The Dark Side of Disney World
I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter. -Walt Disney
Fantasy + Fear
I love Disney almost as much as I love horror. Like most kids, I was eager to see the latest Disney movie every summer, and was mesmerized by the worlds and characters that were so artfully presented to me each year. And while I certainly loved the heroes and underdogs in each film, I also found myself fascinated by the evil queens and monsters lurking in the shadows. Princesses are inspiring and talking animals are fun, but I've always found villains to be the most interesting characters. If you think about it, villains are the ones that really drive the story. Because where would our brave heroes be without a truly menacing foe to face, or a great obstacle to overcome? The glossy optimism of our beloved fairy tales could only be brought into perfect clarity by the dark forces that give them balance and meaning.
I imagine many kids are pretty scared by the likes of Maleficent, Ursula, Jafar and Dr. Facilier's voodoo dolls, but I think those characters and those scenes are some of the best that Disney has ever produced. They capture our imagination in a different way, and begin to teach us a little bit more about the world, and perhaps ourselves.
Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling, The Burbs) talks about this in the excellent documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film, and specifically references the transformation scene in Pinocchio.
A lot of the childhood attraction to horror movies starts with Disney. The scares are a huge part of what is appealing about Disney movies...the kids who enjoy that step up to horror movies. -Joe Dante
The Florida Project
Walt Disney intentionally built Disney World out in the middle of nowhere so that visitors would have to travel outside the regular world to get there. By the time you have driven onto Disney property, parked your car and taken the monorail or ferry to get to Magic Kingdom, you really do feel like you are in another world, far away from the dull rhythm of your normal life. Everything is clean, larger than life, and the employees are genuinely happy to see you. I know this because I worked at Disney World for a short time. Even on a bad day, most Cast Members enjoy seeing guests having a good time.
Bright colors and happy faces are wonderful, but adventure isn't made up entirely of cartoon characters, bright colors and sugar. You need a little excitement, and maybe even a little danger to really have a good time.
Walt Disney understood this, and he had an appreciation for suspense and mystery. The Haunted Mansion is the most obvious example, but the element of fear exists to some degree in many of the original attractions that Walt was involved in. Pirates of the Caribbean, The Jungle Cruise, Tom Sawyer's Island, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland all have some element of danger in their makeup. And if those don't do it for you, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride actually takes guests through Hell in the final scene. That's right, you can eat your Mickey ice cream while waiting in line to meet Satan. You just won't find a more beautiful example of bizarre contrast anywhere else on your summer vacation.
Where Dreams (and Nightmares) Come True
Disney World is billed as the place Where Dreams Come True, and it really is. I've had my own share of magical moments just as many others have over the past four decades. However, in a place that sees 50 million visitors every year, things are bound to go wrong at some point.
But when things go wrong at Disney, they seem to take on a more sinister tone. How can pain, sadness and even death exist in a place that has magic built into every fiber?
A strange fascination has sprung up around the numerous news reports, legends and rumors involving the carnage that has piled up at Disney World over the years. There are too many incidents to list, so I've only included the ones that I have personally heard circulated among cast members. Let's get into it, shall we?
Of all the wonderful places at Disney World, Magic Kingdom is the happiest and most iconic, but it has it's fair share of tragedy like anywhere else. The death list includes: a child who drowned in the moat surrounding Cinderella's Castle, a cast member performing as Pluto who was ran over and killed by a vehicle during the afternoon parade, and a guest who fell to their death when attempting to leave their "doom buggy" on the Haunted Mansion. The Haunted Mansion is also a popular site for guests to sprinkle the ashes of their loved ones, and is rumored to be genuinely haunted.
The most infamous ride at EPCOT continues to be Mission Space. For a ride that doesn't actually go anywhere, it has earned quite the reputation for being a death machine. At least two people have died, and many others have reported injuries. The deaths were due to health conditions that were either unknown or ignored. They have since altered the ride to include a less intense option.
Animal Kingdom is the newest park at Disney World, and seems to have a quieter past than the rest. However, two cast members have died while working on Primeval Whirl roller coaster in DinoLand, U.S.A. It seems the two incidents have since been spun into one legend, which includes a cast member falling to their death while working on the ride after hours.
The Monorail has suffered several incidents in it's history, mostly minor malfunctions. But in 2009, a catastrophic collision resulted in the death of a cast member. Disney used to allow guests to ride with the pilot (you even got a co-pilot's "license") but because of this incident, riding up front is no longer allowed.
Possibly the most mysterious location at Disney World is the long abandoned River Country water park near Fort Wilderness resort. The park likely closed due to decrease in popularity, but after a child died from exposure to a brain-eating amoeba, rumors spread like wildfire about the contaminated death water at River Country. Over the last couple decades, River Country has attracted hundreds of urban explorers, and continues to inspire rumors, creepy pastas, and speculative short stories.
To all who come to this happy place...
As I've already said, I'm a Disney nerd and I love Disney World. It really has been a home away from home for me over the years, and and we continue to visit regularly. I'm always happy to be "Fun Aunt Nichole" who introduces the kiddos to the magic escape of Disney World when they're old enough, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. But every time I walk through the gates, I'm aware of the history that shaped the place long before I got there. That includes the creativity, the genius, the hard work, the magic, and even the tragedy.