The Darker, Stranger Side of Disney

It’s a Bizarre World (After All)

After a week in Disney World, with the wet, unrelenting heat, the long lines and empty bank account it’s hard to remember that there is a certain magic to the Disney World parks. Whether it’s the smells pumped in by ‘Smellitzer Machines‘ or the enjoyable, albeit brief, rides; being there can quickly make you feel like a kid again.

Riding the new Tron ride at the Magic Kingdom
It’s important to know where the cameras are

Don’t believe me? High five a sweaty college kid in a Donald Duck costume and then tell me you don’t feel a bit tingly inside. My children are both teenagers now but put a giant headed, fuzzy monster between them for a photo and it’s like they’re six again.

Not all Princesses and Popcorn

Rising costs, which now include a system where you pay even more money to ride on attractions; combined with employees who are becoming (understandably so) less and less cheerful, means that ownership has to be careful with how they handle things moving forward.

…And also, try as they might, sometimes the Walt Disney Company can’t contain the bizarre, sad or even scary stories that leak out from behind the walls of the “happiest place on earth.” That’s the reason for this article, so let’s get to it.

Tales from the Dark Side

I’ve scoured the internet for some of the spookier and darker stories and legends surrounding the Walt Disney World (and Land) theme parks. In order to protect myself from the House of Mouse, I will say that some of these stories could be exaggerations, passed on by park employees.

1. The Ghost inside Pirates of the Caribbean

While there is no available documentation of a worker dying during the construction of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, the legend of a construction worker named ‘George’ who haunts the ride has only continued to grow throughout the years.

According to the story, George was either crushed by or fell off of a piece of the set featured in the burning city portion of the ride. The tower that is seen is said to be where George likes to hang out the most. Whether the light inside the tower is on or off is supposedly a sign of whether he’s in a good mood or bad.

George is reportedly more a mischievous entity than an evil spirit. He fancies the female of the species and has been blamed for butt pats and bra strap pulling. Employees at the ride have determined that if they say hello to George in the morning and remember to say goodnight to him at the end of the day, things run much more smoothly for everyone involved.

2. The stunt man’s curse – Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!

Disney’s Hollywood Studios features a live stunt show based on the popular Indiana Jones film franchise. Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! was created in 1989 and has had its fair share of accidents.

Up until the COVID-19 pandemic volunteers from the crowd were pulled into the action, performing as ‘extras’ in a Cairo-based street fighting scene. The actual stunts are performed by trained professionals however, and they haven’t always gone as planned.

The year after the stunt show opened to the public, Disney was fined by OSHA after three separate incidents took place. In one accident a performer fell 30 feet after his restraining cable failed. The second incident occurred when a prop ladder collapsed, causing a man to fall 25 feet. The third performer was injured after being pinned by a malfunctioning trap door.

Disney was cited for not having adequate fall protection. A few years later, while rehearsing a new routine which was supposedly safer, a man fell 25 feet again, this time onto the hard concrete below.

Finally, on August 17th of 2009, 30-year-old stunt man, Anislav Varbanov died after injuring his head while performing a tumbling roll.

3. Animal Kingdom Snake Bite Death

According to a 2016 article from CBS News:

“An Alabama family says an escaped snake at Disney’s Animal Kingdom dropped from a tree and bit a boy, which led to the death of the boy’s grandmother.”

The incident took place back in 2014 but the lawsuit sprang up nearly two years later after the family hired a prominent Orlando based attorney.

According to Disney representatives, the snake was non-venomous and indigenous to the area. It was not part of the park’s collection. They also mentioned that the wound to the boy required only a band-aid and that the family returned to the park that same day.

Unfortunately, the damage to the boy’s great grandmother would be much worse.

After witnessing the whole event, the wheel chair bound, 80 something-year-old woman began experiencing shortness of breath and panic attack-like symptoms. Less than two days later she went into cardiac arrest and died.

Sadly, in 2016 Florida wildlife claimed another victim when a 2-year-old Nebraska boy was killed by an alligator along the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon.

4. The Liberty Square Doll

The next time you’re at the Magic Kingdom heading towards the Haunted Mansion, take a good look around the Liberty Square Market area. Look for the window above a wheelbarrow and cellar door. Once there, take a good look at what stands in the bottom left corner of the window.

If dolls don’t scare you, I understand. Watch Annabelle tonight and then get back to me.

I wouldn’t say that dolls are on my list of phobias but a porcelain head topped with faux hair is not one of my favorite things in the world. So why is it there?

