by John Marr
Defenders of the All-American Way of Life, Orange County style, will immediately counter with the old transportation argument: "Why, you're more likely to die on the way to the park than inside." And right they are. Although history does not record the number of Disneyland-bound families wiped out on the Santa Ana freeway, other modes of transport do demonstrate the dangers. In 1968 alone, the Disneyland/LAX helicopter service suffered two of the worst civilian chopper crashes in U.S. history. In May, a helicopter carrying 23 people lucky enough to leave the park alive disintegrated in mid-air and crashed. There were no survivors. Less than three months later, a Disneyland-bound chopper crashed on a Compton playing ground, killing all 21 would-be "guests" and crew on board. Even the stroll from the parking lot to the park entrance is not without its risks. In 1987 a gang fight in one of the lots erupted in gunfire, leaving one youth dead and a bystander injured.
But this is beside the point: to place yourself at the mercy of Disneyland itself is to risk mangling, mutilation, and even death. From 1955 (when the park opened) to 1963, Disneyland's safety record was flawless. Not all of their "guests" left happy, but they did leave alive. Tragically, this perfect record ended in May of 1964, instituting the era of carnage that continues today.
The killer attraction: the Matterhorn. The event: a party for 10,000 Long Beach Elks and their guests. Its tragic first victim: 15 year old Mark Maples of Long Beach. Near the summit of the simulated bobsled ride, Mark felt a sudden, inexplicable need to stand up. It's not clear whether he merely wanted to stretch his legs or was confusing the ride with more traditional Angeleno sports as surfing or skiing. His friends heard a thump, some noise, and Mark was gone; no screams or triumphant shouts of Kawabunga! He landed on the track a few feet down, with a skull fracture and various internal injuries. He never regained consciousness, and died four days later. The Matterhorn had claimed its first victim. The Matterhorn would earn its underground sobriquet of "widow maker" in January, 1984. This time its victim was no innocent, hi-jinking teenager, but a respectable, 48 year old matron. Dollie Young of Fremont had been enjoying an impromptu Disneyland visit with old friends. Disney workers swear they had buckled her in but, two thirds of the way down the slopes, her so called "safety" belt was definitely unbuckled. She fell from the car and, as she bounced along the track, a second speeding sled smashed into her. She was pronounced dead at the scene from massive head and chest injuries.
Equally hazardous to park visitors is the PeopleMover. Hurtling through the sterile corporate future of Tomorrowland at a speed of two miles per hour, it is plainly a menace to the life and limb of every guest. In August of 1967, less than two months after its opening Rick Yama, a 15-year old boy from Hawthorne, innocently attempted to change cars as the PeopleMover passed through a tunnel. Unfortunately, he slipped and, as the papers reported, was "found wedged between two cars with his head and the upper part of his body crushed".
The PeopleMover killed a second time under even more tragic circumstances: a Grad Night party. On the sad June night in 1980, the park was filled close to capacity with 18,000 young people celebrating their high school graduation. The crowd included 260 graduates of San Diego High. Only 259 would survive to receive their diplomas. In the early morning hours, their classmate Geraldo Gonzalez attempted to change cars as the PeopleMover tore through the "Super Speed" tunnel. He stumbled and fell. A second speeding PeopleMover train struck, crushed him beneath its cruel hard rubber wheels.
Rides aren't the only attractions at Disneyland; nor are they the only killers. Consider Tom Sawyer Island, located in the middle of the Rivers of America, accessible solely by raft. Although it and the surrounding river are as fake and man-made as Sleeping Beauty's castle, it appears to be an innocent, rustic oasis of nature in a sea of synthetic "imagineering." In reality, the land form beckons guests to their deaths, much like the Sirens of classical mythology.
The island's sinister spell claimed its first victim in June, 1973. Bodgen De Laurot, an 18-year Brooklyn man, and his younger brother, decided to watch the nightly fireworks display from the island. Unfortunately, the rafts to and from the island stop running at dusk. After the fireworks, the brothers found themselves stranded a la "Swiss Family Robinson" but, rather than build a tree house, they did what any true red-blooded American young man would do Ñ they swam for it. History does not record if the river was too swift, the water too cold, or the distance too great. What is known is that only one survived. In June of 1983, the island lured a second young man to his death in yet another Grad Night tragedy. That evening, Phil Straughan of Albuquerque and a friend "borrowed" an inflatable rubber maintenance boat for an impromptu nighttime cruise. Near the deadly island, they struck a rock and Phil was flung into the river. Phil, a football player, was no match for the power of the Rivers of America, whose four feet of cold, cruel water closed in over his head. Rescuers recovered his drowned body an hour later.
The entire park exerts a similar, irresistible lure. For years, management has hyped Disneyland as the American Mecca, making every American feel that they must make the pilgrimage. The only catch is that the park charges a stiff admission pricenot everyone can afford it. One of these poor souls never made it in, and died trying. Guy Cleveland, a 19-year old Northridge man, attempted to enter the park along the monorail track. He climbed a 16-foot fence, disregarded the security guard's shouted warnings, and evidently ignored the sound of the rapidly approaching train. It dragged him thirty or forty feet before it could stop. The newspapers could only describe his body as "badly mangled". By far the grimmest and most widely-criticized events in Disneyland's blood-splattered history was the park's first homicide in March 1981. The victim was Mel Yorba, an 18-year old Riverside man, who was attending a private party thrown by a local defense contractor. His family recalled that the young people were simply out "to have a good time".
The "good time" ended around 10 P.M. in the deadly confines of Tomorrowland. James O'Criscoll, a 28-year old man from San Diego, accused Yorba of touching his girlfriend. There was a scuffle; blows were exchanged. O'Driscoll pulled a knife. Then, either O'Driscoll brutally stabbed Yorba, or Yorba stumbled while lunging forward, impaling himself on the blade. The jury believed the former. Eventually this scuffle would cost the killer eight years to life for second-degree murder and Disney would be found negligent (park officials did not call paramedics) to the tune of $600, 000, making Yorba (or at least his family) one of the few victims to win compensation for his injury.
Yes, beneath the sunshine and smiles, and behind the fun and fantasy, lurk true danger and real death. The crowds queued up in the hour-long lines aren't just media-tranquilized consumers. Rather, they are sheep being led to the slaughter by a startling array of anthropomorphic rodents, pigs and puppets playing the part of the Judas goat. Those treasured E-tickets are but one-way passes to the morgue.
'JOHN MARR' is the editor of Murder Can Be Fun. He lives in San Francisco.