumored dark Disney parks’ policy whose existence has long been perpetuated in the public consciousness, taking its place as an urban legend.
The name Disney, of course, needs little introduction. The brand has grown to become synonymous with magic-tinged animated entertainment, live-action movie production and a host of related offerings. Founded almost a century ago, The Walt Disney Company has since grown into a multi-stranded billion-dollar business that even its eponymous creator, an ambitious animator from Kansas City, would have struggled to envision.
A quick visit to the firm’s website tells you all you need to know about the ideals at Disney’s heart. “The mission of The Walt Disney Company is to entertain, inform and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling, reflecting the iconic brands, creative minds and innovative technologies that make ours the world’s premier entertainment company,” the ‘About’ section reads.
As well as a legendary animation and movie empire, Disney has built quite the portfolio of theme parks to boot. These days there are in fact 14 separate parks that can be said to be a part of the Disney brand, spread across four different countries (plus the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which is officially part of China).
The Disney theme park offering is officially administered by Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, Inc., and is a subsidiary of the parent organization: The Walt Disney Company. In terms of the number of people employed, it is by far the largest of the Disney business segments, accounting for about 130,000 of the company’s total 180,000 staff.
The Disney theme park adventure began in 1955 in California. Walt Disney had originally been inspired to create the attraction after taking his two daughters to a number of different amusement parks throughout the previous decades. The project officially began when Disney hired a consultant to help identify the best location for his vision.
Disney finally settled on a site just outside Anaheim, CA, for his inaugural theme park. Construction works were started on the 160-acre plot in 1954, and just a year later the park was ready. The Disney theme park story officially began on July 17, 1955 when the grand opening was broadcast live on the ABC Television Network.
“The happiest place on earth’ slogan is officially used by what is now called Disneyland Park (it was renamed in the 1990s to distinguish the theme park from associated developments around the existing site). It is the only one of the Disney theme park offerings that was conceived and delivered under the guidance of Walt Disney, who died in 1966.
Plans for the next Disney theme park were first unveiled to the public in late 1965, before Walt Disney’s death. Disney’s brother, Roy, officially named the new project, planned for Orlando, Florida, in 1968. Subsequently the Walt Disney World theme park, officially named Magic Kingdom, opened in October 1971, a full 26 years after the original Disneyland.
The Walt Disney World resort in Florida is actually home to four separate theme parks and two water parks. The original Magic Kingdom was joined by Epcot in 1982. The idea for Epcot was conceived by Walt Disney himself, and is often described as a “permanent world fair”. Epcot is dedicated to the achievements of human endeavor, and differs from all other Disney park offerings.
The third theme park to open at the Walt Disney World Resort location was Disney’s Hollywood Studios (originally named Disney-MGM Studios Park) in 1989. And the fourth and final park arrived in the form of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998. This last attraction is dedicated to the natural environment and also espouses the idealism of animal conservation.
Previously another kind of park had sprung up on the location of Walt Disney World Resort in 1976, just five years after the doors to Magic Kingdom opened. Disney’s River Country was the brand’s first water park offering, but it closed in 2001, making it one of only two Disney parks to ever permanently shut (along with Discovery Island, also in Orlando).
Yet the closure of Disney’s River Country did not mean the end of the firm’s flirtation with water parks, as Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon opened in 1989. It was soon joined by Disney’s Blizzard Beach in 1995, completing the current set of six operational brand parks on the Walt Disney World resort complex in Florida, by far the most of any global Disney location.
Meanwhile, back in California, the original Disneyland found itself joined by Disney California Adventure Park, which opened in 2001. Dedicated to the culture and history of its home state, California Adventure – the name by which the park is often known – is to date the final Disney park to open in the United States, completing a set of eight in the country.
Yet long ago Disney branched out its theme park venture beyond American shores, capitalizing on the brand’s universal appeal. Tokyo, Japan, was selected as the first location for a Disney resort outside the U.S.A., and Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983. The site expanded to become known as the Tokyo Disney Resort with the addition of Tokyo DisneySea in 2001.