Disney is very good at tiny details. Things you may not notice at first glance. Keeping with the colonial theme of Liberty Square, one of those small details happens to be the doll. The reason behind folks putting a child’s doll in the window was to alert firefighters that there was a child or children living within the home. So the background story isn’t creepy, but still…

5. Nanny Chairs

“Take a seat, we won’t hurt you.”

“That’s okay, I’ll just stand.”

If you’ve ever stayed at Disney’s Boardwalk Inn Resort chances are you’ve probably passed by one or two of these replica chairs. Maybe you’ve even sat in one and had it take your soul. Although two are generally displayed at all times, there are actually four of them in total.

On the back of each chair is a hand painted name. Todd, Paul, Alex and Carrie. No one knows for sure how they got those names but the general consensus is that they are the names of the children of the person(s) who created them.

Each chair is remade from an original 19th-century carousel chair. They were commonly referred to as ‘Nanny Chairs’ because they provided a place to sit for the tired, underpaid, nannies that took care of wealthy people’s children.

Like the colonial doll above, the intent of the original item is not as eerie as the aesthetic and vibes they give off now.

6. Clown Mouth Water Slide

Speaking of the Boardwalk Inn Resort, let’s stay there for number six. For years guests have either enjoyed or feared riding the water slide that spit you out of a clown’s mouth. Say what you will, the clown fits in with the boardwalk motif.

In 2020, the Disney company began refurbishing the Luna Park Pool. The new facade is more simple and features the standard Disney characters. It also has a new name, “The Keister Coaster.”

7. Mission Space Hurts

According to the Wikipedia page entitled, “List of Incidents at Walt Disney World”

From June 2005 through June 13, 2006, paramedics were called for 194 Mission Space riders. Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting were the most common complaints, according to Reedy Creek Fire Department records. Out of the 194 riders, 25 people passed out, 26 had difficulty breathing, and 16 reported irregular heartbeats or chest pain.

On June 13, 2005, a 4-year-old boy from Sellersville, Pennsylvania, died after riding Mission: Space. An autopsy by the Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office released on November 15, 2005, found that the boy died as a result of an existing, undiagnosed idiopathic heart condition called myocardial hypertrophy.

On April 12, 2006, a 49-year-old woman from Schmitten, Germany, fell ill after riding Mission: Space and died at Florida’s Celebration hospital in nearby Celebration, Florida. An autopsy determined that she died from a brain hemorrhage caused by longstanding and severe high blood pressure; there was no evidence of trauma attributable to the ride.”

I can tell you from experience that my body doesn’t love what this ride puts it through. There are two options, green for the more timid rider and orange for those looking for a more authentic experience. I’ve done orange the last two times I’ve been to Disney World at the insistence of my kids. After working on this article, I won’t be riding it again. A growing number of Disney fanatics think that it may be time to do away with the ride altogether.

8. The Death of Pluto

In February of 2004 a packed Magic Kingdom crowd cheered as the ‘Share a Dream Come True’ parade was moving through the park. Near the end of the parade, just before the Beauty and the Beast float exited the backstage area, 38-year-old Javier Cruz was ready to entertain the crowd dressed as Pluto the dog. Suddenly his right foot became caught between the second and third sections of a three-part float.

He fought to free himself but his body twisted and he soon fell down. The float continued to move and crushed him.

Luckily for Disney, no one in the crowd of thousands saw the incident and the parade went on.

The investigation showed that it was an accident but Walt Disney Entertainment was charged $6,300.

9. The Ghost inside the Tower of Terror

Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t the only ride in Orlando that might be haunted. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride is the first thing you see when you enter Hollywood Studios. It looms over the rest of the rides at 199 feet,

It’s deep below however, in the basement, where you might stumble across the ghost of Caesar. This ghost isn’t the spirit of a deceased worker though, it’s that of a semi-famous doll.

Rod Serling’s opening narration for Episode 148 of the Twilight Zone, reads like this:

Jonathan West, ventriloquist, a master of voice manipulation. A man, late of Ireland, with a talent for putting words into other peoples’ mouths. In this case, the other person is a dummy, aptly named Caesar, a small splinter with large ideas, a wooden tyrant with a mind and a voice of his own, who is about to talk Jonathan West – into the Twilight Zone.

Astute ride-goers might notice that when you exit the ride, there is a barred-off exhibit to one side. There, sitting on top of a box is a replica of the Caesar puppet from the show. As is the case with the aforementioned ‘Pirate George’, workers believe that if you don’t properly greet Caesar at the start and end of a day, his spirit may wreak havoc on the ride and visitors.

So the next time that you’re standing in a long line because the ride is having technical difficulties, blame Caesar.

