(Originally posted on 3/28/2001.)
It’s probably best to warn you upfront that this isn’t another smear piece on all things embodied physical of the Disney experience. The wisecracking golly-whillickers approach to bitch-smacking the Supermaus has been done to death, and I grow very weary of meandering through smarmy testaments of betrayed Gen-Whyne authors on how they’ve ‘realized’ what a false kingdom Walt’s built for us all. Instead, I’m going to state upfront in no uncertain terms that I am an unabashed supporter of Disneyland’s manipulative design, of its facist dress codes and policies, of its overpriced food and humanity-throttled waiting lines. Point blank. I couldn’t love the Magic Kingdom any more without projectile vomiting from the adrenaline, and I will continue to feel compelled to until I’m feeding maggots; not because of some membership in the Southern California glee club, but because I’ve also had a pretty awesome revelation about the Disney experience.
If people were capable of creating happiness for themselves, then they wouldn’t be eating a forty-two-dollar gouge for admission into a contained environment.
But let’s face it: we aren’t. We’re a miserable, cynical fungus, bred on lowered expectations and a faulty idea of what is and isn’t fair. Disneyland was created out of escapist necessity, not because someone was trying to get rich–that simply trickled in as a welcome aftereffect. We made the Mouse Monster. To sit around and try to stick pins into what we’ve all, in some part, created, is fucking ridiculous. We’ve all paid too much for a Disney movie, a Disney video, a Disney shirt or stuffed Mickey. And as much as vogue nihilism tries to contradict the reason, there’s no hiding it… we did it to make someone happy.
Disney doesn’t deal in human foibles or the onus of being a supermammal, and that’s the real crux of everyone’s hypocrisy. Disneyland is exactly what it says it is upfront: The Happiest Fucking Place on Earth. There’s no mention of a Constitution of Tourism, of visitor’s rights or humanitarian diplomacy.. simply that mission statement. Bang. If you didn’t understand what you were getting into, then fluster over the surgical removal of an entire line if a ride malfunctions, then I have a newsbrief you might be interested in: It’s your own fucking fault. Disneyland not only has the right to utilize an iron fist to create peace of mind for the thousands of people who idle through its gates, they have a duty.
It’s what separates them from Magic Mountain, from Universal Studios, from Busch Gardens. I don’t know about you, but half a C-note is a pretty cheap tag to tack on hermetically sealed joy in my take. Disneyland has an evenflow to it, a nice series of punch-and-counter for those willing to suck it up and take it for face value. It’s a legacy of the United States, a place where you can be crammed into sardinelike close-quarters with people from around the world, where the rules of tense reality are dismissed. Yes, Disney may own you, but it can’t be said that they don’t give at least a little something back. A little asphalt zen, as it were.
Of course, with its storied history, Disneyland has also become one of the most notorious breeding grounds of urban legends in the modern storyscape. Every kid got juiced up on the sordid tales about what happened to a friend of a cousin there, how they were either imprisoned in the secret holding tanks deep beneath the park, or how they watched in mute horror as a baby drowned in the Submarine Sea or gaping shock as a fellow visitor’s head blew up like a ripe melon on impact with a stucco stalagmite on The Matterhorn. It all falls in line with the fantasy beyond the fantasy, the urge to create scandal on the virginal, the primal desire to dynamite Mickey’s clean lines with a visceral dose of reality.
And hell, some of it’s even true.
Oh, yeah. People do die at Disneyland. It doesn’t happen very often and seldom within the scope of the public’s gaze, but it does happen. I’ve spent unhealthy amounts of time gleaning nuggets of trivial joy from the obituary lines of the Disney history books, turning playground lore into something fitting in with the profile of such other morbid enjoyments as our visits to the Los Angeles Museum of Death and Skeletons in the Closet. It’s a good story. It’s also a good parable for anyone looking to fuck around in a drunken stupor or the presence of fifty tons of shaped and casehardened metal and plastic.
Because, really and truly, when you love something as much as I love the Magic Kingdom, you have no choice but to be equally fascinated by its shiny plastic exterior and its darker, more clandestine guts.
Peace of mind, indeed.