Europe experienced its first taste of the Disney theme park experience in 1992 with the opening of the much-anticipated Euro Disney Resort. Renamed Disneyland Paris two years later, the resort was enhanced by the opening of Walt Disney Studios Park in 2002. Disneyland Paris is the largest Disney resort outside of the United States, and is also the most-visited theme park in Europe.
The Disney theme park portfolio was further enlarged in 2005 and 2009 with the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disneyland respectively. That brought the total number of Disney parks to its current 14, with six of those parks based outside of Disney’s American home.
The proliferation of the number of parks found worldwide is unsurprising considering the enduring success of the Disney brand. Indeed, 157.3 million guests visited Disney theme parks in 2018, making the company by far the most popular provider of this style of attraction. Nearly a century after the incorporation of the original Disney company, the brand continues delights children and adults alike with its message of fun, joy and eternal youth, with the theme parks integral to that ideal.
The genius of Disney has been to keep on producing characters that resonate with a global audience of the young-at-heart. Frozen and Toy Story are just two examples of more recent franchises that have further enhanced Disney’s appeal with a modern audience. Indeed, characters from these movies populate the streets and shops of Disney parks and resorts alongside the old favorites of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck et al.
The success of Disney’s parks has also been built on the fact that the destinations are far from a place solely intended for kids. “We have just always liked Disney because, for us, it’s one of the best escapes from reality and enables us to feel like kids again ourselves,” David Decker, a grandfather from Texas, told U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2019.
Alongside the character magic and the appeal of the rides, attractions and all manner of shopping and eating options lies the Disney hospitality approach that further serves to wow visitors. The Magic Kingdom park in Orlando, for example, employs an underground trash collection system, excelling in the efficient removal of trash with little inconvenience to visitors, while nearly 12 percent of the park’s surface area is covered in manicured greenery. It is attention detail such as this that contributes to the magic of a trip to a Disney park.
And believe it or not, there are practically no mosquitoes to be found at Disney World Resort, despite its tropical location in Florida. Incredibly, the parks employ a Mosquito Surveillance Program, using an intriguing combination of clever design, modern technology and even chickens to monitor and control mosquito behavior. This concerted effort helps to ward off the threat of diseases associated with the insects and has all but completely eradicated the winged pests from the Disney environment.
Even the inevitable long lines found in the parks due to the sheer weight of visitor numbers are managed effectively by the brains behind Disney parks. A new smartphone app with accompanying bracelets has been employed to manage the times that guests visit rides, restaurants and attractions, and the line experience itself has been revolutionized by innovations such as in-line entertainment, air conditioning and interactive games. In short, no stone is left unturned when it comes to visitor experience; this approach helps instil confidence behind the slogan of the Magic Kingdom, which proclaims itself as “the most magical place on earth.”
But could that magic stretch to eternal life? If so it would represent the Disney engineering team’s most impressive achievement. For a myth has abounded for years that no one has ever died on Disney park premises. It is a tale that conveniently perpetuates the ideal of eternal youth so clearly a part of the Disney experience and felt within the confines of each Disney park, no matter where its global location.
Yet of course, this concept of dodging death while on Disney park property should be taken with a major pinch of salt. No Disney official has ever claimed this to be true, and the origins of the tale are as sketchy as any other urban myth: for this is exactly what this claim is. And it’s a myth that has been contradicted frequently enough down the years to have been totally debunked.
There have been many reports of accidents and even deaths at Disney parks down the years. “One man died and ten other riders were hurt Friday when train cars filled with passengers broke loose from a locomotive in a dark tunnel on Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction,” related the Los Angeles Times newspaper, for example, back in 2003.
It was then reported by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper in August 2009 that a performer had died at the world-famous Magic Kingdom in the latest in a spate of deaths. “A Walt Disney World cast member died [on] Monday night after an accident at Hollywood Studios – the third work-related employee death in less than two months,” wrote Willoughby Mariano in the story.