10. River Country – the Abandoned Water Park

The River Country water park sits on the shore of Bay Lake near Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. It opened in 1976, and closed for good in November of 2001. Its neighbor, Discovery Island was also closed down in 1999. Neither property has ever been touched or revamped although the animals from Discovery Island were moved to the Animal Kingdom park.

Disney took precautions when building River Country, making sure that the park’s water was at a higher level than the lake. Despite those efforts, in 1980 an 11-year-old boy contracted an amoebic infection of the brain from the water and died. Disney was quick to point out that similar amoebic infections were also occurring elsewhere and that it was an inherent problem with freshwater lakes in warm weather. They didn’t want the blame to fall on the park’s water system.

In April of 1982 there were two deaths on River Country property. A 14-year-old boy from Erie, North Dakota, drowned in six feet of water after sliding down a 60 foot slide. A week later a 36-year-old woman from Little Silver, New Jersey, collapsed and died after riding the Water Flume.

In 1989, a 13-year-old boy from Longwood, Florida, drowned while swimming with eight classmates and two counselors.

After four deaths and Disney’s hesitation to do anything with the property, some believe that the area is cursed.

11. Fire!

Fireworks and excessive heat can increase the odds of something catching on fire. Faulty equipment can sometimes be to blame as well. Over the years, Disney has experienced a number of fires.

On November 4th, 1974, a carpenter died from an explosion at an unknown construction area in the Magic Kingdom

On June 26th, 1985, a fire engulfed the rear car of the Mark IV Silver monorail train heading for Epcot. Passengers were forced to kick out windows and then climb to the roof of the vehicle. Seven passengers were treated for smoke inhalation but members of the Reedy Creek Fire Department were able to rescue everyone onboard.

In November of 2014 embers from the nightly fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom ignited a small fire at the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The fire was quickly put out, and no one was hurt. The ride reopened an hour later.

Over in Disneyland, in April of 2023 a crowd was watching an evening performance of ‘Fantasmic!’ when the giant Maleficent dragon began leaking fluid and suddenly caught fire. It wasn’t long before the dragon was engulfed in flames. Firefighters put out the blaze but nearby rides had to be shut down due to the billowing black smoke.

A smaller, parade version of the dragon had also caught fire at Disney World in 2018.

12. The Animatronics are Alive

Despite its nostalgic necessity, there’s something inherently creepy about, “It’s a Small World.” Whether it’s the haunting music or the way that the tiny characters seem to follow you with their eyes as you float through the ride, it can be unnerving.

Well, now I know something is amiss. Apparently the animatronic kids never stop moving, even at night. Whether it’s due to Disney not wanting the fluids that coarse through their robotic veins to freeze up or what, I’m not sure. But if you happen to be inside the ride after hours, you would see upwards of 300 tiny children moving and swaying in bone-chilling, darkened, silence.

13. Haunted Mansion’s ‘Bride’

Constance Hatchaway is one of the 999 Happy Haunts within Haunted Mansion, located in both Disneyland as well as Walt Disney World.

There have been different ‘brides’ featured on the ride throughout the years but the character of Constance Hatchaway was introduced in 2006. She’s had various designs and revamps since then. Her backstory is one of the darker tales of the characters in the Disney roster.

According to;

We meet Constance in the attic, as we pass by portraits of her and her former husbands, who each met a violent and untimely demise. Constance was in search of wealth, which she obtained by marrying rich men and then murdering them following their wedding day. That’s why each time we see her in the attic following another marriage portrait, she’s wearing an additional strand of pearls around her neck. And it looks like Constance never got caught. How do we know? Well, it turns out we’ve seen her depicted before — Constance is one of the people depicted in the stretching room portraits, sitting on top of her most recently deceased husband’s tombstone.

14. Human Remains Left Behind

We’ll end this list of sorts with one of my favorite stories, featuring two of my favorite rides.

I assume that this story is mostly true although the frequency of which it happens is probably up for debate. Apparently, on a semi-regular basis, folks will scatter the ashes of their loved ones within the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean rides.

Whether it was the deceased’s dying wish or just what the family wanted to do, employees do stumble across clumps of ash during the after hours cleanup. Unfortunately for those ‘dearly departed’, the ashes are simply vacuumed and thrown away.

You should also note, in case you are contemplating the same, dumping ashes on Disney rides will get you kicked out of the park and potentially banned for life. Disney has a zero tolerance policy on the dumping of human remains.

So there you have it, fourteen of the quirkier, darker stories to come out of Disney theme parks. Did I miss any?

And thank you to these folks for trying to keep Disney fans (and employees) safe.

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