As put so succinctly in Anthony Lovett and Matt Maranian’s deviously brilliant 1997 book “Los Angeles Bizarro”, Disney enjoyed a Camelot of unsurpassed safety records for nearly a decade after its grand opening. Though the park did astounding numbers in foot traffic, there was an apparent respect between visitors and the power of the ride mechanisms that kept the reaper from making a Mouse House call. Whether people knew better, were simply less drunk on booze or testosterone, or were simply so caught up in the illusion that they didn’t try to bend the rules, not even the usage of live 22-ought ammunition at the Frontierland shooting gallery brought down the euphoria.
That is, until the spring of 1966. Mark Maples, a freshman from Long Beach, took it upon himself to stand up at the summit of the whiplash Matterhorn bobsled ride. The roller coaster wasted no speed despite his stunt, and Maples was ejected headfirst onto another track some ten to fifteen feet below. Fortunately, the ride was instantly stopped, barring a grisly finish to the story–less fortunate, however, was the crushed skull Maples sustained on impact. He remained in comatose for four days before succumbing to brain injuries.
Before Disney’s expansion muscled out Katella and Harbor boulevard in Anaheim and transformed their former asphalt ocean of a parking lot into another money magnet, there was a surplus of blindspots on the park property for industrious moochers to infiltrate the fence and avoid laying down the cash for admission and ride tickets.
One such fellow was Thomas Cleveland. Intent on making a grand entrance to a Grad Night celebration within the park, Cleveland vaulted the barbwire fence and paced the raised track for the monorail from the Disneyland Hotel into the park. Things were going fine on the young evening until he was spotted by a security guard; with the officer yelling and the game apparently up, Thomas wedged himself into a plastic canopy that covered a walkway in the apparent hope that he’d be able to hide from the fuzz.
Unfortunately, the officer had been trying to warn Thomas that the monorail was coming around the bend. Though stories about the exact clearance vary–some register a good two inches between the bottom of the train and the track, while some stretch the figure to five–the certainty that Cleveland didn’t make the cut was a fatal error. His body was completely dismembered by the impact force, and the main mark he left for his graduating class was the forty feet of marinara that had to be hosed off the concrete and the underbelly of the monorail the next morning.
And to add an embellishing cap on perhaps the most grim passing in the entire list, Disney wasn’t even found liable for compounded damages, since Cleveland had been trespassing.
Of all the casualties of Disneyland’s progress into the new century, none is more missed than the PeopleMover Through the World of Tomorrow. Familiar to a wide cadre of park lifers, retro-actives and emblazoned forever in the memories of children past, the PeopleMover was a perennial underdog in the face of the park’s evolution–two steps behind any attempt to modernize it, from its ill-timed transformation to a tour through the GE showcase at a time when the young world was collectively puking on corporate mentality, all the way to its ten-year tenure as an advertisement for box-office bomb extraordinaire TRON.
Archaic as it was, the ‘Mover also had the distinction of being one of the least-patronized rides in the entire park. It was devoid of thrills, moved at a crippled one-point-seven-mile-per-hour clip, and aside from serving as the premiere makeout, had little redeeming value to parents seeking distraction for the kids. It was a plain Jane amidst technological terrors and encroaching landscape and demographic shifts, the ugly stepsister that nobody liked. And it convinced the world that it was toothless, despite the fact that it shares the dubious honor of most lethal attraction with the Matterhorn.
The sluggish pacing and tempting close quarters of the PeopleMover made it a magnet for punk shenanigans and bored teenage daring-do all the way until its death in 1995. And it was exactly that lure that led to another grisly incident in the seamy summer of ’67, a mere two months after the ride premiered.
Ricky Lee Yama, a seventeen-year-old kid visiting the park with a quartet of friends from his hometown of Hawthorne, fell for the bait the lumbering tram presented. Halfway through the ride’s ascension into the future Circlevision Plaza, Yama and his comrades began to jump over the chain of car couplings. Exact details are sparse–apparently, Rick was snagged by the cuff of his jeans or took a bad step–but the results of his folly were horrific. Yama was methodically dragged beneath the reinforced rubber wheels of the trolley and turned over twice before the sealed rollers split his skull cleanly in half.
To add insult to the gruesome and insulting tag on the coroner’s report, unfortunate park attendants had to dismantle three sections of the train before they were able to get Yama’s corpse loose and remove it from the tunnel.
Definite popcorn for thought during your next idle through the refurbished Rocket Rods pavilion, where two of the PeopleMover’s retired pods sit in a proud and blacklit vigil.
(Continued presently, in part two.)