Since 1955, the Magic Kingdom has been the Tragic Kingdom for some park goers. Disneyland opened with a bang — quite literally — when an accident occurred during its first week of operation.
In late July 1955, a Disneyland Railroad operator switched tracks before the back of the train had safely crossed into the station — a mistake that sent the last car of the Retlaw 2 train onto a separate set of tracks. The caboose swung to the side and collided with a concrete divider before derailing. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The worker fled the scene and never returned.,
After that, Disneyland had no major incidents for nearly a decade. The good streak ended in May 1964, when 15-year-old Mark Maples from Long Beach, CA, stood up and was thrown from the top of the Matterhorn Bobsleds. He landed on an adjacent ledge, fractured his ribs and skull and died three days later.
Over the next 50 years, a dozen more visitors would perish at Disneyland. In most cases, disregard for safety was to blame.
In June 1966, 19-year-old Thomas Guy Cleveland of Northridge, CA, wanted to crash Grad Nite, Disneyland’s annual high school senior celebration, by walking along the Monorail track and slipping into the park. Instead, he was killed when the train hit and crushed him and then dragged his body down the track.
A similar fatality occurred the following summer, when 17-year-old Ricky Lee Yama from Hawthorne, CA, fell while jumping seats on the PeopleMover ride and was dragged hundreds of feet. During 1980’s Grad Nite, San Diego high school senior Gerardo Gonzales suffered the same fate.
In June 1973, 18-year-old New Yorker Bogden Delaurot and his 10-year-old brother hid out on Tom Sawyer’s Island past closing time. When they finished having their fun, Bogden decided to swim across the nearly 100-foot-wide Rivers of America while carrying his brother, who was a poor swimmer. Tragically, Bogden drowned halfway across; his brother managed to dog-paddle to safety.
Almost exactly 10 years later, 18-year-old Philip Straughan from Albuquerque, NM, stole a rubber boat from the island on Grad Nite. The vessel flipped and Philip drowned in the river.
In August 1977, Harry and Marietta Goode’s 4-year-old son strayed from his family while awaiting a Walt Disney World parade. They found him floating in the Cinderella Castle moat. The Goodes sued Disney for $4 million, claiming the area wasn’t properly secured. The jury found both parties equally liable and awarded the family $2 million.
A fight between 18-year-old Mel Yorba and 28-year-old James O’Driscoll resulted in the first Disneyland homicide. At a private party in Tomorrowland in March 1981, O’Driscoll accused Yorba of touching his girlfriend, then pulled a knife and stabbed him in the chest. Park medics were slow to react. They eventually took Yorba to Palm Harbor Hospital in Garden Grove, CA, where he was pronounced dead. A jury awarded Mel’s family $600,000 for Disney’s negligence.
Another tragic event involved a 12-year-old girl and her 2-year-old sister. The Sunrise, FL, siblings were playing outside the Coral Isle Café at Disney World in April 1982. They pulled a rope attached to a menu board and the heavy display fell on the toddler. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
The Matterhorn Bobsleds claimed another victim in January 1984, when Dolly Young was thrown from her sled after failing to buckle her safety belt. The 48-year-old Fremont, CA, resident landed on lower-level tracks where an oncoming bobsled train crushed her head and upper body.
In September 1992, New York state resident Allan Ferris decided to stalk his ex-girlfriend, who worked at Epcot in Orlando. The 37-year-old illegally entered the park around 11 p.m. and, according to Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Solomons, “when the security guard started questioning him, he took a 12-gauge shotgun out of a bag and shot three times at the guard.” The shots shattered several windows in the Journey Into Imagination pavilion. Security personnel radioed for backup and Allan took two workers hostage in a nearby bathroom.
Allan emerged about 10 minutes later. “He kept shouting, ‘Shoot me,’ ” Solomons said. “’You’re going to have to kill me!’” Without warning, Allan put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. “The man was still alive and able to struggle briefly,” Solomons said. “He expired either en route or shortly after arriving at Orlando Regional Medical Center.”
The next two tragedies were entirely on Disney. During a 1998 Christmas Eve celebration at Disneyland, a large metal cleat dislodged from the hull of the Sailing Ship Columbia and struck 33-year-old Luan Phi Dawson of Duvall, Wash., in the head. The impact rendered him brain dead and he died two days later. Disneyland paid Luan’s family $25 million as part of a settlement.
In 2003, a broken axle on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad got lodged in the brakes, causing the train to jump. The back cars landed on the front car, crushing 22-year-old Marcelo Torres of Gardena, CA, who bled to death. Several other riders were injured. Officials cited inadequate maintenance as the primary cause.
A 12-year-old from Fort Campbell, KY, was discovered unconscious in his seat after riding the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in June 2006, and died before reaching the hospital. An investigation revealed an undiagnosed congenital heart defect was to blame.
Most recently, an unidentified 54-year-old man collapsed after riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disney World in February 2017. The roller-coaster exacerbated a preexisting condition and he died at the hospital.
Not surprisingly, visitors aren’t the only casualties at Disney parks. A multitude of cast members and backstage workers worldwide have lost their lives while employed by the company, both from mishaps and natural causes. Hundreds are injured every year. Incredibly, state officials have required Disney to report all incidents only since 2001.