Debunking the myth further is an article that appeared on the website of the Orlando Sentinel, reporting data released by Florida theme parks relating to accidents, illnesses and deaths on park property. “The 14 people who have died in Florida died at Disney theme parks. At least seven of them had pre-existing health conditions,” read the story on the website. There is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to incidents reported at Walt Disney World.
A 2010 death at Disneyland Paris proved that those attending or working at Disney’s international collection were not immune to death either. “A cleaner at Disneyland Paris has died after falling into the water while working on an attraction,” British national broadcaster the B.B.C. reported at the time.
Indeed, with an employee roster of 130,000 (as of 2015), and annual attendance figures of 157.3 million (2018), it is inevitable that accidents will occur. Yet it seems other stories – relating to the behavior of park officials – have added credence to what can only be described as the falsehood that people cannot die at a Disney park.
Writing for The Week magazine in 2013 Lauren Hansen dealt with the story of an accidental death at California’s Disneyland 14 years previously. “On the day before Christmas in 1999, 33-year-old Disneyland tourist Luan Phil Dawson was fatally struck in the head by an 8-pound cleat — a piece of metal used for securing boats. His wife and a Disneyland employee were also injured,” Hansen wrote.
Yet it was the alleged subsequent behavior of Disney park staff that Hansen focused upon in her piece. “The park reportedly did not alert police, but did immediately contact paramedics. Within 30 minutes, employees had allegedly cleaned the blood and debris from the scene before investigators could examine it,” wrote Hansen.
And in a fascinating twist on the theme, a new legend is now that no one is ever declared dead at the scene in a Disney park, therefore perpetuating the original myth on a technicality. “Paramedics, allegedly, have been instructed to delay the official pronouncement until the person is in a hospital,” wrote Alison Cooper for the howstuffworks website.
The myth of whether people can die at a Disney park thus falls down to semantics. “So, the claim here is not that no one has ever actually died on Disney theme park property, but whether Disney can legitimately make the claim that “no one has ever died at a Disney park” because [it] ensure[s] that any declaration of death takes place outside of park property,” wrote David Mikkelson for the Snopes website.
But as Mikkelson contends, waiting to declare death until arrival at a medical facility is a common enough practice. “In all fairness, however, it should be noted that in some jurisdictions once paramedics begin life-saving efforts they cannot discontinue those efforts until the patient has been transported to a medical facility, even if the patient is obviously dead,” Mikkelson added. So even if no one has officially been declared dead at a Disney location, it might not necessarily boil down to questionable company policy.
Mikkleson offered a theory as to why a myth such as there being no deaths at a Disney premises can gather momentum. “Disney is, of course, well known for [its] image-consciousness. [It has]… been criticized in the past for policies such as not allowing marked emergency vehicles into [its] parks (so as not to upset park guests), and so many people perceive [it] as being willing and overzealous enough to stretch a semantic point for a minor public relations advantage,” Mikkeslson penned.
To summarize, both employee and visitor deaths have been reported at Disney park locations down the years: a scenario that is, quite frankly, unavoidable considering the sheer numbers of people involved. Whether or not it is a Disney policy not to have anyone officially pronounced dead at its locations is an allegation which remains unconfirmed, as no hard evidence of such a stance exists. Instead, it is a myth that fills the void.
Despite the cynicism surrounding any alleged attempt to protect Disney ideals, the joy of Disney parks is still clear for all to see. One visitor, Dan Noyes, a digital marketing consultant writing for Zephoria Digital Marketing, perhaps summed up a visit to a Disney park best: “I left Disney World reminded of the ability of family and fun, and of good stories well-told, to bring people together and highlight the beauty of the human journey no matter your age or culture.” Dark underbelly or not, this is undoubtedly the overriding experience for the majority when visiting a Disney park.